Knox County to demolish Rule High School

Sandra ClarkOur Town Neighbors, West Knoxville

Big changes are ahead for the northwest quadrant of the city of Knoxville, but they won’t include preservation of the old Rule High School.

As KCDC celebrated a $40 million federal grant to redevelop Western Heights (branded as Transforming Western), we checked on the status of Rule High, a building Knox County Schools allowed to deteriorate past the point of salvage.

“We are going to demo the old school using ARPA funds and go back to market,” said county spokesperson Mike Donila. Mayor Glenn Jacobs issued a request for proposals (RFP) in June 2021.

“We received two proposals initially but one (Dominion Development) dropped out before their interview because of the condition of the building. The Marian Group also proposed, but we ended up not awarding and cancelling the RFP,” Donila said. “The Marian Group’s proposal wanted the county to not only give them the property but make a large investment into the project. Their proposal also wanted the city to make a large investment. Thus, it was not awarded.”

In announcing the RFP, Jacobs said neglect since the school’s closure in 1991, “resulted in serious degradation of the building,” but he was hopeful that the school could be redeveloped into senior or workforce housing. Now the site will be razed and offered for sale as vacant land.

“With the $40 million just approved for KCDC’s Transforming Western initiative, and a cleared Rule HS site, multiple proposals are likely this time,” Donila said.

And he’s right. This section of Knoxville is about to pop.

History

Rule High opened in the fall of 1927 as an elementary and junior high school, according to Wikipedia. Managed by the Knoxville Board of Education, additions were made in 1949, 1951 and 1973.

“Deferred maintenance” was a theme of many school-board races in the old city system as it became harder for the city to support a separate school system. Finally, in 1987, city voters opted to turn over their schools to Knox County. Residents outside the city didn’t get a vote.

Earl Hoffmeister

KCS Superintendent Earl Hoffmeister said he could handle it. And he did. But at the expense of closing several former city schools, including Rule High, shuttered in 1991.

Money was tight, the county lost a lawsuit requiring it to pick up teacher pensions for city retirees, and there was that “deferred maintenance” to remedy. KCS used the Rule High building to store maintenance supplies and equipment.

Tim Burchett, as county mayor, wanted to pay down debt by selling assets. He discovered many of the former city schools were deeded to the county’s school board, not county government. In 2016, Burchett finally got the deed for Rule HS. KCS had controlled it for 29 years, leaving it vacant for 25.

William Rule

The school was named for newspaper editor William Rule, a self-taught, pro-Union activist who founded The Knoxville Journal. Ironically, the paper also was closed in 1991. Rule died in 1928, one year after his namesake school was opened.

Transforming Western

Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation (KCDC) celebrated Sept. 23, 2022, the official presentation of a $40 million grant with federal, state, local and community representatives that will help wholly transform Western Heights and the surrounding neighborhood with enhanced access to housing, economic opportunity, transportation and youth development.

Including the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods grant, which was announced Sept. 19, more than $220 million in public and private funds have been committed to support the Transforming Western initiative.

“Transforming Western will reshape a community into one that can thrive while addressing physical barriers, residential and commercial vacancies and concentrated poverty that have kept the neighborhood from realizing its potential,” said Ben Bentley, KCDC executive director and CEO.

Jose Alvarez, the Region 4 administrator for HUD, officially acknowledged the awarding of the highly competitive grant. The three other cities across the United States that were awarded the HUD grants, which totaled $180 million, included Omaha, Nebraska; Durham, North Carolina; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The housing component will rebuild 196 units of the affordable housing currently at Western Heights. The addition of 283 new units of affordable and market-rate housing will create a diverse, mixed-income community. Brinshore Development and KCDC will lead the housing elements of the plan.

Two large, regional destination parks will include features such as a hillside climbing park, playground and splashpad. Spaces for creativity and entrepreneurship will be built to create a new neighborhood economic center, and spaces for food service and an entrepreneurial kitchen will be added. Grant funds will be used in conjunction with the city’s Facade Enhancement Program to aid existing businesses in the area in need of exterior repairs or updates.

An additional $8 million in private philanthropic investment is still needed to fully fund the project.

Information about the full plan is available at engagetheteam.com/western.

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