By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A meeting Wednesday to determine the fate of the Heritage Center resulted in more questions than answers, and the issue was complicated by the announcement that a private group of developers may be interested in purchasing the building from the city of Havre.
Local government officials held the meeting to discuss the future of the Heritage Center in the wake of a decision by the H. Earl Clack Foundation last month to cease managing the building on July 1.
The foundation has leased the building since 1996, when the city purchased the former post office and federal courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service. The center is home to the county's H. Earl Clack Museum. When a five-year lease expired in 2001, the foundation continued to manage the building under a tenancy-at-will agreement with the city. The two parties had been attempting to negotiate a new lease when the foundation sent a letter to city officials announcing that the foundation will relinquish management responsibility of the building.
The foundation said the high cost of maintaining the Heritage Center has undermined its ability to fulfill its primary mission of supporting the Clack Museum.
Wednesday's meeting was intended to give groups that have an interest in the Heritage Center a chance to discuss options for the building after July 1.
The meeting was attended by Havre Mayor Bob Rice, several City Council members, the Hill County Commission, and members of the Clack Museum board and Clack Foundation.
County officials opened the meeting y saying that the Heritage Center is home to a county-operated museum, and that they would like to see the building kept open.
Several people asked Clack Foundation president Elaine Morse what it would take for the foundation to continue to manage the Heritage Center.
"The decision's been made. That's it. We're done," Morse said.
It costs the foundation nearly $5,000 a month to manage the building, Morse said. After $1,600 in rent is collected, the foundation must still come up with $3,300 a month to keep the doors open, she said. About $1,800 of that goes to pay the salary of full-time building manager Debe VandenBoom, she added.
Even if the city and county pledged to cover the monthly deficit, the foundation would not be interested in a lease that left the foundation responsible for major repairs, Morse said.
Rice said the city has zero ability to provide financial help to the foundation. He estimated that the city would be "$136,000 in the red" by the end of July.
"We have no money. Contrary to popular belief, there is no gold at the end of the rainbow," he said.
The mayor said he would not approach the City Council's Finance Committee about using city money for the Heritage Center.
"I can't do that. We don't have the resources," he said.
The fate of the Heritage Center will ultimately be decided by the City Council, Rice said, adding that the city has several options.
"No. 1 is that the city takes over the building - takes over maintenance and management responsibilities - and uses income from the renters to subsidize operations," he said.
Asked what that would mean for the building manager position, Rice said the city would have to discontinue it.
"That's a given," he said.
A second option is selling the building to a private group, he said.
"Yesterday I got a phone call from some people interested in buying the building. It is what I consider to be a credible offer," he said.
Rice declined to identify the group, which he said was local and described as "developer-type."
He said this morning he does not plan to reveal the group's identity until it has submitted a written offer to purchase the building. He expects that to happen before June 24, when local leaders will again meet to discuss the future of the Heritage Center.
Rice was asked by others at Wednesday's meeting what would happen to the building if the group purchased it and he responded that that had not been discussed. He left the meeting briefly, and when he returned he said that he had called the group. They plan to keep the Heritage Center open and allow the Clack Museum to stay, Rice said.
Havre City Council member Terry Schend said at the meeting that he sees several potential benefits if the city sold the Heritage Center to a private company. The first is that whoever purchased it would have to pay property taxes, meaning more revenue for the city, and the second is that the Clack Museum could stay in the building, he said.
Rice said he is not sure how the City Council would respond to an offer to buy the building.
"Most of the people on the council that I've talked to would like to see (the Heritage Center) kept open," he said. "There's nine of us sitting at that table trying to do the right thing."
City Council member Emily Mayer-Lossing interjected, telling Rice she would not support selling the building to a private company.
"The Heritage Center is, and has always been, a public building," she said. " I am not in favor of selling it to private hands."
Another option that was discussed was selling the building to an anti-poverty coalition.
A charitable foundation created by the family of railroad magnate James J. Hill awarded the Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition $12 million to help fund its poverty-reduction proposals in 11 counties.
The coalition has narrowed its search for a home office down to three locations in Havre, including space in the Heritage Center, Morse said.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said the city might consider selling the building to the group if that meant keeping the center open.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. and a nonvoting member of Community Venture's steering committee, said this morning he does not know whether the group would be interested in purchasing the Heritage Center.
"I cannot speak for the steering committee, but obviously, purchasing a building in this 11-county region would be a significant departure from our initial plan of leasing space. We've been looking at leasing space that could accommodate three or four office staff," he said. "If we were to do something different - if an opportunity came to us to take possession of a building like the Heritage Center - that is something the larger group has to be involved in."