When James Kelly, the head of the local Urban League, announced plans last August to convert the old Colman School into a multi-use facility that would include a black cultural center, the establishment got behind him immediately. "A fractious 16-year community saga may be about to end," The Seattle Times heralded. According to this rosy view, Kelly will have more luck converting the black school into a black heritage museum than other black leaders who have tried in vain for years. Kelly has already put a $25,000 down payment on the building (which may cost $24 million to renovate). Kelly has until the end of this month to decide if he's going to go ahead with the deal. He has until late June to pay the rest of the $1.2 million he owes on the school.

For the black community, however, things are far more complicated. Local blacks have a deep investment in the school at 23rd Avenue and Massachusetts Street, and Kelly is apparently not pleasing everybody. His plans are notably different from what many in the black community had originally wanted. The reactions range from hopeful to resigned. The hopeful ones think Kelly will actually renovate this school. The resigned ones are just happy that gentrification-hungry whites didn't buy the historically black school.

The Colman School's controversial history underscores how racial politics has muddled what would ordinarily be just a difficult development project. In the early 1980s, black activists began demanding that city officials allow them to buy the empty school and convert it into an "African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center." To force the city's hand, several activists occupied the Colman School in a squatters' protest that dragged on for several years. By the mid-1990s, people were hopeful things could work out--city money was pouring in and a committee had been formed to get the job done.

Unfortunately, things fell apart. Arguments ensued between idealistic black activists and pragmatic black business people on the board, and soon the project became secondary to personality conflicts. It also became apparent that hundreds of thousands of city dollars were being misspent. The board split into two, and the city gave up because it didn't want to get tangled in the mess (losing $700,000 in the process).

To the ovations of the mainstream media, Kelly has entered the scene. Some in the black community, however, are already suspicious. The Urban League head doesn't have the same vision for the old Colman School as other leaders. (Kelly won't return Stranger phone calls.) Kelly plans to create an "Urban League Village," which would be filled by a new Urban League head-quarters, market-rate and below-market-rate condos, and a multiplex for minority-owned businesses. The original idea of a museum and cultural center is included, but seriously downplayed.

"We should have no illusions or expectations that Kelly is going to fulfill our expectations for a museum and cultural center," says Charlie James, one of the original grass-roots museum activists. Another veteran activist, Michael Greenwood, accuses Kelly of just paying lip service to the museum idea. "I think Kelly's just throwing up a smoke screen," he says. James endorses finding another site in the Central Area for a black museum, but, tellingly, neither James nor Greenwood mind that Kelly's buying the school. At least Kelly's black, they say.

Kelly does have enthusiastic supporters, though, primarily because he hasn't been corrupted by the old fights that surround the school. "[Kelly's] the best thing to happen to the whole project in years," says George Vallery, who once served on the now-defunct museum board. "We need a black institution [like the Urban League] to pull this together."

No matter what Kelly's plans, there remains an ingrained belief among blacks that Kelly has to be inclusive, even if that means igniting more political bickering in the black community. "[Kelly's] going to have to be able to build the broadest [black] community support possible to do it," opines King County Council Member Larry Gossett, the Central Area's most active black politician. Given what's already taken place, that seems to be a taller order than actually raising millions of dollars.