BLAIRS — Flipping through the hardbound pages of his high school’s history, Edward Hairston pointed out the teachers and students that he still remembered 53 years after attending Pittsylvania County’s first high school for black students.
Within the first couple pages, he stopped on the face of his old agricultural education teacher and assistant principal at Southside High School. That teacher pushed him to take a curriculum that would allow him to go to college.
For Hairston and other Southside High School alumni, the school building holds sentimental value and reminds them of the days that shaped the rest of their lives.
With plans in place to turn the now-vacant building into an apartment complex, Hairston said the alumni of the school have hope that their beloved building has a chance for a new life.
Executives in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Landmark Group — the historic real estate development group proposing the apartment complex — said the project fits “right in line” with their mission to repurpose structures to help revitalize rural areas.
“We are a rural community historic real estate developer,” said John Stiltner, the group’s director of development and construction management services. “Blair is a rural community, and that’s a historic building.”
Landmark Group Vice President Sam Sari said, “It’s a great school with a lot of support, and you hate to see a building like that torn down. … It’s better to refurbish and then put it back to use.”
The school building, which turned into Blairs Middle School during desegregation, has fallen into disrepair. After the middle school closed in 2004, discussions ensued regarding what to do with the building.
Throughout the years, different boards of supervisors debated tearing down the structure after neglecting its upkeep.
Meanwhile, alumni of Southside High School pushed for the county to request for the school to be registered as a historic landmark like the now-closed Whitmell School, which served only white students during the segregation era.
“They had time to keep this building maintained,” said Hairston of the county. “They dropped the ball.”
The Landmark Group plans to submit an application to add the school building to the registry of historic sites in order to receive the historic tax credits necessary to do the proposed project. As a historic place, the exterior of the building would have to remain unchanged.
Sari and Stiltner said the apartment complex would host 55 units — a mixture of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments — and include a variety of amenities such as a communal washer and dryer room, light fixtures and central air and heat. The apartment complex would also have an exercise room, community room with computers and an outdoor picnic shelter and playground area.
It would also be “fairly energy efficient,” said Sari.
“You wouldn’t think that a historic building would be efficient, but it is,” he said. “And it will still look like a school, that’s the cool part.”
For Hairston, it’s about retaining the alumni’s heritage. Gesturing out to his right, he said, “It’s better to point to a building than a flat piece of land.”
Even as an apartment building, Hairston said, he’d still be able to walk through it and figure out which part was his classroom.
The apartment complex will be reserved for working-class households within a certain income range as part of the federal low-income housing tax credit program, not to be confused with section 8 housing.
The program is meant to incentivize the development of affordable rental housing where the tenant is still responsible for all of the rent whereas with section 8 housing, the rent is subsidized.
Sari and Stiltner said their group is working on two projects for Danville and completed one for Martinsville, so they’re familiar with the housing needs of this region.
“There’s a massive demand for it in Danville and surrounding area,” said Sari.
On Tuesday night, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted 6-0 to approve the rezoning of the school’s property from agricultural to residential for a multi-family home. Supervisor Bob Warren wasn’t present and sent a letter to apologize for his absence.
Supervisor Tim Barber, who represents the Tunstall district and has been on the board since 2004, said he was glad the board had waited to decide what to do with the building.
“I couldn’t think of anything better to do with this building,” said Barber on Tuesday night, adding that he attended Blairs Middle School in eighth grade.
Hairston said Barber had been in talks with the Landmark Group early in the process and arranged a meeting between the developers and Hairston to talk about the significance of the former high school.
Sari and Stiltner said that county officials had been “perfect to work with.”
“The county’s been great partners,” said Sari. “We’ve very much enjoyed working with them.”
Supervisor Elton Blackstock said the county was lucky to have the project proposal fall into their laps, recognizing that this is “an important building for our African-American friends in the county.”
“This is a way out for us for the building to be preserved and also to be utilized by all in the community,” said Blackstock. “I think it’s a win-win.”
Sari and Stiltner said the project is still only in the proposal phase as it would need to be accepted by the Virginia Housing and Development Authority and earn a designation as a historic place.
“It’s very competitive,” said Stiltner.
They said they wouldn’t know if the project could move forward until around June. If their proposal is accepted, they said the group aims to begin construction in July of 2020 and open the apartments in August of 2021.
Halle Parker reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 791-7981.