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Plan for new county building draws fire

Commissioners chat with the audience a few minutes before the work meeting begins Tuesday afternoon.

Sun Advocate associated editor

Crowd questions cost, location and lack of plan for old building

Degree by degree, the temperature in the county courthouse small conference room rose Tuesday afternoon as about 50 citizens packed in shoulder-to-shoulder to talk with the county commission about the proposed new office building.

They came not to praise the proposal, which has been more than four years in the making. What they told commissioners instead was:

The county's economy may be too weak to risk on a 58,000 square-foot, $16.6 million building. In the words of Mark Justesen, "Is this the smartest fiscal thing to do in a bad economy?"

Abandoning the current courthouse without having a definite plan for future use is not good for Main Street. Jackie Davis, owner of Price Floral, said, "My big concern as a merchant is that an empty building on Main Street is not conducive to a good environment for business."

The courthouse belongs on Main Street. As Angelo Kiahtipes declared, "If this lot was vacant right now, what would be the best use? A courthouse."

There was no formal poll of the collective opinion, but there were many comments that the commission should put on the brakes and do more research and planning on the cost and consequences of a decision.

Time is not a luxury the county has. Two clocks are ticking, and missing either deadline could be expensive in the long term.

First, the county has less than five months remaining to close on an attractive financial deal with the state's Permanent Community Impact Board. The county had six months from Oct. 6 to decide on whether or not to accept a $6 million grant, $6 million zero-interest loan, and $6 million at 30 years, 2.5 percent interest.

Annual payments on the loans would be about $400,000.

"As business people, what would you do?" Commissioner Mike Milovich asked. "When you get fair terms, you take them. The county is in better financial condition than ever."

The county has no general obligation debt at all as of now. It has paid off all its interest-bearing debt. While it has enough in reserve in the bank to pay off the zero-interest debt, it is better to keep paying in installments and earn interest on the money in reserve accounts.

Commissioner Jae Potter added that it appears improbable that this financial package could be recreated later. Grant money from the CIB is gone, zero-percent loans are being curtailed and 2.5 percent loans are making up a larger share of CIB lending.

Nevertheless, Potter said it would be wise to look again at the economics of the area before committing.

Location has been the topic of debate, especially before Bill Krompel retired from the commission two years ago. Krompel favored the Main Street site, which would required constructing a new building nearby and demolishing the old building for parking.

However, that site is landlocked and construction of a parking terrace would add millions to the cost of construction, noted Commissioner John Jones.

Also, the proposed site at about 750 E. 100 North St. offers adequate room for building and parking now, with enough space left over for expansion later.

"We're not jumping off a cliff here," Jones commented. He said the pluses and minuses of the plan have been studied and debated for more than four years.

As for what to do with the current courthouse when it is abandoned for new digs, the commissioners had no definite answer. Jones favors a library, Milovich thinks there are possibilities for a retail/commercial center, or room for professional offices.

But, as members of the audience noted, if the building is inadequate for county purposes, it will need remodeling before it can be sold or leased.

Roy Nikas, owner of Price Insurance Agency and former Price City councilman, said,, "The courthouse draws lots of people to Main Street. It ought to be replaced with something else that draws people."

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