Future of Philipsburg-Osceola junior high building murky

For the CDTDecember 5, 2012 

— In about six months, Philipsburg-Osceola Area Junior High will see its last students walk out the door. In September 2013, the new P-O Middle School will take the place of both it and the current North Lincoln Hill Elementary, but what will happen to the almost century-old masonry structure that takes up a solid block in the middle of Philipsburg’s second ward residential area?

Well, no one is quite sure just yet.

The school district received a report on possibilities earlier this year from a consultant that looked at lots of options, including selling the structure, repurposing it, or tearing it down and creating green space. The green space option, with an estimated price tag of about $1.5 million, has been thought to be the most likely end result by many, and one that Philipsburg Borough Councilwoman Barb Gette has brought up at past school board meetings.

But not everyone has given up on repurposing the structure.

“My heart just aches when I look at the gymnasium and the auditorium ... and think of it all being demolished,” said Jim Pollock, of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation’s economic restructuring committee. The group brought together members of the school board, the council, the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership and even the Centre County Planning office on Wednesday to tour the structure, see its strengths, weaknesses and potential for other uses.

Many of those on the tour were former students who relived their past experiences, recalling when the cafeteria was once the library, or the girls’ locker room used to be the wood shop. At the same time, however, they were picking up on the pros and cons of a new project.

The biggest pitfalls are the reasons the district opted to not renovate the building itself. A 15-year roof about the see its 28th birthday. Three jet-engine-sized boilers older than most of the students’ parents. An electrical system that dates to the 1940’s.

But there are upsides. Building and grounds supervisor Don Blake said that structurally, the building is incredibly sound. Basement walls are 36-inch-thick concrete. More concrete makes up the floors on all three levels. The masonry needs to be resealed, he said, but it is solid enough to be rated as a nuclear fallout shelter.

It also has public space potential, with an auditorium that seats about 600 and includes a balcony, plus the basement gymnasium, the first floor cafeteria and second floor library.

The building has seen repairs and renovations after a 1939 fire and in 1972 when it achieved its current layout. Since then, updates have been minimal, including replacing most of the flooring. That’s a plus since it means the current structure contains very little asbestos, Blake said.

PRC program director Dana Shoemaker said the tour was not an attempt to force changes or counteract school board decisions, but simply a way to see what the building had to offer and maybe a way to bring interested parties to see the potential.

One possibility that had been brought up, both for the junior high and when the Sixth Street elementary building was retired, was housing. The former North Philipsburg Elementary was converted to apartments after it was closed in the 1970’s. Shoemaker said that, currently, funding is available for construction-ready housing projects within the Marcellus Shale region. The school might qualify for such a use because of its location and potential and, unlike some funding streams, Philipsburg wouldn’t have to compete against its Centre County siblings State College and Bellefonte.

P-O has not made any permanent decisions on disposition of the structure, and is still dealing with trying to unload its last closed school. Wallaceton-Boggs Elementary sits vacant since the Central Intermediate Unit stopped leasing it. The proposed Central Pennsylvania Charter Academy has offered to lease and maintain that structure. To date, no such interest has been announced in the junior high, although the auditorium is currently being leased by the G-Free Methodist Church for its worship services.

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