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City's commitment to Heritage Center quickly grew

 


Editor's note: This is the second of two stories about how the city came to buy the Heritage Center and eventually face the question of whether to help fund it.

With the city's purchase of the old post office building - now the Heritage Center - in 1996, the dream of an arts and cultural center to help revitalize Havre's downtown seemed to be coming to fruition.

But several factors prevented that dream from happening without costing the city money, as Clack Foundation members and City Council members had originally intended. While the foundation labored under unexpected repairs and fewer renters than expected, the city continued as the owner of a building it never intended to own more than briefly. Years later, people who were involved with the building now say that if the building is to be preserved, it cannot be the responsibility of the foundation or the city alone.

From middleman to main man

In November of 1995, the Havre City Council had approved an application to the Montana Department of Transportation for $86,000 in Community Transportation Enhancement Program funds to pay its share of the purchase price, while the foundation would pay about $64,000 over five years.

The use of CTEP funds meant that the original plan of turning ownership of the building over to a nonprofit organization like the foundation might not happen.

"There was a question as to whether or not the city could get grant money for a specific purpose and then turn around and sell the building," former Clack Foundation board member Don Mahlum said. Instead, a lease agreement was drawn up. The contract was left intentionally vague, he said, leaving the question of sale up in the air, "but with everyone knowing that when it came down to it, that would have been illegal."

On March 4, 1996, the City Council approved the lease agreement between the city of Havre and the Clack Foundation. Under the lease, the foundation would pay $50,000 over five years, which would go to the U.S. Postal Service.

The lease was entered into on April 24, 1996. The city would acquire the building "for the purpose of establishing an arts and cultural center to promote, develop and interpret the historical and cultural heritage of Northern Montana and to encourage, stimulate and foster the performing and visual arts," according to the City Council minutes.

"The Lessee (the Clack Foundation) will have full responsibility for all operational and maintenance costs," the agreement said. The idea proposed a year earlier - of a group of nonprofit organizations owning the building - was nowhere to be found. What in the beginning was intended to be the city's brief involvement as a middleman between the federal government and private organizations became a long-term commitment.

Expenses and empty rooms

It quickly became clear that the building would need more money.

In March of 1996 Elinor Clack told the City Council that remodeling was needed at the old post office building. She requested $46,500 in CTEP funds for a fire escape, and to make the building more accessible to handicapped people. Nearly a year earlier, Dick King had told the council that the fire escapes would be the responsibility of the museum board.

"No one realized it would be that much," Mahlum said. "Everything seemed to cost more than we planned on."

In December 1996, the name "Heritage Center" appeared for the first time in City Council minutes. A city public works employee came before the council to question the use of city workers at the building.

"His understanding was that no taxpayer dollars would be spent in regards to this building," the minutes say. "Mayor (Phyllis) Leonard responded that these employees are merely constructing a fire wall to bring this city-owned building into compliance with the fire codes."

A crucial potential renter - the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce - decided not to rent space, and another existing renter - Bear Paw Development Corp. - moved out.

Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said that in 1996 and 1997 the foundation came to the Chamber board and asked it to rent space in the Heritage Center.

"The board's conclusion was that we needed to be on First Street," so the Chamber was accessible to tourists, Vandeberg said. "The Heritage Center, as wonderful a building as it was, was not a good place for us to be."

Bear Paw Development moved out in the summer of 1997.

"That was their big source of income, was Bear Paw," former City Council member Arnie Tyler said. "See, they rented several offices up there."

Dick King, the executive director of Bear Paw at the time and one of the driving forces behind the purchase of the old post office building, said the corporation's growth and limitations of the building motivated the decision to move out.

Bear Paw needed more office space, but the layout of the Heritage Center made it difficult to tie additional offices together, King said. In addition, the cost of a computer network was prohibitive.

A third potential renter, the Montana Actors' Theatre, was not able to move into the building because a fire escape first had to be installed, Morse said. A grandfather clause had allowed the U.S. Postal Service to avoid spending the money to bring the building up to code. By the time the foundation installed the fire escape, MAT had found another home.

The foundation was in trouble, running up large monthly shortfalls.

