When scientist Darryl Baynes bought the former Clay School in East Wheeling a few years ago, he wanted to establish a science and community center. Funding for the project, however, was difficult to find.
Now that city leaders are looking to revitalize East Wheeling by removing blighted buildings and installing new housing, Baynes believes his school can become the hub of the neighborhood.
"Up until now, people have been unwilling to put money into East Wheeling. ... Now, maybe I can get some help for the project," he said.
The Vandalia Heritage Foundation plans to use a $2.6 million grant to construct five new in-fill housing structures on a vacant portion of land on the north side of 15th Street near the intersection with Wood Street. These 20 new home units - and three additional apartments in a rehabilitated structure at 129 15th St. - will be only yards from Baynes' building at the intersection of 15th and Wood streets.
In addition to the new housing, Mayor Andy McKenzie said the city is working on a multi-million dollar revitalization project for East Wheeling that will include demolishing dilapidated buildings and constructing a new recreational facility. The mayor said he wants the work to begin in the spring.
All of this news has Baynes thinking that now may be the time to garner support for the community and science center he envisioned upon paying $65,000 for the 83,000-square- foot building, which served as a school until the mid-1990s.
"I want to get some funding for the center as part of the East Wheeling project. ... It would cost more to tear this place down than it will to fix it up," he said, noting he believes he can renovate the basement and first floors for about $1.5 million.
"Since the city wants to have the new recreational area, let this be a part of that recreational area," Baynes said. "I am trying to invest in this city."
Noting he has already spent a lot of time and money on the building, which has four floors including the basement, Baynes said he does not intend to walk away now.
"I have about $250,000 in this building, altogether. ... I don't want to just let it go," Baynes said, adding that no one has approached him about buying the building.
"If I don't get something going, I may have to sell it. But I am not giving up yet," he added.
To complete its East Wheeling work, McKenzie said the city is seeking additional federal and state grant money, but also would look to contribute some city money. Some of Wheeling's federal Community Development Block Grant money also could be used to demolish buildings in addition to private money.
Baynes, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Wheeling for about 12 years, said he regularly speaks with McKenzie concerning the status of the building, which he admits has some issues that need addressed.
"It needs new heating and cooling systems - some new windows," he said, though noting he previously replaced all of the windows. The building also needs a fire sprinkler system. The roof has leaks that have led to some ceiling decay on the top floor.
McKenzie, though declining to specifically discuss the plans for the Clay School, said he has been working with Baynes to develop the project.
"Our position is that if any building can be used, then we will work to save the structure, unless the cost is unreasonable," McKenzie commented. "I have been working with Darryl for many years to help him realize his dream."
Baynes said he also owns some abandoned buildings on the south side of 15th street across from the former school.
"I am trying to get these torn down. ... If we can get some of these out of here, you will be able to see the building from the highway," he said, noting this would increase the structure's potential.
Baynes' original non-profit organization - Minority Aviation Education Association - is now known as Interactive Science Programs. He travels around the U.S. teaching students how to have fun with science.
For the basement and first floors of the building, Baynes envisions a community center, complete with a gym, roller skating rink and other recreational opportunities. The second and third floors, he hopes, will eventually be home to his science center.
"If they (city) want to have recreation out here, why pay to tear this building down and start over? They have everything they need right here, if they just help me fix it up," he added.