Of all the uses the former Sears store at the Huntington Mall could be put to, a replacement for the Cabell County Career Technology Center was probably the one least expected.
But that could be the future for the store that had anchored one end of the mall for nearly 40 years.
Meeting with The Herald-Dispatch editorial board last week to discuss the school system’s plans, Superintendent Ryan Saxe discussed the list of projects to be included in a bond levy election in August. He described plans for new buildings to replace Milton, Davis Creek and Meadows elementaries, upgrades to Nichols and Hite Saunders elementaries and renovations at Huntington and Cabell Midland high schools. He saved plans for the Career Technology Center for last.
The CTC has outgrown its present facility. It needs either to be expanded or replaced, Saxe said.
“We have tripled enrollment over the past three years,” Saxe said. “It’s something that we want to continue to elevate in our community — under the current structure of the facility, we are at capacity, with no room to really expand.”
The school has plenty of acreage on its site, but as with most of West Virginia, much of the acreage is more vertical than horizontal, Saxe said. Renovation is one possibility, while replacement is another, he said. Thus, the former Sears store drew his attention.
“It would more than double our square footage for the career center. It’s right around 80,000 square feet, and we’re looking at about 180,000 square feet in Sears,” Saxe said.
The mall is between the two high schools. The Sears building is owned by a company that purchased Sears’ assets in bankruptcy, and the property includes a large parking lot. The building has high ceilings and an automotive center already built to accommodate current programs and more, Saxe said.
“In addition, it would have all the room we would need to bring our core academic programs as well as expand for adult programs,” he said.
Already the CTC has so many students and so many core class offerings that it effectively functions as a separate high school but without an athletic program, Saxe said.
Saxe said he has talked with the mall’s owners, and they are open to the idea of converting the now unoccupied retail space into a school. The school would bring traffic to the mall area, and the county would like to build a district-mall relationship to allow students to capitalize on unused space, such as student-run businesses allowing them to use skills they learn in the classroom, Saxe said.
Were the CTC to relocate its programs to the mall, the existing building would still be used for classroom use for the alternative school, and some support operations would move there, too, Saxe said. Once the old trade school part of the former Huntington East High School is vacated as those programs move, that structure would be demolished and converted into green space, Saxe said.
It’s an intriguing idea, and one worth pursuing. As with the other projects, community input will be needed, Saxe said.
The entire program is about $107.5 million. It would be funded through $87.5 million in bonds with no increase in the current tax rate, $10 million in money the school system has on hand for building improvements and possibly $10 million from the West Virginia School Building Authority.
Thursday evening, the county board of education voted to place the bond levy on the ballot for a special election on Saturday, Aug. 22. It deserves serious consideration from voters.