Former schoolhouse to serve as regional wildfire response center
Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is set to purchase the vacant former Dallesport Elementary School building following a Lyle School Board vote to begin sale negotiations with the state agency. DNR’s stated intentions are to convert the former schoolhouse into a regional wildfire response center.
The district received two offers on the building, which were considered in an open session of the school board last Wednesday. Department of Natural Resources and Andy von Flotow, who has interests in the drone manufacturing industry, both submitted offers to purchase the district-owned building for the full asking price of $1.6 million.
Board members ultimately voted unanimously to allow the district to enter into sale negotiations with Washington DNR.
According to Ryan Rodruck, communications manager for DNR’s southeast region, the building will serve as a regional hub for wildfire response and forestry management once negotiations are complete and the sale is finalized.
Currently DNR’s program staff work out of Husum, Rodruck said, but the location and size of the former schoolhouse means the agency can plan for growth. DNR anticipates the transfer of 65 employees to the new facility, and with growth in mind, Rodruck said the agency will seek to fill over 20 additional staffing slots. Once the keys are handed over to the new owners, the building will house the agency’s wildfire contingency, and forest health and resiliency programs, making it the central location for the agency’s regional operations.
“We’re excited about the project, we’re excited to be making a bigger impact in the community, to be expanding some of the programs working out of the area,” Rodruck said. “Although we’re early in the process, we appreciate the support of the community.”
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz wrote a letter to the district in support of the state agency’s offer, which was read aloud during Wednesday evening’s meeting and public hearing.
“As you consider the decision before you regarding the sale of the former Dallesport Elementary School, I want you to know how important the creation of a regional wildfire response center is to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the community of Dallesport, and our state’s wildfire response capability,” Franz’s letter said, in part. “In order to better protect our communities and natural resources, the state legislature recently dedicated funds for DNR to strengthen our state’s wildfire response, including adding firefighters and equipment and expanding infrastructure. The community of Dallesport and its former elementary school are located in a geographically advantageous position, uniquely positioned to help achieve our goal of strategically placing firefighters across Washington.”
The former site of the elementary school, which shuttered in 2016 following a decline in full-time enrollment numbers, has since been the site of aviation manufacturer SageTech’s headquarters, who signed a 10-year lease-to-buy agreement with the Lyle School District. According to a news release, SageTech began to make improvements to the building but had not yet completed construction when the company filed for bankruptcy and, ultimately, receivership. They then released all claim to the building, according to the news release.
Since that time, the release said the district has worked with Commercial Realtor Deborah Ewing to market the property.
Lyle School District superintendent Ann Varkados said she was pleased with how the process has turned out. When SageTech entered into the agreement with the district to lease the building, the district had the building appraised at around $750,000, but this time around, an appraisal showed the building was worth more than $1.3 million.
With cash in hand once the sale is finalized, the district will consult with ESD 112 to come up with a plan to spend a portion on maintenance and repairs. The money from the sale will go into the district’s capital fund, which can only be used for major repairs and improvements to district buildings.
Varkados said the HVAC system in Lyle School needs some extra attention, but the district plans to consult with the community as well to finalize a list of priorities.
Beyond the cash from the sale, the district will no longer have to spend money on the constant maintenance and upkeep of the vacant building. The district’s maintenance worker will also have more time to perform upkeep on the district’s remaining buildings, and the sale will eliminate his weekly travel to the vacant building, Varkados said.
All told, the money they will save on releasing the building comes out to around $3,500 per month. Unlike the capital dollars coming in from the sale, this money can be used to spend on programs, curricula or other expenses, such as teachers’ salaries, Varkados said.
“The outcome is well worth the wait,” Varkados said. “Both of the parties that came forward would have good partners to the community. I think that safety was important to the community, and I think DNR will bring a nice blend to the community.”
The sale will not include the Dallesport Community Center as a result of a recent sub-plat application approval, which saw the community center building deeded to Klickitat County, who constructed the building.
“Nor will (the sale) include the track and softball field. The district and community will still have use of them and, most likely, the play toy,” the release said.
The press release noted that, while the initial vacancy was a result of declining enrollment numbers years ago, the district has room to grow and “is large enough to accommodate additional students and staff. Its central location means that students coming from all parts of the district will have comparable distances to travel.”