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A LANDMARK STRUGGLE
PASSION AND HOPE MARK EFFORTS TO SAVE THE OLD NIAGARA FALLS HIGH SCHOOL FROM THE WRECKER'S BALL

The hallways of the old Niagara Falls High School reverberated with the dull thud of heavy furniture banging down a stairwell.

It was solemn accompaniment for the occasion, as stacks of old textbooks and graffiti-covered desks left behind in the closed-down building were carted off to awaiting pickups and sport utility vehicles. Two days earlier the items had been sold at auction and were now destined for new owners and new uses.

Yet the fate of the 76-year-old building that housed them seemed as murky as the drab olive paint coating its walls.

Part icon, part pariah, the Pine Avenue building is venerated by local preservationists scrambling to save it, but is held at arm's length by both school district and city officials, neither of whom want the long-term responsibility of maintaining the 164,000-square-foot building.

Instead, a group of mostly private citizens is adopting the challenge.

The not-for-profit Save Our Sites was formed late last fall to save the old school from the wrecker's ball. The group is actively seeking a viable reuse for the three-story, neo-classical structure.

"This building is too important to lose," said Lisa Jackson, the group's vice president, as she surveyed the remaining contents of one of the auctioned off rooms at the high school recently.

A Lewiston resident who grew up in Niagara Falls, Jackson is a 1975 alumna of the old high school. Both the elementary and junior high schools she attended in the city have either been closed or demolished. They are treasured reminders of her youth that like so much else in the city have vanished.

"Thirteen schools in this city have been closed, many of them torn down. This has to stop. Successful cities don't tear down their historic buildings," she added.

But that's exactly what the Board of Education, in a 6-2 vote last month, decided will happen to the old high school if a buyer for it doesn't step forward by March 1. The board also agreed to borrow up to $2 million for the demolition.

"Right now, we're on the path to take this building down," said Carmen A. Granto, school district superintendent. "Every day it's up it's costing us money and taking away funds from programs that serve the kids of this district."

The cost to maintain and heat the vacant building is about $35,000 a month, according to the district's business manager, Roy Rogers.

But members of the Save Our Sites believe the city will lose twice that if the building is razed.

In addition to staving off the destruction of an irreplaceable historic and architectural asset, said Jackson, "We're trying to save the taxpayers approximately $2 million in costs to tear down this building down."

The group is racing against time to pull together a viable plan to save the building, one that is compelling enough for the School Board to relax its demolition deadline and persuasive enough for city officials to offer more support.

In the works is a plan to convert at least a portion of the old school into a cultural/community center, with studio and performing arts space for local artists.

"We certainly need a different draw, not only for tourists but for the residents in the community," said Karen Mahoney, secretary for Save Our Sites, and a 1979 graduate of the old high school. "And we've already had a number of arts groups that have expressed an interest in relocating to the building."

Group members argue that similar reuses of old buildings have worked in other cities, most notably the former Trico plant on Main Street in Buffalo, which was successfully converted into a cultural arts center housing several local fine arts and performing arts organizations.

Save Our Sites, drawing on research started by the defunct Niagara Falls High School Task Force, is soliciting both public and private funds for a feasibility study.

"We need the School Board to give us more time," Mahoney said.

If the group is able to produce a reasonable business plan that is backed by city officials and the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, that could sway the board to hold off on its deadline, Granto said recently.

"If they came up with a solid business plan, endorsed by the city and the Chamber of Commerce, at the very least, I could recommend that the board consider that," he said. "This board has been pretty open -- but we haven't seen a business plan yet."

Meanwhile, Mayor Irene J. Elia has pledged her administration's support for the group's efforts. Though she is a member of the group's advisory committee, Elia last month said she did not plan to recommend to the City Council that the city take over the school building.

"It's a magnificent building that we want to see preserved, but it can't be a liability to the city," Elia said.

The mayor said her office will continue to assist the group by helping it gain access to available grant money. "But we're not in the real estate business," she said.

Likewise, school officials argued that the district, unlike the city, was without a community development arm to shepherd such a project as proposed by Save Our Sites.

After Benderson Development Corp. last month rescinded its offer to buy the school property, school officials offered it to the city. Benderson had offered to buy the building for $650,000, raze it and develop a strip mall at Pine and Portage avenues.

The school district's subsequent offer to the city required no down payment, but a promise that the city share with the district half of any proceeds it receives from an eventual sale of the property.

Elia suggested the district make the same offer to Save Our Sites and allow it time to complete its feasibility study.

"There really needs to be more cooperation between all the parties to preserve that building," she said. "I think the board should wait for the release of an independent study before they think about demolishing that building."

It may be a long shot, but members of the Save Our Sites group said it is forging ahead.

"We need to let people know we're moving forward, too," said Geri Mitro, a member of the group's advisory committee.

Mitro said the group has only recently received blueprints of the old high school from school district officials. The group is also conducting a mail campaign to raise money from alumni and others throughout the Niagara region.

In addition, the group is trying to get the old school building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would qualify the building for even more grants.

"We're not looking for taxpayer dollars to support this. If the school is designated as a historic building there should be grant money available to make these things happen," Mahoney said.

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