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Trustees begin working with ConoverBond

| March 14, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

The Libby School Board has reversed course and is moving toward selling the district's old high school building on payments to a Spokane developer.

Last month, the board rejected a proposal from ConoverBond Development to make payments on the building as well as an alternate proposal to enter into a partnership in which the district would contribute the building, ConoverBond would renovate and manage it and both sides would share in the profit. The board stood by its demand for an outright cash purchase with a $350,000 asking price.

At a special meeting Monday afternoon with ConoverBond representative Ryan Romaneski, board chair Teri Kelly said the rejection of the previous proposal didn't mean the board wasn't interested in working with the firm. She said the board wanted the dialogue to continue.

"We are interested in a positive outcome for that building," she said.

Board member Jim England said he thought selling the building on payments might be feasible. District superintendent Kirby Maki pointed out that under ConoverBond's proposal, the district would get the property back if the project fell through.

Kelly said she spent some time researching ConoverBond via the company's website and feels better about the proposal now.

"That definitely increased my comfort zone on being willing to carry a contract," she said.

The partnership proposal still didn't interest the board, Kelly said.

"We'd just as soon you people had it and did what you would with it," she told Romaneski.

Board member Melanie Wood suggested the district has nothing to lose by entering into a contract with ConoverBond, calling it "a win-win" situation.

ConoverBond intends to remodel the old school into professional and government office space. The firm is proposing to make a 10 percent down payment followed by monthly payments to the district with interest until the balance is paid off. The sales price would be based on an appraisal to be commissioned by the company.

"The only downside that I see is possibly a low appraisal," said board member Jerry Frament.

"The downside for them on the appraisal is it could come in at $650,000," said board member John Herrmann.

A high appraisal wouldn't obligate ConoverBond to buying the property, Romaneski said. The company could still choose to back out of the deal, he said, just as the district could reject an extremely low appraisal.

The majority of people who answered a ballot question posed by the district favored selling the building, England pointed out. He added that ConoverBond has a proven track record when it comes to rehabilitating old buildings.

"I think we'd be making a monumental mistake if we didn't do something to get them into this and working on it," he said.

Herrmann said the community seems divided between people wanting to save the building and those who just don't care one way or the other. He said there doesn't seem to be a strong sentiment in favor of tearing the building down in favor of a park or something else on the property.

"The strongest voices have been for preserving it," he said.

Responding to concerns about parking for the adjacent Memorial Center and about continued public use of the small park between the old school and Mineral Avenue, Romaneski indicated there shouldn't be any problems. Memorial Center events would typically be in the evening and on weekends when the building's tenants wouldn't need the parking space, he said. The park adds to the building's value, he said.

"The building is less attractive to us if it's surrounded by asphalt," he said.

Romaneski said conceptual drawings of the area from a streetscape proposal commissioned by Libby Revitalization Inc. match up well with the company's vision for the property.

Gary Huntsberger, a former school board member and former city council member who has lobbied for the building's demolition, questioned the feasibility of ConoverBond's plans.

"I did a lot of work on this, and it's a long shot," he said.

Huntsberger asked how local people can be assured ConoverBond will follow through with the project.

"I don't think their intent is to just get the building and let it sit there," Kelly said.

"We wouldn't even put money down on a down payment if we weren't going to move forward with it," Romaneski said.

Board member Lisa Bardole asked Romaneski if his company typically buys buildings on payments. He said ConoverBond uses various methods but rarely buys a building outright. The exact structure of each deal depends on a variety of factors including the risk associated with the project.

Bardole asked Romaneski to rate the risk of this project, compared to others taken on by ConoverBond, on a scale of 1 to 10. He said the project would probably rate an 8, not because of the structure itself but because of the question of "who is going to fill it." By comparison, a project in downtown Spokane, where buildings don't stay empty for very long, would rate a 2, he said.

England asked Romaneski what's so appealing about the old school building.

"Old buildings can never be re-created," he said. "Once a building is lost, it's lost."

In addition to its aesthetic qualities, the old school — last used as a home for the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College, which left in 2000 — is designed and built in such a way that the interior can be remodeled for just about any purpose, Romaneski said. He called the building "a gem" and noted its prominent location.

"It is in my opinion without a doubt the most significant building in town," he said.

The board agreed to let ConoverBond move ahead with securing an appraisal of the building, with more details to be worked out later.