The high bid for the former Mueller Elementary School was $56,000 – less than $1 per square foot – at an auction Friday.
The appraised taxable value of the school and surrounding property – at 2821 E. 24th St. North, just northwest of 21st and Hillside – is more than $1.7 million, according to Sedgwick County tax records.
Mark Cox, owner of Vintage Construction in Wichita, submitted the winning bid for the property at the close of an auction in the school’s lobby that lasted about 20 minutes. The sale is contingent upon approval from the Wichita school board, which will meet Feb. 25.
Cox said he envisions “some type of housing project” in the former school building. He said he will submit a general concept to board members.
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Mueller was one of five Wichita public school buildings that closed last year as part of cost-cutting measures and new attendance boundaries.
“It’s a remarkable price. I’m pleased with the price,” Cox said shortly after the auction. “We’ll see what the board has to say about it.”
Board member Betty Arnold, whose district includes Mueller and the surrounding neighborhoods, said the winning bid “seems like a good price to me,” because of concerns with the condition of the building.
“Honestly, there were so many problems with that building, which was the motivator for the decision” to close Mueller, Arnold said Friday. “So I was not expecting anything for the building.”
In previous years, parents of some Mueller students complained that mold in some rooms was making their children sick, Arnold said. The building also needs roof repairs and had issues with water in a utility tunnel, she said.
“I’m not at all disappointed, simply because that building was going to require so much work,” she said.
Last summer the district sold the former Booth Elementary in southeast Wichita for $83,000. Booth was built around the same time as Mueller but is less than half the size; its appraised value was about $695,000, according to tax records.
Mueller was built in 1952 and was expanded with a two-story addition in 1972. The 57,100-square-foot building and surrounding property, more than 4 acres, are zoned single-family residential.
In 2003, the district spent nearly $1.2 million to upgrade infrastructure at Mueller and renovate its library. The building features 33 classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, a kitchen, a new boiler and updated plumbing, electrical and heating and air-conditioning systems.
“I recognize we made an investment, but my concern was just the groundwater, the mold,” Arnold said Friday. “I can’t put a price tag on a student’s health, so from my perspective I really was pleased that we got the students out of Mueller.”
Cox, the developer who submitted the winning bid Friday during the “as-is, no warranties” auction conducted by J.P. Weigand & Sons, disagreed.
“The building’s in great shape,” Cox said. “A lot of space, a lot of amenities, and … the recreational aspect on the surrounding grounds is great.
“If you could retrofit the building and convert it into quality housing, I think that’s a good use for the building.”
Cox’s previous development projects include Richmond Place, a 20-unit apartment complex for people with developmental disabilities at 10th and Richmond, just south of Indian Hills Swim Club.
A one-page document distributed at the auction’s registration table Friday noted past issues with water in the utility tunnel at Mueller but said sump pumps and an exhaust fan “have corrected the problem.” Also, “any mold that was detected in the school was taken care of,” according to the document.
“Everything has been repaired” except for the roof, said Kenny Hinkle, director of design and construction for the district. “We have no issues now – no structural issues we’re aware of, no water issues. We took care of those problems five years ago.”
The high bid is “probably a little low,” Hinkle said. “But as you know, it still has to go to the board for approval.”
The auction, conducted by John Rupp of J.P. Weigand & Sons, began tentatively. Rupp tried to start bidding at $100,000 but backed down to $50,000 and then $10,000 before recording the first bid.
After about 10 minutes, bids rose to $35,000 and alternated between two bidders: Cox and Wade Moore, senior pastor with Christian Faith Centre in Wichita. Moore said he would like to have purchased the school for the church, which meets in a building on South Broadway, but was just outbid Friday.
“I hit my limit, but man, what an awesome deal,” Moore said after the auction. “I’m sick to my stomach.”
During the debate over school closings last year, residents worried that vacant schools would become neighborhood eyesores – magnets for vandals, drug dealers or worse. Others said empty schools would drain the district’s already strapped budget.
Since closing the Mueller building, the district has spent about $4,300 on maintenance and upkeep at the site, most of it to mow grass, repair broken windows and remove graffiti. Security officers still patrol vacant school sites, and the district runs power to empty buildings to operate security systems.
Arnold, the board member, said she will wait for more information from district officials before deciding whether to approve the sale.
“I want to be sure we’re getting a reasonable price for it, and then I really would like to have more information on what it is the winning bidder plans to do,” she said. “And what kinds of things we can put in place to make sure that if that’s not done, that we have some follow-through on that.”