There must be a good explanation for the Decatur School District Board’s decision last week to pay half of the demolition cost, with the City of Decatur paying the other half, to eliminate the former Woodrow Wilson Middle School, 1140 West Sunset, in order to get the lot that will remain. I just haven’t heard a good reason for the board’s action, especially when that money could be used in addressing other district needs.
The Woodrow Wilson building has already been rejected by the board as being too expensive to rennovate. However, the Decatur School District doesn’t own the property so why should it pay half on the demolition cost to remove a building that it doesn’t own in order to get the small piece of land underneath it which would have limited potential use because of having private property owners next to it?
The land was originally bought over 90 years ago from the George Goodman Estate at a public auction for a price tag of $8,700 and those opposed to the location claimed the district would be “burying” a beautiful building where few in the community would ever see it. They said the tract of land was not only too small, but too irregular for the beauty of the architecture to be appreciated. The school board held its ground and indicated the district’s treasury wasn’t exactly flush with money. The board said to buy any other suitable tract of land would cost at least $20,000.
• AFTER Woodrow Wilson was closed in 1979 the school district maintained the facility as a District Learning Resource Center for many years. Then, it was offered for sale. Following is what I wrote, in part, about Woodrow Wilson in a “Scrapbook” article last year: “Sixteen years ago, Achyut Tope saw the Woodrow Wilson building in a real estate listing, came to Decatur to see it personally and fell in love with it. Tope, who lived in New York at the time, but was originally from India, purchased the building and spent a ton of money renovating it. He re-named it Madhu-Malati Woodrow Wilson Building after his parents, to whom the building was dedicated.
On Friday, Sept. 22, 2006, Tope opened the building to city officials and business leaders to solicit their ideas on how it could be used. The following day he opened the building to the public to get their ideas on how the building could be used. In my conversation with Tope during the city officials’ open house he said that possible uses would include office, retail, event or residential space, although he preferred not to use it as residential space.
I was there in my capacity as mayor and cut the ribbon opening the renovated structure. I was quoted in the Herald & Review as saying, ‘I’m surprised by the remarkable transformation this building has undergone.’ It was remarkable. I toured the building after the remodeling was completed at the open house and couldn’t believe my eyes. All the broken windows had been replaced, hardwood floors had been varnished and the entire structure looked as if it was ready to again welcome students. Tope was excited about the building and the prospects for it. However, the building has remained vacant, has deteriorated once again and back taxes are owed.” The City of Decatur acquired the building because of the failure to pay the back taxes.
• ONE OF OUR sons attended Woodrow Wilson in its final year as a middle school and it seems like only yesterday that I would sometimes drop him off in front of the building on my way to the office. There is little doubt the building’s beauty was greatly enhanced by the restoration work paid for by Tope. Now, the once-beautiful facility is headed for demolition — and the school board wants the captive lot where the building now stands, and is willing to pay half to make Woodrow Wilson disappear. Hopefully, there is a reasonable explanation for that agreement with the city before, or after, you read this column.
• THANK YOU, RODNEY — A very big “thank you” to now former Congressman Rodney Davis who served the Central Illinois District where I live in as good a way as I’ve ever seen. For the past ten years, Rodney has been the most accessible Congressman I’ve known in all my years as this newspaper’s editor and he brought tens of millions of federal dollars home to this district by his ability to work with members of both parties. We had plenty of conversations in my office over the years and he was always available to me for any questions I had. Best wishes to Rodney and his family. We lost a really good voice for us in Congress — and that’s going to be very apparent in the months ahead as funding dries up and Decatur is forgotten.
• I JOIN BRIAN BYERS on WSOY’s Byers & Co. every Thursday morning a 7:00 to talk about the issues confronting the Decatur area.