Simmesport wants closed school/prison site for civic center

If plans become reality, a court-closed school will see its third “life” -- this time as a municipal civic center.

The former Simmesport Elementary School started as the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School for black students during the days of segregation. It was closed in 1988 when U.S. District Judge Nauman Scott issued a sweeping desegregation/consolidation order. That order completely closed some schools while some small high schools became elementary schools or middle schools.

Simmesport Elementary students were zoned to attend the renamed Riverside Elementary, which had been Simmesport High. The high school students were zoned to attend Avoyelles High, the new name for Moreauville High.

Simmesport Elementary was one of four closed schools that Sheriff Bill Belt leased to use as detention centers. Since then, only the women’s prison in the former Career Development Center in Cottonport remains open. The CDC was closed in 1986 for budgetary reasons.

The Bordelonville High property was purchased by the community for use as a fire department training and community center.

That leaves vacant the Simmesport site, where the parish prison closed in 2015, and the former special education school near Bunkie, which closed as a prison earlier this year.

Mayor Leslie Draper said the town is in the early stages of discussion with the Avoyelles School District, but hopes a suitable agreement can be reached.

“Our goal is to secure the building to be used for several purposes -- as a training center, for educational programs, possibly to have a development organization open a satellite office, recreational programs and as a conference center,” Draper said.

"The gym/cafeteria is part of the original Paul Lawrence Dunbar School, and we would want to preserve that building for historical reasons,” he added.

Draper said the city will be establishing a Simmesport Hall of Fame and the envisioned civic center would be the home for that program.

APSD Maintenance Supervisor Steve Marcotte said the site consists of between 7.5-8 acres and two buildings, the main school building and the cafeteria/gymnasium.

It has an appraised value of $148,000.

Marcotte also said the discussions are in the early stages. He said raising the money to purchase the property could be tough in the current economic conditions, but the School Board will work with the town in any way it legally can.

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