GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Washington County school leaders are taking a hard look at whether the 137,000 square foot former Citi call center in Gray could be renovated into a new school — potentially saving $16 million or more for taxpayers.
The recently vacated property is on the market for $8 million, and the school system’s architects toured the 51-year-old building with Superintendent Jerry Boyd and others.
“The key question was would it be cost-effective (compared to) buying new property and building a new building, and the answer seems to be about 60% (of the) cost to construct a new facility if we could convert this facility,” Boyd told News Channel 11 on Tuesday.
A new K-8 school would cost $40 to $50 million from start to finish, including land purchase.
While the idea is very preliminary, it would address a need in the fastest-growing part of Washington County. Ridgeview Elementary, about two miles away, is over capacity and nearby Gray Elementary is at about 90% capacity.
Additionally, residential developments continue to pop up in Gray, which adds to the need for more school options in that part of the county.
“I think the first step is just to pull together everyone, all the decision-makers,” Boyd said. “What we’ve done is just look to see if it’s possible, and now we have to gauge, ‘Is there an interest to do it?'”
The school system isn’t the only government agency eyeing the property, which once housed about 2,000 call center workers.
Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said the county has talked with the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) about potential public use for the building–which Citi swapped out for a smaller space in Boones Creek, now that hundreds of its local workers labor at home.
Grandy said they discussed a potential relocation of FTDD and “a community space that would be sort of controlled by the development district and maybe opportunities for county and a number of other organizations to be located there.”
Grandy, who also has toured the building, called it “unique” and said it is in very good condition.
“The Citicorp group just do a magnificent job of maintenance and that building will serve someone for quite a while,” Grandy said.
Grandy learned about the building because a local businessperson got an option to purchase it, and quickly began pitching it to various government entities including Washington County School Board Chairman Mike Masters.
He first learned the schools were taking a serious look during Monday’s county budget committee meeting but said education could turn out to be the best use for the building if it’s purchased by the public sector.
“It’s in the heart of probably the fastest growing part of our county, so if there would be a demand for additional schoolroom space, that’s probably a logical space to have those classrooms,” Grandy said.
That area is one where city and county boundaries often intersect due to years of Johnson City annexations. Those have left some kids who live in Gray and fairly close to county schools making a significantly longer trek to city ones.
While those city parents can choose to send their children to county schools for free, though not vice-versa, the county schools in the growing areas are full. A new housing development slated to be built adjacent to Ridgeview will be annexed by Johnson City. Those students would currently have to go all the way to Woodland Elementary since Ridgeview is full unless their parents wanted to drive them to a different county school.
For those reasons, Boyd said he wants the city to feel like there is “an open invitation” to talk about potential collaboration around a new school in the Gray area.
“We want to work together so yeah, I think a partnership if that would be determined to be the best approach should be considered,” he said.
If interest continues to grow and county commissioners start talking dollars and cents, “you look at who needs to be in the discussion and it very well could include Johnson City Schools, and then the city commissioners if there’s an interest there.”
Grandy said he was all for that, from a conceptual level.
“That would be a wonderful potential solution if there could be a collaboration between the school systems,” he said. “I think that would be a novel sort of out-of-the-box thinking type approach, and I hope that both systems will pursue that and see if there is actually an opportunity to do that.”
Grandy also applauded the county school leaders for “getting out and looking for unique ways to invest for their students.”
Conversion to a school would solve a known and specific challenge, and do it faster and cheaper than the alternative. But Grandy said he talked to the FTDD because he wanted to “use that building to its highest and best advantage and not let someone come in from out of town and just scrape it off and take the real estate.”
“There are a lot of community needs and that has potential to be a space where some of those needs could be met,” Mayor Grandy said.
The property at 541 Sid Martin Road sits on 9.8 acres and is appraised for tax purposes at $9.2 million. It is currently listed by TCI Group for $8 million after initially being listed at $10 million.