LOCKPORT – The man who wants to buy the closed Washington Hunt Elementary School said Friday he has been going door-to-door trying to drum up votes for the deal in Tuesday’s referendum.
Robert Muscarella, owner of Ultimate Physique, is prepared to pay $65,000 for the two-story school on Rogers Avenue, which closed in June 2013 after 84 years of classes.
The district had it appraised at $195,000, and later obtained a market appraisal for $134,150. Ultimate Physique made the only written offer.
Muscarella plans to move his health club, now located on Ann Street, into the 33,200-square-foot building.
On May 20, district voters rejected the sale, 805 to 767. The Board of Education, hoping to unload the building so the Lockport City School District doesn’t have to pay the cost of maintaining it, decided to have another vote.
Muscarella, who has said he will have to invest about $1 million to remove asbestos, bring the school into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and convert it to his purposes, sent out more than 2,000 postcards last week to people who have voted in school elections in the past two years, urging their support.
Those landed in mailboxes Thursday and were followed Friday by a mailing from the school district to all registered voters, featuring questions and answers about the deal.
“The last week and a half to two weeks, I’ve been walking the streets, mostly in the areas we got beat,” Muscarella said. “Eight hundred people voted against us. I have yet to find 20 of them. It makes you wonder about the voting machines.”
Some voters complained that the cards for the four propositions on the May 20 ballot were laid out in a way that made it hard to tell which was the correct lever for yes and which was the lever for no.
This time, the Washington Hunt sale is the only item on the ballot.
Muscarella said he has found some opponents.
“I guess they don’t like that schools are closing – period. Lockport has shut three elementary schools in recent years because of declining enrollment.
One of the leading neighborhood opponents of the sale, Esther Owens, said the report that voters around Hunt supported the sale are misleading.
Although the area is in the 1st Ward, where the yes side won on May 20, Owens said most of the 1st Ward is in Lowertown. She claimed many residents nearest the school were against the sale.
Owens said she would prefer to look into forming a charter school in the building.
“The selling of this school will be very beneficial to Mr. Muscarella and clients, and a quick answer for the School Board, but I question the wisdom and the effect on the families and children of the area, the neighborhood structure and ... a city treading water right now.”
Owens also claimed that Muscarella would be getting a grant to pay for ADA compliance, so the school district should have sought one itself.
Both Muscarella and Deborah A. Coder, the school district’s assistant superintendent for finance, said they’d never heard of any ADA grants.
Muscarella said he is trying to obtain a grant for asbestos removal through the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.
“There are numerous hoops to go through to get that money, and I’m not sure we’re eligible for it,” he said.
Owens said Muscarella won’t discuss the three other businesses that he said would join Ultimate Physique in the building, something he told the city Zoning Board about in April.
Muscarella said he is “99.9 percent sure” a day care center for his customers will open in the old school. He said, “I don’t see how people can complain about that. Kids have been going in there for 100 years.”
But he said plans to move a local dance studio in seem to have fallen through, so he doesn’t know what the other businesses would be.
Muscarella also said he’s had talks about seeking a tax break from the IDA.
“Whether we qualify for it or not is still up in the air,” he said. “Once Wednesday rolls around and we know whether the people support us, then the (IDA) people will negotiate more seriously.”