OAKLAND – Melvin Gary may be one of the most persistent people in the entire county. For more than seven years he has been working to strike a deal to lease or possibly purchase the old Oakland Elementary School, located on Hwy. 51, just south of Oakland.
The dilapidated building and 14 acres is owned by the county and is currently leased to West Yalobusha Community Action Agency. The agency had the building under a five-year lease until 2008, and continued use of the building without a lease until January, when supervisors voted to grant another five-year lease to Lizzie Earl after Gary pushed the issue. The lease terms do not include a monetary payment for use of the building.
Earl is listed as one of the incorporators for West Yalobusha Community Action Agency. Other incorporators for the non-profit organization that formed in 1999 are Sara Sally, James Smith and Terry Ellis, all of Oakland, according to filings with the Mississippi Secretary of State.
Earl has first dibs on the facility as supervisors looked to District 4 Supervisor George Suggs for primary input on the building, which resides in his district on property shared with his county barn. With both Gary and Earl competing for the lease last December, Suggs gave the nod to Earl with instructions for the two to work something out for joint use of the building.
During the exchange, Earl explained that her organization operates the building for family reunions and other gatherings, and opens the gym to allow youth to play basketball.
But Gary has repeatedly told supervisors he has a much broader use of the building in mind, and would even renovate the building– a building that continues to deteriorate.
When Gary first approached supervisors during a meeting in June, 2007, he explained that he would like to use the building and surrounding acreage as a community center run by a non-profit ministry.
At that meeting supervisors gave Gary a verbal commitment supporting his use of the building with one stipulation, he could work with the existing leaseholder who actually had control of the building.
That cooperation apparently did not materialize and the lease expired the next year, but Earl’s group continued use of the building for the next five years without a formal agreement with the county.
The expired lease was uncovered after Gary approached supervisors last November, again requesting use of the building. That visit prompted Board Attorney John Crow to examine the paperwork and found the lease expired in 2008. Also uncovered in a subsequent meeting was that taxpayers had been footing the monthly electric bill for the building in past years, even though Earl’s group agreed to pay the utilities in the earlier lease.
After speaking to both parties, supervisors voted unanimously on January 6 to give Earl’s group another five-year lease on the building. The utilities were also transferred to Earl to ensure the bills would not continue to be paid by county taxpayers.
This latest lease with Earl did not deter Gary who was back on Monday, Sept. 15, with a hand-delivered letter to supervisors stating his organization, “We The People” is prepared to make an offer on the old, elementary school. While a dollar amount was not included in the offer, the proposal pointed to the classroom area, gym and cafeteria, and enough acreage for parking on the front and south end of the building.
Gary also outlined the potential use of the center: class rooms for adult and after-school tutoring, Bible college (certification only), senior citizen care, bingo games (gifts only), childcare, job preparation and job skill training, a food and clothing pantry, physical fitness training, along with cooking and sewing training.
Gary’s letter also reported that “We The People” is currently serving the county with road-side cleanup. Using a small metal building located on Gary’s family property, the organization is also providing after school tutoring, Bible boot camp, Christian drug and alcohol counseling and visitation and prayer for the sick.
Gary also noted the likelihood of asbestos in the building, a liability he reported his organization was prepared to tackle.
The offer and potential asbestos was discussed at the Sept. 15 meeting.
“We can always take a proposal, but there are certain things we have to do with county property such as getting appraised,” District 1 Supervisor Tommy Vaughn told Gary. “But we don’t have any idea what it is worth without getting an appraisal,” he added.
Vaughn also acknowledged that asbestos would be a problem if it is in the building.
Gary said he had consulted with a real estate appraiser, who indicated that asbestos could make the building’s value worthless.
“If the board determines it is no longer of any use to the county, you call sell it. You can donate it in some instances, but those instances are limited. It obviously is going to be a balancing thing here. If you have asbestos in there, you got an issue,” Crow added.
“If it is a safety hazard like he is spelling out it could be, let’s just tear it down,” District 3 Supervisor Lee McMinn said.
“Then you got to dispose of it,” Vaughn said.
Supervisors agreed the next step would be to test the building for asbestos before responding to Gary’s offer.