Fee or free?: CHA, nonprofits have competing visions for James A. Henry building

photo Charlie Newton shows Mariyah Wells, right, and Char-Daja Calloway, left, an easier way to paint at the James A. Henry Resource Center in Chattanooga.

TO LEARN MORE• The James A. Henry property is listed with Keller Williams. Robert Fisher is the broker. Call Fisher at 423-664-1550 for more information.• Children ages 4 to 17 interested in free art classes at the James A. Henry building may visit the website splashartschool.yolasite.com or call 423-320-6738.

Art classes, mental health counseling, a clothing bank and job training could be provided in one location for low-income people on the Westside if the Chattanooga Housing Authority allows service providers to use its James A. Henry building rent free.

CHA hopes to lease the former elementary school on Grove Street and turn a profit, but says it will consider all proposals.

"If there is any entity that wants to put in a lease for the building, we will entertain that request," said Betsy McCright, CHA's executive director. "Even if they want it at no charge, they need to put it in writing."

Naveed Minhas, CHA vice president of development, said the lease price is $4.50 per square foot. About 32,700 square feet are available. The building includes several classrooms, a full gymnasium, operational kitchen, an outside recreation area and playground.

The Westside community includes four Chattanooga Housing Authority-owned public housing sites and four federally subsidized apartment sites. Median household income in the area is $12,977, less than half the $32,791 median income for the city, according to www.city-data.com. More than 85 percent of the 1,796 residents have incomes below the poverty level.

Minhas said utilities and elevator upkeep for the Henry building cost about $80,000 a year, so it's hard to let someone use the building for free.

Memorial Hospital operates a clinic in part of the building, but otherwise it has been mostly vacant since the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy left in 2011 for Highland Park.

Housing officials discussed signing a lease with the New Consortium of Law and Business, a Memphis-based proposed charter school once scheduled to open this year. But nothing came of it and the Hamilton County school board revoked the consortium's charter this month.

CHA will maintain ownership until a decision is made about the future of the College Hill Courts public housing project and the overall development of that area. Built in 1940, College Hill Courts is the oldest and largest public housing site in the city. CHA said the site needs more than $50 million worth of work to bring it up to federal standards.

But public housing resident Joe Clark suggested that CHA find grants to maintain the Henry building and let it be used for services for local people.

"What kind of money is the building making now?" Clark said during a telephone interview. "What are you doing for your residents?"

Westside residents need job training, GED classes and a computer lab, Clark said.

Clark said the building includes a commercial kitchen where local residents could learn culinary arts.

UTC sociology professor Valerie Radu and other social workers have volunteered to provide free mental health services. Radu also discussed having a store in the building that offered food, clothes, books, tea and coffee, all at no charge.

Radu has established at least four free stores around Chattanooga where she distributes donated goods to the poor.

Clark also suggested inviting local barbers to show residents how to cut hair and opening a computer lab where residents could apply for jobs.

Local artist Charlie Newton is using an Arts Build Communities Cultural Connections grant along with funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and the Osborne Foundation to provide free art classes for children in the Westside.

He said he has taught about 150 children in his Splash art school since November. But with more space and more volunteers, he could teach more children. And if the housing authority allowed free use of the building, he would have more money for art supplies.

"It just depends on if the housing authority wants to partner with the community," said Newton. "We're doing a good thing here. We just need help."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or call 757-6431.