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story.lead_photo.caption Vincent Kempker stands outside his home for a portrait. The Jefferson City School District wants to buy Kempker's home, but he said he is not selling it. "I've lived here too long to change my mind," he said. Photo by Claire Hassler

Vincent Kempker has lived in the same home for about 55 years.

The Jefferson City School District recently asked him if he's interested in selling it, but he's not considering it.

Demolition of 34 houses near Jefferson City High School — most of them damaged by the May 22, 2019, tornado — began April 9.

The houses are in an area bounded by Stadium Boulevard, Jackson Street, Oberman Place and Adams Street. It is located immediately northwest, across Jackson Street, from the high school's Adkins Stadium.

A competition soccer field and baseball/softball field will eventually be built in the area. Administrators do not know when because the district currently doesn't have enough money to build them, said Jason Hoffman, JC Schools chief financial and operating officer.

JC Schools has contracts on another 16 houses in the neighborhood, some that go into 2021.

The estimated cost for purchase and demolition of all the houses the district has under contract is $2.5 million to $3 million.

JC Schools received an unanticipated $2.4 million increase via County Stock Insurance this fiscal year, which will be used for the property acquisition and demolition.

Additional funding will come from the capital projects fund balance, which is allocated for opportunities like this, JC Schools Communications Director Ryan Burns said.

There are four remaining homes in the immediate target area JC Schools has not purchased, along with three others the district may consider later, Hoffman said. There is not an estimated cost or specific amount set aside for these remaining homes.

"We are not in any hurry, so we will wait for the remaining owners to be ready to sell," Hoffman said.

However, Kempker said he will never be ready to sell.

He said he wouldn't mind if the houses around his were demolished and an athletic field or parking lot was built by his house.

Kempker lived on a farm until he was about 15, so he's used to having no neighbors around, he said. He has lived in his current home since 1964. At nearly 70 years old, he said, he is too old to move.

The house — which received little damage from the tornado — holds many cherished memories, like playing cards and practical jokes with his family, Kempker said.

"The whole family was raised there," he said. "There's just a lot of memories there. I lost three members of my family in that house — my dad, my mom and my little brother."

After the tornado damaged most of the houses in the neighborhood, some residents contacted JC Schools asking if the district was interested in buying their properties.

"We started talking about it, knowing how sensitive this is, that we don't want to be seen as taking advantage of people, so we just sent a letter to every homeowner in the area that we identified saying, 'If you have interest, please contact us,'" Hoffman said.

JC Schools reached out to about 50 homeowners July 1, 2019, via a letter from Hoffman.

"I want to start this letter with my sincere apologies for the loss you incurred due to the tornado on May 22, 2019," the letter reads. "The storms were devastating to our community, and I hope you and your loved ones have been able to recover."

The letter adds, "Due to the proximity of some of the tornado damage to Jefferson City High School, a number of community members have reached out to the district to see whether we would have any interest in purchasing properties in this area. The Jefferson City High School campus is landlocked, so while the suggestion does make sense, we recognize the sensitivity to such a proposal."

The letter notes the intent was to "gauge the interest of the current property owners and the feasibility of possible purchases" by letting homeowners know the district was interested in talking with them to determine whether there might be an opportunity for them to work together.

The letter also states, "Any offer for purchase would be at a fair market price."

A majority of residents in the area said they were interested in selling their property to the district, Hoffman said. Some expressed interest immediately, some during subsequent conversations.

Gwendolyn McGeorge, who lived at 420 Union St. for 42 years, offered to sell her house.

Over the past 10 years, McGeorge said, she suspected JC Schools or Capital Region Medical Center would ask to buy her property because of its location, and she and her husband decided a long time ago they wanted to sell their house to the school district.

McGeorge, her husband and their three daughters attended Jefferson City High School, and they bought the house because of its proximity to JCHS, Simonsen 9th Grade Center and Thorpe Gordon Middle School.

"We had a sentimental attachment to the school," McGeorge said.

After the tornado heavily damaged their house, McGeorge and her husband offered to sell it to the district. When they received the letter from Hoffman, they immediately called him to start the process, she said. They signed the contract in September.

"The letters were very respectful and sympathetic and not pushy at all, and we didn't have to think really long and hard about it at all," McGeorge said.

McGeorge said they saved a lot of money by selling their house to the district, but after insurance and buying a new house, they don't remember how much they sold it for or saved from it. She said it would have cost as much to remove one tree in the demolition as what the district paid them.

"It was market value, and there was no haggling," she said. "The way my husband and I looked at it was it was kind of a gift because the school buying the properties from the homeowners saved everyone demo costs, so anything else back to me was a gift."

McGeorge works in the neighborhood, and she said seeing the houses demolished is bittersweet.

"You kind of hate to see it go, but I'm ready to see it go," she said.

Neighborhood resident Brad Caudle said his house had $16,000-$18,000 worth of damage from the tornado. He didn't appreciate receiving the letter from the district.

"I thought that was in extremely poor taste," Caudle said. "It seemed kind of rude at the time when you're picking trees off your house."

JC Schools passed a bond issue in 2017 to build Capital City High School and renovate and expand Jefferson City High School.

"During that campaign, and even the committee work leading up to that, it was a very high priority that we have two buildings that have equal facilities," Hoffman said.

When Capital City High School was built, JC Schools didn't have enough funds to build competition fields, so the district built practice facilities with the plan to eventually build equitable competition fields at both high schools, Hoffman said.

"The Capital City High School campus has land for future expansion if needed, and our goal is to keep the two high school properties equitable if we can, so acquiring this property would allow us to ensure we can do so in the future," Hoffman told the News Tribune in July 2019.

To make space for the fields on the JCHS campus, the original plan was to cut the rock wall between the YMCA and Adkins Stadium, which would cost about $6 million and wouldn't leave room for parking or locker rooms, he said.

Caudle said he understands the district's desire to improve the high school's facilities, but he didn't appreciate the approach.

"I don't necessarily disagree with the idea of expanding the campus, but I think it more has to do with tact and approach than it would intent," he said.

Caudle said he doesn't want to sell his home to the district, but he worries he may have no other choice — either through eminent domain or because he wouldn't want to live in the only house near an athletic field or parking lot.

The home belonged to his father, and Caudle had to fight to keep it. After his father died from cancer, it took the mortgage company six months to clear the homeowners' insurance check he gave them, he said.

When Caudle moved into the house to take care of his father, he got to know his neighbors and grew to enjoy living there. It became their family home that holds many cherished memories, like he and his father putting up the fence in the backyard together.

"After having to take care of my father and fight to keep the house, I enjoy it now and would like to keep it," he said.

Caudle said there are many run-down, damaged homes in the area that he doesn't blame the district for purchasing to improve the high school's facilities.

"I totally understand that," Caudle said. "The only thing that perturbs me would be it no longer being an option — or a reasonable option — to stay."

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