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Tuesday, 03 February 2015 10:11

Pioneer Springs may be Torrence-Lytle's best last hope

Written by  Lee Sullivan

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The last great hope for preserving a significant piece of Huntersville's history may be, appropriately, an educational facility that emphasizes exploration and enlightenment and has already established strong ties to the community's past.

Representatives of Pioneer Springs Community School, a three-year-old charter school based in the historic Croft district just south of Huntersville, are in the early stages of a fast-paced evaluation to determine if 78-year-old Torrence-Lytle School in Huntersville's Pottstown neighborhood can be transformed into a middle and high school facility for the charter school's future use.

Abigail Jennings, co-founder of Pioneer Springs and chairman of the school's board of trustees, confirmed this week that school and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) representatives have discussed the possibility of Pioneer Springs purchasing the property on Holbrooks Road from the HLC as the first step in a long-range project to create a needed second campus for the popular charter school.

Jennings stresses that the process is in the preliminary stages, and that financial and structural obstacles related to the rehabilitation of the long-abandoned buildings may prove too tough to conquer, but she added that every effort will be made to make the project viable.

"The financial hurdles are the first thing we need to identify," Jennings says. "We're trying to get a clear picture of the costs and see what the numbers are, but this is something we'd like to do."

Pioneer Springs has proven it can blend the past with its nature-based approach to modern education, turning the Croft School — like Torrence-Lytle, an officially designated historic site — into its current home. And Jennings, along with HLC Director Dan Morrill, believe the Torrence-Lytle campus is ideal for the Pioneer Springs program.

"It looks like a good fit, for us and the community," Jennings says, adding that Morrill, who was aware of the efforts Pioneer Springs made to renovate the Croft School, contacted her to gauge interest in the property. "We have a deep connection to Huntersville's history, and appreciate the value of these wonderful, historic sites."

Past, present, future

Torrence-Lytle School opened as a one-building, seven-classroom facility in 1937 as the first public school in north Mecklenburg serving African-American students. Classroom and cafeteria additions were made to the school in 1952 and 1957 and the school continued to operate until 1966. For a short time after the public school closed, the facility was used as an alternative school, with students, counselors and teachers living on campus. The gym on the property is still used for recreational programs.

The HLC owns the property, and HLC, Huntersville and neighborhood representatives have all expressed interest in preserving the site for its cultural and historical significance. For years, town and HLC officials have explored options for renovating and utilizing the facility, and last year the HLC distributed a request for proposals seeking developer interest in the property, but no suitable bids were submitted.

The deteriorating appearance of the buildings, and concerns that the abandoned structures may attract unwanted activity, have led to more recent Huntersville Town Board discussions. And at various times, suggestions have been made to pursue demolition of all or some of the buildings on the four-acre site as part of a project to create a monument and park on the property.

Morrill says he understands that concern, but views the restoration and re-use of the campus, especially as an educational facility, as a much more desirable outcome.

"The HLC's efforts are not just about the past, but primarily about the future," he says, "and to have a viable, successful charter school there providing education for a new generation is absolutely the best way to preserve and honor that site.

"There are some obstacles," he continues, "and it comes down to a financial decision to determine if it is a feasible project, but this may very well be our last hope. If this doesn't work, we'll have to be very creative in developing a new idea for the property."

Jennings says the evaluation and cost analysis process has begun and she expects to have the information required for a final decision in about 60 days. The time frame is important for Pioneer Springs because, by 2017, the school will need the added space.

Pioneer Springs opened as a private venture and is now in its first year as a charter school. The school is operating at capacity, with 177 students in K-3 classes, and has a long waiting list. The plan is to add one new grade each year.

"We'll need to make a decision soon," Jennings says, "because by 2017 I'll need to have a place for the sixth graders."

Jennings and Morrill say the tentative plan, if Pioneer Springs moves forward with the Torrence-Lytle project, is for the building that previously housed the cafeteria to be the first structure on the historic grounds targeted for renovation.

"The idea is that the improvements and changes would be done incrementally, as the additional space is needed," Morrill says.

Morrill says the HLC would also need to do some immediate work on the site to remove materials and make temporary repairs to some of the other structures, and he adds that efforts to restore the property would also require a good working relationship with the town.

"This could be a great thing for Huntersville," Morrill says, "but the town would also have to be involved as a friendly partner in this venture."

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