PAXTON — Paxton residents Jolen Anya Minetz and Renea Walters are continuing their last-minute push to save PBL Eastlawn School from the wrecking ball, even though the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board does not appear to be swayed to change its plans to tear down the historic building this fall.
“The board seems very rigid,” Minetz told the Ford County Record on Monday.
PBL Superintendent Cliff McClure released a statement last month stating that the school board “plans to continue to move forward” with tearing down the 94-year-old building and “act on the voters’ approval” to do so.
On Monday, McClure said the board’s statement still stands, and he declined further comment.
Minetz said she and Walters plan to attend Wednesday night’s school board meeting to reiterate their concerns over tearing down the two-story, brick school building, which for decades occupied Paxton Community High School, and to ask the board to delay demolition or cancel it entirely.
Minetz said she and Walters are not the only people who want to see the structure saved. An online petition they launched on May 31 had 460 signatures as of Monday night, all supporting the idea.
“I wish I knew how many signatures would actually make a difference in the mind of the school board,” Minetz said.
Two nonprofit organizations that advocate for the preservation of historic buildings — Landmarks Illinois and the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County (PACA) — have also written letters to the school board asking for it to reconsider demolition.
The school district has already entered into a $1.15 million contract for the building’s razing. However, Minetz said the school district may not be able to legally proceed without first consulting the State Historic Preservation Office of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to evaluate alternatives that “could eliminate, minimize or mitigate” the project’s “adverse effect” on historic resources.
Minetz said that, to the best of her knowledge, the school district has not yet taken that step. When asked last month if the school district had, McClure did not comment.
Minetz said she would also like for the school district to actively market the building for sale before proceeding with demolition, perhaps by soliciting requests for proposals.
“The demolition of this historic building will cost over $1.15 million, but instead we could use it as a potential asset to the community through adaptive re-use,” Minetz said.
If the school board is not interested in soliciting requests for proposals, Minetz said she hopes the school district will instead “transfer the property to the hands of the City of Paxton or another organization that would take on the (requests for proposals).”
Designed by prominent Urbana based architect Joseph William Royer, Minetz called the building “an irreplaceable asset” that is “worth saving.” With the building having been determined to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, it opens the door for investors to receive “significant financial incentives for private re-use,” Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield office, said last month. Such incentives include a 20 percent federal historic tax credit and a newly created 25 percent state historic tax credit toward rehabilitation costs, Butterfield said.
Minetz said efforts to preserve both the building’s exterior and interior need to happen quickly, as the school board tentatively plans to clear out the school via an auction in mid-July before proceeding with asbestos abatement in late August.
“In order to maintain the historic integrity of the interior of this beautiful building, we need to act quickly, have our voices heard and get this whole process stopped before any irreversible damage is done,” Minetz said.
Minetz and Walters have some ideas for how the building could be re-used if saved. They have drafted a proposal that would call for the building to be turned into a multi-purpose facility, which could include “an interactive boutique hotel experience with upcycled art studios and a multi-purpose auditorium.”
The top two floors of the building would feature hostel-style hotel suites. The base floor would occupy two startup companies — an upcycle glass business and an upcycle textile business — which would “integrate into the whole experience.”
“The community and guests of the hotel will be able to explore the skills of our ancestors through culinary traditions like canning, craft traditions like rag rug making, woodworking, etc., all while staying in, or being part of, a beautiful historic building in the center of a quaint historic farm town,” their proposal says.
The startup companies within the building would create products that would also be displayed in the guest rooms.
“There would also be an option to have local antique shops display items in the rooms on consignment (so if guests would like to purchase anything in the room, it would be for sale, and that money would go directly back into the community),” the proposal says.
The auditorium, meanwhile, would feature cinematic equipment to allow for a “Beer and View,” as well as media for events when needed.
“The ‘Brew and View’ will ideally partner with local small-batch brewers to showcase their latest brews,” the proposal says.
The auditorium would also feature a climbing wall built from reclaimed lumber to “add value to the attraction.” Also, curtains would be added to the stage area so that it can function as a theater and concert venue.
The lower-level seating area would accommodate a dinner-theater-style seating arrangement, featuring a variety of retro couches, tables, desks, school chairs and bookcases to “create a unique venue experience that exudes a rich and warm aesthetic with a cool retro vibe.”
Minetz said their proposal could be funded in a variety of ways, including crowd-sourcing, tax incentives and private funding.
Minetz said she hopes that if requests for proposals were to be solicited by the school board, her and Walters’ proposal would not be the only one.
“If we keep the building, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Minetz said.
The school board meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the board room in the unit office in Paxton. The meeting is open to the public.