Evaluated by modern educational standards, the 70-year-old Southern Pines Primary campus is little more than an assortment of old buildings in various degrees of disrepair.
Just down Carlisle Street in Morganton Park North, its replacement is energy-efficient and designed for technologically facilitated learning for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. That school was built at a cost of $30.3 million and opened in January, pulling students from both the primary school and the old elementary campus across town.
Since then vegetation has started to creep up the sides of the old primary school’s classroom buildings and through cracks in the asphalt parking lot while it has sat unused.
Moore County Schools has no further use for the 17-acre campus in the foreseeable future, so at the end of 2019 the school board at the time designated it as surplus property along with the old Southern Pines Elementary and their counterpart schools in Aberdeen.
Appraisals commissioned by the district returned a value of $630,000 for Southern Pines Primary, the lowest of the four surplus schools.
But many longtime residents of Moore County, and West Southern Pines particularly, see more in the campus than dark hallways, low-slung ceilings and rotting facades.
They see the site where, in 1924, Black residents pooled $6,000 of their wages as farm laborers and golf caddies toward the construction, on four acres of donated land, of a school for their children. They also see the passion that, 70 years later, galvanized a community to build an avant-garde holistic natural learning environment in the Blanchie Carter Discovery Park.
Many of those who joined in a prayer walk on Carlisle Street last Tuesday recalled the school as the center of a thriving Black community. They hope that the next phase of its history might be a turning point in the neighborhood’s economic decline.
“This town and this area used to have so many Black businesses in it,” said Terry Ray, whose parents graduated from the school in the 1950s when it was West Southern Pines High School, a high school dedicated to Black students.
“The business on the corner was owned by my husband’s father, there was a dry cleaners owned by the Shambergers, the funeral homes around here were Black-owned, a shoe store. We would just like to see these things come back into the community.”
One local nonprofit has already stepped forward to try to achieve just that.
The crowd of 100 or so came to demonstrate support for the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust’s ongoing efforts to purchase the former school campus.
The trust has pursued the campus for nearly two years as a future community center celebrating African-American history, cultural arts and entrepreneurship. As laid out in its most recent purchase offer to the Moore County Board of Education, the land trust envisions the site as a “full service community school” offering pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, physical activities and mental health resources along with affordable housing for public school teachers.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Murphy, a Southern Pines town councilman and pastor of Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in West Southern Pines, led the walk along with the Rev. John Hage of Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church. They stopped along the way to offer prayers for the realization of the land trust’s mission.
“We believe that you have inspired this vision: a center for African-American history, culture and commerce, a center that would teach the history of this proud community, that would encourage community and love, that would bring alive culture, that would encourage commerce,” Hage prayed aloud.
Supporters like Kathy Peterson from Cameron and Scherron Lytch of Carthage recall West Southern Pines as the center of Moore County’s Black community.
“I believe that cultural centers promote leadership development, it promotes a sense of community and a sense that we matter,” said Lytch. “It promotes cultural identity and can foster jobs as well, so I think it’s just a win-win for everyone.”
But a discrepancy remains between the land trust’s and school board’s ideas of a fair price for the school.
When the Moore County Board of Education set out 18 months ago to divest itself of its surplus schools, the board at the time resolved to work out a direct sale to the land trust at the appraised value of $630,000.
The trust’s first formal offer, however, was far less than that: $200,000, based on a separate appraisal it had commissioned.
In that offer, the trust contested several aspects of the district’s 2019 appraisal, which used unsold schools’ listing prices and a church in a Richmond, Va. suburb as comparable values in determining a value for Southern Pines Primary.
The trust later revised its offer, depending on the outcome of the upset bid process the school board has used to identify a potential buyer for the old Aberdeen Primary campus. Both properties were appraised at similar values in 2019.
Bidding for Aberdeen Primary started in November at $120,000. Since then four bidders have entered 12 competing bids over the last seven months. The most recent, a $473,100 bid from the Network Commerce Association of Raleigh, stands uncontested and will be considered the highest and final bid. The school board will discuss proceeding with that sale on Monday.
The Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust has also based its latest offer for Southern Pines Primary on that figure. On June 28, the trust offered the school board $458,810 for the 17-acre campus — equivalent to the final Aberdeen bid minus real estate commissions that the schools would not pay in a direct sale.
But the school board also went back to the drawing board at the beginning of this year. It commissioned a different real estate appraiser to estimate the value of the property. This time, the board hoped to identify separate values for the half-dozen lots that comprise the Southern Pines Primary campus and thereby evaluate the effect of the original 1924 deed attached to the four acres where the original Rosenwald school stood.
That original school was torn down and replaced in 1950 by West Southern Pines High, which served black students before integration.
Its original deed, dated 1924, dedicates the property and any associated profits to “the use of negro education in or about the Town of Southern Pines and West Southern Pines, in recognition of the fact that the money for the purchase of said land was raised by the negro of said towns.”
The school board reviewed that most recent appraisal by Village Appraisers of Pinehurst last month. That appraisal returned a slightly higher value of $685,000 for the 17-acre campus.
It valued the five-acre parcel at the corner of Carlisle and West New York Avenue, 3.6 acres of which are subject to the 1924 deed restriction, at $300,000. A separate 2.7-acre section of school property located opposite West Indiana Avenue is valued at $60,000. The appraisal identifies that part of the campus as the best-suited for potential residential development.
The rest of the school property, including four classroom buildings, the cafeteria, and Blanchie Carter Discovery Park, is valued at $325,000.
The appraisal estimates that 5.6-acre area be valued at $540,000 as a potential residential development with 54 lots. But demolishing the existing buildings and extending roads and water and sewer infrastructure would likely total over $1 million, making that an economically impracticable prospect.
The school board is scheduled to review the land trust’s most recent offer during its work session on Monday.
In that offer, the trust contends that an expedient sale for the offered amount would allow the school board to avoid further costs associated with legal restrictions and holding onto the property for the duration of an upset bid process. The trust is hoping that the board will see those avoided costs as an offset for the balance between their offer and the new appraised value.
The trust has also pointed out that in addition to the four acres donated for the original Rosenwald school, another 6.8 acres of the current campus were donated in 1957 by the heirs of Frank Buchan. On top of that, Blanchie Carter Discovery Park was developed through volunteer efforts and with more than $200,000 in donated funds.
“We came out here to support a very noble, good cause. My father went to this school from start to finish,” said Donnie Miller. “From the beginning it was constructed for us, by us, and it’s an important landmark that we need to keep in the community. There’s a wide array of things that could be done here.”