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Dilapidated Old Booker School has become a nuisance

By Walter Geiger The old Booker School complex off Forsyth Street in Barnesville has become the frequent target of vandals and arsonists and is described by city officials as a nuisance. Portions of the complex date by to the 1930s. Booker High School was home to black students before integration. It later became Forsyth Road School and subsequently the school system’s primary school. Once the school system built a new primary school, the facility was taken over the the Georgia Department of Defense (DoD) and used as a National Guard Armory. The National Guard abandoned the building in 2012. Portions of it were used by the Lamar County Activity Center. That organization was forced out by DoD in January, 2014 which cited ‘concerns for the physical and environmental safety’ of students. At that time, DoD indicated it had plans to divest itself of the property but it has failed to do so. It has been vacant since and deteriorated further. Arson fires at the complex are so common firefighters leave a supply line attached to the nearest fire hydrant on Forsyth Street and extending to the school to save hook up time. The most recent such fire was set on Dec. 3 and required three fire engines and city and county firefighters to extinguish. Two buildings, the old cafeteria and office building, were so damaged by fire that DoD had them bulldozed in 2016. The four that remain are riddled with mold, mildew, asbestos and countless other hazards. Firefighters and police at the scene at the time of the most recent fire noted there are chemicals, primarily cleaning agents, stored in one of the old classroom wings that could cause serious issues if the arsonists decide to strike there. The city would like to acquire the property for industrial or commercial development but there are vast environmental concerns. ’We have conveyed to them our interest in the property but the cost of removing the buildings and mitigating the hazards exceeds the value of the real estate. We have not taken any legal action to force them to clean it up but we do consider it to be a nuisance and we have made the state aware of our concerns,’ city manager Kenny Roberts said. The rapidly deteriorating school complex sits on just over 26 acres that currently has an assessed value of $1,535,046 for property tax purposes. With the environmental issues unmitigated, however, it basically has no value for development. In a letter to DoD and the State Properties Commission dated Nov. 1, 2016, Mayor Peter Banks detailed the city’s structural and environmental concerns for the property. In it he cited an e-mail from Clark Wong, a properties commission land manager, in which Wong wrote, ‘The state does not spend funds on surplus property other than (for) minor security and maintenance.’. In the 13 months since Banks sent the letter, the state has taken no action to do any clean up work. Meanwhile, neighborhood kids wander the grounds, vandals break windows and do other damage and arsonists have a vast playground in which to work. ’It’s just a matter of time before we have a real serious fire out here,’ one police officer said at the most recent fire scene. The city’s position is the state should take responsibility, step in, and clean up the mess. ”The state has an obligation and, I believe, a legal duty to remove the hazardous buildings. If they did so and provided a clean Phase 1 environmental assessment, the property would have commercial value,’ Roberts concluded.

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