Tom Eblen: Lexington developer turns Campton’s old school into affordable housing

FEBRUARY 14, 2016
The old Wolfe County High School, built by the WPA from 1937-42 using local sandstone, sat vacant for a decade and was damaged by a 2012 hail storm and vandals two years later. It has now been restored by Lexington affordable-housing developer Holly Wiedemann as the Campton School Apartments. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

The beloved Wolfe County landmark sat empty for a decade atop a hill overlooking town, slowly falling apart before everyone’s eyes.

Baseball-size hail broke windows and damaged the roof in March 2012, the same night a tornado destroyed much of nearby West Liberty. Two years later, teenaged vandals broke into the school and went on a rampage.

“If you hadn’t come along when you did, we would have lost this place,” J.C. Brooks told Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann as we walked through the former Wolfe County High School earlier this month.

The imposing three-story structure, built during the Great Depression from locally quarried sandstone, reopened Jan. 15 as the Campton School Apartments after Wiedemann organized a $3.9 million renovation.

The building now houses 13 one-bedroom and six two-bedroom apartments for adults 55 and older. Sixteen units have monthly rents of between $330 and $575 for low-income residents. One of the building’s first residents was once a teacher at the school; a former librarian has signed a lease for another unit.

“People are just in awe,” said Brooks, noting that more than 200 people filled the school’s old gymnasium for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “They can’t believe how beautiful it looks.

J.C. Brooks, right, showed Holly Wiedemann his class photo from 1961. Old school photos were used to decorate the building's halls.

J.C. Brooks, right, showed Holly Wiedemann his class photo from 1961. Old school photos were used to decorate the building’s halls. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

The renovation preserved most of the original hardwood floors; replaced windows with new, energy-efficient ones; replicated old five-panel doors and light fixtures and decorated hallways with original art and copies of old school photographs.

Brooks is a 1961 graduate of the school, and his grandfather helped cut stone for its construction. He and his brother, Wolfe County Judge-Executive Dennis Brooks, led a community effort to recruit Wiedemann to take on the renovation.

Wiedemann is president of AU Associates, which over the past 25 years has completed 28 projects in Kentucky and West Virginia to renovate beloved old buildings for new, economically viable uses.

The company has overseen $120 million worth of work that included more than 500 units of affordable housing — mostly apartments for seniors in small-town former school buildings — and more than 140,000 square feet of commercial space, Wiedemann said.

AU Associates’ projects involve a lot of community participation and a complex mix of state and federal tax credits for affordable housing and historic preservation, as well as grants, loans and private equity.

Wiedemann, whose ancestors started Wiedemann beer and Lexington’s old Purcell’s department store, said her business is rewarding, if not hugely profitable. But it is an economic model that works. AU Associates employs 30 people, including 15 who maintain and manage the 23 properties the company owns.

“We’ve never done any marketing; people just call us because they know I’m a sucker for old buildings,” Wiedemann said. “And we have done so many of these that we have figured out what works.”

AU Associates’ first project was the Midway School Apartments in Midway. Lexington projects include the First Presbyterian Church Apartments on Market Street and Parkside, an affordable-housing development built on the site of the old YWCA in Gardenside. AU Associates also is project manager for the old Fayette County Courthouse renovation.

Campton’s school was built between 1937 and 1942 as a federal Works Progress Administration project to provide public high school education in Wolfe County, which previously had only church-supported secondary schools.

The building was replaced by a new high school in 1968, but continued as an elementary and middle school until 1991, then as an elementary school until it was decommissioned in 2005.

About the time it became vacant, Wiedemann said she got a call from a woman in Jackson who wanted to meet. She told her there were two buildings in her area that needed saving: the Campton school and Jackson’s early 1900s federal building.

Wiedemann renovated the Jackson building into Federal Place Apartments in 2013. The following year, people in Campton approached her.

The Campton project included $1,965,277 in housing tax credit equity, $822,700 in federal and state historic tax credit equity, $650,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds and $500,000 from the federal HOME Investments Partnerships Program.

Some tax-credit equity was arranged with help from the Community Affordable Housing Equity Corp. A $1.4 million construction bridge loan came from Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises Inc. AU Associates has a 50-year land lease with Wolfe County on the property, with a 50-year renewal, and will manage it.

Lexington’s Churchill McGee Construction and Design managed the renovation. It is now finishing the last piece: the old gymnasium, which will become a county community center with sound and light equipment for concerts and plays.

“These projects happen because of people with a commitment to their community,” Wiedemann said. “We’re helping make their vision real.”