By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Don Smith carefully inspected the rooms on the first floor of the Heritage Center on Thursday.
"So this was the main distribution center here," he said, looking at the post office boxes and entryway to the H. Earl Clack Museum.
Smith, a retired postal worker from Kerney, Neb., is traveling throughout the West, following the Lewis and Clark Trail. He stopped at the Heritage Center to view the county museum's artifacts and check out the old post office.
"I love looking at these older buildings," he said. "And the old post office boxes are still here, wow."
Emily Mayer Lossing, the museum manager, chatted with Smith about the history of Havre and the Heritage Center building. The mail boxes Smith admired symbolize a part of the town's rich history, Mayer Lossing said.
Eight years ago Mayer Lossing scraped together $25 to rent a post office box at the Heritage Center - she rented No. 201, the box her family had used for generations. The money raised from the rentals was used to support the Heritage Center.
"I was the first person to reserve and pay for a post office box," Mayer Lossing, a Havre City Council member and proponent of historical preservation, said Thursday. "Twenty-five dollars was a lot of money to me but I wanted to help the Heritage Center and preserve some of my family's history."
Mayer Lossing said she's done her part over the years to help support the city-owned building, including opening her home for historical home tours that benefited the center, serving on the H. Earl Clack Foundation board - which managed the building for years - and pitching in financially by giving the campaign money left over in her last City Council race to the foundation to be used for the center.
Now, with the future of the downtown landmark uncertain, Mayer Lossing said it's time for the Havre community to come together to show its support for the center. She's planned a public meeting for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Heritage Center to discuss the center's fate.
"To me, this building is a public treasure," she said. "I'd like to see the center stay in public hands, so we can all enjoy it."
The future of the historic building has been up in the air since June, when the Clack Foundation - which had leased the building since 1996 when the city purchased the former post office and federal courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service - announced it was relinquishing management of the building, effective July 1. The City Council voted June 21 to consider selling the building to a private purchaser. The center houses the county's H. Earl Clack Museum and some business offices.
The council's Finance Committee began reviewing bids from private entities to buy the building in July. But plans to sell the center have since been put on hold, while the city awaits word from federal and state officials on the consequences it faces if it sells the building it purchased with money from the Montana Department of Transportation's Community Transportation Enhancement Program.
Earlier this week Mick Johnson, administrator of MDT's district office in Great Falls, said the city will have to repay the money it used to buy the building if it is sold.
Mayer Lossing has proposed placing an initiative on the municipal ballot in November 2005, requesting that all property owners in the city pay a flat fee of $24 to support the building. She said it will take a strong grass-roots effort to get the issue on the ballot.
"If we can't come together as a community to support something as important as the Heritage Center, then that's a sad day for Havre," Mayer Lossing said.
If she doesn't see a big showing of support at Wednesday's meeting, Mayer Lossing said she won't pursue the ballot initiative.
"I can't do this by myself," she added. "I'm not going to get my heart broken over this building. I just really hope people realize how valuable this building is to our community."
Council member Pam Hillery told museum board members on Monday that she doesn't want to see the building sold in haste. She said she has discussed the center with two other City Council members who would be interested in reconsidering their vote to sell the building. Hillery said she's concerned that the offers the city has received to purchase the building don't value the monetary or historical value of the building.
"The windows alone are probably worth more than $20,000," she said Monday.
Council members' opinions on whether the city should continue to own the Heritage Center are mixed. Allen "Woody" Woodwick said today he recognizes the importance of the Heritage Center to the community and he would like to see it remain opened to the public in downtown Havre.
"I think it's a shame that we can't afford to come up with some funds to keep the building," he said. "I would support Emily's proposal to put the issue on the ballot, and I would even support some limited funding from the city for the building."
City Council member Tom Farnham said today he's hopeful that MDT will respond in a way that will allow the city to move forward with its initial plans to sell the building.
"I've talked to more people in the community that would like us to sell the building than keep it. I'd like to see us go forth and sell it to a private individual," he said. "I'd also like to work up an agreement that would allow the museum to stay in the center for at least another 10 to 15 years; it would be a shame to have to move the museum."
At a City Council meeting on Sept. 7, Havre Mayor Bob Rice said if the city can't sell the center, its only option is to close it. He said the city cannot afford to manage and operate the building, especially during the winter, when utility bills for the building will skyrocket.
Mayer Lossing said boarding up the windows and closing the building down may not be as easy as it sounds.
The U.S. Postal Service had the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. When the city purchased the building it signed covenants "on behalf of itself, its heirs and successors" to work with the state historic preservation officer to "preserve and maintain the former Havre Main Post Office" in accordance with the Secretary of Interior's standards for the rehabilitation and treatment of historic properties. If the building is sold, the covenants will be transferred to the purchaser.
Mark Baumler, the state historic preservation officer, said today that the building's covenants require the city to consult with his office before making any changes in the center.
"We want to ensure that anything that's done in that building is done in a way that protects its historic significance," he added.
Baumler said if the city chooses to close the center, his office will be involved, with guidance from the federal standards.
"There really aren't any rules that are cast in stone, but there are methods of mothballing buildings that are vacant until a new occupant can be found. If the city chooses to go that route, we would be talking to them about how do that in a way that would best protect the building," he said.
The Finance Committee has received written offers from two prospective buyers. Jim Treperinas offered the city $1 for the building. He said he would make necessary roof repairs and other building improvements, so the building's office space would be more attractive to prospective renters.
Tom and Jamie Lambrecht have presented two options for the building, one involving a $5,000 payment to the city and another with a $20,000 cash purchase.
Neither offer would fit within the three options MDT outlined for selling the building in a letter dated Aug. 18 to Rice. The first option said the property could be sold at "fair market value" through a public sale, with 87 percent of the proceeds returned to CTEP - which would match the initial percentage of CTEP money used to buy the building in 1996. The building was appraised by Hill County in 2003 for $320,000.
The second alternative, an outright sale at less than fair market value, outlined an option to transfer the building to the hands of a private owner, with an agreement that a part of the building - like the museum - be maintained for public use or benefit for a period of time.
The third option outlined a plan in which the city could seek another leaseholder to manage the property and remain the building's owner.