It's a hard-knock life; Owner of old Fort Scott Middle School working to transform campus into entertainment venue for young adults

Friday, October 12, 2012
Owner Paul Feeney stands in front of the old Fort Scott Middle School, which he purchased a little more than a year ago. Feeney is one year into a five-year plan that will turn the old school into the REAL School of Hard Knocks, a entertainment venue for young adults.(Laurie Sisk/Tribune)

One year into a five-year plan and with large amounts of debris already removed, entrepreneur Paul Feeney might be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as he works to transform the old Fort Scott Middle School into an entertainment mecca for young adults.

"It's coming," Feeney said. "This is a long-term project. This is not a come in and get it done kind of project."

Feeney lives in the top floor, or the "penthouse," of the 42,000-square-foot building, at 412 S. National Ave., with his two large guard dogs when he is in Fort Scott. He resides in Southern California, but makes trips back and forth to oversee the reclamation of the 94-year-old building, which he said is surprisingly sound and has a strong foundation with which to begin his visionary concept for the old campus.

This vacant classroom illustrates just one of the many restoration challenges Paul Feeney faces as he begins to transform the old Fort Scott Middle School into an entertainment facility.(Laurie Sisk/Tribune)

"The name we are going to put on the building is The REAL School of Hard Knocks," Feeney said. "And I consider myself the headmaster. It's kind of a joke."

Feeney said he envisions electric go-carts, indoor rock climbing, laser tag, food and possibly adult beverages. He said he would like to get a sports bar and restaurant going, but is taking a wait-and-see attitude on that.

He said he doesn't really want to become a restaurateur and would probably lease the space out for the food service portion of the business. He added that he didn't want the alcohol sales to become a focal point, however.

"I don't want to babysit anyone," Feeney said. "I don't want to babysit little kids and I don't want to babysit big kids; we just want to have fun," Feeney said. "This isn't going to be a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day operation. We are thinking about opening Thursdays through Sundays. That way, people that work for us will work every day."

Every activity in the building will adhere to the "school" theme, with customers being issued school identification cards as membership cards. He said if he decides to serve alcohol on the premises, customers, or "students," would have to scan their ID each time they purchase a drink. Too many scans would automatically red flag a person trying to use the go-carts or rock climbing wall. He said students might also be suspended or expelled should the need arise.

Feeney purchased the building for $55,000 on eBay.

"I am at least the third owner that I am aware of," Feeney said. "The first owner bought it from the district and to my knowledge was going to turn it into an antique mall. The architecture of the building is what sold us on the building. We looked at other schools before we bought this one. It was vandalized really bad as we were in the process of buying it. We've cleared out four or five 30-yard dumpsters of trash we have removed from the five floors of the building from the basement to the penthouse."

Feeney has taken measures to reduce vandalism of the building, including installation of a video security system he can monitor whenever he chooses.

He said he hopes to have the penthouse ready for permanent residency in the Spring and that the entire third floor will be residential, mainly for friends and family.

"Not necessarily for me," Feeney said. "I don't need a 10,000-square-foot house."

Asked if he had a lot of friends and family in Fort Scott, Feeney laughed and said, "I will."

He said there also is a possibility of converting part of the third floor into offices or condos.

A tour through the building might make one think there is an insurmountable amount of work to be done to convert the old school into a sustainable business, but Feeney isn't intimidated by the large areas of peeling paint on most of the school's walls.

"Two guys, a wire brush and a pressure washer and it's down," Feeney said. "These are plaster walls. We are not going to paint over them; we'll clean them up, seal them and then we will interior drywall everything. Everything will look like a modern residential structure."

Feeney said that will allow him to run modern plumbing, electrical and duct work between the drywall and the plaster.

Downstairs in the recreational areas, Feeney said he will keep the industrial look, because that's to his advantage.

"It's economical and it keeps with the theme," Feeney said. "In a go-cart track, does it matter what your ceiling looks like? It's kind of a modern way of doing things anyway."

Feeney, who is an automotive engineer, also collects vintage cars and stores three on the ground level of the school.

He said he envisions a dance floor and pub tables in the auditorium and would like to bring live bands in to perform.

"I'd love to see some comedy shows in here," Feeney said. "If anyone ever needed it, if the city needed it for something or if someone wanted to get married, give me a call, they can just use the space, with no charge."

The proscenium in the auditorium is in surprisingly good shape, with intricate detail still intact.

"You can't get that kind of work done today, no matter how big your checkbook is," Feeney said. "People just don't do that kind of work today."

He said renovation of the auditorium will be one of the easier portions of the building to deal with.

"It's probably the one room that will have the least amount of work done to it, but will show the biggest effect," Feeney said.

He said when approaching a project such as this, people need to look at the mechanical side of things.

"There's not a whole lot of money that will need to go into this," Feeney said. "But there is a whole lot of work. I think that's where previous owners have made their mistakes. They just threw out money for someone to come in and try to fix it up."

Feeney is more of a do-it-yourselfer.

"I've done industrial lasers and electrical pneumatics. None of this stuff scares me," Feeney said. "It's no big deal."

He said he envisions at least one viable business in the building within the next three years and completion of the project in about five years and believes he can complete it for about $500,000.

As for the more immediate future, Feeney has applied for a trademark for The REAL School of Hardknocks and plans to begin selling apparel and novelties online.

He also said he will be bringing "Ed the Special Bus," a mini-school bus that has become a sort of mascot for his business venture, to Good Ol Days this summer.