As Building Crumbles, So Do Hopes For Central High — But A Buyer Emerges

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By Linda Cicoira

New York artist Tucker Robbins has a buyer for the former Central High School, on Lankford Highway in Painter, and hopes to close the deal March 15, he said this week.
“There are several parties interested in Central,” he added. “I am by contract unable to say whom. … Recently I have been approached by a couple of groups looking to pick up the mission of Central Green,” which he named the property for the environmentally focused endeavors that he hoped would go there.
Robbins bought the 30,328 square-foot two-story circa 1932 cinderblock and brick school, the metal gym, the surrounding 12 acres, and other outbuildings about a decade ago for $150,000.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors sold the school to Robbins after acquiring it from the school division, which last used it as a middle school beValfore a new one was built in Onley.
Robbins won the board over with his plans of moving his furniture workshop to the gym, offering concerts in the auditorium, and putting a restaurant in what was once the cafeteria to serve exotic vegetables grown on the grounds. Art studios and shops would have filled the classrooms.
His ideas for the property excited the school’s alumni, who were heartbroken to see the home of the proud bulldog mascot vacant.
The artist spent money on plans and paid $50,000 to remove the asbestos from the main building. He sought and obtained historical recognition for the site. But then in 2015, Robbins announced, “I have been unable to make it work for my business, yet I am sure that it can work for enterprise, providing housing, a campus for retail and grounds for further development.”
It went on the market for $525,000 in May 2015. And there it sat and sat. In October 2015, it went down to $449,000. It was reduced again a year later to its current price of $350,000. The property was unattended for the majority of the time, and photos on a realtor’s site show it has deteriorated with a window behind the building collapsing at the frame, ceilings falling, paint peeling, and tiled floors curling.
Robbins said Monday the fate of the sale lies with the county supervisors. He said the prospective buyers discussed their venture with the supervisors in December. But officials say they have heard nothing about the school and did not meet about it.
“News to me,” County Administrator Mike Mason said. “This was not a topic at the December board of supervisors’ meeting, so I’m not sure what he is referring to.” Two supervisors also said they were unaware of a meeting.
Robbins said he didn’t know why the prospective buyers would need to meet with the supervisors.
Central was built in segments. The first part cost about $25,000 to construct and was completed in December 1932. After a legal battle that went to Virginia’s Supreme Court, Accomack’s school board borrowed money from the State Literary Fund. Some taxpayers objected to the loan, complaining that the issue had been voted down when brought before the public. In January of the following year, the building was open for classes. Robbins got “Central Green” listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“The responsibility for preserving Virginia’s irreplaceable historic resources rests ultimately with interested citizens like you,” State Historic Preservation Director Kathleen Kilpatrick wrote in a letter to Robbins in June 2010 when she announced the designation.
In county records, the school is owned by Southern Mercantile LLC. It is zoned general business. In 2016, the property was assessed for $814,200. The value went to $740,400 in 2018. Robbins pays around $4,500 a year on the property in real estate taxes.
“The school is not in the town limits but I always thought it would have great potential for something similar to what has happened with Onancock school,” Painter Mayor Connie Campbell said. “Each room could have its own function. It could house a small business, teach an art class or something similar, teach a food class, teach a craft of any kind. I think it could be a great opportunity but much work is needed due to what appears to be the work of vandals on the building’s condition. I think the owner had some of those kinds of ideas and just a shame nothing ever happened.” William Campbell, the mayor’s husband and a longtime Painter firefighter, has been on a quest to find the high school’s trophies that once were displayed in a case in the first floor hallway.
The Eastern Shore Post asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of the trophies and soon learned where they went. Gary Callaway was there about 15 years ago. “I asked about them and was told that’s where they were. … They were all thrown in a pile in the shop. Most every one torn up … What a shame,” the former Central football player said.