CAPE MAY — With funding in place from the city, Cape May County and the county library system, Cape May is poised to finally renovate the historic school on Franklin Street.

The building served as the school for Cape May’s black children in the days of segregation. For years, the Center for Community Arts tried to renovate the building. While some work was completed — including repairs to the windows — the organization was unable to complete the work.

“They kept the rain out. They kept it from getting worse,” said Mayor Clarence F. Lear III. “We really appreciate what they’ve done.”

According to Lear, there will be space for the CCA in the new vision for the building. Under a $6 million plan, the building will become a new branch of the Cape May County Library system, replacing the current city library housed in a former telephone company building at 110 Ocean St.

On Nov. 18, City Council approved a $2 million bond ordinance covering its share of the expense. In October, the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously approved a resolution committing to cover $2.3 million of the cost.

Once the project goes out to bid, the work will take about a year, Lear said. But the next step will likely wait as the city applies for a state matching grant out of a $125 million state bond voters approved in 2017.

“If the state funds up to half of the costs, we can certainly wait and be patient,” Lear said. “It just makes sense to be patient. Optimistically, the work would start some time next year.”

Built in 1927, the building served as a school until the end of segregation in New Jersey in 1949. It’s seen several uses since then but has been vacant for years. CCA has had a long-term lease on the building since the 1990s, with a vision of creating a community center there.

According to Lear, the organization has a commitment for a $595,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, which could only be used to preserve the historic elements of the building. Before the library project came together, the organization was never able to raise enough money to match that grant.

Lear hopes to put that grant toward the renovation.

While the CCA was able to keep the building standing, Lear indicated the inside is not in good condition.

“It’s going to need some work,” he said.

At a public meeting on the proposal in May, architect Michael Calafati spoke of a feasibility study of using the old school. It will not be cheaper than building new, he said. Outlining an ambitious plan, he proposed room for children’s programs, classrooms and exercise space, a demonstration kitchen and more.

The current library is about 4,000 square feet. The renovated school would be four times that size. The front and back of the building are not connected inside, which has been described as a relic of the building’s past in segregation. The current proposal would mean breaking through an 18-foot doorway to connect the second floor of the school and the existing gym.

Each summer, the popular story time at the Cape May branch sees overflow crowds of children, said Andrea Orsini, the Cape May County Library director. There is also a small meeting room, but not enough space to offer the kinds of programs library patrons want.

“We are very limited in what we can do there,” she said.

The library system has undertaken other large-scale projects recently, including a $5.3 million new building in Wildwood Crest completed in 2015 and a $4.2 million new library in Stone Harbor, which opened in 2016 and replaced one of the smallest libraries in the county.

According to Orsini, those branches saw a major increase in the number of patrons visiting and the number of materials checked out after the expansions. She said an expanded space in Cape May will allow the branch to offer the kinds of programs patrons want and deserve.

“We really are just looking toward what the needs are in our communities,” she said. “We’re doing our best to provide them with the resources they need and want.”

One resource expected to be in short supply is parking. There are parking spaces around nearby City Hall, but they are at a premium in the summer.

The current library does not offer dedicated parking, either, but Lear has concerns that if the new building offers more programs as planned, there will need to be places for patrons to park.

The city expects to pick up about 80 new spaces nearby, as work continues on a park on Lafayette Street.

Hundreds attended a meeting last May in Convention Hall to hear about the library plans, with some residents enthusiastic about the possibilities, while others remained skeptical.

Still to be decided is what will happen to the current library building. Lear said it could end up being sold for residential use.

“We’re not sure. We’ve talked about a couple of different things,” he said.

City officials have also considered using the building as a community center or senior center. Another possibility could be a visitor center, well placed between the Washington Street Mall and the beach.

“Nothing is definite at this point. There are just a bunch of ideas we’re considering,” Lear said.

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