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New Washington County Public Schools administrative offices still in planning phases

May 12, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • The exterior of the new Washington County Public Schools administrative offices on Downesville Pike.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

A sheet of paper with the words “Do not move” was taped to the U-shaped receptionist desk.

A similar note was taped to a large white planter nearby that contained a pot of crusty old soil and dead plant material.

A few yards away was a set of double glass doors with locked chains wrapped around the handles of the exterior doors.

Rock music was piped through the sound system and custodial, maintenance and technology workers occasionally were encountered in the vast office building that once was home to a Fortune 500 power company and will, possibly by the end of this year, start to house administrative offices for Washington County Public Schools.

The school system settled on its $5.5 million purchase of the approximately 44-acre Downsville Pike site on April 22. The school board decided in January not to renovate its Commonwealth Avenue administrative complex, which is a hodgepodge of aged buildings that would require millions of dollars to spruce up.

Shortly after the property settlement, workers began cleaning, replacing stairwell light bulbs and sorting through furnishings to see what will be kept, recycled or auctioned, Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael said.

“We’ve got things to fix, but it’s a nice space,” said Mark Mills, director of maintenance and operations.

The main building was built in 1968. In 1996, Allegheny Energy moved its corporate office from New York City to the Downsville Pike building.

After Allegheny Energy’s expansion into the energy trading market backfired, Allegheny Energy considered bankruptcy and shook up its management team. In the summer of 2004, the energy supplier moved its headquarters from the Downsville Pike offices to Greensburg, Pa.

A group of architectural experts recently was given a tour so they could submit proposals to renovate the interior of the main building, school system officials said.

The Herald-Mail was taken through the property on May 1. The air conditioning had not been turned on, so parts of the building were warm and stuffy.

A few days later, grounds crews cleared away some brush and undesirable trees. The vast lawn had been mowed and will become a regular part of the mowing crew’s rounds, Michael said.

In a presentation Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox made to the school board in March, before the board decided to exercise its option to buy the property from Vinayaka Missions, Wilcox said the rough estimate for renovations to the 10435 Downsville Pike complex was $6.6 million, including contingency funds for unexpected costs.

Wilcox has said the school system’s fund balance would be used to pay for the purchase and renovation of the Downsville Pike property.

The fund balance, after the property purchase, was $8.1 million, Chief Financial Officer Chris South told the school board last week, according to an online video of the board meeting.


Property overview

The property consists of approximately 44 acres that are surrounded by Downsville Pike, Intelsat Corp.’s satellite farm, T. Rowe Price’s backup data-recovery center and undeveloped land.

For some board members, the acreage was appealing because it one day could be used as an elementary or middle school site.

The portion of land that most likely could accommodate a school fronts Downsville Pike, Michael said.

A long driveway up to the two-building complex goes past a guard shack with vehicle barrier arms — which Michael said eventually will be removed — and breaks off into two parking areas.

The area with the U-shaped receptionist desk, which fronts the entrance facing Downsville Pike, most likely will be the public entrance to the building, school system officials said.

Because there only are steps up to that entrance, officials still need to decide whether the ground-level entrance on the side will accommodate, at least for now, people who are wheelchair-bound or have other physical disabilities, school system spokesman Richard Wright said Tuesday.

The main building has three stair towers, three elevators and a dumbwaiter near the dock entrance.

The elevators weren’t in operation, but are expected to be certified for use this week, Mills said.

The complex consists of two buildings. The larger, office building has a four-story main section and a two-story south wing. The four floors are referred to as the ground floor through third floor. Exiting from the south wing is a breezeway, with a dock, to a one-story building referred to as the flex building, or annex building.

The main building has about 125,000 square feet, with the flex building having almost 18,000 square feet, according to school system officials and the deed for the property.

The property also has a helipad, an area on the other side of the front parking lot from the building complex, that is marked with a small concrete pad featuring an “H” and concrete corner markers.


Main building

The main building’s first and second floors are similar in appearance with a grid system in the ceiling that allows many interior walls to be moved so the size of offices and conference rooms can be changed in 5-foot increments. Part of the ground floor also has this grid system.

A decision will need to be made on whether to use the modular, moveable walls to create an auditorium for school board meetings and other activities, or to put up drywall for permanent walls to help in soundproofing the auditorium, Michael said.

