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Consensus sought on plan to save Bates, former black high school


A message spray-painted in electric blue on a boarded-up door to the abandoned Wiley H. Bates High School reads simply: "Save Bates."

It is a plea Anne Arundel County residents are likely to repeat this week as they seek consensus on a plan to renovate and redevelop what once was the only high school for blacks in Annapolis.

"It's painful to go by and see it as it is now," said Philip L. Brown, 86, who was a teacher and vice principal at the school for 25 years. "If something isn't done soon, there will be nothing left to renovate."

A plan to turn the 66-year-old school into a community center and senior citizen housing complex is the subject of public meetings this month, including one tonight in Odenton and another tomorrow in Annapolis.

The sooner the community agrees on a new use for Bates, the better the chances will be next year for securing $2 million in county seed money for renovations, plus $2 million in state matching funds, county officials say. That money was supposed to come this year, but the state legislature balked in early spring, saying it could not deliver the money until the county presented a detailed development plan with more private investment.

"It's taken a while to get the state, the county and the city to support a unified position on Bates, but we have it now," said Essom V. Ricks Jr., who heads the Bates Advisory Committee, an 18-member panel charged with finding a new use for the school. "We want to strike while the iron is hot."

The estimated $11 million to $14 million cost of renovating Bates might include 100 privately built and operated apartments for senior citizens.

A county-run senior center and a community center financed by the nonprofit Bates Foundation also would be situated in the building, as would a memorial to Wiley H. Bates, who provided the first small building for the school.

In its busiest years, the 130,000-square-foot school on Smithville Street enrolled up to 2,100 students. The building tripled in size in 1950 and was the mainstay for local black education until 1966, when integration was completed in county schools.

"It was a gathering place for the entire community," Mr. Brown said.

The school closed in 1981. The playgrounds on the 16 acres are empty. Yesterday, rain poured through smashed windows. Crushed beer cans lay in the grass. Vines inched up the brick exterior. A sign reading "All Visitors Must Report to Front Office" still hung by the front entrance, but the door handles were gone.

To be successful in its new incarnation, the school again must become a magnet -- this time for private dollars.

"The state wanted to make sure there was significant private commitment before it ponied up any money," said Jerome W. Klasmeier, the county's central services officer.

Already, Savannah Development Corp. and Associated Catholic Charities, both based in Baltimore, and Community Action Agencies in Annapolis have expressed interest in financing new development at the school, he said.

"The money is the key," said Yevola Peters, an advisory committee member. "But I do believe that if we keep pushing and insisting, we'll generate the dollars."

State, county and city officials say they support the latest Bates plan, as do many residents. In the past, however, consensus has been elusive.

Last year, some community activists rejected a plan to put a conference center at the site. In 1989, the city council blocked a proposal to build townhouses behind the school. Efforts to reopen Bates as a school have been rebuffed because other local schools aren't filled to capacity.

Because the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last summer, there are limits on how much the property can be changed.

That is welcome news to people such as Joyce McManus, who began her career at Bates in 1956 as the first black music teacher in the county's schools.

"The most important thing we can do is to keep it as it is," she said. "It helps us remember the valuable students who walked through those halls."

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