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New life for an old school house

MONTOUR FALLS—On the eve of its 90th birthday, the old primary “Union” school in the village of Montour Falls is taking on new life.
More recently known as the Rural-Urban Center and home to a number of county agencies like Cornell Cooperative Extension which moved to its new home in 2007, the building was off the county tax rolls and vacant for several years. Then Vestal developer Bruce Nelson had the idea to convert the building into apartments, and with the encouragement of the village board and some financial incentives, purchased the building.  Nelson Development Group, LLC was responsible for the renovation of the Montour House.
Renovation of the old school house began in late 2010. Originally, 11 apartments and some commercial space was planned for the main building - but the recent agreement with Schuyler County’s Child Care Coordinating Council to lease most of the building’s lower level for a daycare center means some of the space originally planned as apartments will become part of the daycare facility.
On the two floors above, where students once convened in eight classes - one for each of the primary grades - eight apartments are taking shape. Each features new electric and plumbing, open floor plans, ample closet space, its own attic for additional storage, often behind a curved wall; Ikea-inspired kitchens - and a historic original chalkboard as a reminder of its earlier classroom life. The tenants will share use of a fitness center with a sauna, and a library with a fireplace and access to a porch. Named for the grades each once housed, each apartment also has a few unique features, like the “birds-nest” loft sleeping space in one of the units - all have 13-foot ceilings; and the roof-top patio space available in another.
New tenants will be moving in at the beginning of August. Five of the apartments are already leased, while three remain available. Rental costs begin at $795 per month with most apartments at $895 monthly. Work on the property is expected to continue until the end of 2011 - a garage at the rear, currently in progress, will provide inside parking and storage for each tenant; an orchard will be planted and garden plots made available, as well as picnic areas and a nature trail on the three and a half acre property. A barn on the property has recently been fitted with a plate-glass storefront and it’s being renovated to serve as a business location for a future tenant.
“Blame it on my banker,” Nelson says about the projects. “I did a couple of historic preservation projects in Owego for Tioga county. My banker knew the village of Montour Falls was looking for a developer for the Montour House, I threw my hat in the ring and there we are.”
He says he wasn’t necessarily looking for the project at the former Rural-Urban Center, but to the county, it was a surplus property they wished to have tenanted. “They approached me and the rest is history,” he says. And he likes historical buildings. “I like buildings and fixing up old ones,” he says. “I won an award for New York State historic preservation. I don’t think I would build a supermarket.”
Conscious of the surrounding community, Nelson has made a practice of trying to include it in his renovations by holding a once a month open house so everyone interested can ask questions, tour the building and view the progress. He held two years’ worth of open houses at the Montour House and has continued this at the project now called “Flats on Broadway.”
The next open house is Friday, Aug. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. Visitors will be able to see the almost finished building, the newly-planted landscaping leading up to the front door, enjoy refreshments and a social beginning to the evening - and maybe consider whether it’s time for a change in their housing situation.
“So far our tenants are young professionals or empty-nesters,” Nelson explains. “Those seem to be our profile tenants. Not that it has to be that way, but it seems to be happening. In all the surveys I’ve seen, there seems to be a need for housing; the projects seem to be satisfying that need so there’s still a need out there.”
What’s next? Nelson says he’s trying to plan on some time off, but he’s also been looking at a few other projects nearby. Another project may be in the wings but “it’s too early to talk about,” Nelson says.
However, he is planning a 90th birthday party for the old Union School, which was dedicated Jan. 5, 1922.  “What day is Jan. 5, 2012? Thursday? Perfect! Sounds like a good day for a party,” Nelson says. “We’ll plan on that.”


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