Guest Opinion: Make the Briscoe deal happen

    The City of Ashland has an incredible opportunity right now in the possibly of acquiring Briscoe School. Will city leaders find a way to negotiate a creative deal with the school district, or will they let this opportunity slip through their fingers? As George Kramer said at the last Ad Hoc City Hall Committee meeting on Aug. 30, and I paraphrase: When will the city ever get another opportunity to own an entire city block?

    Even if the city decides to keep City Hall right where it is, there are still good civic uses for Briscoe, such as a community center, Parks and Recreation programs, offices, yoga classes, art classes, theater rehearsal space, community basketball in the gym, etc. It’s a beautiful building that the Historic Commission considers to be “historic contributing” and it is located on a historic site. There is a beautiful neighborhood park on the site. Also, worth noting: There is plenty of parking.

    The Historic Commission supports the idea of the city owning the building over the prospect of it going to a private entity — the idea being that city ownership would likely result in a greater chance of historic renovations taking place vs. the alternate scenario. There might even be historic grant funding available to help offset renovation costs. We’re looking into that.

    One idea that comes to mind is for the city to work out a deal with the school district — sort of a lease-to-own type situation. There could be an option to “opt out” in five years written into the agreement, which would allow the city to acquire the property and put it on the back burner for a few years while leaders think it. The building needs renovating, so the city would likely need to go out for a bond to do the renovations that are needed.

    If the city could space this out and away from the upcoming bonds that are stacked up on top of each other (City Hall, schools and pool) that would be much more feasible, in my mind. If the city, after five years, decides that it does indeed want the property, then it could go out for a bond to pay for acquisition and renovations at that time.

    The alternative? The city takes a hard pass on this opportunity due to budget and bond restraints and we potentially kick ourselves down the line for missing this incredible opportunity.

    My understanding is that the school district is very open to creative negotiations — the goal mostly is just to get rid of it, focus on the schools with children, get out of the property management business — and school officials would like it if they never had to put another dime into it.

    The Ad Hoc City Hall Committee members unfortunately, did not have all the information they needed to make an informed decision on this. As of their last meeting on Aug. 30, they thought the district’s asking price was $5 million for the Briscoe building. That information is incorrect.

    We spoke with the new superintendent, Kelly Raymond, and the district’s director of finance, Jordan Ely, on Aug. 31, and they told us that a $5 million price tag for the Briscoe building is way off the mark. They aren’t sure where the committee came up with that number and they expressed some frustration that the Ad Hoc City Hall Committee had not once come to the School Board with any questions.

    Raymond and Ely mentioned that the district is still very open to trading the building to the city in exchange for relief from upcoming construction permitting fees — an example of some very creative thinking on the part of the school district and a win-win for everyone.

    The school district’s first choice is for Briscoe to go to the city for some type of civic use, and to ideally keep it in the “public domain.” For the good of Ashland and for the good of this iconic, much-loved, “historic contributing” building, let’s figure out a way for this to happen.

    — Melissa Mitchell-Hooge lives in Ashland.

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