A timely gift of $15,000 helped the foundation make the final payment on the building to the U.S. Postal Service, but it was still not able to meet its monthly expenses.

Earlier this spring, the shortfall stood at about $1,000 per month, independent of thousands of dollars needed to fix the building's two boilers, leaky roof, and several other maintenance problems.

King said the foundation's hopes were not unrealistic.

"These were people who have a lot of experience, and they were business people," he said. "They knew what they were getting into. I don't think they were off base."

King points to two factors that made keeping the building harder than expected.

One was the hard line of the U.S. Postal Service, which insisted on selling the building rather than giving it away.

That meant that the foundation had to pay $64,000 from its endowment that might have gone toward upkeep.

That combined with a stagnant economy.

"The economic success of the building has been affected by the difficult economic situation of the Hi-Line for the last few years," King said.

"If Havre had been growing, there would have been more interest in tenants in the building. I don't think they're to blame. They did their best," he said.

Mildred Keene, Clack Foundation treasurer until 1996, said the original plan had been that the interest from the foundation's endowment would help pay for the monthly expenses of the building.

As interest rates fell, the endowment didn't grow sufficiently to allow the foundation to tap it.

"I don't think it was the fault of the foundation but rather what has happened to our world in the meantime," Keene said.

Help wanted

Whether it was the foundation's fault or not, there are many different perspectives from the people involved about what should be done.

City Council president Rick Pierson said there is little the city can do to help. The council is expected to take up the issue on July 21.

"Us giving them some sort of help through in-kind help does not alleviate their difficulties," Pierson said, adding that natural gas rate hikes will make expenses of the building even higher this fall.

For Pierson, the issue hinges on a promise he said he made to the taxpayers not to spend any of their money on the building.

"I promised the people, and I'm not going to change that," he said.

Tyler said that if he could vote again, he would probably vote against the idea this time.

But other people involved with the building say it is not so simple.

Jim Magera, who was on the Hill County Museum Board when it was pushing to move downtown, said the move of the museum has accomplished a great deal.

"I think it's something that should be supported by the community because I think it could be one of the drawing cards," Magera said. "I think we as a community should support the finer things, and I think that's one of them."

Magera said he doesn't think blame should be assigned, and he still sees the museum's move into the former post office building as positive.

"I think that we have more space. I think we have very nice exhibits now," he said. "I think it's important to look at the positive aspects it has accomplished."

Magera said he doesn't necessarily think the city should carry all the burden though.

"If you say one entity has to support it, that's not correct either," he said, pointing out that the museum promotes many parts of the community and the surrounding area. The only way the museum and the Heritage Center will be successful, he said, is to have involvement from all those groups, including the city and the county.

Toni Hagener, who was the Clack Museum curator for 15 years and also served on the museum board and the Clack Foundation board, said that if the building is saved, it will be the result of the same kind of community support that made projects like the hockey arena and the community swimming pool realities.

"People got together and raised funds," Hagener said.

It comes down to a matter of the community's priorities, she said.

"This community can do anything it wants to do. It has in the past and it will in the future," Hagener said, adding that tourism is the second largest industry in Montana. "The small communities around us have all developed their own museums."

King agreed that city support alone is not the answer.

"They just can't take something on like that and raise taxes ipso facto," he said. "I can understand why the city is reluctant to take on a project like this."

Instead, private donors will need to step up, he said.

"The only way out of this is to do a capital campaign like a lot of other communities have done," King said.

"You can do the raffles and dinners but those don't make the big dollars," he said. Instead, voluntary financial contributions from individuals are necessary.

Capital campaigns are not easy, he said, and often a feasibility study is done before they start. Feasibility studies, of course, cost money.

So, it seems, if the Heritage Center has a future in Havre, it will depend on the continued energy of concerned individuals just like it did in 1994. The idea will continue the same way it was born, as a gesture of hope from a community attempting to defy economic decline and to hold its head up.

"There was a lot of hope and vision that could still very well be accomplished," said Emily Mayer, Havre's historic preservation officer. "Hopefully this will turn out to be the cultural center everyone envisioned it to be because I think everyone in Havre would benefit from that."

 

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