KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some Hickman Mills residents are worried about what might be next for the old middle school just a few blocks away.

The Hickman Mills C-1 School District decided to close the Smith-Hale Middle School, “in 2017 due to financial constraints and a decline in enrollment in the Hickman Mills C-1 School District (HMC-1),” according to an emailed statement from the district.

Since then, FOX4 has documented fires and vandalism at the former school site.

Still, neighbor Mari Carpenter says it’s a place where she and her family are making memories because it’s much quieter near the school than just a few blocks away.

“This is where we ride our bike,” Carpenter said. “We go from the house to the school and back because this is where we feel safe.”

On the other side of the main road, Carpenter says, busier development makes it harder to have the same experience.

It’s why she started to get worried about a month ago when she found out that the Hickman Mills School District had been working with a potential buyer who would turn the building into office and studio space for an “internet based Christian non-profit radio and television production company,” according to documents handed out at a community meeting.

The main issue for Carpenter and her neighbors isn’t the new intended use, but instead, the zoning changes necessary to allow it to operate.

“I even said in the meeting, ‘I’m not sure if I’m against your project or not,” Carpenter said. “I haven’t looked at all the information you brought, but I definitely am against rezoning.”

The land would have to be rezoned for residential use to office use, which also worries Bob Ludlow.

“There’s about 30 acres so they could do tons of other uses and other buildings that wouldn’t go along with the neighborhood,” Ludlow said. “The big problem could be rezoning which would allow for tons more different uses in case they weren’t using all the property or they decided to leave.”

He also worried that a non-profit operating on the land wouldn’t contribute to the school district and local community through property taxes in the same way that other businesses would.

FOX4 took those concerns to the Hickman Mills School District, which told us in an emailed statement that:

“After careful consideration, we have entered into discussions with a developer who has demonstrated a genuine commitment to the community. They have diligently consulted community members and met with a group as recently as May 17, 2023, to solicit their input and address their concerns.”

Beyond that, the district says the sale, contracts, and other legal aspects of the matter fall under closed-session rules.

“So, my concern is: have you done everything to try to build your project here with the residents’ concerns of just not changing it to something other than residential,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter has this petition opposing the rezoning effort in the neighborhood.

Here is the Hickman Mills C-1 School District’s full statement:

The Sale of Old Smith-Hale Middle School

The closure of the old Smith-Hale Middle School building located on Longview Road was a decision made in 2017 due to financial constraints and a decline in enrollment in the Hickman Mills C-1 School District (HMC-1). Since then, the district has been actively seeking opportunities to revitalize the property and address the community blight that resulted from its closure. HMC-1 understands the importance of maintaining a vibrant and thriving community, and we have been committed to finding a suitable solution. In this pursuit, since the decision to close the building, various stakeholders and community members have contributed their input in appropriate use that honors the variety of viewpoints in the community. Voters express their input by voting and passing a bond that appropriated finances to address the blighted site.

After careful consideration, we have entered into discussions with a developer who has demonstrated a genuine commitment to the community. They have diligently consulted community members and met with a group as recently as May 17, 2023, to solicit their input and address their concerns. As a result, many community members have expressed their belief in this developer’s plans and the potential to bring positive changes to the area.

While we recognize the importance of transparency and public involvement, certain aspects of the sale, contracts, and legal matters fall under closed-session rules. The district appreciates the many viewpoints within the community in creating an opportunity that will benefit our students and satisfy many of the community concerns with the site.