An organization that provides residential facilities for teenagers who have been in trouble with the law has expressed interest in leasing the Patterson School in Caldwell County.
Eckerd Connects, which is based in Florida, wrote a letter of intent expressing interest in leasing the Patterson School to operate a 40-bed residential program for boys ages 13-17 who have “exhibited delinquent behaviors in their home, school and community.”
Eckerd contracts with the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Juvenile Justice Division and has operated in North Carolina since 1977, the letter said. Eckerd currently provides treatment, counseling, education and training services at four residential centers in North Carolina, including one on 514 acres owned by Eckerd on High Rock Road in Boomer.
Eckerd expressed interest in leasing Patterson’s Weise Dorm, Hickory Hall, Van Noppen Hall, Stoney Hall and Chester Hall, along with two residential homes and green space near Weise Dorm. The Patterson School is about six miles north of Lenoir off U.S. 321 and N.C. 268.
Eckerd approached the Patterson School Foundation’s board of trustees, later sent the letter of intent, and executives have toured the campus, said Janet Spoon, the board’s secretary and treasurer.
When asked if the facility would be a reform school, she said, “I guess you could call it a reform school. That’s an old term. It’s more like a developmental school for people who need a little extra help.”
In an emailed statement, David Hardesty, vice president of operations for Eckerd, wrote that “this concept is in the very early exploratory stages with no definitive plans at this time. Eckerd Connects wants the community to be an active partner in the process should there be an interest in a possible future project.”
Spoon said she is in favor of the project.
“Patterson is a school. It was built to be a school, and that’s what it should be,” she said.
Liza Plaster, another board member, said there is a difference of opinion among board members about what should happen to the campus. She and others feel that having the juvenile facility there could discourage people from touring the Western North Carolina Sculpture Center, which is on the Patterson School campus next to where the facility would be.
“We’ve loved, for the five years that I’ve been on the board, having workshops and dinners and concerts and classes of all kinds (at the school) before the COVID hit, and being open to our community,” she said. “But the three of us who are the Happy Valley board members, ... we feel that a (facility for troubled teenagers) is not going to be an inviting asset of that campus.”
Plaster said that the idea had come up before, but she thought the board had rejected it.
“We put this idea to rest, we thought, a year ago when the idea came up the first time,” she said. “Because Eckerd came to the board offering a lot of money, offering to make a lot of improvements and pay a lot of money. … But anyway, we thought we had turned down this idea completely a year ago when it first came up, for the same reason, that it would shut off the campus of being a viable part of the Caldwell and the western North Carolina community.”
Zachary Smith-Johnson, the director of the Western North Carolina Sculpture Center, said he needed to know more about the proposal.
“We’re afraid that it could interfere with our mission,” he said. “We just don’t know yet. … We are terribly afraid that the sculpture center … could be drastically changed.”
His business partner, Joe Bigley, said he was worried about the ripple affects on the Patterson community.
“I certainly understand the value of the work that Eckerd does. It’s a necessary service,” he said. “(But) I think within the proximity of a public sculpture park, it’s hard to imagine it not having effects that hinder people’s willingness to come out.”
Bigley was also concerned that he and his family, who live on the Patterson School campus, could be displaced if Eckerd moves in.
“I think it’s notable that some of the people that are making these decisions do not live in the valley or in the county. It might make it easier for them to see the financial incentives rather than the day-to-day effects. I’m not opposed to being a good neighbor … by any stretch. But it’s hard to predict how this might affect our operations going forward,” he said.
Spoon said some tenants living on the school property could end up having to move to make room for the facility.
“Well of course if ... (Eckerd) needed the apartments or housing eventually, then they would have to relocate. And that’s the thing with any place you rent,” she said.
Spoon said that the facility would not interfere with the operations of the Sculpture Center, which she said “would probably be something that Eckerd appreciates and likes for those students to have nearby.”
She compared having Eckerd at the school to the times when the Patterson School was operating as a boarding school and brought millions of dollars to the county.
“It was a really good economic thing for Caldwell County, so yes, I’m very much in favor of it,” she said.
Danny Seaver, another board member, said that while he isn’t opposed to the idea, he wants to know more before he decides.
“I like the idea of a school being back on the campus, but I’d like to hear some more about it,” he said.”
Jesse Plaster, who owns property next to the Patterson School, said, “I think anyone in the area would have concerns about security and safety. And then two, I think, what a missed opportunity that would be for Patterson School, to kind of put up gates in a metaphorical way and shut the community out instead of opening up to the community and really embracing the valley.”
He said that the facility would feel like an unwelcome presence.
“It’s a closely knit agricultural community. You know, everybody knows one another, everybody goes to school or church with area families, and this just feels like a dark cloud that could hang over the valley,” he said. “It’s just counter to everything I’ve grown up with in that area.”