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Why Are These Blighted Old Peoria Schools Still Dodging The Wrecking Ball? It's Complicated

The former Harrison School is still standing, 10 years after it was closed.
Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
The former Harrison School is still standing, 10 years after it was closed.

Ten years after it closed, the crumbling old Harrison School still stands at 2702 W. Krause Ave. on Peoria's South Side. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In 2012, Peoria Public Schools District 150 sold the property to Larry Terrell, who promised at the time to salvage materials and demolish the old school building that was erected in 1901. But that's not what happened.

"The property, originally from the school district, was sold to a private property owner, who went in and stripped everything of value out of it, and really left a shell that's contaminated and has a huge price tag," said Joe Dulin, the assistant community development director for the City of Peoria.

That huge price tag is just one of the impediments to finally tearing down the school building that Dulin said is beyond repair. It's also a longstanding priority of the neighborhood's councilwoman, Denise Moore.

"I can't wait to get Harrison torn down. The last estimate was $1.2 million just to tear the building down," she said. "And that's before you even get anybody interested in the site. So we've got a long way to go with that."

Razing the old McKinley School at the corner of Webster and Adrian G. Hinton adds another $300,000 to the price tag.

Dulin said the city has gone to demolition court to compel the owners of the old Harrison School to bear the demolition costs, so far without success.

"We've seen the ownership change multiple times over the last six or seven years," Dulin said. "Every time that ownership changes hands, we have tried to hold the owners accountable. And we get to a point in the court process, and then they quit claim or sell it to another person. And unfortunately, the way the court process works, we have to start that over."

Peoria County property tax records show ownership of the school building has changed hands six times since District 150 sold the building to Terrell in 2012.

The city could demolish the building for safety reasons, but would have to absorb the costs. That's difficult when the city council is currently considering decommissioning multiple fire engines and laying off firefighters after COVID-19 wiped out the city's expected tax revenues.

Aaron Chess, who's running for the 1st District council seatwhich Moore currently holds, kicked off his campaign in front of the old Harrison school that has become a symbol of disinvestment in the South Side.

"If we tear it down, we build back up. We either put a community garden, or we put community centers, or homes to ensure that this place is used properly, and not just a place for vacant buildings and rodents to run in and out," Chess said last month.

The successful remediation of another brownfield on Peoria's South Side may help open the door to obtaining federal funds needed for the city to demolish the old Harrison and McKinley schools and clean up the sites.

The former Tabor property in the 3500-3600 block of SW Adams is now city-owned, but it once housed a junkyard, gas station, and rail storage yard. The soil on the land was badly contaminated by years of chemicals leaching into the ground.

The U.S. EPA is finalizing a $500,000 brownfield grant with the city to remediate the property and ready it for redevelopment. Once the soil is replaced, city officials believe the property will become more attractive to business owners.

The contract for the SW Adams property is expected to be finalized in the next few months. Soil remediation may take two to three years.

Dulin said the city applied for a cleanup grant for the Tabor, Harrison, and McKinley sites two years ago, but it was rejected because the request wasn't "site-specific." But he hopes the Tabor project serves as a catalyst to land grants to demolish the derelict schools and make the properties ready for revitalization.

For Moore's part, she hopes students attending the new Harrison Community Learning Center can soon go to school without looking at the eyesore across the street.

"Kids go there everyday. And they shouldn't have to see this big albatross," she said.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.