Construction is set to start this spring on an apartment building aimed at attracting and retaining teachers and young professionals in McDowell County, the American Federation of Teachers has announced.
The building will be the former site of Best's furniture store in downtown Welch. The $7 million space, called Renaissance Village, will have two floors of affordable modern apartments and two floors of retail and commercial space.
Welch Mayor Reba Honaker said the effort will be the first new multi-story construction project in the town in more than 50 years, according to the AFT. The union has been a main partner of the Reconnecting McDowell initiative since it launched in 2011 to improve education and children’s lives in the state’s poorest county.
"I’m really hopeful that the Renaissance Village is the beginning of something amazing in McDowell," said Chad Webb, partnership coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell. " I think the project demonstrates the faith that AFT and Reconnecting McDowell has regarding the future of the community’s students and teachers."
The plan for the apartment has been in the works for years. At first, the idea was to create four or five floors of apartments, but AFT said that ultimately was too expensive to finance. The changes will allow the project to get the support it needs to start construction in the spring, the union said in a news release. Its funding comes from federal loans and grants and private donations.
At a ribbon cutting in August 2014, AFT representatives predicted the entire project would be completed in 18 months. But in 2016, union president Randi Weingarten said planners faced challenges raising the private donations necessary to complete the project and unexpected environmental problems with both demolition and the site's location in a floodplain -- all factors she said delayed construction.
Officials hope the apartment building will help attract teachers to the struggling school system. The district has 22 vacant teaching positions and 50 teachers assigned to subjects outside of the field they specialized in, McDowell County School Superintendent Nelson Spencer told the teachers union. Mr. Spencer, who will retire Oct. 31, and his colleague who works with low-income students, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
The union is also sponsoring a Care Closet at each of the 10 schools in McDowell County. Each closet costs about $11,000 and includes free clothing, school supplies, toiletries and other items for students. Weingarten announced the Care Closet project Monday at a Reconnecting McDowell town hall meeting.