The third floor was upgraded, at a cost of about $2 million to $3 million, before Allegheny Energy moved its headquarters out of the building, Wilcox has said.

Modular walls were replaced with regular ones, and fancier stained oak doors, lighting and other decor fit for a Fortune 500 company were installed, school system officials said.

What appeared to have been an executive office suite has a bathroom and a closet with a light that automatically comes on as the door opens.

The central core of the main building, on all four floors, is devoted to mechanical space for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, Mills said.

On the main building’s ground floor is an electrical room containing two electrical substations with large switches, presumably so the power company could switch power over if the property experienced an outage while company officials were managing power restoration efforts, Mills said.

One area, which housed desks with built-in monitor cabinets, has raised flooring — with space for cables underneath. School system officials said that space could be used by the information technology department.

A lot of the phone lines in the building are decades old and must be upgraded, school system officials said.

On the first floor in the south wing is a cafeteria that still had several signs, such as “Coffee,” “Yogurt,” “Sandwiches” and “Hot Food” hanging from the ceiling over the serving line. A salt-and-pepper shaker set left behind was being used to hold down design drawings that architects viewed during a recent tour.

In the kitchen are grills, an approximately 40-year-old commercial dishwasher, a walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler, Mills said.

School system officials anticipate using the cafeteria to serve food, but Michael said it was premature to say whether food service students from Washington County Technical High School would use the space. One possibility being discussed is to use the space to relieve other school system kitchens, perhaps preparing Meals on Wheels food at the Downsville Pike kitchen rather than at school kitchens, he said.


Planning

“Right now, we’re still in the planning phases. ... every time we come in, we get some different ideas of what we might do with various areas,” Michael said.

“Dr. Wilcox wants to work with staff, certainly work with our architect and get the best idea for what would be ideal locations, adjacencies of various offices, how we might use the cafeteria, how we might incorporate some type of student space into the building, what area might serve best for the auditorium and public-type spaces, and how the public would access the building,” Michael said.

Michael said the cleanup that began shortly after the property was purchased included cleaning up debris from roof leaks. The building will be checked for mold or other problems that the leaks might have caused, he said.

One hallway had a water stain on the wall and the carpeting below. Another room had a hole in the ceiling with signs of water damage.

The Pennsylvania architectural firm of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates has been hired to design roof replacements, school system officials said.

The main building has a two-tiered roof. The lower tier surrounds stairwells, an elevator room, a large mechanical room and outdoor cooling equipment, and has lights that face the exterior walls, which could light up the building at night. Workers can walk on the wide strip of roof around those areas.

The roof work is expected to go out to bid this month with the roofs being replaced this summer, Michael said.

The school board could vote on architectural and engineering services for renovations to the main building’s interior on May 21, Michael said. That work includes designing upgrades for the HVAC system and designating where walls will be placed.

The school system already had security cameras set up on the property so it could be monitored remotely.

Michael said life-safety equipment is being checked.

One fire extinguisher had a tag that stated it last was inspected in October 2004.

An engineering team will need to determine if any of the asbestos needs to be removed and, with permitting officials, whether more sprinklers need to be installed, Michael said. Part of the building has sprinklers and technology areas had dry fire-suppression systems, he said.

Current plans call for the school system’s print shop to be moved from the technical high school to the Downsville Pike complex, freeing up space for student programs, Michael said. Currently, a van runs twice a day from the print shop to the Commonwealth Avenue complex to deliver items to the administrative offices or to the mailroom for distribution to schools, he said.

The almost 18,000-square-foot flex building has a three-bay garage, an old paint booth, a large open space that could be used for storage and a room that school system officials said they believe was used to train electrical lineman.

Officials think the flex building will become a maintenance and storage building, Michael said. That would mean much of the maintenance operation now at 701 Frederick St., and equipment and furnishings stored at the old Job Development Center near Smithsburg, would be moved to the flex building, he said.

Deeds for 701 Frederick St. and the old Job Development Center property on Federal Lookout Road south of Smithsburg indicate they are owned by the school board, not the county.

Wilcox said last week that the school system would “move forward expeditiously” and put the properties on the market, but there is no rush.

Typically, school buildings revert back to the county when they no longer are used as schools.

Wilcox said he wasn’t sure the school system could sell the building that housed the old Job Development Center, which was a school, or if it would revert to the county.

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