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Raze or renovate?

The old schoolhouse building may soon be torn down; cultural arts advocates fear the promise of a new theater may fall along with it
by: Anthony Roberts, The old schoolhouse building in Old Town Sherwood is rapidly deteriorating. The Cultural Arts Commission had hoped to convert the building into an arts center.

This year's winter storms, coupled with years of neglect, have left Sherwood's old schoolhouse crumbling while the city comes closer to a decision about the vacant building's fate.

A decision to tear down the former school building - which sits at the three-way intersection of Sherwood Boulevard, Third and Pine streets - may ultimately be based on its deteriorating condition. But the hope, now fading, was once that the building would fulfill an urban renewal district goal of creating a cultural arts center to serve as the centerpiece of a growing downtown core. The demolition of the building, arts advocates fear, could dash their dreams of an arts center in Sherwood. Others lament losing a historic building that sits at such a prominent corner of Old Town.

Three governmental organizations have a stake in the building: city council, which has the ultimate authority over the building; the cultural arts commission, which has been exploring the possibility of establishing an arts center there; and the Sherwood Urban Renewal Planning Advisory Committee, because the urban renewal district actually owns the property. Members from each of those groups seem to be resigned to tearing the building down, although a decision is not necessarily imminent.

A change of plans

As the urban renewal district (see sidebar at bottom) was debated in the late 1990s, the old schoolhouse and a cultural arts center were both prominent parts of the discussion, but in far different ways than they are now.

The city purchased the schoolhouse in 1999 for $550,000 with the hope of moving the library there, but the idea was quickly abandoned because the building needed to much work.

A cultural arts center was initially the centerpiece of the urban renewal plan, though talks originally focused on the Robin Hood Theatre and other sites. After the city realized the schoolhouse wouldn't work as a library, the urban renewal plan changed. It envisioned an arts center that would combine three sites, the former Robin Hood Theatre at Pine and Second streets, which the city bought in 1998, the schoolhouse and Stella Olsen Park. Together, they would offer an indoor spot for live performance, a building for art-related endeavors, and an outdoor venue, all within a few blocks of each other.

The city passed the urban renewal plan in Dec. 2000, but shortly after, priorities changed. Former city manager John Morgan and Mayor Walt Hitchcock left, and the new city leadership, led by new Mayor Mark Cottle, altered the urban renewal plan's goals. The altered plan put a premium on a new city hall and library, new streets in Old Town, and new turf fields. Five years later, there are tangible results -- a new civic building, revamped streets, and the Old Town Field House indoor sports complex, all of which were financed with urban renewal dollars.

After the city discovered the school house was a bad match for the library, the Police Athletic League used the building until the city began to accept bids on the property in 2003. PAL and the Woodhaven Community Church both bid unsuccessfully on the building. In their offer, the church even offered to allow the cultural arts commission to use the building until a site could be built.

Eventually, the urban renewal district purchased the building and council formed an advisory board, the Sherwood Cultural Arts Committee. Their hope was to transform the schoolhouse into a cultural arts center.

In 2003, the city chose to tear down the Robin Hood Theatre because of structural problems. At the time, there was no definitive plan for the site, but city officials talked of the possibility of another theater there.

Cultural Arts Commission Chair Robyn Folsom said her volunteer board worked vigorously to find grant money to renovate the schoolhouse over the next three years, but was overwhelmed, especially after learning of the extensive damage to the building, and how much it might cost to repair. Members of the commission also felt jilted when money was spent on turf fields rather than the arts, especially since the Old Town Field House has been slow to turn a profit.

Mayor Keith Mays defended the concept of adding fields. He said the community's support for sports has been stronger than its support for cultural arts.

"Well, it's taken longer than people expected, but that happens," Mays said of the Field House making money. "And making an argument that, 'you spent money on this, you should spend money on that,' doesn't really go anywhere with me."

Still, there are members of SURPAC and city council who are supportive of the cultural arts concept. Councilor Dave Grant, who is the liaison to the Cultural Arts Committee, supports hiring an outside consultant to help the arts commission evaluate sites for a center. Councilor Dave Heironimus also supports the idea, noting the city has done the same thing for the parks board and other organizations.

Members of SURPAC were in general agreement at a February meeting. SURPAC board member and former Mayor Cottle, who was a vocal proponent of adding fields, suggested some site within the Urban Renewal District should be "preserved as sacred for cultural arts."

The commission is working with a limited amount of potential sites for a cultural arts center, though, because it must fall within the Urban Renewal District, ideally in Old Town.

Aside from the schoolhouse, the former Robin Hood Theatre site is mentioned, but it is smaller than the schoolhouse site. Assistant City Manager Jim Patterson also told SURPAC that a developer who has built several smaller theaters has expressed interest in the cannery site on Railroad Street, which could lead to a potential partnership.

Wherever the site is, Folsom said the arts commission has embraced the idea of creating a multi-use facility, and not just a 'black-box' theater. She said that in the past two years, two music stores have approached them about potentially leasing space in a Sherwood arts center, and various arts schools and studios have expressed interest in renting space.

Still standing

Regardless of what happens with the cultural arts center, the city eventually must make a decision on the fate of the schoolhouse. City Manager Ross Schultz said the building is deteriorating fast, partially because of the dismal condition of the roof. During the energy crunch in the late 1970s, Schultz explained, the owners lopped off a story to save on heating costs.

"They cut the third level off of that building and when they did that, all they did was just lower the roof onto the second story," he said. "It was just slapped back on there. Our last city engineer wouldn't even go in the building. The walls lean and ripple along the roof line."

In addition, shingles and pieces of the roof litter the building's yard after a storm. Schultz said an engineer told the city it would be cheaper to essentially build a replica of the schoolhouse on the site than to retrofit the existing structure.

Cottle, whose office borders the school house, said that if the cultural arts commission can't use the building, the city might be best served to knock it down in the near future, as the site is a potential liability.

Charlie Harbick, who also sits on SURPAC, said he wouldn't vote to raze the building. Harbick said the issue of tearing down the building came up two years ago, and dozens of residents packed council's chambers to protest.

Harbick believes the building, with its prominent location, is a vital part of Old Town's dwindling past. The core has changed drastically with new buildings like the McCormick condominium building, which is next to Harbick's antique store.

"I think [the schoolhouse] should still be a part of the conversation, and I think there still are a lot of people in the community that would like to see it saved," he said. "I don't think there should be some rush to tear it down."

How an urban renewal district works

Sherwood's urban renewal district was created in December 2000. The zone includes the entire nine-block Old Town area, and extends out along Sherwood Boulevard to encompass parts of the Highway 99W commercial corridor.

The Urban Renewal Program was created by state statutes in Oregon to give cities a tool to help economically depressed downtown areas. Urban renewal taxes are generated by the increase in total assessed values in an urban renewal district from the time the district is first established. For instance, if a property's assessed value rises and the owners must pay an extra $50,000 in taxes from one year to the next, the district gets that money for urban renewal funds.

Urban Renewal Districts may continue to collect those extra taxes for 25 years, or until the district collects $35 million, whichever comes first. Sherwood's district has already collected $23 million.

Editor Anthony Roberts can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-546-0731.