jj kelly

The former J.J. Kelly High School has been vacant for more than five years. It needs a new roof and new windows, according to County Administrator Michael Hatfield.

WISE — County supervisors have approved phase two of studies on possibly relocating several county departments to the former J.J. Kelly High School building.

But approval came only after lengthy debate that touched the lingering sore spot of high school consolidation.

At Thursday’s board meeting, County Administrator Michael Hatfield explained that Thompson & Litton completed a previously-approved preliminary study of the building. The result, he said, is two concepts of how various county offices could be housed in the former school, which has been vacant for more than five years.

Both versions include space for:

• Department of social services.

• County health department.

• County administrative offices.

• Commissioner of revenue.

• County treasurer.

• County registrar.

• School board offices.

• County building and zoning office.

• County information services.

• Geographic information system offices.

• County legal office.

• Lonesome Pine Office on Youth.

The next step, he said, is to approve an agreement for Thompson & Litton to produce an architectural report that would include the proposed layout of various offices and detailed cost estimates that can be presented to potential funding agencies.

The board had previously discussed a possible $60,000 cost, but the firm proposes doing the job for nearly $57,700. The firm estimates 60 days to complete it.

District One Supervisor Bobby Cassell moved to approve the agreement, with a second from District Two member Steve Bates.

But fellow District One member Fred Luntsford revisited previous concerns about how this proposal looks in the wake of high school consolidation decisions.

Back then, Luntsford said, one of the motivations for supervisors to approve consolidation was the characterization of Kelly as a building that was falling down.

Bates, a Wise-area resident, said he didn’t recall any such characterization. But Vice Chair Robby Robbins agreed with Luntsford.

Luntsford, of Appalachia, said it’s good that the former Coeburn High School was salvaged to become Eastside High, but Appalachia lost both of its schools. That’s hard for him, he said.

Hatfield said preparing Kelly to house county departments is roughly estimated to cost $9 million. He reminded the board that during consolidation discussions, a preliminary plan for salvaging and expanding Kelly was estimated to cost about $30 million.

A structural engineer has evaluated the building and believes it is as strong as the day it was built, said Hatfield, who was not yet a county official during the consolidation debate and process.

The roof and the windows need to be replaced, he noted.

Luntsford said he would support spending the next round of money on Kelly. He agrees with the engineering assessment about the structural soundness of the building, he said. It was the same for Appalachia High School, Luntsford added.

The town of Appalachia now uses the former high school building to house its parks and recreation department, the Lonesome Pine Model Railroaders display and other functions.

Luntsford said he wants fellow supervisors to remember the Appalachia High building and the town for future development. If a project can be done in Wise, it can be done in Appalachia, he added.

But this is not a trade-off situation, Cassell said. The county must, for example, move its social services department into a permanent home, he said, calling it “a county deal, not a town deal.”

Luntsford bristled and cautioned Cassell not to put words in his mouth. He didn’t mention social services and knows that department would not be moving to Appalachia, he said. Luntsford was simply saying that if some development opportunity comes along, the town and the building should be kept in mind, he emphasized.

Bates said school consolidation was not about the structural soundness of the buildings, it was about how many students needed to be in a building to become more efficient.

Wise County continues to lose students, said Bates, a retired county educator.

During the consolidation process, he said, he predicted the county would have to consolidate schools again because it wasn’t done right this time.

Bates and board Chair Dana Kilgore suggested it’s time to stop bringing up school consolidation in the context of what to do with the Kelly building.

District Three member J.H. Rivers noted that while the county will probably end up spending $9 million on the building, supervisors still must decide what to do with the former social services building, which is not structurally sound.

Social services is temporarily housed in a former Sykes Enterprises building at the Lonesome Pine business park.

Kilgore noted that the county also still needs to decide what to do with the former jail beside the courthouse.

Bates, District Two member Bob Adkins and District Three member John Schoolcraft agreed that the county should keep the former Appalachia school in mind if a future opportunity is a potential fit for it.