In its return to in-person meetings, council officially un-pauses new high school

An updated computer-generated rendering from February shows the plans for the new high school campus between I-81 and Main Street.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

At the Harrisonburg City Council’s first in-person meeting in 16 months, council members officially green-lit the new high school on Tuesday and debated the housing needs of college students and the homeless.

Both the high school and housing issues were major topics in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the city to put the school’s construction on hold and focus on the virus’ health and economic effects on the community. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved restarting construction on the new high school on a 4-1 vote, with council member George Hirschmann dissenting. 

As discussed in a city-school liaison meeting last month, the project’s cost increased almost $7.8 million because of the increased cost of building materials since the project was suspended April 30, 2020. 

Last year, the total cost of the project was set at $104.8 million, which included the $87.2 million “guaranteed maximum price” for Nielsen Builders, Inc. to construct the school, plus the cost of the land, road improvements, right-of-ways, as well as furniture, fixtures and technology.

The change order that authorizes Nielsen to restart construction includes a provision giving the school division until Aug. 1 to decide on whether to pay for asphalt, copper and metal framing materials now — or to wait several months until those items are needed and hope that their price has gone down.

“I would be much more comfortable locking in the price,” council member Laura Dent said. “We don’t want to be playing the commodities market … that’s a good way to lose your shirt.”

Jim Delucas, chief development officer at Nielsen, agreed.

“I’d want my risk known … it’s a calculated risk,” he said.

Council member Chris Jones argued they were talking about three materials but not lumber, which he felt certain would continue to increase in price. 

Ultimately, though, that decision now lies in the hands of school administrators.

“You’re giving us two more weeks to look at the prices,” said Craig Mackail, the division’s chief operating officer.

Hirschmann told The Citizen after the meeting that his vote was a continuation of his long-standing opposition to building a new school rather than constructing an annex or addition to the current high school.

“I’m not excited about it, because I think we’re going to pay through the nose,” he said.

Funding for a shelter?

The council also addressed housing issues in the city – both the need for a homeless shelter and the seeking to balance inventory for college students and available homes for families. 

Ande Banks, deputy city manager, announced to the council that the city still had $326,630 left over from their Community Development Block Grant portion of CARES Act funding. The grant, a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides funding to states and localities to provide housing and economic opportunities to low-income residents.

Banks said city staff recommended spending the funds to buy property that could be used for “homeless services,” such as a shelter, although he said the money could also be used to pay for the services themselves.

In monthly meetings held with the mayor, city staff and service agencies, “certainly one common theme has been heard,” Banks said. “A year round, low barrier shelter is essential to our community.”

A low-barrier shelter would be open to anyone —and not limited to just families — and would not turn away people for being intoxicated. 

“The preference is a shelter. At least for me,” Mayor Deanna Reed said.

The council members will vote on this as an amendment to the 2020 Community Development Block Grant action plan during their next meeting on July 27. The public can send comments to Kristin McCombe, program coordinator, between now and 9 a.m. on July 22 at [email protected]

New development approved

The council also unanimously approved a special use permit to allow a housing development in the works, but not without some hesitancy about who those units were geared towards. The site in question is located behind the Overlook at Stone Spring apartments off of Stone Spring Road. The permit will allow developers to build more than 12 apartments within one structure, although it does not change the overall density cap of the property. 

“This is pretty much more JMU student housing,” Reed said. “We’re trying to push back a little bit on that to create more affordable housing and more housing for our families.”

Jones noted that older housing complexes originally designed to attract students often end up as housing for families once the structures are past their prime.

“I know because I lived in Hunters Ridge when I was 17. Now I’m 42. And the unfortunate thing is that, now, there’s people who are 42 who are living there with their kids,” he said.

Council skeptical about jail expansion 

Vice-mayor Sal Romero asked that Jeffery Newton, superintendent of Middle River Regional Jail, appear at the next council meeting to speak about the $14.5 million proposed renovations to the jail. 

Jones said he saw some merit to renovating the kitchen, but “outside of that, I don’t think that I could morally support anything for the jail.”

“I think as a body, we’re on the same page with this,” Reed said.

Also in the meeting:

  • Paul Helmuth, the city’s deputy emergency coordinator, explained that Harrisonburg’s COVID vaccination numbers are underreported on the Virginia Department of Health’s website. The city’s population is “judged” at 55,000, he explained, which includes college students. But since most college students have their family’s address on their identification, the vaccinations are counted towards that locality’s tally. So while the website says that 53% of adults in the city have received at least one dose, “we actually think our numbers are 65% or higher.”
  • Romero announced that a new futsal court will open at Ralph Sampson Park on July 28, with a ribbon cutting at 7 p.m.
  • The council unanimously appointed Sandra Hernandez to the Blue Ridge Community College board of trustees.

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