For sale: Abandoned 1950s wood-framed schoolhouse in tsunami inundation zone. On former site of historic Native American village; centrally located, ocean views. Serious offers only.
So might the ad for the former Cannon Beach Elementary School read when it goes on the market this year.
Former Seaside School District Superintendent Doug Dougherty proposed the school’s closing in 2013, attributed to a $1.5 million budget shortfall.
The location at 15 feet above sea level — less than half the predicted 38-to-40-foot wave height expected in even a small tsunami, and more than a mile to high ground — sealed the school’s fate.
A 2016 citywide survey showed 77 percent favored developing the former elementary school into a community center.
The Cannon Beach Chorus suggested a concert hall. The Haystack Rock Awareness Program expressed interest in an art and ecology center.
Other potential uses? Survey respondents imagined fairs, festivals, swap meets, a kayak launch or a beer garden. While uses are limited by the property’s institutional zoning to a museum, educational or cultural activity, a conditional use permit could allow a parking lot, restroom or dog impound facility.
“Some may say, ‘Why would you want to buy an old gym building?’” Mayor Sam Steidel, a longtime proponent of a city purchase of the property, said in January. “It used to be a very central part of the community. And it’s the entrance to our town. People care about that, and I think there’s been lots of efforts by citizens to say so.”
The city’s 2017 Parks and Trails Master Plan listed NeCus’ Park and school site improvements a “high priority” to be accomplished within five years. The park holds “great importance to the community in terms of its locational, historical, cultural and ecological value,” the plan stated.
For no one more than the people who lived here for centuries.
The former school sits on the former site of NeCus’ village, a gathering point for tribes and central location for generations.
The Clatsops occupied “a unique pivot-point on the region’s historical landscape,” author and research professor Doug Deur, a tribal descendant, wrote in the Oregon Historical Quarterly.
The Clatsop and their villages lined the south bank of the Columbia River estuary, the Chinooks and their villages the north.
“From those homelands, these tribes dominated social and economic life at the mouth of the river through the early Northwest fur-trade era, as they had for countless generations prior,” Deur wrote.
David Stowe, a representative of the Clatsop-Nehalem Federated Tribes, said there remains a “ton of interest” in the former school.
“The site was one of our most important village sites, and all of us on council and most of us in the tribe had family members born there, lived there and died there.”
The culture stretches 15,000 to 20,000 years for Indian settlement in North America. “We say ‘time immemorial.’”
Stowe’s great-great-aunt and great-great-uncle were the last two Indian people to live there.
To say that the site has meaning for the tribe is “an understatement,” he said.
Underground radar maps show underground longhouses, pit-houses and a trove of archaeological data remaining.
“One of the important things for us is to not disturb that,” Stowe said. “We hope that the integrity of the site will be maintained and honored.”
While interested in providing input, the tribe will not be among the bidders.
“We had been trying to protect the site for a long time, but the logistics are challenging for a small group and we thought this was really a little more than we could take on,” Stowe said.
What would he like to see at the school location?
“I’d love to see a longhouse, personally.”
In September 2016, the land at the former school property was valued at $450,000.
While most of the classrooms in the 1950s-era building would be unusable, Coaster Construction contractor John Nelson concluded the gym was in good condition. The cost of interior and exterior renovations, including a 25 percent contingency, was estimated at $371,000.
The city and the school district were unable to come to an agreement during preliminary negotiations, and the project shifted to the backburner.
For the school district, the elementary school remains another piece in a budding North Coast real estate portfolio, along with Seaside High School, Broadway Middle School and Gearhart Elementary School.
In May, Sheila Roley, superintendent of the Seaside School District, said the district had received appraisals for replacement value of the building and property value if there were no building on it.
A third appraisal will offer “what would be a reasonable cost if you sold the building as is,” Roley said.
“We’re happy to talk to the city about any interest in the school,” she added. “We haven’t had any recent conversations, but we would love to have that building as a Cannon Beach community facility.”
Steidel remains committed to a possible acquisition, but said interest from the City Council has waned.
“I’m the proponent, and I can’t seem to get a council majority to be forthcoming or proactive,” Steidel said. “They keep saying it’s going to be too expensive and has too many problems. I don’t think they’re seeing the vision that it could be.”
The mayor will have an ally in the tribal council.
“We’re very much looking forward to participating with the planning and seeing how things develop there,” Stowe said. “I have a feeling there can be a good outcome for everybody there. That would be awesome.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.