When Alcoa City Center director George Williams asked developers and contractors in 2003 to take on the former Hall School as a renovation project, plenty of people laughed at him.
Good thing they were his friends.
What a difference five years makes! Since then, most of the building has been renovated and Blount Memorial Hospital and Lincoln Memorial University have opened nursing schools in the facility. Alcoa Chiropractic has an office there and Rural/Metro Ambulance Service moved into a facility built on the campus of the former school.
The center director likes to think he got the last laugh.
“Quite honestly, people made fun of me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get a couple of those people to come up and have coffee with me and let me show them where we’re going and where we’re headed.”
Williams said that he was on the school board when they voted to build the new middle school adjacent to the high school. “It was Mickey McClurg who gave me direction about approaching someone at the aluminum company,” he said. “They didn’t want to incur the cost of demolishing the building but, at the same time, they didn’t want the building back in four or five years and not know what to do with it.”
McClurg, the school board chair, said his first thought at the time was moving the students and teachers into the new middle school. “Then that left an empty building. We did not want that building torn down. I don’t think anybody in the community wanted it torn down,” he said.
McClurg said the building was still in good shape. “It obviously needed some renovations. I remember the furnace was bad in it. That wasn’t a cheap thing or a little thing. It was just a nice building,” he said. “As a matter fact some of the original floors are still in there, and they shine like new money.”
Williams said changing the purpose and identity of the building wasn’t a simple task. “We had to come up with a strategy or plan to do that. We had a series of meetings. We met with every segment of Blount County,” he said. “We had public meetings in the parks to get people to give us input and to encourage people to be interested in what we were thinking about doing.”
Williams said three definite ideas surfaced from those meetings. People wanted the building to “stay in existence,” they wanted it to be a monument to what Hall School meant to the community and residents wanted the building to be used for educational purposes and to better the community.
“So we established Alcoa City Center LLC. In this process we had to find somebody who could grasp the vision and would be willing to take that risk. Several of my friends who were developers and contractors came and looked at it and said, ‘Good idea,’ and that was extent of it,” Williams said.
Then Williams met with developer Walter Wise, a businessman who had a reputation for rehabbing old retail and commercial spaces. “We got him and the aluminum company and folks from the Chamber together and decided it was a worthwhile effort,” Williams said.
What made the task easier was Wise also owned a construction company. “Not only is he an investor, he’s a developer who owns his construction company, so it was a tailor-made fit for us,” he said. “We set out to try to make it happen.”
Williams said what planners didn’t want was a high-impact, high-traffic operation at the former school. “We wanted to add true value and help stimulate economic growth in the neighborhood,” he said.
Williams said planners got help from the Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Board. Soon the educational component residents had asked for came true. “Now we have the Joan Jackson School of Nursing through Blount Memorial Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University Nursing School,” he said. “We have the Alcoa Chiropractic Center, the area office of Rural/Metro and the Richard Williams Jr. Leadership Development Academy.”
The center director said there are plans in the works to further renovate the former Charles M. Hall School. “This year we’re going to be making significant improvements to the building and then move to what is going to be our increased visibility phase,” Williams said. “We’re going to open up the front of the building to where it will be more visible from road. We’ll also do landscaping improvements.”
Williams said he’s looking forward to improvements for the former school. “We anticipate being able to renovate the gymnasium and make it available again for use,” he said. “There are a number of high dollar things that must be done to the building.”
Williams said the gym must be ventilated to meet code. A new sprinkler system needs to be installed and a new roof needs to be put on it to match the rest of the building. “We’re committed to trying to keep the name on the gym. It was named in honor of Wade Houston and Coach Clarence Teeter,” he said. “It would please me to be able to keep that name on a functioning gym, but it must be safe for kids and meet local code.”
The center director said the plan is to maintain the architectural character of the building. “Our next phase will duplicate the front entrance that has three arches,” he said.
Williams said there are also plans to put up another building similar to the Rural/Metro Ambulance Service building on a speculative basis. “We’ll need extra space for possible expansion,” he said. “This year we anticipate being at 75 percent occupancy in the current building.”
Williams also has dreams for the building, including adding a retail component to the project. “I’d like a little strip center with four or five small retail spaces with a restaurant and some financial services,” he said.
The restaurant makes perfect sense to Williams. “Two days a week, we’re looking at approximately 400 people on site a day, and those people have to go off-site for food,” he said. “Why couldn’t that be provided on site?”
Williams said he anticipates at least one more tenant in the building before the spring but wouldn’t identify the prospect. “If we have that tenant, that will put our daily traffic real close to 500 people a day,” he said.
The center director said none of this would have been done if people at Alcoa Inc., and the city of Alcoa hadn’t been willing to see the potential of renovating Hall School. The structure was built in 1926 and was never on the tax roll until after it was reopened as a professional building. Now the structure is earning tax dollars for the city. “That tax bill is going to go up. I’m proud to say we’re going to pay more taxes,” he said.
Williams is excited about the building’s future.
“We’re going to provide more training and business opportunities to our young people and people who are unemployed, and we’re going to do it right here in a very convenient and very nicely renovated building,” he said.
The former Hall School is likely the last public building built by Alcoa, Inc., that is still being used, said Williams.
“It is serving its highest use now,” he said. “The future is bright, and it’s all because people were willing to catch the vision.”