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Preserving old high school called a win-win situation

| April 27, 2005 12:00 AM

To the Editor:

I've had it with Mr. Gary Huntsberger's - former Libby school board member, spouse of a current school board member, and a Libby City council member - innuendos and mis-statements about the "facts" concerning the historic Libby High School and the integrity of the Friends of Historic Libby High School (FHLHS).

Let me start by addressing Friday's article. First, what difference does it make to "those opposing renovation" what the cost is "to bring the structure up to code? They won't be paying for it, and more importantly, neither will the taxpayers. The truth is that "up to code" depends on the use of a structure - school use having the strictest code requirements. We do know what we are getting into, but how would Mr. Huntsberger know? He has never been to one of our meetings.

His comment comparing the sale of the historic high school to selling Glacier park hardly deserves comment. However, selling a building which has been declared no longer needed for school purposes does make sense, especially when another article in the same issue addresses the cost of needed maintenance, repair and upkeep of the district's current school buildings. On the other hand, last fall Superintendent Maki proposed a demolition plan for the building that would use the district's building fund - taxpayers' money - to cover the cost. Money that is obviously needed for pressing current school building needs.

Last year the FHLHS made a good-faith offer to buy the property for $100,000. When asked by Chairperson Teri Kelly how we came up with that amount, we said that was what we felt it was worth. As with any sale, the buyers would be identified on a buy-sell agreement, but the school board was unwilling to tell us if they would even consider selling the building. That does not mean we "do not have the money" as Mr. Huntsberger and some school board members have claimed.

When all indications were that the school board had decided to demolish the building, and had requested Superintendent Maki to bring them a demolition proposal, FHLHS did question why they did not have an appraisal done before deciding to demolish the building. We felt they should have some idea of the value of the historic public property they would be spending public money to demolish. After all, they are in positions of public trust. Their reason was money. Quite frankly, so is ours. One appraiser stated a full "highest and best use" appraisal would cost $12,000 to $15,000. The board of the FHLHS decided that it would be imprudent to spend that kind of money when all we've heard from the school board is that "even if the voters approve the sale of the building, we don't have to sell it."

And, appraisal or not, "It's worth what someone is willing to pay for it," as was so aptly stated at the school board meeting when FHLHS made our offer. However, the statement was made at a later board meeting that if the voters vote against selling the building, the school board will definitely demolish it. There has never been a plan beyond demolition, and who would pay for that and/or any future improvements, like a parking lot or a park? - you, the taxpayer!

The FHLHS realize that if the voters authorize the sale of the building and the school board decides to put it on the market, we may not be the only potential buyer. However, we do feel that our proposal would not only save one of the few truly historic buildings left in Libby, it would also benefit the community culturally and economically. Our proposal includes public space as well as private. We agreed to include any reasonable covenants the school board would want to include in the contract. In our case, the building would be purchased by an LLC (limited liability corporation) of which FHLHS would be a member. As a non-profit organization, our interest would be to provide for public use of the building and grounds. We and/or other non-profit groups could own up to 35 percent of the property without jeopardizing the substantial tax incentive for investors who renovate historic buildings for adaptive reuse.

Again, how does Mr. Huntsberger know whether or not FHLHS "has talked to a building inspector to see what's required to bring the school up to code?" We are not stupid. We do know what is entailed in renovating the building. One of our members is a structural engineer. We had an extensive inspection done by respected engineers and architects from Missoula. Of course, they could not give an exact dollar amount for the renovation without having actual design and use plans. No one could. And no one would pay for such plans without having control of the building.

Not only do we have investors who have made commitments, there are many incentives for saving and adapting historic buildings for new uses. Besides the off-the-top 20 percent tax reduction incentive for investors, there are grants and low-interest loans designated specifically for historic preservation. Nationwide, people have come to realize the value of preserving our architectural heritage. Preserving, restoring, and reusing the historic Libby High School can only be a win-win situation.

Donna Flynn Martin

Treasurer FHLHS