The Full Story (or all 3 connected stories)
In 1992 there was a great deal of controversy in West Chester surrounding the BFI Medical Waste incinerator in Schumacher Park. People feared the spread of illness. At about that time, the USEPA had decided that the Skinner Landfill, already designated a CERCLA site – a “Superfund site” full of hazardous waste, would have an experimental incinerator to dispose of all the toxic waste buried 40 feet underground. The Union Elementary School, across the street, would have to shut down immediately. Chris Wunnenberg, knowing of the potential problems that would cause in the community, began recruiting West Chester residents for a coalition to represent the community in stopping the incinerator plan. He wisely chose people from all ends of the political spectrum – arch conservatives to progressives and environmentalists. The coalition was formed, consisted of 16 people, and Dave Lindenschmidt, an engineer, was elected Chairman.
The Union School, though almost 80 years old at that time, was vital to the community of rapidly growing population of school-age children.
Dave Lindenschmidt and the Coalition worked together closely with monthly meetings, sometimes weekly meetings, for 3 years in a coordinated effort to change the USEPA direction to a more sensible solution that would still provide public health and safety with a different plan than an incinerator. After many meetings and with the complete and enthusiastic cooperation of the many PRP’s (Potentially Responsible Parties) who were the companies who brought the toxic materials to Skinner over the years – and ironically, also included the Department of Defense – a new plan came together, one which eliminated the need for an incinerator. The new plan involved designing and installing a properly engineered impervious “cap” over the one acre lagoon which was the prime focus, including multiple layers of clay and membranes, with all rainfall designed to drain off the new cap, and with many monitoring wells around the periphery of the lagoon to insure that none of the toxic materials would migrate to the edges. The site was restricted from any kind of development forever, and with restricted access permanently. To this day, over 20 years later, this has proven to be a wise and effective solution.
The Union School was allowed to stay open, and thus began many efforts to modernize the old facility, making the HVAC, the plumbing, the handicap access, and the electrical profile sufficient for the needs of students of the time. Fire exits and corridors were inadequate or non-existent. It opened in 1917 as the means of consolidating many small elementary schools in the area (most of which then shut down) and was for grades 1 through 12.
The problems encountered were normal for a school built in stages from 1917, with several additions in later years, when air conditioning and ventilation were not thought of, where bathrooms were few and inadequate, and where there were no chases or soffit areas through which to run new utilities. But a bigger problem was encountered with the various floor levels. the school had been built piecemeal, and for whatever reason, there were different floor levels on each of the stories in the building. This made handicap access almost impossible. There was no practical way to install an elevator. In other words, even more than most buildings, the Union School was suffering through functional obsolescence. The presence of asbestos everywhere didn’t make it any easier.
George Lang became a West Chester Township Trustee in 2003, when the quandary of insufficient school capacity overall, and inadequacy of the Union School, in particular, was in full bloom. George and the other Trustees tried many solutions, but it was painfully obvious that other schools needed to be built to house elementary school students, and as the school population increased (in the last 40 years enrollment went from 1500 to 15,000 in the district). 5 elementary schools were built between 1988 and 1994. The Union School was less relevant every year, though it had historical and sentimental value, and every effort was made to find a way to save the structure even when it became painfully apparent that it could no longer function as a school.
One of the alternate uses considered was as a site for the Boys and Girls Club. Patti Alderson, who for years played a major role in West Chester with the Community Foundation, which she started in the 1990’s. Patti designed the Community Foundation to assist all of the nonprofits in the area, and knew where they were located and what they needed. She also connected with the Boys and Girls Club in Hamilton, who started with 45 members but were growing. Several attempts were made to try to adjust the layout of the Union School to accommodate multiple tenants, and unfortunately, all efforts resulted in renovation costs that were beyond the means of the many participating entities. Adding to the difficulty was the presence of a strong local group wanting to preserve the building, many of whom had attended the Union School.
When the multi-tenant plan proved to be not feasible, Patti engaged the services of architects and contractors to try to adapt the school for the use of the Boys and Girls Club, which had grown to over 300 members. Unfortunately, the space needs of the organization proved to be much different than that of a school, especially one almost 100 years old by now, and the renovation budget eclipsed $10 million before all costs were brought together, making the adaption financially beyond the reach of the Club. Patti Alderson is a determined woman, though and when she stepped down as the head of the Community Foundation in 2014, she became the interim CEO of the Boys and Girls Club, and before too long, she had started raising money in a build fund for a new building. She succeeded in getting a Grant from the State of Ohio, John Kasich, for $300,000, and the project was off and running. George Lang is one of the investors.
The school board was reluctant to turn the property over to anyone without some assurance that the replacement project was financially viable, and Patti engineered a plan to lease the land for 20 years, to pay for it in advance, if the school board would use the money to demolish the Union School. The estimated cost of the Boys and Girls Club, all in, was $9 million, and when the fund drive reached $6 million, the School Board was convinced, and a deal was struck. In August of 2016, Lakota Schools organized tours of the Union School for the last time. It was 99 years since it opened. Shortly thereafter, demolition began, and today the project is on track to have the 31,000sf Boys and Girls Club building open in December of 2017.