The Bulloch County Board of Education agreed Thursday night to sell roughly two-thirds of the old Julia P. Bryant Elementary School campus to W.H. Gross Construction Company of Kingsland for $400,000 plus the demolition of two buildings on the portion the school district keeps.
W.H. Gross Construction, which stands to get approximately 10.5 acres of the 15-acre campus, plans to build senior housing that will fit in with the neighborhood, W.H. “Bill” Gross, the company’s owner and president, said Monday.
“The intent is to work hand-in-glove with the school board and the city to make just an incredible senior development…,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to try put more units than what the site deserves, and we may be utilizing some of the old buildings,” he said.
His company builds residential and commercial projects across southeastern Georgia. Romana Riley Lofts in Savannah is an example of a project W.H. Gross Construction undertook using a historic school building as part of a senior community.
The part of the former Julia P. Bryant Elementary complex set to be sold includes the wing occupied by the Statesboro Food Bank and also the cafeteria, with its perennially leaky roof, where the food bank previously hosted the Rebecca’s Café hot meal program. Rebecca’s Café has been closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic for a full year now, but program leaders had hoped to reopen it in the same location.
Now the Food Bank will need to relocate, eventually. Gross said the decision as to when is really up to the school system but the move won’t have to occur right away as far as he is concerned. He hasn’t closed on the contract at this point, and his firm must go through a planning and permitting process with the city of Statesboro, so demolition and construction is still “months out,” he said.
“The contract will be contingent upon certain factors and that could take up to one year,” the school system’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown also said in an email Monday
The acreage Gross is buying includes the entire frontage of the old school along Donnie Simmons Way, with all of the buildings directly visible from that direction. It also entails the football field around the corner on Foss Street.
But the school system will keep approximately 4.5 acres of the old JPB campus. This encompasses the longest classroom wing, occupied by the Cedarwood GNETS program, plus the buildings and grounds between it and the newer, active Julia P. Bryant Elementary School, which has been in use since August 2010.
In 2019, the Bulloch County Schools, with a state grant providing more than half of the funding, spent more than $1 million on a new roof, updated restrooms and other renovations to the buildings used by Cedarwood.
Provided space by the school system, Cedarwood operates independently as part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, serving students with emotional and behavioral special needs.
The school system will also keep intact a smaller building that houses the Cedarwood offices and space used by the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks & Recreation Department for day camps, Brown said. However, as part of the deal W.H. Gross is expected to remove two other buildings, which Brown described as “in much disrepair” from the part of the campus the school system is keeping.
He did not have a cost estimate for removing just those two buildings. But an estimate he had obtained for demolishing all of the buildings not used by Cedarwood put that cost at approximately $900,000.
The Board of Education voted on the property contract after a closed session near the end of its otherwise open, regular meeting Thursday. Real estate deals are one of the topics the board can legally discuss behind closed doors before voting in public.
Returning to open session, the board voted 8-0 to accept Superintendent Charles Wilson’s recommendation to declare the 10.5 acres and the buildings “unnecessary for educational purposes.” Then he summarized the contract with the $400,000 price plus the demolition work, and the vote was again 8-0.
“That right there is a win-win for this community. …,” Wilson said after the meeting. “We want to see something good come from that property, which is why we’ve not just sold it (to anyone for any purpose). We believe this is someone who can be a responsible partner to enhance the value of that property and still respect the Julia P. legacy in that community.”
But he declined to identify the nature of the project, leaving that to the buyer.
Food bank to go
A Monday call from the newspaper was the first that Food Bank Inc. Operations Director Jodi Brannon had heard of the board’s action, she said. But she knew that someone had visited previously to look at the property.
The food bank’s leaders were also aware that they have had “temporary use” of the building for more than five years, on a nominal-rent lease with the school board, she acknowledged.
“They’ve been good enough to basically give us the lease on this building for a dollar a year, and we’ve been appreciative,” Brannon said. “Especially three or four years ago we couldn’t have afforded to pay rent on a place.”
In fact, Statesboro Food Bank has operated in the old JPB school for seven years now, since early 2014. Before that, the charitable organization used space at the old Sallie Zetterower Elementary School campus – where Statesboro Family YMCA is now located – for three years, also at a rent originally stated as $1 a year.
“So we’ve always known it’s a possibility, and – I mean we’re in no position to move straight into another place – however, thankfully, thankfully, we’ve been trying to get a contingency fund up since we’ve had a lot more cash donations this last year,” Brannon said.
After her father, Joe Bill Brannon, died last June after more than 25 years as a Statesboro Food Bank volunteer, much of that time as its full-time acting director, many people made memorial donations. Others have given more because of the pandemic, she said.
But the food bank leadership still needs to find a new location and then will need help to move stored items when the time comes, Brannon said.