Abandoned school to reopen as space for artists, entrepreneurs

The Wichita school board chose arts and entrepreneurship over apartments Thursday, when it picked a buyer for the abandoned school that used to be Willard Elementary and later Metro-Boulevard Alternative High School.

In a special meeting, the board sold the unused school building at 951 S. George Washington Blvd. to Logan Pajunen for $201,000. That was $1,000 more than the district’s asking price and $6,000 more than an offer the board was poised to accept at its last meeting.

The property is appraised at $806,700 on the county tax rolls, although it is currently tax-exempt because it’s owned by a public agency. Because of the difficulty and cost of converting former school buildings to other uses, surplus schools have typically sold for far below appraisal values.

Pajunen’s bid beat a competing offer submitted by Tom George, who wanted to convert the structure to apartments. George previously purchased and converted the surplus Kellogg School, said Tom Powell, general counsel for the school district.

Pajunen plans to convert the classrooms into art studios and space for “microentrepreneurs” to make their products away from home.

He is a board member and past president of Make ICT, a nonprofit “maker space” downtown.

Wichita has a growing need for the kind of low-cost space he plans to provide, because alternatives such as the Commerce Street Art District are “completely saturated” and space rents have risen with the increased demand, Pajunen said.

“I’ve been interested in this property since before it went on the market,” Pajunen said.

Thursday’s special board meeting was called solely for the purpose of deciding the fate of the school building and ended what has been a convoluted sale process.

George and Pajunen both made offers on the property when it was first marketed through a real estate agent hired by the district. But those bids were put on hold when Sedgwick County expressed interest in the property, Powell said.

County officials considered buying the site for a new election office, but decided it wasn’t big enough to provide the office space and equipment storage needed, said county Commissioner Jim Howell.

When the school district’s real estate agent re-contacted representatives for George and Pajunen, George renewed his offer while Pajunin’s agent didn’t immediately commit, Powell said.

As a result, George’s $195,000 offer went before the board at its July 10 meeting as a staff recommendation on the “consent” agenda of routine business items.

But after Pajunen spoke at the meeting and expressed his continued interest in the property, the board delayed a vote. Thursday’s special meeting was scheduled to consider both offers.

Board member Betty Arnold proposed that the board start over and put the property back on the market because of the confusion surrounding the sale.

But board members Joy Eakins and Jeff Davis advocated to go ahead and make the decision Thursday.

The sale passed the board 5-1, with only Arnold in opposition.

Pajunen said he will still have to ask the city of Wichita to rezone the property. But he said he has talked with city officials who indicated that shouldn’t be a problem.

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