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Trustees stand fast on $350,000

| February 23, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

The Libby School Board is holding fast to its demand for a cash price for the old high school building downtown, rejecting a Spokane developer's proposal for a partnership or a purchase on payments.

Earlier this month, ConoverBond Development offered the district two alternatives for transferring the property over to the company for renovation. The first option was for the district and ConoverBond to form a partnership with the district contributing the old school and ConoverBond renovating and managing the building. The two parties would agree on the building's value, and that would be used along with ConoverBond's financial contribution to determine each side's stake in the project. Rental income would be divided based on that stake until the initial investment was returned, then revenues would be split 50-50.

The second option calls for ConoverBond to make a 10 percent down payment followed by monthly payments to the district with interest until the balance was paid off. The selling price would be based on an independent appraisal of the property commissioned by ConoverBond.

Under both alternatives, ownership of the building — along with whatever improvements or payments made up to that point — would revert to the district in the event of ConoverBond being unable to hold up its end of the deal.

During a special session prior to the regular school board meeting on Tuesday, the trustees were unanimous in their rejection of both options. Board chair Teri Kelly began discussion by stating her opposition to the partnership proposal.

"I would just as soon be done with it," she said. "Be out from under it and done with it."

Board member Melanie Wood said the partnership might make financial sense over the long run, "but I don't know that that's what we want."

"We're not going to realize any money for a long time," Jim England added.

The partnership would be too much of a gamble, said Jerry Frament.

"You just don't put taxpayer dollars at risk when it's meant to be paying teachers' salaries," he said.

The board likewise rejected the proposal that the district carry a real estate contract on the property.

"We're not a bank," John Herrmann said.

"I would just as soon sell it if we're going to get rid of it, and be done with it," Kelly said.

Herrmann said the board should hold out for an outright sale "or nothing."

"I don't want to be in a position where it doesn't work out and we get it back," Kelly said.

Kate Huntsberger said the board should counter with its previous asking price of $350,000 cash along with detailed plans for the building's renovation and re-use.

"We want money and we want a plan," she said.

Huntsberger noted ConoverBond's request that the district agree in advance to honor the appraisal of the property or pay for a second appraisal on its own.

"They think it's going to come out lower, which is why they don't want to give us the $350,000," she said.

Kelly said the board should be willing to negotiate on the price while still holding out for cash. England suggested countering with a price of $250,000 for the property minus the small park adjacent to the building.

"Not the park," Huntsberger said. "The parking lot is what we need."

Huntsberger's husband, Gary — a former member of both the school board and the city council and an advocate of demolishing the old school — said ConoverBond has not been forthcoming with details of its plans for the property. He said the board should demand an outright purchase along with detailed plans.

"I think it's a poker game, and they threw a real low-ball thing out there and you're going to call," he said.

Kate Huntsberger repeated that the board should tell ConoverBond it wants $350,000 and a plan. An estimate of the value of the property without the building, obtained by the district from a local real estate professional and used to arrive at the asking price, suggests the district could tear down the old school and come out $250,000 ahead, she said.

England said he would agree to sell the property to ConoverBond for $350,000 and trust that any company ready to invest that much money would be sincere in its redevelopment efforts.

"Kate, I respectfully disagree that we need to have a plan," he said.

"As long as we get our money and we're out of it," she responded.

"I like the idea of getting rid of it, and I also like the idea that it's a very valuable piece of property for the school district, and I wonder why the city doesn't want to buy it," Herrmann said.

He pointed to the potential of the bare property as a park, possibly with the old school's arched entrance retained, as some people have suggested.

Libby Revitalization Inc. director Betty Jo Wood offered her personal support for ConoverBond's plans but stressed that she doesn't speak for the LRI board.

"If I were on the board, I'd be jumping all over this ConoverBond thing," she said.

Because of the controversial nature of the old school issue, the LRI board voted not to take a position until the school board has decided on a course of action, Wood said.

The trustees directed district superintendent Kirby Maki to contact ConoverBond and relay the board's position.

ConoverBond is proposing to remodel the old school into professional and government office space. During a phone conference with board members on Feb. 14, a company representative said talks are ongoing with two private entities interested renting some or all of the building. The Libby City Council has also expressed support for the project and indicated some interest in the potential to move city offices into the renovated building.

The old school has been empty since the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College vacated the structure in 2000. The school board has moved several times over the past three years toward demolishing the building. A group organized as Friends of Historic Libby High School has lobbied for preservation and offered to buy the building for $100,000, but the offer was rejected by the school board.