BY MELANIE WADE –
Plans are underway for the development of the old Mena Middle School building that has sat empty on Mena Street since a tornado ripped through town on April 9, 2009. Following the devastation, a local man, Walter Deetz, purchased the building and has extensively repaired it; however, selling the property or deciding on what to do with it has long been an issue.
Recently Mr. Deetz was approached with some ideas and he has been receptive. In recent months, he has met with members of both the Arkansas Regional Coalition of the Ouachitas, also known as ARCO, and the Mena Downtown Partners, who encouraged him to begin working with Zack Mannheimer of McClure Engineering in Des Moines, Iowa. Mannheimer has worked on many house restaurants, residences, retail shops, the arts, and non-profit elements and specializes in taking old buildings and making them showcases of the community.
When the building was built in 1942, replacing the first high school that was destroyed by fire in February 1940, according to local historian, Harold Coogan. He provided a list of construction materials for the project to The Pulse. The list is a testament to how solid the building was built, ending with nearly 18-inch thick cement walls. The list included: 9,000 bags of cement; 66-tons of reinforcement steel; 10,000 nails; 1,398 cubic yards of crushed stone; 1,358 tons of sand; 7,210 feet of piping; 125,000 feet of form lumber; 28,110 feet of Masonite form lining; 1 mile of conduit; 3 miles of wire; and 258 light fixtures. The project also employed 300 workmen.
“When Deetz bought the building at auction in 2010, his original plans were to salvage what he could and tear down the rest of the building,” explained Rick Chrisman, of Mena Downtown Partners, who is working with Deetz. “But, he changed his mind.”
“People from Mena came up to me and said how sad they were the old school was going to be demolished. They told me about the fond memories they had of going to school here,” said Deetz. “They were the ones that convinced me to save the old school.
Chrisman explained that Deetz admits that at the time, it was not his best business decision but was willing to proceed anyway. His efforts to sell fell flat. Now, members of ARCO and Downtown Partners are determined to help Mr. Deetz showcase the old, sentiment filled building.
Although full plans of the old Mena Middle School are not yet known, an associate of Mannheimer’s, John Sutherlin, will pay a visit to Mena soon to meet with residents and business leaders to determine what they would like to see happen to the old school.
Gar Eisele, Chairman of ARCO, said, “In recent years we have seen an increased interest and growth on Mena Street and the historic Arts District. ARCO has always supported downtown revitalization and this commitment by Walter Deetz is certainly welcomed. We believe the old high school can be a real jewel for our downtown.”
Look in future editions of the Polk County Pulse to learn when and where meetings will be held and what plans are determined.