A Petersburg-based developer said he is “not intimidated” by the damage sustained to the former Bedford Middle School.
“We are still trying to assess the damage at this point, but I am not intimidated by the damage,” Waukeshaw Development Inc. owner Dave McCormack said during a public meeting Jan. 29 at Beale’s Beer on Grove Street to discuss the Jan. 23 fire at the historic school. “What we do is bring buildings back to life.”
McCormack organized the meeting to show his appreciation to the firefighters who worked for two days to save the historic building and to address concerns from Bedford residents that damage caused by the fire would end his plans to redevelop the site. More than 200 people came to the meeting at Beale’s.
“When I see all of you here tonight it reminds me why we are in Bedford doing projects,” McCormack said. “It’s hard to look at that building today and wonder if anything good can come out of it, but I am here to tell all of you that we are still committed to this project and to this town. We are not walking away from anything.”
Firefighters were called to the old middle school building at about 3 a.m. on Jan. 23 and crews from at least four local fire departments responded to the blaze, which burned throughout the day and into the following day.
Investigators entered the building Jan. 24 to determine the cause and origin of the fire and detected accelerants on multiple floors of the building, which led investigators to determine the fire was intentionally set.
Bedford Chief Todd Foreman said investigators reviewed surveillance photos from cameras at the school and discovered images of a suspect believed to have started the fire. The matter remains under investigation, and no arrests have been made in connection to the incident.
The Longwood Avenue school was closed in 2018 after 90 years of operating to make way for the new Liberty Middle School. It was a high school for 34 years until 1964 and from that year on was an elementary school through 1989. The town of Bedford owns the building and signed a performance agreement with Waukeshaw Development in April to develop the 8.37-acre site.
The property has four buildings — a two-story main building that was built around 1928 — which was damaged in the fire, the three-story “Old Yellow” building built in 1912, a one-story cafeteria building built in 1964 and a two-story gymnasium constructed in 1999.
McCormack plans to turn Old Yellow into a 30-room boutique hotel and the old middle school building into about 50 apartments; the 8,000-square-foot cafeteria building will be used as a catering kitchen and classroom space. McCormack said Old Yellow and the former cafeteria building were not damaged by the fire to the middle school building.
“Thanks to the firefighters, two out of the three buildings we are developing were not damaged, and we can move forward with what we were planning there,” McCormack said. “We still believe that this property could be something to help Bedford transform into a really great destination.”
McCormack said he was at the site Jan. 29 and is taking steps to assess the damage caused by the fire.
“I was out there with my insurance people today taking a look,” McCormack said. “We are going to spend the next week trying to figure out how to tackle the cleanup.”
McCormack said it could take as long as 90 days to remove debris from the building and get a structural assessment of what remains.
“It will not be a quick process because it is a mess in there,” McCormack said. “Once we can clear all of the debris out we can get a better idea of what we can do with this building.”
McCormack said while the site’s cleanup is underway, he will continue to meet with town and county officials to develop options for the building’s development, pending the result of a structural survey.
“Our main goal is option A — which is saving this building,” McCormack said. “I wish I could give a more definitive answer tonight, but we have a lot of work to do before that happens.”
Bedford Mayor Steve Rush said Bedford officials met Jan. 29 with McCormack and had a “really productive” meeting with the developer.
“He already has presented us with some options,” Rush said. “I think Dave is doing a wonderful job dealing with this setback and he is committed to this project as much as the town is.”
Several residents at the meeting, however, expressed concerns about the safety of the remaining buildings on the property because the suspect believed to have been responsible for the fire has not yet been arrested.
“Is Old Yellow safe?” one man asked McCormack during the meeting. “Are you or the town stepping up security at the site?”
McCormack said additional security measures — including surveillance cameras — have been installed throughout the property.
“We have tightened things up out there and we are taking extra security steps,” he said.
However, McCormack said he shared the residents’ concern for the site’s safety.
“We are super concerned about who this arsonist is and why they targeted us,” McCormack said. “Whoever did this went in that building last week with the sole intention of setting this fire. This was not an accident ... this was done out of malice.”