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Bullhook's Donaldson plan rejected

The proposal to renovate Donaldson Hall at Montana State University-Northern and convert it into a home for Bullhook Community Health Center has been shot down.

The state commissioner of higher education, Clayton Christian, will not recommend the state Board of Regents of Higher Educationmove go ahead with the plan.

The members of the Bullhook Community Health Center board of directors and staff said they are disappointed with the decision, but are moving forward to look at other sites.

The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration notified Bullhook at the beginning of May that it had approved a nearly $5 million grant for the health center to lease, renovate and use Donaldson Hall at Northern for its services.

Christian said in a letter to the health center board last week that he cannot support that use of the university property.

"We have concluded that we cannot in good faith recommend to the Montana Board of Regents that it approve the proposed use of Donaldson Hall for this purpose, " Christian wrote in his June 1 letter. "We have discussed this issue collaboratively and have come to this conclusion after serious consideration and for several compelling reasons.

"First, the proposed use of our campus building does not comport with MSUN's planning, direction, or priorities, " the letter continues. "Second, MSUN cannot dedicate the funds or resources which would be required of an MSUN partnership with Bullhook Clinic, as the grant contemplates. Finally, MSUN is aware of other potential sites for the Clinic which may be more feasible. "

Northern Chancellor Jim Limbaugh was not available for comment this morning.

Bullhook proposed renovating the building and using it to house its medical, dental and health services. The medical clinic now is in facilities next to Northern Montana Hospital, while the dental clinic is in Atrium Mall.

Donaldson, which opened as a dormitory in 1936, has essentially been empty since 2008 with problems with the heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing systems shutting the building down.

In a press release sent to the Havre Daily Friday afternoon, health center board members said they and the employees of the center were "disappointed with Commissioner Christian's surprising decision. Our organization took on this project in good faith with the full support of an enthusiastic community coalition, " the release said.

Bullhook Executive Director Cindy Smith said the clinic's staff and board are reviewing their options, with the goal to submit a new proposal to the agency by July 1.

"We've been looking at some other places …, " she said. "We are working hard behind the scenes to try to keep the 5 million dollars for the community. "

Paul Tuss, a member of the Board of Regents and executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said he is hopeful a new location can be found.

"I understand the commissioner's decision, but I'm real disappointed …, " he said. "Bear Paw Development was very supportive of attempting to create this partnership that would work for both sides and locate the Bullhook clinic in Donaldson. "

He added that the key, moving forward, is to find a Plan B that is acceptable to the community and that the services provided by Bullhook are available far into the future.

"As difficult as the location decision is, it's far more important we continue to, and Bullhook clinic continues to, properly serve the medical needs of those who use the clinic itself, " he said.

Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education, said this morning that the university system is committed to helping Bullhook find a location and continue its services, but that "it is a suprise" to the commissioner and the board of regents that someone would propose removing the historic building from student and academic use by the university for up to 40 years, while also turning an interest in the building over to the federal government.

"Instead, we are going to stabilize and preserve this building, " McRae said. "This is a campus with a treasured history and a bright future that includes growth. To start selling off Northern's buildings and exclude them from future student use would send the wrong message to past, present, and future students. "

McRae said plans are being made to stabilize and and preserve Donaldson for student and academic use at the university, which will be done within the university system budget resources.

In his letter, Christian said the discussion of the proposal included concerns of tying the hands of his and other university officials' hands by entering a 20-year lease which gave Bullhook the option to renew for another 20 years.

Another concern was the creation of a federal lien on a building which would have to be released after the lease, he wrote.

Another was that the university may have become obligated to help with the renovation and upkeep of a building not used by the university, which the university system is not in a position to commit to, and that the lease also raises numerous legal and procedural issues, Christian said.

"Finally, we are aware of the availability of other locations within the community that may be appropriate for your clinic and which would require significantly less administrative approval and funding than is required for a state building, " Christian concluded. "We support the grant objectives that will provide this needed service to the community and want to see implementation. As the stewards of public property, however, our primary commitment is to our students and to the university's long term needs. Nevertheless, we stand ready to assist you in any manner that would be helpful should you wish to proceed with an alternate site. "

View a pdf of the Commissioner of Higher Education's letter to the Bullhook Board of Directors.


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