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Ideas offered on new use of North Little Rock's Ole Main building

by Stephen Simpson | February 8, 2021 at 6:33 a.m.
North Little Rock’s Ole Main High School was built in 1928 but has stood empty since May 2016. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Mette)

A task force has presented the North Little Rock School Board with a plan to turn the vacant Ole Main High School building into a place that would house the school district's central office and provide a home to various programs from around the city.

School Board members on Thursday discussed ways to prioritize a facilities-project list that could take advantage of projected savings from bond refinancing.

"The potential project list are just things we have discussed in the past," said Brian Brown, chief financial officer for the school district. "We have looked into these projects and got estimates on what those things may cost."

One of the projects was a complete renovation of the Ole Main building. The estimated cost for renovating the old high school into an office complex was $11,418,570.

Created in 2019, the Ole Main Task Force has spent the past year gathering community input to create a list of recommendations on ways to preserve Ole Main, which was built in 1928 but has stood empty since May 2016.

The proximity of the vacant building to North Little Rock's current high school at 101 W. 22nd St. limits what can be done with the building. Officials have said it can't be used for apartments, criminal law offices or as an entertainment venue with alcohol.

Ole Main is a three-story building with a full basement and a central five-story tower that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building currently serves as a storage place for the school district's drama department and the JROTC program.

"It has been a heck of a year and a few months," task force member Paula Lively said at the workshop. "We started off robustly with community meetings. We went out to the communities instead of them coming to us. Sadly, when covid hit, folks didn't want to get out anymore."

Lively said the task force used Facebook polls, staff input from the high school, and emails and letters to finish gathering information. She said the community overwhelmingly wanted the abandoned building to become the new administration office for the school district.

"This also includes the people in the annex building now," she said. "The only department that would be excluded would be the tech department because of their need for a dock. They get so many shipments every day that it wouldn't be suffice for them to move into the building."

Lively said an endeavor to turn Ole Main into an administration office would require making the entrance areas compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and making entry points secure to limit access to the building.

She said previously that the administration offices in the Ole Main building would occupy only about 25,000 feet of the 40,000-square-foot building, leaving space for additional use.

A slideshow presentation showed the possibility of turning Ole Main into the central office for the school district while also housing exhibits from the North Little Rock History Commission and using the auditorium as flexible space.

Lively said that removing the fixed seats on the main level of the auditorium would provide space to accommodate banquets, meetings, receptions and even movie nights.

"The theater space is 8,600 square feet; compare that with a local hotel meeting space," she said. "The theater space would accommodate 400 banquet seating, 700 theater-style, 330 classroom and 720 reception."

The cafeteria/kitchen area in the old high school would be used by the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College culinary/hospitality program, and the courtyard could be turned into a garden.

"This would teach them all aspects of hospitality, from sales, setup, food services and follow-through," Lively said. "With the hospitality industry being the largest employer in the state, this program would certainly be beneficial financially to the building for its immediate needs, but also a great way to groom students to be able to go into the job market immediately."

Lively said the district would need to install an elevator/lift from the kitchen to the auditorium level for transportation of food during events.

The first-floor entrance would be home to the North Little Rock History Commission, where history and storytelling exhibits would be on display.

"The North Little Rock History Commission would work with our staff and students to create a program that would continually handle the Ole Main History project," Lively said. "It would help teach our students how to categorize and rotate displays and preserve items."

This would require removing some of the lockers for seating, as well as inserting displays that would include the history of the building, North Little Rock history exhibits and more.

A North Little Rock School District store and gift shop that would be operated by students also would be located on the first floor.

"The building could also house after-school functions, after-school training, be a small meeting room space, a STEM center or a recruitment center for the National Guard," Lively said.

Bram Keahey, an architect with Taggart, told the School Board that the main goal was to keep the building historic.

"The historical nature of this building is not limiting us, but helping us reach our goal," he said. "There is a strong movement in the community to keep this a historic building within North Little Rock. This can be done within the context of a historical structure."

School Board member Tracy Steele asked if there were any financial assistance opportunities that might be available from the city or other organizations across the state, but Lively said it is too early in the process to look into that issue.

"We are just telling you what the community wants," she said. "Once you have committed, then you are going to need a strong committee to get out there and handle this."

The School Board hasn't made a decision on what the future holds for the building.

"We want to come back to you about this project at a later date and give recommendations to the board, and you can choose where this is among your priorities for projects," Superintendent Gregory Pilewski told the School Board.


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