New Economy Goes Old School

Walking into the Neogen Corporation headquarters in the former Oakpark Elementary School on Lansing’s Eastside is like passing from yesterday into tomorrow.

The dark red brick and weathered oak doors used to welcome kids, but moving through the doors is like stepping into an episode of “The Office”: a warren of cubicles are crammed into the central hallway where children once raced for recess. Blue wires carry computer connections creep along the ceiling edges.

This place is all business.

“We had ambition, but not much money,” recalls Neogen's CEO, Jim Herbert, who bought the school 23 years ago. “We said, ‘We can’t afford to invest our dollars in bricks and mortar. We’re going to invest our money in people.’”

The school, which he bought for $200,000, was cheaper than a new building. It was the first in what has become a string of success stories for historic school preservation and New Economy business investment in the city.

Old is New (Economy)

School buildings used to be neighborhood focal points. But for years they’ve been vacated and demolished due to declining enrollments, pressure to build new facilities, and a lack of public support, according to The National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust added the loss of neighborhood school buildings to its 2000 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

But re-purposing old school buildings is good business, and Lansing entrepreneurs get it.
“It’s always better to re-use a building,” says Ryan Kincaid, of the Kincaid Building Group of East Lansing. “The environmental impact is less, and the overall costs minimized.”

Ryan Henry, Kincaid’s vice president, is more direct: “The greenest building you can ever build is one already built.”

In the last four years, the Lansing School District has sold eight buildings, all for new uses. Sale of the ninth, the old Northwest Elementary near the Capital Region International Airport, should be complete soon.

Such ventures bring one-time revenue to school districts and give new life to the facility and to the neighborhood, says Steve Serkaian, spokesman for Lansing Public Schools. “We can retain our history through the exterior, while entrepreneurs are retrofitting the interiors.”

Two years ago, Neogen bought a second school, Allen Street Elementary on East Kalamazoo Street, for $300,000. (The 55,000 sq. ft. building cost $50,000 when it was constructed in 1913.)

More than $1 million later, the company is gradually retrofitting classrooms into laboratories, says Jim Houthoofd, Neogen’s controller.

Niowave and Walnut

The dark wood door to COO Jerry Hollister’s Niowave, Inc. office does not have his name on it. Rather, the word “Principal,” in gold letters, remains.

Niowave snapped up the 1891 Walnut Street School near Lansing’s Old Town, for $250,000. Of all the corporate retrofits, this is the one that most retains its historical aura—ironic, because the company’s mission is so outer world: it makes parts for superconducting particle accelerators.

Walnut School was remodeled and expanded four times during its life, and is full of reminders of children who came here for more than a century: knee-high drinking fountains; workrooms bordered by wall-length chalkboards; metal lockers; child-sized toilets.

It still has a depression-era bronze plaque commemorating it's time as the Walnut School for Crippled Children. Hollister points to a wall lined with eight refrigerator-sized heating units that warmed blankets used to wrap the twisted frames of young polio victims.
The sturdy building has walls ranging from six inches to three feet thick. Wide wood baseboards border gleaming black and white mottled terrazzo hall floors—expensive material reserved for high-end projects today.

As is the case with most of these buildings, the corporation uses a portion and rents the rest, allowing it to expand as business grows.

Spartan Internet and Holmes

When Spartan Internet Consulting bought the 85-year-old Holmes Street School on Lansing’s Eastside, the company paid $115,000—less than it cost to build the school in 1923, and expand it in 1929.

Ryan Vartoogian, CEO, estimates that a brand new 32,000 sq. ft. would cost $3 to $4 million, which is significantly more than the $2 million he’s spending on renovations.

When the building opens in November, the entire first floor will house the community-based Information Technology Empowerment Center, which will teach kids about technology and create a talent pool for local IT employers. Spartan’s headquarters will be on the third floor. Rental space is available on the second.

Vartoogian credits the Lansing Economic Development Corporation for finding creative financing options. An Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act exemption certificate allows the property tax on the $250,000 building to be frozen for 12 years.

Vartoogian expects to add a few more green features to his ultimate recycling project. He’s tackling the heating dilemma—often an expensive venture in older, high-ceilinged buildings. Last year, it cost $3,000 to heat Holmes. This year, Vartoogian is yanking the heating system and replacing it with an energy efficient system he expects will cut the ongoing cost by half. Solar energy may be part of the plan, and much of the construction debris is headed to a metal recycler.

Medical Arts and Cedar

The longer a building sits vacant, the more damage is done to its structure. Cedar Street School—Lansing’s first—was shuttered for 30 years.

“It was just about gone,” says Gail Shafer-Crane. Crane, along with Carla Guggenheim, recently bought the three-story building, including the basement, in Old Town for $450,000. They’ll pour $3.5 million more into the project to turn a near-relic into the Old Town Medical Arts Building.

Built in 1847, the building was described as “a primitive, wretched one-room contrivance with holes cut in the sides for windows and with a door hung by leather thongs at the top for hinges,” in Frederick Aldinger’s “The History and Growth of the Lansing Public Schools.”

The Kincaid Building Group is managing the building’s fourth renovation. Much of the building’s infrastructure is gone.

“There’s no water, gas or electricity in there,” Henry says. “And abatement of the contaminants will be tricky.”

Asbestos-wrapped pipes, trace mold and lead paint will require special treatments, but brownfield credits will help to offset the expense. All non-load bearing will be removed, but Shafer-Crane says they hope to retain at least 20 percent of the historic framework to qualify for historic tax credits.

Lansing certainly isn’t the only area in the country rehabbing old schools. There’s plenty out there. Currently, eBay is listing a 30,000 sq. ft., 1920s-era school building in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. Asking price: $119,000, including your own basketball gym.

Gretchen Cochran is a freelance writer who writes also for City Pulse. She lives in a 125-year old house in downtown Lansing and is admittedly a bit nuts about preserving the city’s history through its old buildings. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Ryan Kincaid and Ryan Henry in the Cedar Street School

Neogen's offices

Cedar Street School renovation

Niowave in Walnut Street School

Ryan Vartoogian in the Holmes Street School

Walnut Street School

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

Signup for Email Alerts