May 28th, 2024

Contractor hoping to stave off Milk River school demolition

By Steffanie Costigan - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on May 1, 2024.

Submitted photo - Erle Rivers High School in Milk River is slated to be demolished following the next school year. Some in the town say they would rather see the building repurposed for housing.

Demolition plans for a historic school in Milk River are raising concerns among some community members who say the school has potential to be repurposed for housing.

Milk River contractor Jarrad McCoy, who has more than 20 years of experience in the construction industry, detailed some of the benefits of repurposing Erle Rivers High School in an interview with The Herald.

“The advantage here is you have a building and the parts that we’d propose be turned to housing, or halfway towards a completed unit. And you have an institutional grade building, as much of it is a concrete building that has a 300-year lifespan.

“In comparison to wood frame that is considered by lending institutions and insurance companies, those are considered 60-year buildings. This is a relatively young building, with brand new roof, up to current values. It’s been well maintained,” said McCoy.

McCoy said there is an ongoing struggle to find rental units within Milk River resulting in teachers, security staff, and nurses having to commute in order to work in Milk River.

He voiced how the town has a desire to save and repurpose their school.

“What first came to mind is more recreational space. And they fought to save part of this building as recreational space but were denied. And they liked the proposal of turning this into residential use,” said McCoy.

He added Milk River town officials approached Alberta Infrastructure and were redirected to Horizon School Division along with Alberta Education who currently holds the authority for the school’s demolition.

“They got redirected back to Horizon School Division and Alberta Education, who makes the decision. Then when they got faced with it – the $250,000 – we kind of presumed with millions that they’d save by not needing to tear it down, that they’d be glad to renegotiate that contract to save millions of taxpayer dollars.”

McCoy received a letter from the Town of Milk River thanking him for his efforts to help save the school and shared with him in this letter the challenges put forward.

“There would be costs associated with the process, including legal fees, change orders, etc. The estimated dollar values were between $250,000 and $300,000.

“The Horizon School Division Board was very direct, stating that they would not be willing to incur responsibility as well as any associated costs. With that, the Town would need to place $250,000 in an escrow account by the end of January,” the letter said, signed at the bottom by Larry Liebelt, mayor of Milk River.

“Town council had very long discussions regarding the project and have decided to take no further action on this project in order for the Horizon School Board to move forward with their plans. There were many reasons behind our decision with the main reason being timing and the requirement to conduct a request for proposal process. Maybe there would have had different outcomes if at the start of the process, proposals could have been obtained and the contract for Horizon would have been separate,” said Liebelt in his letter to McCoy.

The demolition of Erle Rivers High School was scheduled to be done in October but has since been rescheduled for June of 2025. McCoy said around January an investor came forward willing to pay the $250,000 to save the school but was denied by the Horizon School Division board.

“An investor said, ‘hey, I’ll front the $250,000′ as we proposed that to the school board, and their next meeting, I wasn’t invited to the meeting I found out after, but they denied it and they want to proceed with demolition.”

McCoy said after the request was denied a group of community members, investors, and an MLA requested to meet with the Horizon School Division Board to understand what some of the challenges were to save the school.

“We were kind of confused and a little disheartened that they didn’t want to consider using private money. And we asked to meet with them again so we could understand the hurdles that they’re facing, because we think we could help them come up with solutions and understanding those hurdles that they’re facing.”

That request was denied, said McCoy.

The provincial government has given Horizon School Division $24.7 million to build a new K through 12 school in Milk River with approximately $850,000 allotted to destroy Erle Rivers. Erle Rivers’ history dates back to the early 1900s with a portion of the building’s construction done from 1910 to 1917. The school has since been updated.

Dale Leffingwell, a former resident of Milk River currently living in Lethbridge, said is wife and daughter attended Erle Rivers and he has feelings about its demolition.

“We are really concerned about the notion, shall we say, of destroying this really historical structure…

“Demolition just really blows my mind. I can’t believe that they’re thinking of that because it’s a solid building, it’s concrete, new roof, a building that really can be changed or altered into some really good residential facilities,” said Leffingwell.

McCoy voiced the need to clarify misinformation around Milk River regarding the school being repurposed for “affordable housing.”

“Some people are assuming we want affordable housing like low-income housing from this. We’re not saying that we’re just saying it’s more economical to have housing period. It makes more sense for investors. Our community is actually has quite a bit of opportunity for low-income housing, but not for regular rentals,” said McCoy.

McCoy believes as many as 23 one- and two-bedroom units could be constructed in the classrooms. A growing church wants to use the auditorium and one wing of the school and a local contractor wants to use the shop.

All school space would be utilized, he says.

The Herald has not yet received a requested comment from Horizon.

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Simple enough. Govt giving 850k to knock it down. Private offering what they originally wanted 250k. Losing 600k on proposal.

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