The fate of the former Birchwood School building still is undetermined, though county officials said they'll try to ensure some community access to the facility.
After nearly a century of educating students in the far reaches of Northern Hamilton County, the school closed at the end of the year in May because of low enrollment. That move turns the Birchwood building back over to Hamilton County government, which will determine its future use.
Birchwood residents have asked county officials to keep the building intact and let it be used as a venue for gatherings or some kind of community center. Aside from classrooms, the school has a two-court gymnasium, tennis courts, ball fields and a cafeteria big enough to host community and family potluck dinners.
Birchwood's seclusion has made the school a focal point for community members, whether or not they had children there. The community is about 30 miles from downtown Chattanooga.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger said there is no money in the current budget to do much with the school. So any discussions about running a community center would have to wait until next year's budget cycle. And as is the case with any project, he said the decision on the building will come down to money. The county, however, will keep its health department location open there.
"There's been some discussion about what they would like to see done with the building," Coppinger said. "But the only commitment so far is that the health department will stay."
Felicia Roark Moorehead, who until May taught at Birchwood, said the community has tossed out many ideas for the building's use. In addition to being a general gathering space, residents have expressed interest in holding cooking or canning classes there, and maybe even a small day care.
"There's not been any real planning, just ideas floating around," said Moorehead, who lives on her family's farm close to the school.
What the community definitely doesn't want is for the school to be locked up in the interim, Moorehead said, because bad things happen to vacant buildings.
"We're afraid if they don't do something to start, then nothing will happen," she said. "I'm afraid if they lock it up then that's just the end of it."
But there may be room for some kind of compromise.
County Commissioner Chester Bankston, who represents the area, said the school's keys could be turned over to a resident in the area who could open the building for certain events. That wouldn't necessitate any staffing of the building, but still could allow it to be used.
"We're going to try to keep it in the community, to at least keep part of the building used for the community," Bankston said. "We don't want to lock it up."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.