From the outside, what was once Elizabeth City High School at the corner of Elizabeth and Road streets essentially looked like it has since it was decommissioned as a middle school earlier this century, and then became a popular haunted house every Halloween.
On the inside, it’s buzzing in almost every corner, just as it would on a typical school day since it first opened exactly 100 years ago.
But instead of crawling with students headed to class, its crawling with construction workers tasked with turning the school into apartments.
At the center of it all is James Flanigan, Vice President of J.D. Lewis Construction Management.
Flanigan has been one of the people at the forefront of the continuing transformation of Elizabeth City’s downtown into a thriving home for a variety of new residents and businesses since he first drove across the Camden Causeway in 2017.
He’s a northern Virginia native, who then lived in Richmond and was part of a revitalization in the RVA before moving his family to Kitty Hawk.
Weatherly Lofts was his first project in The Harbor of Hospitality, turning a former candy factory/car dealership/mattress store into over two dozen apartments with a stunning view of the Pasquotank River.
Now it’s Betsy Town Lofts, breathing new life into the century-old center of learning.
“We’re a small construction development company that does big work,” Flanigan said as he leads us on a tour of what’s known as The Annex, which was added to Elizabeth City High School in 1951.
J.D. Lewis bought the entire property from Pasquotank County for $420,000 in January 2022. They have since invested well over $10 million to renovate the buildings and preserve its history.
Because The Annex doesn’t have the historic designation as the main building that fronts North Road Street, it could be totally gutted and is now expected to see the first resident moving in to the 26 one- and two-bedroom apartments as early as mid-spring.
“So it’s 18 per floor in The Annex. And it’s a good mix here,” Flanigan said as we walked a hallway on the second floor. “We have a couple of studios, some really good one bedrooms, we’re doing more two bedrooms.”
After running into challenges with the main building due to settling of the foundation after the renovation of Elizabeth Street was completed in the 2010s, its 62 units are expected to be available for occupancy by the end of the summer.
A couple of the studios will run around 450 feet, while the one-bedroom units are between 650 and 750 square feet. The two-bedroom apartments are approximately 1,200 to 1,400 square feet.
The units feature hard surface countertops, LVT flooring in The Annex units and wood flooring in the original building.
“We’re big proponents of picking products that last a while and that we can refurbish as well,” Flanigan said.
“One of the things that we like to do is instead of having every unit have its own hot water heater, you’re able to gang these hot water heaters,” Flanigan explained what we were seeing in a utility room. “And we do a hot loop throughout the whole building.”
“We can have one of these hot water units go down, the rest will keep keep up, so it’s easier to maintain in the future,” Flanigan said.
J.D. Lewis will provide water and internet service as part of the rent, while tenants will have an electrical bill.
Amenities for residents at Betsy Town Flats, which will also be available to Weatherly Lofts residents too, will include a fitness center, common space for small and medium size gatherings and a swimming pool.
The old Chorus Room on the southeast corner of the Annex building’s second floor, has been converted with a riser into a studio apartment so residents can have a panoramic view of much of downtown Elizabeth City.
While the classrooms have been turned into living spaces in the building that runs parallels to Elizabeth Street, the main gymnasium that was Home of the Yellow Jackets will become a center of activity for the entire community.
Once all the work is finished, the 1951 gym will be operated by the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Parks and Recreation Department as part of a lease agreement with the city and county that are coupled with tax credits to help service the debt.
The original gym in the 1923 building will also see new life. One half has been turned into apartments and the other half preserved as a large gathering hall.
Along with relics of its time as a school left by students and teachers over the decades, there’s also some cool architectural features that are being preserved.
They range from the iron work outside an open-air staircase in The Annex, to a long-hidden skylight over what was a bathroom that will become part of an apartment in the main building.
With more than 100 additional residents about to call downtown Elizabeth City home this year, Flanigan sees another evolution coming with the diversity of shops, boutiques, breweries and restaurants that have sprung up over the last five years.
Once Betsy Town Flats is up and running, another major project may be on the horizon at the far end of Elizabeth Street: The Elizabeth City Cotton Mill.
“So we’re still in the preliminary modeling phase of that,” Flanigan said. “I did look at the building extensively, walked in, looked at all the ins and outs, it’s a great building.
“The Robinson family has done a good job of maintaining it over the years,” Flanigan said. “So there’s a lot of the historic parts and pieces are there.”
“It’s not as close to the downtown, but behind it is fields,” Flanigan said. “Possibly apartments, possibly something else, I think we’ll rent (Betsy Town Flats) out and see how it goes.
Last year, J.D. Lewis purchased the old Elizabeth City Milling Company building at the intersection of Water and Ehringhaus streets, but Flanigan hasn’t come up with a plan for it quite yet.
“We keep dipping our toe in Elizabeth City. So far we’ve been really pleased with what we’ve seen,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan also sees a future for unique projects such as he has tackled. Not just in Elizabeth City, but that benefit the entire Greater Outer Banks.
“I think a lot of people think that the Inner Banks is the next thing,” Flanigan said, acknowledging there is a challenge to doing what he’s done in Elizabeth City and even some pushback in a few other places.
But he does feel that regional solutions can be found to address the area’s challenges such as essential housing, transportation, and healthcare.
“We can come together, both on the beach and the mainland, to get to the same destination of improving the lives of everyone here,” Flanigan said.