New school buildings get green light in Jackson

Jackson County commissioners voted last week to take out a $10 million loan for the construction of a gymnasium and auditorium at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.

County commissioners’ unanimous support of the project did not come as a surprise. Last year, they authorized $500,000 for design work on the project, which is now complete.

The project is currently out to bid, and architect John Cort, who designed the plans for the gymnasium and auditorium, said he expects about seven contractors to submit bids this month.

Given the competition among contractors in a down construction market, Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten hopes the county will receive a competitive bid on the project.

Nevertheless, he said the county may be prepared to borrow more if necessary to cover the entire cost of the gymnasium and arts center, as well as other school projects now on the backburner, such as the locker room addition at Blue Ridge School in Cashiers.

Associate Superintendent Steve Jones called the commissioners’ vote a positive step toward the completion of the gym and auditorium project.

“The two boards have worked very well together on this project, and the commissioners have been very gracious in providing us funding for our capital projects,” Jones said, referring to the financial relationship between the commissioners and the school board, where funds for the schools’ capital projects must be supplied by the county.

Jones said the gym and auditorium were imagined 10 years ago, when a long range plan for schools’ capital projects were laid out. The timeline calls for completing the addition by spring of 2014.

Every year the school goes without the new gymnasium, the more outdated the old one becomes.

“The gymnasium now is built to 1960 standards, not 2013 standards,” Cort said.

The new gym will be air conditioned, have enough court room for multiple activities to practice at once, without transporting children off-campus or staggering practice start times into the night, and enough seating for about 1,500, he said.

The fine arts auditorium will seat 750 and come equipped with stage features for high school performances, so those too do not have to be hosted at off-campus locations, such as auditoriums at Southwestern Community College or Western Carolina University as they are now.

“Every time you transport students, it’s dangerous,” Cort said. “You need facilities.”

Wooten said the application for the $10 million loan will still need to be approved by the Local Government Commission of the State Treasurer’s Office. The application to the state will be submitted later this month after construction bids come in and, a low bidder is chosen.

Wooten said the county is looking at a low interest rate of 2.79 percent under a special tax-exempt loan. The county is limited to borrowing only $10 million in tax-exempt loans in any given calendar year, so if the project cost exceeds $10 million, the county would borrow the remainder at a later date.

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