Exploris school eyes Salvation Army building

ccampbell@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

— The vacant Salvation Army building on downtown’s Moore Square could become a charter elementary school as early as this fall.

Exploris Middle School has the state’s approval to expand to elementary grades, and the Hillsborough Street school wants to keep all its programs in downtown Raleigh. Last week, the school went before the Raleigh City Council to seek a lease on the city-owned building that’s been empty since the Salvation Army moved to Capital Boulevard.

Ben Steel of Empire Properties, which is working with the school, said he thinks the building can be converted into a nine-classroom school by mid-August.

“This timeline is very aggressive, but we also believe it’s very achievable,” Steel said. “We believe that the end objective will be beneficial to the city and the school.”

But Raleigh didn’t buy the property to play landlord for a school. The city bought the site for $2.1 million in 2012 to help shape the revitalization and development of Moore Square. City planners say the location could be ideal for a residential building with retail on the ground floor or perhaps a hotel.

But city leaders don’t expect that development plan to take shape for a few more years. In the meantime, the property will likely sit vacant – though part of it already has a temporary use. In December, the city council agreed to make the warehouse building in the back a short-term location for charity food distributions. That facility will be open on weekends starting this spring, giving churches and nonprofits an alternative to Moore Square, where handing out food requires a permit.

Eventually, food distributions are expected to move elsewhere to make way for development. Exploris doesn’t plan to stay put for long either. The school is seeking a two-year lease with the ability to extend the arrangement until developers come calling.

Still, City Manager Ruffin Hall cautioned that a lease might impact the site’s eventual use. “That site is critically related to our economic development policy,” he said. “As things move in the next two years, there could be things that come up.”

Exploris’ proposal would allow Raleigh to avoid maintenance costs for the site while it awaits development. But the lease wouldn’t generate revenue: Exploris wants to lease the space for $1 a year as it pays for renovations and upkeep.

City council members didn’t voice any opposition to the school’s proposal, so Raleigh officials will continue to work on a lease arrangement. “This is a temporary solution for us while we attempt to secure a long-term facility on another site,” Steel said.

One option for a permanent location is the Stone’s Warehouse building on the southeastern edge of downtown. Exploris expressed interest in acquiring that historic city property after a developer’s plans for artist apartments failed.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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