The Roland E. Cook Lofts in Vinton opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 20. This was the end of a process which began in November 2013 with a community meeting meant to determine the fate of the former elementary school— renovation or demolition.
A fact sheet disseminated at that meeting described the structure as being built in 1915, renovated in 1924, having served as an elementary school from 1915 to 1999, and then as an alternative school until 2009.
The total acreage of the site was listed as about 1.205 acres with the building occupying 22,987 square feet. At the time, the building was listed as two-stories plus a basement with a gymnasium on the second floor, 15 classrooms– not equipped with sprinklers nor ADA compliant. The property was zoned R-2 Residential. A more poetic description mentioned the building’s beautiful hardwood, marble, and slate accoutrements and that it was “full of fond memories.”
Mike Altizer was chairman of and Vinton’s representative on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors at the time. Chris Lawrence was Vinton’s town manager.
Altizer described the building as “a grand old lady, a historic landmark” that needs renovations. He thanked the crowd for their interest in “trying to figure out the best use” of the building whose ownership was turned over to Roanoke County by the Roanoke County School system.
Lawrence described Roland E. Cook as having the potential for another partnership between Roanoke County who owned the building and the Town of Vinton who controlled the zoning.
“Our goal is to redevelop the property, not to tear it down,” said Lawrence. “We want to develop it into something remarkable.”
“I think this is the start of an exciting process and that we have a great product,” said Vinton Mayor Brad Grose. “I am hopeful we can put together something to benefit the community and I look forward to working with Roanoke County and any developer interested in the property.”
There were suggestions of developing the property into a higher education center or an arts center like the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, using it as an incubator for small businesses, as a community center, or as a mixed-use development that would include housing and small retail shops and offices.
The conclusion reached during the community meeting was that it would take a public/private partnership and a non-traditional developer committed to the locality and to historic preservation to renovate the site.
Fortunately, the right “non-traditional developer” did step forward— Old School Partners, LLC. The four-member LLC (limited liability company) was formed by David Hill of Hill Studios, developer Dale Wilkinson, builder Greg Rhodes, and attorney David Spigle. In May 2014, the county began accepting proposals for the purchase and development of the property and theirs was selected.
Old School Partners is a local team that formed just for the Roland E. Cook project. David Hill actually has connections to Vinton. His mother, Sue Plunkett, attended Roland E. Cook along with her brothers, Harry and Pete.
“Roland E. Cook holds a very personal interest for me,” said Hill. “My mom and her brothers grew up in Vinton and attended Roland E. Cook as well as William Byrd High School. Although I grew up in Roanoke, I spent many a Sunday afternoon playing on the porch or in the yard at my grandfather’s house on Washington Street.”
The proposal advanced by Old School Partners was to transform each of the classrooms in the building into upscale apartments– one-bedroom, studio, and loft. They aimed “to leave the schoolhouse character intact,” with some chalkboards, some arches, and other schoolhouse features remaining. They hoped to use the large multi-purpose room on the second floor as some type of community space rather than divide it into apartments.
According to the agreement approved, “the project will maintain the historic character of the building, but incorporate modern conveniences.”
The property was rezoned by the town in the spring of 2015.In fact, Mixed-Use zoning was added to the town’s repertoire of zoning codes to accommodate the Roland E. Cook and former William Byrd High School properties.
Eventually, the Roland E. Cook building earned a designation on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Registry.
The estimated cost of the project was $3.2 million with an expected $950,000 coming from historic tax credits, $150,000 from Roanoke County incentives, and $2.1 million financed by the developer. Old School Partners bought the property from the county for $10.
The town, county, and developers then maintained that “if everything falls into place, renovations are expected to be complete by June 30, 2017,” and they came pretty close to meeting that timeline.
The Old School Partners have painstakingly renovated the old school into 21 beautiful apartments, with only three or four left to lease out of 21 units. The original character and history of the building have been preserved.
In the years since that community meeting in 2013, Jason Peters has replaced Mike Altizer on the Board of Supervisors; Barry Thompson has become town manager. There are new council members and town staff, but all have worked together to carry out the original vision for the project.
The official grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 20 featured remarks by Marketing Director Seth Wilkinson, Supervisor Jason Peters, Vinton Mayor Brad Grose, and Doug Forbes of Vinton who attended Roland E. Cook and has become one of the new residents of the Lofts with his wife, Mattie.
Peters reflected back five years to when there were three vacant or soon-to-be-vacant buildings in Vinton— Roland E. Cook, the former WBHS, and the former library. Through partnerships between the county, town, and private investors, now in 2017 all are, or soon will be, redeveloped.
Peters said that the vision of those involved in the Roland E. Cook project has “exceeded my expectations.” In particular, he thanked Roanoke County Economic Development Director Jill Loope for her hard work on all of the Vinton projects and builder Greg Rhodes, who had the “toughest job of all— bringing the vision to reality.”
Forbes said he was grateful that the building had been resurrected and “will make Vinton a better place to live.” His mother was a member of the first graduating class in 1915.
In his remarks, Old School Partner Dale Wilkinson explained the intangibles that drew the team to the project— a cooperative town government, the public/private partnership the town and country were eager to form, the history of the building, and the commitment of the community to the building and its preservation. By all accounts, that’s the continuing story of Vinton, which he says is “clicking on all cylinders.”