Analysts review new uses for old Helena School

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Three University of North Carolina Chapel Hill graduate students presented a report on the potential reuse of the Old Helena School to the Board of County Commissioners Monday night.

Maria Dewees, Paul Liu and Natalie Swanson conducted the study as part of a Community Revitalization Applied class within the School of Government.

Their report contained a community profile of Timberlake, site analysis, market analysis, financial feasibility analysis and concluded with recommendations for encouraging redevelopment of the school by a private developer.

In the community profile, the students noted the community’s location, proximity to amenities such as the Helena Park and Gym and Brooks General Store, a modest increase in new residents, strong social networks and community interest in redeveloping the school as positives. However, limited traffic and parking capacity, strict stormwater rules, other undeveloped and underutilized land, limited amenities and lack of municipal services and resources were the community’s challenges.

In the site analysis, students found that the top five landowners in Timberlake own 39 percent of the acreage in residential and commercial Timberlake. They said these landowners will likely shape the future development of the area.

“They are going to be significant players in the redevelopment and certainly key stakeholders,” Dewees said.

Commissioner Kyle Puryear asked if the students had reached out to the community stakeholders to get their opinion on any potential redevelopment.

“A few years ago there was a community engagement, but that was not in the scope of our project,” Swanson said. “We were not asked or expected to engage for several reasons – time constraints and because it would be exhaustive to the community given that they had already been through that process. I know the report exists and that is something that we looked to. The uses that were recommended were, to my memory, conflicting among themselves and not what we were looking to analyze.”

Liu presented the report’s market analysis.

“The analysis concludes that Timberlake can support between 1,600 and 2,800 square feet of retail space,” Liu said. “While this is not much compared to our 25,000 square-foot school, we think it would be a great use for the auditorium.”

The analysis also found that Timberlake could support 70 to 110 multifamily rental units, citing that Timberlake is becoming older but also more wealthy.

Liu said the multifamily rental units would be the most feasible use with Roxboro and northern Durham County within a 20-minute drive time from Timberlake and because the market area contains a lot of middle- and higher-income households in the market area compared to the rest of North Carolina with the number of higher-income households expected in increase in the next five years.

Based on their analysis, the students found that a potential redevelopment project would not be very attractive to an investor, even with several suggested feasibility strategies implemented, including listing the property on the national historic register. To combat this, the students said the project would need a community-minded investor or developer who wants to see development in Timberlake.

“Identifying a community-minded investor would be a necessary step in getting this project off the ground,” Swanson said. “In the open market, a developer would be looking for a higher return on this project and even with the feasibility strategies it’s not reaching that level.”

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