OPINION: What Happens on James Drive When the New High School is Built?

OPINION: What Happens on James Drive When the New High School is Built?

David Martin is an employee of TRN Media.

ROCK SPRINGS – They’ve crossed the finish line. Rock Springs will get a new high school.

We all can rest assured there is no chance of legislators stripping the $150 million they initially earmarked for the new high school since a call for a special session failed in the House. What’s next is for us to find out just how shovel ready Sweetwater County School District No. 1 is in its plans for a new high school.

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But, what of the current high school? What’s next for that building?

It isn’t too early to start talking about the future of the current high school. Sure, a new high school is several years out, but when the hallways at the James Drive campus are finally empty, what should be done with it? What can be done with it?

Housing will be one of the largest issues Sweetwater County needs to deal with in the coming years as industrial construction and new trona facilities will demand more people and there’s only so much available land to develop. Rock Springs will be instrumental in providing that additional housing because Green River is a landlocked community. One potential future use is converting a portion of the campus into affordable housing. 

Converting school space to housing isn’t unheard of. The former Reliance Elementary School, the school I attended as a child, is now an apartment complex. Converting the school would conform to nearby land uses as the surrounding area is residential housing. Additionally, the building offers close proximity to Downtown Rock Springs and Interstate 80. The nearby football field and track would offer recreational amenities if they’re maintained, and the building could easily house dozens of families.

This option has several drawbacks that would need to be addressed. The most obvious is how costly it would be to renovate classrooms into apartments. Classrooms are obviously single-use spaces where living space would need to include a kitchen area, bathroom, one or more bedrooms and storage space. It’s not impossible, just very costly when considered with the potential cost of the campus if SCSD No. 1 would be convinced to sell in the first place. That also doesn’t factor in the school building already has well-known issues with heating and cooling, among others. It’s very likely converting the building to housing is cost prohibitive.

Of course portions of the building could be utilized by the district for various uses, but that would only result in the unused sections to slowly fall into disrepair, and only prolong the inevitable. I worry the district would eventually abandon the building in the coming decades, leaving it to decay as the cost of renovating and maintaining it would be too much for anyone to shoulder. A major fear I have is a massive fire consuming the vacant campus and this isn’t a thought coming completely from left field either. Old Lincoln High School in Green River met that exact fate. After years of disuse, a fire swept through the building and ultimately forced the Green River municipal government’s hand in demolishing what was left. Of course, that building was in far worse shape than the current RSHS building will be when the new school is finally built, but all it takes is a few decades of empty promises and changed plans to let the campus fall into an unmitigable mess.

Perhaps the best path forward is tearing it down shortly after the new RSHS is built. The land could be sold off and used for residential housing – again mimicking the fate of Old Lincoln in Green River. This isn’t a bad outcome. Anyone would be hard pressed to say the campus on James Drive has any aesthetic charm as it looks like a couple of boxes neatly arranged on the top of a hill. Utilizing the acreage for housing would allow the area to look much better in the future while helping address the housing issue that is coming to Sweetwater County. Yes, change is hard and there are those who have strong attachments to the building, but tearing it down and preparing the land for new generations of Rock Springs residents is the better choice for the future of Sweetwater County.