ByKrystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A meeting to gather support for keeping the Heritage Center a publicly owned building attracted only 10 people Wednesday night - a dismal showing that Havre City Council member Emily Mayer Lossing, who organized the meeting, said she was sad to see.
"Unfortunately I don't see a huge swell of grass-roots support which is what this building really needs," she told the small crowd gathered at the center.
Mayer Lossing organized the meeting to help gauge the community's support for the city-owned downtown landmark, which will soon go up for public bid across the state.
"It's really unfortunate that the community is going to lose this building," she said, adding that the center could be used as a community and civic center in Havre. "The golden opportunity for that is right here and we're going to throw it away with both hands. In my opinion, this building has turned into our biggest crying shame."
In July, Mayer Lossing, who is manager of the H. Earl Clack Museum and the city-county historic preservation officer, proposed placing an initiative about the center on the municipal election ballot in November 2005, asking residents to pay a flat fee of $24 per year to support the building. An initiative - a citizen-led effort to get an issue on the ballot - requires a number of steps, including a petition process, which would require 15 percent of registered voters to sign a petition stating that they want the issue on the ballot. Mayer Lossing said it would take a large grass-roots effort to get a successful initiative effort going.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we have that kind of support," she said.
The future of the historic building has been uncertain since June, when the H. Earl Clack Foundation - which began leasing the building in 1996 after the city purchased the former post office and federal courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service with federal grant money - 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 Clack museum and some business offices.
The city has used more than $150,000 in funds from the Montana Department of Transportation's Community Transportation Enhancement Program to purchase and renovate the center. The city received the green light from MDT and the Federal Highway Administration Sept. 17 that it can move forward with its plans to sell the building, without having to repay the CTEP funds it has used in the center. The building will soon be advertised for sale in Montana's major newspapers. The city and MDT will have to approve the final sale of the building.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice has said that if the building doesn't sell, the city will have no choice but to close the center. He said the city cannot afford to pay the building's utility costs come winter, when heating costs can skyrocket to thousands of dollars. Rice could not be reached for comment this morning.
Hill County's H. Earl Clack Museum, which had been housed in the center rent-free since 1996, began paying $1,200 in rent per month to the city in July. With the uncertainty of the building's future, the county museum board is now considering alternate locations for the museum. At a special meeting Tuesday, board members formed a committee to further pursue an offer of space in the Holiday Village Shopping Center.
The museum is considering moving into two spaces totaling 2,620 square feet next to Big R. Rent and utilities at the mall would run the museum about $1,100 a month. Museum board chairman Ron VandenBoom said he plans to begin negotiations with the mall for a written lease for the space.
The Hill County Commission would have to sign any new lease agreement for the museum.
"It may be a positive to be there (at the mall)," Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said at Tuesday's meeting. "You could get a lot of foot traffic Wahkpa Chu'gn is right there. There's security and climate control."
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette agreed that being located in the mall could be a benefit to the museum.
"The gift shop items will probably really sell," she said. "There's some definite possibilities there."
The museum board is also looking at ways to trim some line items in its $34,900 budget, based on what it spent in fiscal year 2003-2004, freeing up more money for rent. The board is considering reducing several budgeted items, including cutting its advertising and printing budget and training and professional services budget and reducing what it pays in wages.
"We're really in a no-win situation here," VandenBoom said Tuesday. "We'll trim anywhere we need to, to make ends meet."
Rice has said the city wants to see the museum stay in the center. The city plans to add a 5 percent bonus to the building's bid price for each year the Clack Museum is allowed to stay in the Heritage Center, up to a maximum of 10 years. If the bid is $100,000 and the museum is allowed to stay in the center for 10 years, the bid would be valued at $150,000.
But VandenBoom said the museum can't continue to deal with the building's uncertain future for much longer.
"Right now we're faced with dropping temperatures, boiler problems and a leaky roof," he said. "It's really the uncertainty that we're fighting now. We're no further ahead now than we were a month ago."
The museum board voted to postpone its decision to pay rent to the city for the month of October until its next meeting - which is a joint meeting with the board and the Clack Foundation - on Oct. 11 at 5 p.m.