The Abilene City Council Thursday approved an agreement to donate the former Abilene High School/Lincoln Middle School property on South First Street to a nonprofit that plans to renovate the structure.
Once that project is done, expected to be around 2023, Abilene Heritage Square, Inc. will then lease space to the Abilene public library for a new downtown branch.
The cost to the city, once the project is completed, will be around $36,000 a month, for a 40-year lease.
The lease includes facilities, janitorial services, furnishings and fixtures, and maintenance.
That amount is roughly the same amount paid to lease the library's south branch at the Mall of Abilene, city officials said.
The total cost over the life of the lease, $17.28 million, is cheaper than the cost of building a new library outright, said assistant city manager Mindy Patterson.
"We're actually saving the citizens money by not having to build ourselves a $30 million-plus building that we need to get our current library up to standards," Patterson said.
Jane Beard, president of the Abilene Heritage Square nonprofit, said the the current library opened in 1960, and was expected to last 20 years.
"We've now occupied it for 60 years," Beard said. "And as you can imagine, the Abilene of the 1960s looked different in a lot of ways. First of all, it was a lot smaller. It also didn't have the technology requirements that we now have."
A Place for Community
Beard said the Abilene Heritage Square group has long looked for uses for the former Abilene High/Lincoln school, which was deeded to the city in 2012.
The project will renovate the roughly 96-year-old academic building and 1929 gymnasium while preserving their historic facades.
New construction sensitive to the historic structures will be added to the west side of the academic building.
Estimated cost of planned full renovation has been pegged at around $42.5 million, which includes all furnishings, and a $1.5 million endowment to help fund long-term maintenance costs.
To date, about $39 million has been raised from donations, foundations, etc., organizers said Thursday night.
The library, while key, will be only one component of the project.
The renewed structure will contain museum space, including a science-based extension of the Grace Museum, a 700-seat auditorium, a restored Eagle's Nest gymnasium, the site of the Stone Owl Academy, and more.
Laura Moore, executive director of the the Grace Museum, said that the project will serve as a sort of "community living room," home to a variety of uses inside and outside of Abilene Heritage Square's walls.
Preserving the Past, Building the Future
Beard said that in some respects, the Abilene High/Lincoln building was an early attempt at economic development, showing those who passed by rail or on the historic Bankhead Highway to see that "Abilene was a town that valued education and self-improvement through education."
"I think this new, revitalized Abilene Heritage Square will actually send that same message," she said. "It's a message of what our community values and what we're willing to invest our time and our treasure in."
Councilman Travis Craver said he was excited about the leadership represented by the project but "more excited by the lives it will change."
"Education is the most the powerful tool you can use to change the world," Craver said, quoting Nelson Mandela, the famous South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist.
Councilwoman Donna Albus said that when the school property was donated to the city, she viewed that exchange as the city tending the property "until the rightful owner" came along.
"I'm so excited to see that building find new life," she said. "... I think we've found that rightful group."
Original Article as Published by the Brian Bethel, with the Abilene Reporter-News on Thursday, December 19, 2019