In order to fully explain the project, the property and all involved, The County Gin has written the series titled, The Project at 500 Abell, in hopes of explaining a rather complex project.
The Wharton City Council held its first meeting of the 2022 year, and though a public hearing and budget adjustments were on the agenda, the majority of the meeting surrounded future housing within the city.
While council does not hold power to prohibit the housing projects, members and city staff listened to views in support and against grant-funded housing at 500 Abell St.
This project proposes preserving the exterior of Wharton Independent School District’s Hopper Elementary School, while constructing affordable rental housing within and surrounding the structure.
WISD discontinued the use of Hopper Elementary School (HES) in 2009 due to structural and mechanical issues found within the campus, and after completion of Wharton Elementary School (WES) located on FM1301.
The Head Start Program of Wharton occupied a small area of the empty campus; however, later moved to N. Alabama Rd.
Other than the small portion occupied by the pre-school educational program, the campus remained unused and minimally maintained by WISD.
The Affordable Rental Property Program was announced in 2018. It designated $250 million in funds to help rehabilitate, reconstruct and construct multi-family rental homes in the recovery of Hurricane Harvey.
Former WISD Superintendent Tina Herrington with the assistance of the Wharton Economic Development Corporation submitted an application on behalf of the district to utilize existing district property for multi-family housing.
In Aug. 2019, WISD received approval for $8.75 million to be used to build approximately 34 units.
The initial thought of the district was to demolish HES and construct housing units managed by the district for teachers.
In an article by the Journal-Spectator dated Dec. 14, 2018, Herrington said, “At no cost to the WISD, we would have 35 residences that we could make available first to our employees.”
She explained the grant submission as bringing back teachers that were displaced by Harvey damages, and offering housing to educators and school staff to live within the district they were employed with.
“We need employees who live here; who participate in our community; who give back to our community; rather than have people who drive all the way across Houston to work here,” Herrington said.
Once community members expressed concerns brought with the district entering into the housing business, the district consulted with GLO representatives to explore other options for the grant.
“We thought the grant was going to fail,” Laura Clemons, Collaborative Communities owner and consultant to the HES project said. “We had about four GLO representatives come down to answer questions some board members had, and also discuss all options available for the grant.”
This led Herrington and the WISD Board of Trustees to look at possibly selling the property and transferring the grant to a developer.
David Bowlin with A2J Holdings LLC. expressed interest in the project and met with school officials to gather more information.
Wharton County Heritage Partnership
Fearful of the demolition of HES, community members banded together in late 2019, and made haste bringing to light the historical significance of the property.
The Wharton County Heritage Partnership announced its mission as, “committing to saving historical and important structures in Wharton County. Doing so not only helps to educate but also serves to promote tourism and old and new businesses as well as to attract new residents.”
WCHP’s immediate focus is to preserve and repurpose Minnie Mae Hopper Elementary School— originally known as Stephen F. Austin Elementary School and, later, Abell Street School.
Officers are President Ken Dimmick, Vice President David Bucek, Jr., Secretary Patricia Blair and Doris Teague, Senior Programming: Merle Hudgins, Educational Programming:retired Hopper teachers, Development: Frank Shannon, Jr., Public Relations: Marilyn Clark, and Attorney: Howard Singleton.
Opinions requesting to save the school were expressed through local newspapers, social media and at WISD board meetings through the end of 2019 and into the 2020 year.
A proposal by the partnership requesting the district to donate the property in order for the organization to mirror the Northside Education Center in El Campo was denied.
In Feb. 2020, Bowlin presented to members of the WISD board and WCHP of the possibility of still implementing housing, while maintaining the structure on the Abell St. property.
Not satisfied with the presentation, WCHP along with the Wharton County Historical Commission offered ideas of other sites for the grant. Historical grants for their vision were explored as well.
Jeffrey Blair, member of WCHP, had this to say after the presentation, “The newly formed (WCHP) has wonderful plans for the campus and all ‘official Wharton’ seems to talk about is the ‘free’ money that will come from a Texas GLO grant.”
WCHP members began raising funds, and made an offer of $150,000 to purchase SFA Elementary/HES.
Bowlin with A2J Holdings presented an offer of $500,000 for the property and a contract to accept the transfer of the grant to continue the housing development, all while saving the school. He titled this as a “Win-Win.”
On March 24, 2020 at its regular-scheduled meeting, the WISD Board of Trustees accepted Bowlin’s offer and entered into a purchase agreement with A2J Holdings LLC.
At this point in the project, came the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the search for WISD’s next superintendent.
The district shifted its focus to the health and safety of staff and students, and to finding future administration.
This is the first of a multiple part series of stories relating to the 500 Abell St. Affordable Housing Project. Series additions will be added below.