By Tom Rivers
HOLLEY – The renovation of the former Holley High School is a dream come true for the Holley community. For the past two decades residents have had their hopes raised as developers pitched plans to turn the building into apartments.
Those projects never came to fruition – until Home Leasing, a Rochester company, started construction about a month ago.
“We are blessed,” said Marsha DeFilipps, the Holley and Murray historian. “The school is right in the center of the village. It will be a highlight of the community.”
DeFilipps attended a “Preservation Celebration” on Tuesday for the former school. She graduated from the school in 1965. The building closed in 1975 as a school, but would be used by Liftec Manufacturing until it went bankrupt in the mid-1990s.
“A lot of kids went there,” she said. “There are a lot of great memories. We had a lot of fun in that school.”
A sign directs people to the American Legion for a Preservation Celebration on Tuesday. The former Holley High School is in back.
The Liftec bankruptcy created a challenge with getting a clear title for the property. That issue put the brakes on previous attempts to acquire the property for apartments, including a serious push from Catholic Charities.
David Schubel, who recently retired as county attorney, was praised during the Preservation Celebration for figuring out a way to get clear title on the project. An LDC was created to hold the title. None of the local governments wanted the title because they didn’t want to be in the chain of liability for the property.
The county also forgave back taxes on the property and helped to resolve issues with the mortgage.
While the property sat in limbo for about two decades, the Village of Holley mowed the grass and kept vigilance at the site. Holley also agreed to move its village offices to the building as an anchor tenant. The village also agreed to continue to mow the lawn and take ownership of an parking lot that will be upgraded by Home Leasing.
These four sit in the front row in the American Legion during Tuesday’s Preservation Celebration. They include, from left: Holley Mayor Brian Sorochty, County Legislator John DeFilipps (a 1975 Holley graduate), Landmark Society executive director Wayne Goodman, and Nelson Leenhouts, chairman and CEO of Home Leasing.
The actions by the village and county resolved barriers that could have stood in the way for the $17 million renovation, Home Leasing officials said.
“This is a story of team work,” said Kimberly Russell, executive vice president for Home Leasing.
She has worked on the project for five years.
“We are proud to be here,” she told a group in Holley’s American Legion on Tuesday during a Preservation Celebration. “We are honored to be here.”
Besides the efforts from local government leaders, state and federal officials pushed to make the project a reality. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer was at the school property on Nov. 11, 2016, stating his support for tax credits for the project.
Home Leasing was able to put together a complicated deal with tax credits to make the school renovation possible. The company is leveraging $12 million in tax credits – $6.8 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credit equity and $5.1 million in Historic Tax Credit equity – which are critical in making the project financial feasible.
The school will be turned into 41 apartments for senior citizens, with about 6,000 square feet set aside for the village offices for Holley.
Nelson Leenhouts has been working in the real estate development business for a half century. He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Home Leasing.
Leenhouts said the community’s enthusiasm for the project kept him and Home Leasing focused on the Holley Gardens, the senior apartments that will be created at the former school.
He recalled a public forum on Sept. 27, 2016 at the Holley Junior-Senior High School Auditorium. Home Leasing went over its plans for the property.
More than 100 people showed up and they shared their gratitude to Leenhouts for his persistence and vision for the property.
That kind of public support isn’t the norm, Leenhouts said.
Nelson Leenhouts, chairman and CEO of Home Leasing, speaks to a crowd Tuesday at the American Legion. The community’s enthusiasm for the project, and the building’s prominent location in Holley, were among the factors pushing him for the renovation.
Home Leasing first became interested in the former school after it was included on the inaugural “Five to Revive” list by the Landmark Society of Western New York. That list was unveiled on May 16, 2013, and was widely publicized in the Rochester area media.
The five sites were picked for their importance to their communities, and for the potential transformational impact they could have in their neighborhoods. All five were in desperate need of investment.
Home Leasing is working on the school project with Edgemere Development. The Five to Revive designation caught Edgemere’s attention, said Charlie Oster, development manager for Edgemere.
He also cited the community support for the project, including the forum in September 2016.
“It was welcoming, it was warm,” he said about the community reaction to the project.
Charlie Oster, development manager for Edgemere, said persistence and community support helped with the redevelopment of the school.
The school posed environmental, financial and historic preservation challenges, Oster said.
“Holley Gardens is a story of community, complexity and ultimately perseverance,” he said during the celebration Tuesday.
County Legislator John DeFilipps was Legislature chairman when the county agreed to forgive the taxes and work out creating the LDC for the title. DeFilipps also graduated from Holley in 1975, the last class to complete its senior year at the school.
He has toured Home Leasing properties, including the renovation of the former Eastman Dental Dispensary, which was built by George Eastman in 1917 to address a community need for affordable dental care. The building was vacated in 1978, and sat idle for nearly four decades. It is now the Eastman Gardens with 52 apartments for people 55 and older.
“The Home Leasing properties are all very well done,” DeFilipps said.
The Eastman site was also on the initial Five to Revive in 2013. Wayne Goodman, Landmark Society executive director, praised Leenhouts and Home Leasing for taking on the project in Holley.
“This project needed a lot of miracles to happen,” Goodman said. “It has taken incredible support from so many people – the Village of Holley, the Town of Murray, Orleans County and the State of New York. It has been an incredible collaboration.”
The residents’ support stands out, Goodman said, and so has the tenacity of village officials, including Mayor Brian Sorochty.
Home Leasing has started work on the school. It is first focused on removing asbestos and pigeon droppings. The windows will all be replaced and then Home Leasing will start creating apartments in the second floor and then work on the first floor. The auditorium space will be transformed into the village offices. The building will have new utilities.
The wooden trim inside will be taken out, revived and put back in.
Home Leasing currently has eight employees working at the building.
George DeRue, Home Leasing’s vice president of historical preservation, is working on the Holley project. He has 30 years with Home Leasing.
“Next year around this time it will all be done and it will be a nice, gorgeous building,” DaRue told a happy crowd Tuesday in Holley.