Editor's note: This article has been updated throughout.
After years of court of dates and reams of papers filed, the Central Ward School building started coming down Friday morning.
Denison City Manager Jud Rex said the process of completely removing the building at 715 W. Sears could take up to two weeks depending on the weather. Colombian-born real estate owner James Roa had fought the city for years to keep the building in hopes of making it into some sort of community center.
Roa, who did not return calls seeking comment on Friday, purchased the property in 2012. It consisted of the former school building and 2.9385 acres of land. The city fought just as hard to take it down, saying Roa never made any real progress toward that goal and the building continued to deteriorate.
The final document on the mountain of motions filed back and forth came in mid-February, with a mandate from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which said Roa had failed to timely file his brief and record excerpts in his appeal of an October 2017 ruling from Judge Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas that found in favor of the city to dismiss Roa’s actions.
Roa sought $6 million from the city because, he said in his petition, the city’s actions had kept him from being able to work on the “building for almost three years, psychological abuse, intimidation, harassment, racial discrimination, deceptive practices, violation of his legal rights.”
While the suit started out against the city, Roa would add defendants almost as often as he appealed, all the while acting as his own attorney in the case.
By the end, Roa had added 2o people to the suit in addition to the city of Denison. Many of those people worked for the city or were on the city council or had, in some way, either ruled on the matter or covered the matter in the news — including Texoma Marketing and Media Group Executive Editor Jonathan Cannon and Herald Democrat reporter Michael Hutchins, who covered the case for years for the paper.
The building opened as a school in 1917 and operated as such for 62 years. But the years since its closure hadn’t been kind to it. In a story published in 2013, then Denison City Manager Renee Waggoner said it would cost the city six figures to tear the building dow,n but it was worth it because of the potential for damage. In recommending the demolition back in 2013, Denison’s Chief Building official Dale Jackson said the structure’s problems were many.
“Staff’s concern on this is there is quite a bit of traffic through the area; we’re concerned that someone could be close to the building and portions of the brick or stone could fall off and hit someone,” Jackson said at the time.
The city cited heavy stonework at the top of the building that could topple off and strike someone on the ground. Roa cited the need to rehabilitate old buildings to serve the community.
But the city said he wasn’t doing enough, fast enough, to rehabilitate Central Ward. And the litigation continued. It moved from Judge Jim Fallon's 15th state District Court to the courtrooms of the Eastern District of Texas just down the street. There Roa found justices willing to work with him as he tried to navigate the judicial system without a law degree. In court filings, he complained of the city’s interactions with him and claimed he was being discriminated against because of his age, and the fact that English is not his first language.
The city said that was not true. It said Roa simply didn’t have the money to make the repairs that were needed and he had not shown the city anything that reasonably demonstrated that he was going to be able to gain that money.
Roa recently listed the property for sale with an asking price in the millions. Grayson Central Appraisal District accounts for the property show that its assessed value when Roa purchased it was $35,000. It had been $72,500 the year before. In 2017, its assessed value was $46,243.
Rex said the the city will pursue a lien against the property for the cost of removing the building and cleaning up the property.
“Our hope is that Mr. Roa will work with us to attract someone to redevelop the property,” Rex said.