LOCKPORT – Voters in Lockport changed their minds on the sale of Washington Hunt Elementary School, approving it Tuesday in a second-chance referendum.
Complete but unofficial returns showed the proposition passed overwhelmingly, 1,656 to 291. The Board of Education will meet at 4:30 p.m. today to certify the results. The sale is expected to close in about three weeks.
On May 20, when the deal was included as an additional proposition during the budget vote and school board election, the proposal failed 805 to 767.
Ultimate Physique, a health club on Ann Street, bid $65,000 in an effort to acquire the closed school on Rogers Avenue. It was the only written bid the board received when it sought sealed offers for the property in March.
Ultimate Physique owner Robert Muscarella plans to move his business to Washington Hunt, a two-story, 33,200-square-foot brick building erected in 1929.
The Lockport City School District closed it in June 2013 because of decreasing enrollment. Lockport has shut three elementary schools in recent years for that reason.
Muscarella proposed to place a day care center in the building to make workouts at his facility more attractive to parents of young children.
There were to be spaces for two other businesses. Muscarella told the city Zoning Board when it granted variances for the project in April that one of them was to be a dance studio, but he said last week it looked like that arrangement had fallen through, and he didn’t know what the other businesses might turn out to be.
Muscarella expected to spend about $1 million to remove asbestos from the building and make it handicapped accessible. One of the district’s reasons for closing Washington Hunt was a reluctance to spend that kind of money on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Critics of the deal claimed Muscarella made a low-ball offer, since the district had the building appraised at $195,000. Deborah A. Coder, assistant superintendent for finance, later disclosed a “market appraisal” for $134,150.
Ironically, the district doesn’t get to keep the $65,000, or any sale price. That amount would have been deducted from its state building aid next year, because it is still carrying bonded debt on the building from a past renovation project.
The district paid more than $19,000 on utilities for Washington Hunt during the school year that ended in June. It also was expecting to spend $7,000 to $10,000 more to maintain and insure the building. The Board of Education hoped to remove those costs from its budget.
Ultimate Physique would have inherited a lease on school property by Eastern Niagara Hospital, which pays the district $1,500 a year for land on which the nearby hospital placed 30 parking spaces. That 10-year lease has two years to run, Coder said last week.
Esther Owens, a neighborhood resident, was among the leading opponents for the project. She said the neighbors wouldn’t have cared for the health club’s hours, which would have seen people coming and going from before dawn to late at night, seven days a week.
Muscarella spent thousands of dollars to mail flyers to more than 2,000 potential voters last week, urging support for the deal. The district spent about $13,000 on holding the election and mailing out notices to all registered voters.