By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
In another about-face in its troubled effort to sell the Heritage Center, the city of Havre will re-advertise the sale of the downtown landmark in newspapers statewide and accept bids until Jan. 18.
Mayor Bob Rice also rejected Robert Nault's Dec. 6 offer of $75,000 for the building in a mutual agreement two days after it was made, Rice said Monday.
This is the third time the city has opened bidding and the second time it will advertise statewide.
"There seemed to be some feelings that everything wasn't done above board, and of course it was," Rice said about his decision to reject Nault's offer.
The Havre City Council had voted 4-4 on Dec. 6 on a question of whether to accept other bids while it was reviewing the Nault bid. Rice cast the deciding vote in favor of not accepting any other bids until the council had reached a decision on Nault's bid.
The only other offer received by the city in the second round of bidding that closed that day was a letter of intent from the Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition, an 11-county anti-poverty group that is seeking office space for a headquarters in Havre. The group is funded by a $12 million 10-year grant from the Northwest Area Foundation, an organization founded by the family of railroad magnate James J. Hill.
The council didn't consider that offer because it didn't include a dollar value.
Rice said Monday that Nault came to him on Wednesday with concerns over fairness. Nault wanted to see everybody get a chance to bid, Rice said, and both agreed the city should reject Nault's initial offer and allow others a chance as well.
Rice said the decision would let people know that the bidding is being handled fairly.
City Council member Pam Hillery said Monday she is happy with Rice's decision.
Hillery had argued during the meeting that the coalition's letter was a bid and said the city should give the coalition the time it asked for, until Jan. 20, to submit a dollar value.
Rice responded that it would not be fair because the coalition would already know Nault's offer.
The coalition board meets today in Great Falls and will discuss a bid on the building, executive director Andrea Main said. Main has submitted three letters asking the city not to close the bidding.
The building was first advertised in September, when the state gave the city permission to sell the building, which the city had purchased with state and federal funds. The city did not receive any offers.
In November, the city, with the state's permission, reopened bidding without advertising again. One bid for $5,000 was submitted and rejected.
"We kind of let the city run with it themselves to try to get some more bids," Mike Wherley, Community Transportation Enhancement Program supervisor with the Montana Department of Transportation, said Monday.
Rice talked to MDT on Wednesday and got permission to re-advertise the sale, Wherley said.
City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick applauded that decision.
"Do it through the proper channels," said Woodwick, who was on the losing side of last week's City Council vote.
City Council member Tom Farnham had voted with Rice last week.
"I think its a great idea," he said of the decision to re-advertise. "When we reopened it in the first part of November, a lot of (people) didn't realize it was opened."
Wherley said he is aware of the coalition's continued interest in the building.
In a meeting between the coalition and the city Nov. 16 to discuss the building, Main said, Rice told her she needed to submit a letter of intent by Nov. 29. She said she learned in a phone message from the mayor received Nov. 26 that she had until Nov. 29 to submit a dollar offer - the first she had heard of that requirement.
City public works director Dave Peterson and the mayor both said Rice had asked for a monetary value at the Nov. 16 meeting, while Hillery, who was present, said Main was told that wasn't necessary.
The mayor again extended bidding to Dec. 6, notifying the coalition a week ahead of time that it could submit a bid.
In three letters to the city, Main said she needed until after today, when the board of directors meets in Great Falls, to come up with a bid.
If the city sells the building, the money will go back to the Community Transportation Enhancement Program.
The city used $89,600 in CTEP money to buy the former U.S. post office and courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service. The city leased the building to the Clack Foundation from 1996 until July, when the foundation said it could no longer afford to operate it. On Sept. 17 the city received permission to sell the building, saying it could not afford to maintain it either.
MDT representatives have said they want a significant repayment, but don't want the building to be a burden to the city.
One perceived obstacle to selling the building may be a preservation covenant that was placed on the building when the city bought it.
Pete Brown at the Montana Historical Society said Monday the preservation covenant cannot be removed if the building is sold, but that it ought to allow improvements that are done with approval of the Montana Historical Society.
He said the rule is that architectural features be preserved. Those might include marble floors, crown moldings and murals.
"There are precedents for handling all this type of work, creative and clever ways of retrofitting buildings with modern utilities," Brown said.
The city is still paying to heat the building, a cost that Rice hoped to avoid by winterizing the pipes and shutting off the heat through the winter. He learned two weeks ago, when Nault Plumbing and Heating did $850 of work to make one of the building's two boilers operational, that winterizing isn't possible.
The pipes could not be adaquetely drained, and wood floors could buckle under extreme cold, Rice said.
The plumbing company was formerly owned by Robert Nault and is now owned by his son, Mike.
Rice said he learned last week that the company won't charge for work on the boiler so the money can be used toward continued costs of heating the building.