by Graham Quinn
Eagle Editorial Board
Eleven acres, sixty million dollars, six months and four bids.
An enormous opportunity to greatly improve and grow the school.
One of the single greatest, most monumental events in the 113-year legacy of St. Thomas.
In a meeting 5 p.m. Thursday, the Board of Directors for Houston Independent School District voted to accept St. Thomas’ $60 million “best and final” offer for the property and all buildings at 4701 Dickson St., which neighbors the St. Thomas campus to the north and is currently occupied by High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.
The decision capped off a six-month saga of hope and heartache as a bidding war ensued between St. Thomas and private development group AV Dickson / ELK Mountain.
“It goes to show you that prayer really does move ‘mountains’,” President Rev. Kevin Storey, C.S.B., said over the announcements on Friday, Nov. 1, the day the final bids were opened and read publicly by HISD.
This large amount of land space is a little overwhelming, and the high price tag seems too steep for some.
But, as Storey is convinced, it is most definitely worth the investment.
“It is probably more land for today than we need,” Storey said, “but we couldn’t be more delighted that it allows us to be here for the next 113 years.”
“The land is worth $50 million, as that is what both bidders were willing to pay; the buildings have been independently appraised at $16 million, so our final offer is a discount,” said Storey, who is the school’s CEO.
Today marks the kickoff of the school’s $60 million capital campaign to raise the money needed to formally close on and take the keys to the property February 15, 2014.
“If this were a buffet, naturally we would pick and choose to be able to purchase pieces at a time,” Storey said. “The reality, however, is that we had to go ‘all in’ and buy the whole meal at once, that this opportunity would not present itself again.”
St. Thomas was not the only bidder for the coveted acreage.
A real estate agency that owns several apartment complexes in the area, AV Dickson / ELK Mountain, also took great interest in the property.
St. Thomas even entertained negotiations of a joint venture with the group, where each would get a certain part of the 11-acre lot.
The deals fell apart, and ELK Mountain made clear that it not only sought the entire HISD property but had its eyes on the ultimate prize of someday acquiring all of St. Thomas’ existing grounds.
“4500 Memorial Drive is not – nor will it ever be – for sale,” Storey said. “We are 4500 forever.”
The competing group’s final bid – a staggering $49 million offer – was significantly lower.
“If AV Dickson acquired the property, soon enough we would see facilities for education torn down and destroyed and high-rise buildings for real estate and commerce go up,” Principal Rev. Patrick Fulton, C.S.B., said. “Now, future generations can enjoy the same unparalleled education and opportunities that the students do now.”
Innumerable benefits of purchasing such a valuable piece of real estate will be almost immediate.
“For me the most exciting thing is options and potential,” Fulton said. “From here on in, there will be a requirement to develop long term, strategic usage plans.”
Plans for realizing a 2016 move-in date are already underway, with a longer term 2030 master plan in development.
For now, the objective is to focus on simpler things that can be done right away.
“One thing that I would like to see would be a student center,” Storey said. “Just one space that’s open before or after school so that people could gather there, hang out with their friends and study. This is something we could configure almost immediately.”
With the large addition to campus, the possibilities are almost endless. Significantly more room for classrooms, labs, athletic facilities and almost anything the school desires will be available to be put to use.
“There are three things we have identified as immediate needs,” Storey said. “First is practice fields, second is expanded facilities for our drama department and third is more modern science labs.”
With the sprawling space and the many modern facilities throughout the north campus, achieving these needs will be an easy task.
A main focus for the new property will be for increased athletic facilities.
“We can’t hold our progress back waiting for things to get built,” Athletic Director Mike Netzel said. “Our immediate need would be field space, especially for practices. That would make it easier for teams to have space when several sports are practicing at the same time.”
Academic programs, such as theater and science, stand to benefit from facility expansion, as well. Like Storey, many teachers would appreciate more room for academic classrooms and labs in the master plan.
Dean of Science Dr. Pete Nordloh, who teaches regular, advanced and AP biology and Anatomy & Physiology, is eager to see what lies ahead.
“I would like to see more science labs,” Nordloh said, “and a larger cafeteria so that everyone could have lunch at the same time and free up time during the school day.”
A main focus for students, especially athletes, is an increase in space in order to reduce time conflicts.
“We need more fields for practices,” senior Alex Perez, a member of the lacrosse team, said. “This way we wouldn’t have practices that last until 9 p.m. on school nights.”
This landmark, exciting outcome will change the life of St. Thomas and set the course for the future growth and development of the school.
While HISD and LECJ set their sights on building a new school and relocating over the course of the next two years, St. Thomas has unprecedented ground to cover to fully fund the $60 million offer in three months.
Storey is boldly committed to making believers out of everyone, that meeting the campaign goal enables us to literally take the keys to the next era of the institution.
“This really is the game changer for the school,” Storey said. “And I’m happy that students, not just parents, are excited for what is to come in our next century on this hallowed ground.”