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Council nixes Gut purchase

| June 10, 2005 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

The Libby City Council voted 4-2 on Monday against buying a vacant lot at the end of Mineral Avenue that has been targeted as a key component of a downtown revitalization plan.

Councilman Stu Crismore had proposed that the city buy the property, which was the site of a secondhand store that burned in the spring of 2004, for an estimated $30,000. Buying the lot would give the city the ability to ensure that any development there falls in line with a streetscape plan commissioned by Libby Revitalization Inc., Crismore said.

"I'm not suggesting that the city buy a piece of land for a long-term investment," Crismore said. "I don't think that's where we should be going."

Crismore pointed out that relocation of the railroad depot to a spot close to the end of Mineral Avenue is central to LRI's plans for downtown. The city has an 80-foot right of way, but the building is about 100 feet wide, meaning that part of the building would overlap onto the lot that's up for sale, he said.

Under Crismore's plan, the city could break out a piece of the property for the depot and sell the rest, or sell the entire parcel if the depot proposal were to fall through.

At least a portion of the building would still have to be used as a depot, but both Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Amtrak are supportive of the move, Crismore said.

At a meeting in May, Crismore and Mayor Tony Berget explained that the city had borrowed $500 from LRI for a refundable buy-sell agreement to hold the property. On Monday, Berget told the council a decision was needed because the agreement was expiring.

"I'm totally against it," said Councilman Wally McElmurry. "I don't see the purpose of wasting city money on taking something off the tax rolls."

Councilman Gary Huntsberger said he was uncomfortable with making a decision without more information. He said the proposal should be part of a larger overall plan that should be submitted by LRI.

"This wasn't presented to us at all," he said. "We just got the buy-sell after it was already signed."

Councilman Doug Roll asked what would stop other property owners from doing things with their property that wouldn't fit with LRI's plans.

That can't be controlled, Crismore said.

"This us one we can control," he said.

Councilman Lee Bothman pointed out that BNSF owns the property on the side across from the vacant lot and suggested that the depot could be placed so that it sat on the city's right of way and BNSF's parcel and not on the lot in question. He asked LRI director Betty Jo Wood if it would ruin the project to have the depot off-center.

"I think if you're going to follow the plan, yes, it does," Wood said.

Crismore and Bothman voted in favor of buying the lot. McElmurry, Huntsberger, Roll and Charlene Leckrone voted against.

In related business, the council approved a third year of funding for LRI.

At $100,000, the budget contains no major changes from last year, Wood told the council when presenting the funding plan last month.

The budget includes $45,000 for administration, including $36,880 for personnel, and $55,000 for projects, which includes $25,000 for grants to businesses planning facade improvements and $30,000 for a streetscape improvement plan.

LRI initially sought a $300,000 lump-sum grant from the city's economic development fund in 2003 to fund three years of operations. The proposal was modified to require an annual review with a separate vote for each year of funding before it was approved by the council.