Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Whitted deal: The devil is in the details

Donald Trump prides himself on the art of the deal, but even The Donald might blanch at what’s afoot in the grandiose plan to renovate the vacant J.A. Whitted School on East Umstead Street.

The county commissioners are hell-bent on turning Whitted, built in 1922 as Hillside High, Durham’s first black high school, into an “intergenerational” showpiece housing seniors and pre-K classrooms.

Don’t misunderstand: Whitted School deserves an afterlife in the Southside neighborhood. I’m just not sure that the commissioners and Durham Public Schools understand what they’re getting into.

For that matter, seniors interested in living at Whitted might ask themselves if they really want to become unpaid surrogate grandparents. However subtle, pressure would be on them to do so.

This public-private concoction is as convoluted as an Iowa corn field maze. You have to read the developer’s gaseous proposal to see what I mean, but you too are likely to come away convinced that somebody is filling the silo, and it isn’t Durham.

There is nothing beyond the legal pale in what the Atlanta developer wants to do with $21.7 million, though remarkably little of that sum comes directly from Integral Development LLC. An astonishing amount, however, comes Durham Public Schools: $5.8 million.

Integral makes much ado about its “development team,” which in addition to DPS includes Durham entrepreneur Carl Webb’s Forty/AM (think Greenfire) and Belk Architecture.

What the team proposes is Whitted School reborn as a 79-unit apartment complex for seniors. The intergenerational part lies in the eight-classroom pre-K school financed and operated by Durham Public Schools.

Yes, the same Durham Public Schools that doesn’t have enough operating do-re-mi for its existing schools – the system is staring at a $17 million deficit. But DPS Chairwoman Heidi Carter says the system has money in its capital funds budget for the Whitted pre-K classrooms, so not to worry.

Where the estimated $750,000 a year needed to keep the lights on at the pre-K will come from, however, is another matter, though if you guess the taxpayers, you’re in the 99th percentile.

DPS’ entry into the Whitted project, along with county and city funds, makes the deal devilishly difficult. The county commissioners and the city need to retain some control over the Whitted site because public money is involved.

This is where the corn maze appears. Integral expects to qualify for $11.6 million in historic tax credits and federal loans as well as $300,000 in city street and site improvements. Moreover, Integral will be paid to oversee the Whitted rehabbing and manage the senior apartments.

The whole thing lines up like dominoes to get around legal barriers raised by the intricacies of a public-private combo repurposing a county-owned building that can’t remain in the county’s inventory.

Because the tax credits that Integral needs can’t be applied to Whitted, Durham County proposes to sell the building to an Integral shell corporation, Whitted School Development LLC.

But wait, there’s more. The county will create a nonprofit entity, Durham Whitted NP, which will then create another entity, Durham Whitted Corp. This is where DPS’ $5.8 million takes the stage.

And then DPS will leave the pre-K classrooms and associated space for $1 year.

The Donald would love it. Not so DPS board member Natalie Beyer, who rightly denounces the deal as a “sweet stream of public money” for Integral.

Tell it like it is, sister. And you might also remind Chairwoman Carter that DPS isn’t in the neighborhood-revitalization business, as she suggests. It’s in the non-intergenerational education business.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.