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Swain County partnering with charter school for new gym

swainWith the help of Swain County commissioners, Mountain Discovery Charter School is about to begin a capital campaign to build a new gymnasium at the school that can also be utilized by the community at large.

“There’s a real shortage of gym space in Swain County and Bryson City even though it’s really a sports-oriented town,” said James Busbin, chairman of the Mountain Discovery school board. “We’ll have a gym and it’s going to be a nice one with a million dollar view.” 

As a public charter school, Mountain Discovery doesn’t receive any state funding for capital projects. The school has to raise the money needed for construction by seeking donations and grant funding, and the county has started a process that could allow the school to purchase a small piece of county property for the gym location.  

Mountain Discovery, located at the top of Jenkins Branch Road in Bryson City, has been operating for 10 years. Situated near the Swain County Sheriff’s Office, the school’s 9 acres are adjacent to county property. Busbin said the charter school got the county involved in the gym project after surveyors found that the best place to situate the structure would be on property belonging to the county.

“The surveyors walked all over the property wondering where could we put the building. We got to the top of the hill and they said the ideal place would be right here,” Busbin said. “They said if we could acquire the property or get an easement to position the building on the edge of the ridge it would be beneficial.”

Building on the top of the ridge would mean fewer trees to cut down, better drainage and less grading work. The property is also within walking distance of the current classrooms, which would make it easy to build a natural walking path to the gym. Since it is at the top of a ridge, Busbin said Swain County couldn’t do much with the acre anyway. An appraisal showed the property to be worth about $1,000 because of the lack of accessibility.  

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Although the item wasn’t on the agenda, commissioners went into a closed session for 45 minutes during a recent board meeting to discuss a “client/attorney privilege” matter. The board then returned to open session and made a motion to accept offers on the 1.1-acre tract in question. 

While the decision was promising for Mountain Discovery, it doesn’t mean the sale is a done deal. Selling county land is a bit more complicated — the county now has to publicly advertise that the land is available for purchase so that any interested parties would have a chance to submit a formal bid on the property. The commissioners will then review the bids and select the winning bid. Busbin hopes the charter school is the only one interested in the property. 

The charter school is also applying for a USDA loan to pay for the project upfront while it continues to seek funding from private donors and charity foundations. The county and community involvement also will help the charter school secure funding. 

“Lots of people come to these foundations empty handed wanting money, but they like to see a project with a lot of community support,” Busbin said. 

Though a majority of the families with children in the charter school live below the poverty line and can’t contribute much financially to the school, Busbin hopes he can show potential donors that it’s a communitywide project that will benefit the charter students as well as the rest of the community looking for additional indoor recreation space.  

The Swain County Recreation Park has athletic programs for youth and adults and several groups have already shown interest in using the new gym once it’s up and running. Just as the charter school students have had to float around the community to find space for physical education class, school assemblies and student productions, the adult athletic programs have also been scrambling to find space for practices. 

“They’ve been without a home too, just like the charter school,” Busbin said. “They’ve been trying to get a gym for years so they wanted to work with us, which is just fine.  We’re a public school and this will be a public facility. We only have 180 kids so the space won’t be used by our students all the time.”

The gym is just the first step to Mountain Discovery’s long-term plan of building permanent school structures on the property. Modular classrooms are being used now, but Busbin said they might only have a few more years of use left in them. Due to budget and funding constraints, the school will have to slowly build one building at a time. 

“We need a permanent campus if we want to see the school go to the next level,” he said. 

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