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Wigwam on borrowed time, needs 'white knight'

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With a roof that's in bad shape, it could be Mother Nature, or unfortunate circumstance, that decides the iconic Wigwam's fate.

Unless someone else steps up to the plate.

On July 7, someone broke out a window on the north end of the building, entered the vacant former home of Anderson High School basketball and set off multiple fire extinguishers, causing a haze that set off a fire alarm and alerted the fire department.

It was the second time in just a few weeks that someone had broken in, Anderson police said. Break-ins at the now empty arena, which once held nearly 9,000 basketball fans, aren't common but have occurred a handful of times since the gym closed in 2011.

"It is an empty building attracting vandalism," Anderson Community Schools Superintendent Felix Chow told The Herald Bulletin.

It's happened with other buildings ACS has closed, such as Killbuck, reopening this fall as a kindergarten extension for Valley Grove and Eastside elementaries. It's had some graffiti, Chow said.

With the Wigwam, "it could have been worse," he added.

There were signs of mild vandalism July 7, but no damage done in the gym. The break-in weeks earlier had resulted in damage to some cameras and other equipment.

ACS still hasn't decided what to do with the building. Chow said the district hasn't received any solid proposals in writing yet.

"There's a huge step between talking and making a real commitment," he added.

City Director of Economic Development Greg Winkler said there's ongoing interest and effort to reuse the building in a productive way that includes local, regional and national entities.

"It is a challenging project, but there may yet be hope," he said in an email response.

He didn't want to release any details until they can be finalized, as to not raise hopes too high, but said the city hasn't forgotten about the Wigwam.

It's a matter of finding those who've expressed "interest but also have capital," Winkler added.

Chow said the historic gym is relatively inexpensive to keep standing with insurance, alarm and electricity costs. Open, though, it was costing the district $350,000 a year in utility costs alone.

But the roof, the original from when the gym opened in 1961, is weak, he said, adding a heavy snow could cave it in.

Anderson Fire Chief Phil Rogers said it's a safety hazard.

A fire in the rafters could collapse the roof and a water load could even bring down the score board, presenting another danger, he said.

"If it was fully involved, it'd be another tragedy like Anderson High School," he added.

The old AHS closed in 1997 and the Mansur Development Corp. acquired rights to re-use it for senior housing.

Then it caught fire in 1999.

Firefighters from multiple agencies fought to put out the blaze. They couldn't save the school, but they did rescue the Wigwam.

Describing the second largest high school gym in the nation as "an icon of Anderson," Rogers said he'd personally like to see it used in some capacity.

But unless fixed, it remains a hazard, he added.

Realistically, Chow said, the roof has maybe another five years left — depending on weather conditions.

If it caves in, the school board and community will be "forced to make a decision." Repair or demolish.

And to fix it would be an "expensive structure repair" of, at a minimum, $1 million, Chow said.

To tear it down, though, would be costly, too. Selling bits of it, like bricks to fans for nostalgia or copper, would offset some costs.

Architect Jesse J. Wilkerson, principal of Jesse J. Wilkerson and Associates LLC, proposed a $10,000 feasibility study last year to the city to create multiple options for potential development.

It was, he said, "the first round of qualifying any long-term investment by anyone that had any interest in acquiring" the Wigwam.

He added that he'd been approached by multiple independent parties, locally and nationwide, with interest in transforming the facility into a multi-use complex, but that "both ACS and the city decided to pursue other options."

Wilkerson said he'd still like to engage the school district in a study to document "valuation of its current status and potential for development."

"We don't need studies, we need buyers," Chow said.

He added that the school district wants the Wigwam to be used for the community, like the former Meadowbrook Elementary School that was recently sold to Lindberg Church of Christ for use as a sanctuary and activities center.

The Wigwam still has many supporters who would like to see it in use again.

"I hope some white knight, some business, comes in and takes over the building," Chow said.

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