To build or not to build? How agencies decide whether to renovate

Renovations have the tendency to turn up unexpected costs, but building new comes with its own set of challenges

The Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley in Youngstown says it needs a new building.


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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – There are many factors that come into play when a school, business or non-profit organization considers renovating or starting new.

Renovations have the tendency to turn up unexpected costs, but building new comes with its own set of challenges, including where to build and what to do with the old building.

To build new or remodel? 

Cardinal Mooney High School is in the process of a major facelift.

Cardinal Mooney Board Chair Dan Landers said it will be like operating a brand-new building for a fraction of the cost.

This summer will be the last phase of a big renovation, funded by alumni donors Ed Debartolo and Denise Debartolo York.

“If it wasn’t for the Mooney alumni paying us back, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Landers said.

Arriving at the decision to renovate was a long process. The school and the diocese looked at the pros and cons of moving out of Youngstown and building new or making big improvements to the south side campus.

In 2013, Bishop George Murry told First News that asbestos was making them think twice about renovating.

Ultimately, school officials say renovating was the best option.

It was a big undertaking, especially with the asbestos, but it’s one they’re glad they did.

“We decided to take it all out rather than do it in bits and pieces to get it done. Even the tile, you have to take that out. It’s asbestos tile. So we take that out, do it right,” Landers said.

Private schools like Mooney don’t have the option of state dollars. That funding is what makes it possible for so many public districts, like Hubbard, to build new campuses.

The process of building new schools in Hubbard started about 10 years ago. Now, the elementary, middle, and high school students are all under one roof but in separate buildings.

“It’s been a great learning experience to take students and staff from a building built in the 1920s — to bring them into a new facility that’s state of the art,” said Hubbard Superintendent Raymond Soloman.

He added, “We could not have this if it wasn’t for our community. Our community has been very, very supportive of the schools.”

But not all public districts are able to get enough money from the state to make it possible.

“Boardman is still in the state’s eyes, viewed as a wealthy school district, even though 50 percent of their kids are on free and reduced lunch now,” said State Rep. Joe Schiavoni.

That’s because of how many businesses are in the district.

Schiavoni says the state will only put in 14 percent for new school buildings in Boardman. Local taxpayers would have to cover the next 86 percent, which he said will never pass.

Not all renovations are equal. Some involve special requirements, making them qualify as “historic.” It can help fund the project but also can make for some added headaches.

The challenges of historic renovations

Gregg Strollo is the president of Strollo Architects. He has long been an advocate of rebuilding and revitalizing downtown Youngstown. When the opportunity came to move his firm into the Wells building, he weighed his options and then jumped at the chance.

That responsibility meant a lot of time, and work, and money.

As an architect, Strollo had a good idea of the challenges he’d face. But even with that expertise, and plenty of research, there were a lot of surprises.

“I think that’s the nature — the very nature of the historic preservation process,” he said.

Historic tax credits helped make the multi-million dollar project possible. Even those came with added requirements and added headaches.

“They’re expensive and pretty strict. For example, the windows, you get to replace 100-year-old technology with 100-year-old technology,” he said.

Those historical tax credits also played a role in New Castle School of Trades’ new building in East Liverpool. Builders had to make multiple funding pieces fit together. It was a challenge but one that’s already reaping rewards.

“We really feel like we’re making a difference in the community, not just another player coming in, tearing down a building and adding something new,” said Rex Spaulding, president of New Castle School of Trades.

The East Liverpool location is in the old Ogilvee’s department store building, but even their main campus was the product of a renovation. Their own students turned an abandoned factory into the perfect space.

‘You’re never going to bring a city back to life if you don’t work on the renovation side of this, and this has to start with somebody,” Spaulding said.

As important as renovations are to revitalization, Strollo says it’s important not to make assumptions when entities decide they can’t save an old building.

“A lot of times, great efforts are made to save these buildings. They just sometimes can’t in any way justify it,” he said.

When building new just makes sense

Rescue Mission Executive Director Jim Eschement knows a lot about old buildings.

The Rescue Mission has been around for 123 years. Most of that time it has been situated at the former Youngstown YMCA.

Along the way, problems have cropped up with the old building.

Now, the population the Mission serves is just too big for the building. It is in the middle of a fundraising campaign to raise money for its new building.

“We don’t have any choice. We’ve got to do something now. We have the design. We have the property. We have identified a complete blended financing packaging,” he said.

The new building will be custom-tailored to the needs of the Mission’s clients.

“We will have space designed for families. We will have more than a few restrooms,”  Eschement said.

For the Mission, building new was the only thing that made sense. It needed space for men, for women, for families, for community services and for kids to play outside.

“We would probably spend as much money renovating an old building as you do for building new, where we wouldn’t in the old building. Renovated, we wouldn’t get the benefit for new technology. We’d wind up with an old building and a lot of money sunk into it,”  Eschement said.

Gail McCullough faced a slightly different dilemma.

His popular Chick-fil-A restaurant along US-224 in Boardman outgrew its space. The drive-thru line often wrapped around the building twice.

Making changes to that building, however, would cost precious time.

“We did look at renovating, but we’d have to be closed at least six months,” McCullough said.

So, he built a new restaurant right across from the old one.

“We needed more capacity. That was the big problem over there. We needed a bigger kitchen and double drive-thru,” he said.

They needed more space inside and outside — things that just weren’t possible across the street.

McCullough said building new just made more sense.

“You can stay open, keep all your employees. Keep doing the sales, and you don’t lose all that downtime,” he said.

A main catalyst for this story was questions from viewers who asked why BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse tore down the three-year-old Cheddar’s building at 224 and Market Street and built a new building right in its place. WKBN reached out to that company by email and phone but never got a response.

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