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Editorial: Holley school project shows importance of a community committed to a cause

Photo by Tom Rivers: Nelson Leehouts, chairman and CEO of Home Leasing, stands in front of the former Holley High School on Dec. 11 when the community, and local, state and federal officials gathered for a “preservation celebration” for the building. The community’s enthusiasm for the project, and the building’s prominent location in Holley, were among the factors pushing him for the renovation.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 December 2018 at 10:20 am

HOLLEY – The local, state and federal officials all deserve lots of credit for finding money to help make the renovation of the former Holley High School a financially feasible project for Home Leasing, a Rochester firm with three generations of construction and housing experience.

It wasn’t just the politicians and government leaders who made the project a reality. Holley residents were also a big factor in saving the structure.

Home Leasing is working on a $17 million extreme makeover of the former school. It will be a major lift for Holley and Orleans County because the site is at an important gateway on the eastern end of county.

The school building has been deteriorating for about 30 years, oppressing the psyche and morale of the community. It’s transformation is more than a development project that will add 41 apartments for senior citizens and also become the new village offices for Holley.

The school holds cherished memories for many in the community. And the building’s prominent location on Route 31 in the heart of the village warrants the site be a showcase of pride. That hasn’t been the case for three decades.

There have been several would-be developers for the building over the years, and all backed away until Home Leasing stepped in about three years ago and showed great fortitude and perseverance. Holley residents also deserve lots of credit for not giving up on the site, for pressing the village to make the school redevelopment a priority.

Nelson Leenhouts joins the Holley community for a celebration photo last week in front of the former school.

Nelson Leenhouts, the Home Properties chief executive officer, has been in the real estate development business for 50 years. Never has a community worked harder on a project than the school redevelopment in Holley, he said.

Village officials worked with local, state and federal officials to get the pieces in place for the project. It wasn’t easy. The school was last owned by a manufacturing company that went bankrupt. The title for the property was in limbo. And that was a deal-breaker before.

This time the county attorney, recently retired David Schubel, worked out a way to get the title in the clear by having it go to a local development corporation instead of a municipality. The village and county didn’t want to take ownership of the property and be on the hook for liability, especially if the redevelopment fizzled and big building in ruin was left behind. The title was a big obstacle that was resolved.

The staggering cost of the project also scared off would-be developers. There wasn’t enough incentives and grants to make it work.

A local resident had an idea to sweeten the pot and perhaps make the project doable. Erin Anheier of Clarendon was successful in helping several sites in the Holley area get listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation increases the chances for grants and also historic tax credits for redevelopment projects.

She thought the Holley High School, built in 1930, was deserving of the National Register, and that distinction would also help make the site eligible for more tax credits. The redevelopment includes a $5.1 million in Historic Tax Credit.

Anheier was showing officials from the Landmark Society of Western New York the old stone store in Clarendon about seven years ago when she persuaded them to stop by the old Holley High School, which is about 4 miles from Clarendon.

The Landmark Society at the time was considering a new “Five to Revive” list. The Landmark Society wanted to highlight five properties in dire need of investment in the Rochester area. The organization wanted to pick properties where the redevelopment would have a big ripple effect in their neighborhoods.

The Landmark Society saw the old school as a perfect candidate for the Five to Revive. The inaugural list in May 2013 included the Holley school.

Leenhouts and Home Leasing took note and came to Holley for the first time to see the school. Leenhouts right away saw lots of possibilities – and challenges.

The Holley community deserves lots of credit for welcoming Leenhouts and helping him to work through the many potential pitfalls.

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