An Orange County businessman has his eye on the former Criglersville Elementary School.
During last week’s board of supervisors meeting, Kent Higginbotham spoke about his desire to renovate the two-story brick school building. The Orange County businessman and owner of Virginia Equipment Distributors was among those who visited the school as part of a meeting for contractors interested in submitting a bid for the demolition of the building. Higginbotham said he noticed how solid the building was.
“I came away with the fact that I really didn’t want to tear it down,” he said.
Higginbotham is no stranger to revitalizing abandoned buildings. In 1989 he purchased the former Silk Mill in the Town of Orange. The building was built in 1928 by Milton Rubin, an entrepreneur who was seeking cheap labor and looking for a southern town interested in developing a silk mill. In 1929, the first consignment of raw silk was delivered to Rubin’s new American Silk Mills, Inc. facility. The company was though to be instrumental in saving the community during the Great Depression and in WWII, was said to be the nation’s largest producer of silk for parachute cloth. In 1979, as raw silk became impossible to purchase and new synthetic fibers hit the market, the mill was unable to compete and closed. Ten years later, Higginbotham purchased the building and renovated it. Since then, it has been home to numerous businesses including currently Silk Mill Grille restaurant, Subway, catering company Roadside Chive, event venue Madison at the Mill and more.
“It’s been a tremendous asset to the Town of Orange,” Higginbotham said. “That’s kind of what I’m hoping [for Criglersville] on a much smaller scale.”
Higginbotham said the idea would be to create a sort of incubator space to allow businesses the opportunity to grow.
“[The mill has had] hundreds of businesses come through,” he said. “Some go on, some don’t.”
He said the mill and the school are fairly similar in that before renovations, reports on the mill also reported tons of issues. Reports performed on the former Criglersville Elementary School point out water and sewer issues, asbestos, possible lead paint, location within a flood zone and more.
“It was the same thing with the mill,” Higginbotham said. “It had to be approached differently.”
He said projects like the mill and Criglersville have to be done in a very frugal way using a creative approach. He said a phased approach would be needed with small micro-businesses.
“The highest and best use would be a wedding venue or conference center, but we won’t get there at the get go,” Higginbotham said.
He offered a token amount of $5,000 for the Criglersville Elementary School and said a zoning change to a mixed use would be needed allowing work-live type units. He requested an M1 zoning and said he had no issues with the lease for the historical society’s museum building on the property. That lease is currently being finalized by the county.
“I see the historical society as an asset,” he said.
A permanent easement also exists on the property to protect the small piece used for the Blue Ridge Heritage Project’s memorial for the families displaced by the creation of Shenandoah National Park.
“You have a building you can take $340,000 bullet, shoot it and put it out of its misery [or] you can take that money out of the budget and spend it on schools,” Higginbotham said.
“I’d like the opportunity to reconstruct the building,” he added.
Supervisors said they were intrigued by the proposal.
“It sounds very exciting to me,” supervisor-elect Carty Yowell said. “I’d like to see the county talk about it seriously.”
Supervisor Kevin McGhee noted the irony of the situation, stating that it was ironic Higginbotham had been there to evaluate the building for demolition.
Planning commissioner Mike Fisher urged caution since the way it was presented, supervisors would almost have to bypass zoning. He said down the line, doing so may set a precedent.
Supervisor Clay Jackson said the county would talk to commissioner of revenue Brian Daniel, lawyers and county planner Ligon Webb about the situation to get their feedback. The supervisors plan to discuss the proposal in a future closed session meeting.
In the meantime, county administrator Jack Hobbs reminded supervisors that they still have bids for demolition. The lowest bidder, Demolition Services Inc., agreed to extend its bid deadline to Jan. 16. Hobbs said supervisors should notify the company as soon as it decides to accept or not accept the bid. Citizen requests for bricks, railings and mirrors from the former school were postponed. Requests for pencil sharpeners, coat hooks and an intercom speaker were approved. The requests were made by citizens after touring the school last month.