A project to rehabilitate an abandoned school on Flint’s west side is more than just a planned housing development for Communities First Inc., President Glenn Wilson - It’s a way to preserve childhood memories of a community that once embraced his family during a time of hurt and loss.
Wilson, who was once a student at Coolidge Elementary School, remembers spending time on the playground with his brother, sister, and cousin during his early elementary years at the school. Those days came to an end after a 1992 house fire claimed the lives of his siblings and cousin.
“I was the only one that escaped the fire,” Wilson said. “Even after the house fire, I used to go back to that place in the summer. It was not only a place that had sentimental value to me growing up, it was also a part of my development.”
In front of the gymnasium is a tree that still blooms with white flowers every spring that was planted and dedicated to his sister, brother and cousin who were in the fourth and third grades.
“I just remember how the community wrapped their arms around my family,” Wilson said, who was a second-grade student at Coolidge during the time of the fire. “That was the last school we all attended together. This project has sentimental value. The school has sentimental value.”
Communities First is set to break ground this year on the renovation Wilson’s childhood elementary school into a mixed income housing development with commercial space and a community center.
Coolidge, located at the corner of Van Buren and Westcombe avenues, closed doors in 2011 after district heads decided there were not enough students enrolled at the school to keep it open. In addition, Flint Community Schools faced a number of challenges maintaining the aging building including a failing boiler system and a leaking roof. The school was built in 1928 and underwent additions in 1951 and 1970.
“I was more sad for the community in general when I found out it was closing,” Wilson said. “To see it closed was discouraging.”
In April 2015, Flint Community Schools approved the sale of Coolidge to Communities First Inc., carrying a price tag of $60,000. At that time the school had been closed for nearly four years and the district was struggling with a $21.9 million deficit.
“It took us about four years to get to where we’re at now,” Wilson said.
Communities First held community input sessions with former students and teachers from Coolidge, community members, and residents to gather information on what the community needed.
There are plans to renovate the property into a mixed income housing development that will be priced based on income and market rate. Plans call for a total of 54 apartments, a community center and 10,000 square feet of commercial space along Ballenger Highway. Plans also include preserving some of the buildings architecture including its gymnasium and transforming classrooms into 24 apartments in the school. An additional building will be developed adding the other 30 apartments units, which all will be one, two and three bedroom units.
Wilson said the apartment sizes range from 680 to 1,300 square feet. So far, Communities First, Inc., projects the Coolidge development will cost an estimated $17 million. “One of the biggest challenges we are facing is closing the financial gap,” Wilson said. “We can get started with another $500,000 but if we raise another $1 million we can complete the project exactly the way we want.”
Wilson says the project will take 14 to 16 months and Communities First is hoping to break ground sometime this year and wrap the project up by the end of 2018.
“I believe that projects like this give the community hope and show that somebody really cares,” Wilson said. “Communities First was created strictly with the community in mind. We are here to let the community know that there’s a future ahead and to know someone is paying attention.”
Some of the partners for the project include Michigan LISC, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, the Hagerman Foundation, Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Michigan State Housing Development Authority.