Silver Lake Seeks To Move Forward With Demolition Of Old Elementary School

The Silver Lake Town Council decided to move forward with the demolition of the old elementary school.

Councilman Hugh Murfin handed out a three-page report called “Saving The School” during the Wednesday night council meeting detailing the problems and projects the school faces to get it back in operation.

The school sits at 202 E. Sycamore St., Silver Lake, and was ordered to be demolished in May 2018. Warsaw Community Schools closed the school in 2004 and plans to demolish it were eventually reached. But then Mike Baer bought the building and had promoted big plans to fix the structure up and repurpose the space, resulting in the council to stop the demolition order. However, no such plans came to fruition and the building has sat empty and fallen into further disrepair. The town also claims Baer has racked up $100,000 in ordinance fines and fees, owes back property taxes and that the town has been mowing the lawn there for years. The council reissued the demolition order in May 2018, to which Baer appealed in the courts, and lost.

On Wednesday, the council said discussion between Baer’s attorney and the town’s legal counsel were surrounding a possible agreement that Baer would hand over the deed to the property in exchange for the town’s forgiveness of his fines. However, no agreement has been made, and according to Silver Lake attorney Karin McGrath, when the town has offered to do that, they’ve heard “crickets.”

“The real factor affecting the decision to resurrect the school comes down to cost, feasibility and where the said financials to accomplish this saving of the structure will be coming from,” Murfin wrote. “That is the dilemma facing the council at this time.”

Everything, including the kitchen sink, were thrown on the list of problems Murfin detailed – from the roofing, heating, plumbing, wiring, handicapped access, restrooms, to furniture and toilets. The purpose of Murfin putting together the paperwork was to “help everybody out,” he said.

Murfin said he estimates the total cost of the project – to get it up to code and up to modern standards for facilities – would be in the neighborhood of $2 million.

“We had a couple of contractors come out and they came up with 72 things,” Murfin said, adding that part of the roofing and rafters are completely rotted out and that the town is lucky they didn’t have somebody up there checking the roof out and fall through because then they could be facing a liability claim.

“To just save the building, it’s close to a million dollars.” If you add in the finishing costs and the continuation costs, he said it would be at least $2 million before it’s done. He also estimates it would take around $12,000 a month to run the building. Murfin said even if the building was turned into apartments, the size of the building wouldn’t produce very many apartments, and that he “doesn’t know anyone who wants a studio flat apartment in Silver Lake for $2,000 a month. Because that’s what you’d have to charge to sustain the costs.”

“If you guys want to try, that’s fine,” Murfin said, speaking to the Silver Lake Center Foundation members present. “But as a city, we can’t do it. It’s out of our league.”

The Foundation was formed in December, led by John Sonnenberg, out of Chicago, to save the school.

Murfin wanted specific answers and financial information from the group about what they plan to do with the building, and more importantly, how they plan to pay for that plan. He said the council has received no such plan or financial information.

Sonnenberg described himself as someone who travels the country helping set up projects like this and asked the council for more time.

“I know the money’s out there,” Sonnenberg said, citing grant opportunities, including an Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) grant. Sonnenberg also said the foundation isn’t asking for any money from the town, and they never have.

“We need a few months to answer your questions,” Sonnenberg said, saying the group had a structural engineer look at the building and “we know the building isn’t gonna fall down.”

Sonnenberg said he is asking for a couple things from the council: get the deed to the building, give the foundation until the end of the year to put together answers for the town’s questions about their plans for the property, and for the town to agree to write letters of support when the foundation applies for grants.

“I’m not OK with anything other than here’s the deed to the building, no strings attached,” Councilman Chad Miner said of trying to negotiate with Baer. “Otherwise, I think it just needs to come down.”

Councilwoman Nichole Taylor said that the terms of getting an OCRA grant includes that the town has to match the grant, “and we don’t have the money.”

Sonnenberg floated the idea several times during the meeting that any money that the town would have to put down for the building would be covered by fundraising efforts of the foundation. That promise didn’t seem to fly with the council.

Miner suggested the council get the paperwork and notices in order to open the bid process for the demolition work. If the demo bids prompt Bauer to want to hand over the deed, then so be it, Miner said, if not, then the town isn’t going to continue to have the liability the building poses.

Taylor said she’d like to see a new building there that could possibly house a recreation room for the town, a computer lab for kids who have to do e-learning but don’t have good internet connection and maybe even a medical doctor since there’s no longer a doctor in town.

“It makes more sense,” she said.

“Unless and until the town has a deed to the property, demolition is the only option to us,” Miner said.

Also Wednesday, the council:

• Heard from Silver Lake Town Marshal Jason McGlennen that tornado siren testing will happen at 10:15 a.m. March 18.

McGlennen also said he’s been receiving a lot of complaints about loose dogs running around now that the weather is nice and reminded residents that all dogs need to be leashed.

• Heard from Silver Lake Fire Chief John Conley his department had six calls last month, including two fires. Conley also said the department dinner and auction is slated for May 9, and the golf outing is planned for June 28.

The Silver Lake Town Council meets at 7 p.m. the second Wednesday of the month in the town offices building.