Bozeman school officials and Jim and Lois Syth, owners of Bridger Builders, are to be commended on putting together a creative transaction for the sale of the East Willson School. The deal rids the school district of what was becoming an expensive albatross, preserves the historic building and creates a high-end residential component to the downtown area.
The Syths agreed to purchase the school and the land on which it sits for $334,000. The sale price is just a third of what the 40,000 square feet of land is estimated to be worth. But the sale precludes the razing of the building and asbestos removal from the site that would have cost an estimated half million dollars. And under that scenario, a century-old landmark would have been lost.
For their part, the Syths have been working for a year with local architects and engineers to gauge the building’s potential. Architects have estimated it would cost $6 million to bring the building up to modern building codes and earthquake standards. Meeting those codes for a residential building may not be quite as pricey as it would be for a school building. But renovating the building will be an expensive proposition with some financial risk involved.
The city has had some dubious adventures in the arena of historic preservation in recent years. The decision to purchase the Story Mansion a decade ago saddled the city with a long list of repair and maintenance bills.
And city approval of a north side development plan at the site of a historic brewery met with disappointment when those plans were scrapped in the recession of 2008-2009. The city recently had to order the destruction of a remaining brewery wall in the interest of public safety.
The East Willson School deal may show us that historic preservation doesn’t have to be that way.
It at least holds the promise of becoming a successful plan that will benefit all involved, including the taxpayer.