An all-black school during the segregation era, the building went dormant before being turned over to the Pigeon Community Development Club 13 years ago. The vision at the time was a gathering place for the black community and programs for underserved populations.
It hosts an after school program and summer youth day camp, adult computer classes, a food assistance pantry, community socials and monthly senior meal nights.
“It is more than just a building to us,” said Lin Forney, who attended kindergarten in the school and is now the director of the Pigeon Community Center. “It has a history for the community as a place for gathering — and really just pride I guess, to have a building that we as a community remember being in as our school.”
The African American demographic in Haywood County is incredibly small — just 1.2 percent of the population in a county that’s 96.7 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Being so acutely in the minority makes it all the more important to have a place where the black community feels accepted and can affirm their shared identity with friends and neighbors.
“It’s a population that has its own history and culture,” Forney said.
The Pigeon Center serves more than the African-American community in Waynesville, however. Today, kids in the summer and after-school program are white, black and Latino — with just about an even mix of all three.
“We serve a population that may not get services in other places or may not feel comfortable getting services from other places. We serve a population that is marginalized really,” Forney said.
When it rains, it pours
The Pigeon Center has struggled financially, however, with barely enough money to remain open, and not nearly enough to pay for the big-ticket maintenance jobs a building of its age requires.
Over the past two years, a leaky roof has led to rapid deterioration of the building. Buckets and tubs to collect drips are never far from reach. Walls are spotted with mold. Ceilings are crumbling in places. Rain even spills through light fixtures during downpours.
“The worst fear was that the ceiling would collapse in places, and it did. That was the worst fear realized,” said Forney.
As damage worsened, the price tag for repairs mounted, becoming more and more out of reach for the financially-strapped Pigeon Community Club.
Meanwhile, the center was forced to cancel its after school program this year. And it hasn’t been able to hold its computer classes for adults lately either.
“Everything has been put on hold,” Forney said.
Even its summer day camp program — which typically serves 60 kids — was at risk due to the state of the building. Luckily, the program will go on, but summer enrollment is lower than normal due to the uncertainty.
“People haven’t gotten that sense we are open yet,” Forney said.
Tuition for the summer program is $350, with a sliding scale for those able to pay more. It includes two hot meals a day, reading and math tutoring — and a safe place to spend the day with adult supervision.
Tuition isn’t enough to cover the cost of the program, however. The shortfall for the summer program ranges from $5,000 to $10,000 a year — which the Pigeon Center raises in donations from churches, businesses and individuals.
Asking participants to pay more would defeat the whole mission.
“Our purpose is to serve those who can’t afford the other services that are out there,” Forney said.
Haywood County commissioners pledged $35,000 last year to fix the roof. But Forney said the problem was worse than expected and they couldn’t find anyone to do the job for that amount. Months went by with no clear resolution, until the county was alerted a few weeks ago to just how dire things had become.
The county intervened to help bring about repairs. County Maintenance Director Dale Burris found a roofer within the $35,000 budget the county had already allocated and handled the hiring and oversight of the job directly rather than passing the money through the Pigeon Center.
But in the process, county maintenance workers found a structural crack in the rear wall of the building that must be fixed, too. The county has chipped in another $12,000 to cover that job.
“It gives them an opportunity to continue what they’re trying to do down there,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells. Sorrells said the Pigeon Center has been a big asset, and fills a role the county appreciates.
And, Sorrells added that technically, the building still belongs to the county, even though the Pigeon Community Club was granted free long-term use of it.
“It’s still county property, and we have to take care of our property,” Sorrells said.
Next, however, was figuring out what to do about repairs inside the building. Enter a coalition of about a dozen local churches.
“We have the manpower at these different churches representing several denominations to go in and make the repairs,” said Teressa Spencer, director for ministries with Long’s Chapel United Methodist, who helped organize the consortium.
The joint efforts of the county and church groups to fix up the building will help get the Pigeon Center back on its feet. Sybil Mann, a supporter and advocate for the center, said she was grateful for the county’s role in finding a solution to the building woes.
“Because of the county stepping up to the plate you have these other groups ready to help out,” Mann said.
Mann said the Pigeon Center serves a niche not otherwise being served in the community, and the cause is therefore a good one.
“It is an investment in Haywood County, not just because of the positive influence the Pigeon Community Center has on the lives of the children in the summer program,” Mann said. “But it allows parents to work, so it has positive economic ramifications for our county.”
This wasn’t the first time the Pigeon Center has been saved thanks to generosity of community organizations and donors. The Pigeon Center has needed outside support not only for building upkeep, but also to underwrite its programming over the years.
The budget for the Pigeon Community Development Center is about $75,000 a year right now. But it is barely getting by. The budget needs to be more like $125,000, Forney said.
The budget covers building overhead, utilities and insurance; Forney’s part-time salary and small stipends for three summer program teachers. The money comes from fundraising, donations and grants; the town of Waynesville also kicks in $5,000 to go toward utilities.
Volunteers play a large role in carrying out the center’s mission, helping with everything from lawn mowing to after-school tutoring. The Pigeon Center gets no financial aid for its summer or after-school program through the state or federal government.
Budget woes this year mean the summer students won’t get to go on field trips to the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta or Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro. But perhaps more crushing, the end-of-summer Carotids amusement park field trip is being canceled, which reached kids who would otherwise never get that kind of experience, Forney said.
A common trajectory: school turned center
Old schools aren’t suitable for very many things once they’re no longer wanted for a school. Their most common reincarnation is as a community center. It’s a natural trajectory — given their long-standing, iconic status as a focal point and gathering place.
In Haywood County, the old Fines Creek and Cruso serve as community centers now.
Their arrangement with the county is the same as with the Pigeon Community Club. The county still owns the buildings but grants long-term use to the community clubs.
“The county is giving them the space, but they are supposed to maintain the interior and exterior of the buildings,” said Haywood County Manager Ira Dove.
The roster of old schools also includes the old Maggie Valley school, which is now Maggie’s town hall but hosts some functions typical of community centers, including a library, polling place during elections, a playground and senior meals.
Meanwhile, the old Hazelwood school has been turned into the Folkmoot Friendship Center, serving as the headquarters, offices and dorms for the acclaimed international folk dance and music festival. The building was leased to Folkmoot at no cost for the past decade, but none other than a chronically leaky roof led the county to deed it — lock, stock and barrel — to Folkmoot.
Folkmoot was reluctant to put more and more money into a building it didn’t technically own. It has $1 million invested over the past decade into building improvements, repairs and maintenance. The county didn’t want the liability, however, so gave it to Folkmoot.
In Canton, a former all-black school is being transformed into a community center, thanks to private philanthropic investment by the famous Gladys Knight, whose husband is a Canton native.
In Macon County, an old school has recently been converted into the Cowee Heritage Center, hosting a farmers market, concert series, art classes and other community programs.
Another day, another roof to fix
The Pigeon Center isn’t the only leaky roof on Haywood County’s fix-it list.
Another roof scourge is the so-called “old hospital” — a hulking, abandoned, four-story brick building in Waynesville that was originally built as a hospital in the 1950s and later became an office building for the Department of Social Services. It’s now empty, and the county is willing to unload it for cheap to be rid of the maintenance headache.
But with no taker on the horizon yet, the county is shelling out $164,000 to get the roof replaced in coming months.