Public sounds off on what to do with schools

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By John Barnhart

    A public hearing held last week on a plan submitted last year, by David McCormack, to redevelop Bedford Middle School and Old Yellow was the subject of a well attended Bedford Town Council meeting.
    McCormack proposes turning Old Yellow into a boutique hotel. His proposal for Bedford Middle School includes market rate apartments.
    Anne Soukhanov spoke against the proposal. Soukanov’s house is right next to the middle school with only a one-lane alley separating her property from the middle school. The alley leads to a former tennis court that would be used for parking, under the proposal.    She said she will refuse to sell any of her property to expand this alley to two lanes.
    Soukhanov  believes the proposal is a bad deal for the town. She said the property is worth $2.1 million, but the town would be leasing it to the developer for $1 per year for 40 years. She said the town should sell the property. She also noted that the plan calls for the town’s economic development authority (EDA) to put up $400,000 for McCormack to conduct “due diligence on the property.” She said this money could be used for other purposes.
    She believes parking will be a problem. The plan calls for 594 paved parking places, some directly behind her house. Parking spillover will clog adjoining streets.
    Jim Counter said the plan tries to do too much on that space. He also questioned why the Bedford Middle School auditorium is being preserved because all three high schools in the county have auditoriums. He likes the idea of apartments in Bedford Middle School and turning Old Yellow into a boutique hotel.   
    Elizabeth Worsham did not like the boutique hotel idea. She questioned how it will bring tourists to Centertown.
    Dennis Dean said Bedford Middle School should be used as a community center, similar to the way Roanoke uses the old Jefferson High School Building. He also called for tearing down Old Yellow and using the space for parking.
    John Bond wants the soccer field to continue being used for athletics.
    “I have 150 people waiting to get in,” said Lewis Varca, the property manager at Bedford Lofts.
    Varca said there is unmet demand for apartments in Bedford from people who don’t want to live in Lynchburg or Roanoke. He also said McCormack has a good track record of accomplishing what he said he would. McCormack redeveloped the old industrial buildings that are now home to Bedford Lofts and Beale’s Brewery.
    “Dave is going to come in here and get it done,” he said.
    Cynthia Gunnoe said the request for proposals on the property went out a year ago and McCormack’s proposal is the best the town has received. She said it is the only one that preserves Old Yellow and the town desperately needs hotel space, stating a hotel in the center of town would boost economic development.
    Gunnoe is on the Bedford Regional Water Authority board of directors. She said McCormack has talked with them.
    Skip Tharp said Old Yellow has been abandoned for 39 years and nothing has happened. He said the town currently has an offer on the table from McCormack. If the town turns it down, Old Yellow will sit for another 39 years and the only thing that will happen is that it will fall down, he said.
     Bill Mosley applauded the idea of a boutique hotel in Old Yellow.
    “I think that is a great use for that building,” he said.
    Mosley believes using Bedford Middle School for a higher education facility would be a better use for the building than apartments.
    Mike Shelton likes McCormack’s proposal.
    “I applaud each of you for the steps you are taking,” he said.
    Shelton, a former mayor of Bedford, said the $400,000 McCormack is asking for due diligence, is not a problem. He said the town spends more than that each year to stabilize Old Yellow.
    Betty Gereau strongly opposed demolishing Old Yellow. She spoke of the historical significance of the 106-year-old school building and called for its preservation.