Run-down school will see a rebirth Transformation: State, county and community work together to turn dilapidated building into a showcase for the arts.

November 02, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

When Brooklyn Park High School closed in December 1995, the result of a declining enrollment and deterioration, it was widely speculated the old school would follow the fate of many before it: boarded up, argued over and eventually torn down.

But many residents of Brooklyn Park saw it differently. Here was a chance, they said, to bring life back to the area, starting with what was once an example of the degeneration of many Brooklyn Park neighborhoods.

In January, just two years after the school closed, its east wing and auditorium will reopen as the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, a large undertaking that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants in addition to lavish county funding.

The project has been so successful that several delegates from other counties have stopped by to see how they might do the same with their abandoned buildings.

The building won't be just for the arts, although the center is the largest, most visible aspect of the project. It also will be the permanent home of the county police department's drug education program, a nutrition center for senior citizens, Department of Recreation and Parks facilities and a new middle school.

Dance troupes, musical groups and art schools have been lining up for space in the first North County art center, while county agencies have been vying for their share of old classrooms down the hall.

"People don't think there are arts in North County, and quite frankly I'm not sure there is all that much," said Ned Carey, a former Brooklyn Park High student and president of the board entrusted with renovating the school.

"We have small dance studios and such, but to offer a place like this where all things come under one roof is really important for a community -- especially Brooklyn Park," Carey said.

A sign of things to come

Many Brooklyn Park residents hail the project as a symbol of where they see the area headed -- toward a new, younger population base. The center itself won't construct buildings or bring new business, but for many, the energy and aesthetics accompanying it are a start.

For others, the attention and funding the center is receiving soothes those who for years watched arts funding go south to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis. Members of Maryland Hall surprised some North County residents recently by joining the project and offering their expertise, even though the centers will compete for funding.

"It will probably pull from our resources," said Maryland Hall Marketing Director Theresa Strobel. "But having a program up that way will generate a lot of new interest."

A volunteer effort

The project now includes more than 70 volunteers designing, building and organizing events. Many are former students, teachers and neighbors of the school.

Most of them quickly point to Democratic Del. Joan Cadden as initiator of the project.

Cadden, who lives near the former school and whose children attended high school there, walks each morning past the building. It was during one of those walks that the idea struck her, she said.

"I thought let's preserve the farmland and other space, and revitalize what we already have," she said on a recent tour of the facility. "Let's not desert those of us who have chosen to stay in older communities."

Solid infrastructure

Luckily for the project, the school won't be hard to preserve. Built in 1954, the walls are covered in ceramic; the floors are terrazzo, a marble-and-concrete compound; and the cabinets all are oak.

Volunteers boast that the more-than-1,000-seat auditorium is the largest in the county. It also was built to last.

Hurdles to overcome

Some problems exist, however. Significant amounts of asbestos need to be removed, and the building is far from complying with county code. Some redesign and structural repairs will start soon.

The school will have to be emptied for at least a year so the work can be done. County officials expect to start the project next year.

The county has allocated $2.5 million for repairs in the 1999 budget. The project received a $300,000 state grant this summer.

Enthusiastic response

Teri Belcher, who is assembling prospective users for the county, said she's been bombarded with calls about the space.

"This is the first time something like this has happened in the county -- to have so many different activities in one building," she said. It is also the first time the school board and county officials have worked together to create something out of an old resource, she said.

"A lot of people come in and say, 'The paint's chipping and the windows leak,' " said Sgt. John Short, who moved his drug education program to the school's bottom floor several months ago.

"But we feel like we've died and gone to heaven."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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