Greg Bassett: Closing the book on Bennett’s 3-phase project

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Phase III of the Bennett High and Middle schools plan was in full display this week as Bennett Middle School began to come down on College Avenue.

The buildings that were constructed in 1966, already stripped of anything of value, began to broken apart, with their different elements being sorted and piled for reuse, recycling and disposal. Part-way across town, the sparkling new Bennett Middle stands ready to receive students just a few weeks from now.

When I received a phone call Monday afternoon alerting me to the demolition, I grabbed my camera and headed to East College Avenue. Construction equipment has been on the site all summer; the gymnasium had already been razed, but the photo opportunities had been few.

Monday was different: A front section of the building was essentially pulled away; half of the peaked roof collapsed on top of the pile; the same excavator that brought down the walls scooped up the underlying bricks and loaded it all into huge waiting trucks.

While all this was going on, car after car was passing through the adjacent parking lot. Inside those vehicles, passengers and drivers paused to watch.

I could see some people becoming pretty emotional at the sight. I could tell there was a lot of thinking and remembering and distressing going on.

Monday’s demolition marked the end of the Bennett Middle saga. Not since the closing of Pittsville High School has Wicomico County been so divided on a school construction issue. For many people, the decision to build a new James M. Bennett High School at the original site and build a new Bennett Middle somewhere new was a  no-brainer. Lots of other people, however, pointed to the plan as an example of county leadership desiring to spend money in a reckless manner.

I had never sensed how divided the county was on the issue until last fall’s election ─ it was obvious then that there were a surprising number of Bennett Phase I, Phase II and Phase III naysayers.

After assuming office in November, County Executive Bob Culver moved to severely adjust Phase III. His idea was to convert a portion of the middle school to offices for the Board of Education. Culver was too late to the party, so to speak, and was unable to get the plans changed.

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It was an interesting exercise in that it allowed Culver to flex some executive muscle and helped to set the tone for how he might lead on school issues.

So, here we are now in the final phase. The Bennett Middle building will come down, the property graded and new athletic fields for the high school constructed. Those fields won’t be ready for use until fall or winter 2016, so there will be a lot of machinery operating around East College and South Division for quite a while.

I posted some photos of the destruction on Facebook, which prompted one Bennett alumnus to offer a comment that sums up what I’ve heard lots of people say.

Wrote Rob Nichols of Salisbury: “Strange and I’ve never seen much of a point made about how the older Wi-Hi and the much older Wi-Junior both outlived the Bennett pair, and are still going strong. BJH and JMB were ─ let’s face it ─ crappy buildings. Fortunately they had GREAT TEACHERS!”

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