City seeks ideas for Central High School

After first serving black students in Catawba County and later low-income pre-schoolers, Central High School in Newton now faces an uncertain future.

"The building is empty, and now the question is, what do we do with it?" said Newton City Manager Todd Clark.

During a public meeting Monday night at Central Recreation Center on South Ervin Avenue, Newton leaders hope residents in the community surrounding the old school will offer some suggestions. The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m., and it will be third time city leaders have held a public meeting with citizens in East Newton to discuss the empty building's future.

"We are just trying to get the community involved," Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax said in a recent City Council meeting. "They have got a building in the middle of the neighborhood that we are trying to deal with ... What we don't want to do is let it deteriorate and then tear it down like we did with the cafeteria."

Composed of a couple of buildings, the old Central High School has been vacant since Eastern Catawba Cooperative Christian Ministry decided to stop administering the Head Start program this year. After I-CARE took over operation of Head Start, the Iredell County based organization moved out of the school for a variety of reasons, Clark said.

"The key problems were that it has asbestos and lead-based paint," Clark said. "The building is actually two independent structures, and only one has bathroom facilities. The other does not. That was the issue for I-CARE not being able to move there."

The new Head Start provider required restroom facilities in both buildings, Clark said, adding there were other concerns about aesthetic issues, such as water stains on the ceilings near lights and unpleasant odors.

"There are other concerns about the integrity of the structure itself," he said, adding some work will be needed before the building can be used for any purposes. "We need to determine if there is another purpose for the building, if it holds any value, and if not, what do we do with the building."

In two previous meetings, members of the East Newton Task Force and citizens in the Central High School community offered some ideas. Among suggestions were an idea to make the facility a community center for young people, "sort of like a recreation center" that might compliment the existing Central Recreation Center, Clark said. Another idea was to create a drug and alcohol counseling center, he said.

Newton Police Department is also exploring an opportunity to relocate its satellite office on South Ervin Avenue into the facility. Doing that would require a special use permit, Clark said.

Newton has circulated a flyer in the East Newton neighborhood and among the area's churches. A notice of Monday's meeting was also promoted on Newton utility bills.

"We are trying to not catch anybody by surprise that the building is vacant," Mullinax said. "We have got to start deciding what we want to do. ... I am trying to get the community involved so there won't be any problems down the road."

Established as a one-room schoolhouse in 1899, the facility grew over the years and became a full high school 1936. Central High School served black students in Newton and Catawba County until the school merged with Newton-Conover High School in 1967. A historic marker on N.C. 16 commemorates the school's role in the East Newton community.