It took four decades, but new gym and fine arts center looks certain

Design work on a proposed gym and fine arts center will move forward at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, with commissioners this week giving the school board an unofficial thumbs up.

Additionally, upgrading the men’s dressing room at Blue Ridge School near Cashiers also received an OK.

Commissioners will vote as soon as education leaders can nail down a few numbers, such as whether the cost of a sound system and scoreboards are included in the estimated $10.9 million cost for a 1,508-seat gym and a 560-seat theater. A chorus room and a shop for building sets for theater performances are included.

After the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Steve Jones said he hopes for an official vote next month, or, short of that, “as soon as possible.”

“The real beauty about this is the shared common space” between the proposed gym and fine arts center, Jones told commissioners in a joint meeting between the school board and county this week. The dual-purpose building cancels the need for duplicate heating and air-coolant systems and saves taxpayer dollars, he said.

The site already has been prepped “and we’ll just kind of scoot right in it,” said Ali Laird-Large, a school board member.

County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as Western Carolina University’s finance officer for 30 years, said paying for design work will cost approximately $560,000, based on an estimated percentage of the overall construction cost. It will be paid for with a portion of the state sales tax that is returned to the county and earmarked for schools. There is already $587,857 accumulated in the fund — a total of $897,136 available when combined with a school-designated fund balance.

“We spend it on schools or we don’t spend it?” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam queried the town manager.

“Right,” Wooten said in reply.

The county manager said that commissioners’ expected approval of design work “does not require us to bid the project, or build the project.” But, he added, there is enough money available through the sales tax each year to pay for the annual debt on the projects at Smoky Mountain and Blue Ridge with “no negative impact on the county budget.”

With building prices down, “there’s probably not a better time, if you can afford to build, than there is right now,” Wooten said.

A fine arts center for Smoky Mountain was conceived in the 1970s. Former school Superintendent Joe Cowan, now a county commissioner, clearly found the moment sweet tasting indeed. The additions to Smoky Mountain have been long stalled, at times politically, at other times economically — and sometimes by both political and economic realities.

“Twenty years ago, I was in Dr. Murray’s seat,” Cowan said, nodding toward new Superintendent Mike Murray, seated across from him at a large board table. “This is just a dream come true for me — it is needed.”

Designs are expected to take about a year to complete. This means construction bids could be let next fall.

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