By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre City Council in a close vote decided to review a $75,000 bid from a Havre businessman to buy the Heritage Center.
The council tied 4-4 on a vote to consider a bid from Robert Nault Sr. and several unidentified partners. Mayor Bob Rice cast the tie-breaking vote.
The vote means the council cannot consider any other bids for the downtown landmark unless it rejects the Nault bid.
Nault said he plans to convert the building into apartments and retail spaces in the interest of "revitalizing downtown."
Nault's bid will expire Jan. 6 at 5 p.m. Nault said he has several partners who wish to remain anonymous.
The bid is the first the council has seriously considered in a process that began in September. The city had set a deadline for accepting bids, then reopened it in November. After the second deadline expired, Rice on Friday said he would continue to accept bids through Monday at noon.
Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition, an 11-county anti-poverty group headquartered in Havre, did not submit a bid by Monday's deadline. The group's executive director said the mayor had previously only asked for a letter of intent, which was submitted.
Rice told director Andrea Main on Friday that she had until Monday at noon to get a bid together.
Main said in a letter to Rice that a dollar value could not be offered until the coalition's board of directors meets on Dec. 14. She asked the city to wait until Jan. 20 before selling the building.
Council members Dana West, Pam Hillery, Emily Mayer Lossing, and Allen "Woody" Woodwick voted against the motion to exclude looking at other potenital buyers. Terry Schend, Tom Farnham, Rick Pearson and Jack Brandon voted in favor.
Several council members said the bidding process was not handled well.
"I don't think the council has been well informed," Hillery told Rice during the discussion. "The bidding process has been an oddly elongated process without our council's" full understanding.
Woodwick said today that Nault's offer was respectable, but the bidding had not been re-advertised after a Nov. 1 council vote to reopen the bidding and that it should have been.
"It wasn't actually put up for bid again," Woodwick said in an interview today.
At Monday's meeting, Rice said he contacted the state after the council's November decision to reopen bidding and learned the city did not have to re-advertise.
The city has owned the Heritage Center since 1996, when it bought the former post office and federal courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service with federal highway funds. It was leased by the Clack Foundation until July 1, when the foundation said it could not longer afford to operate the landmark.
The city also says it can't afford to keep the building open.
Rice told the council Monday that he's most concerned about heating bills.
Rice learned from a plumbing company this week that the building cannot be winterized as planned. The boilers and pipes cannot be drained adequately and the hardwood floors might buckle in extreme cold, he said.
One boiler failed last week, a problem Rice said might have been caused by vandalism. The second boiler was made operational at a cost of $850 to the city, he said. The cost of fixing the first boiler if the second fails could be $3,500.
The money spent on the boilers will be repaid by the state when the building is purchased, he said, but the heating bills would not likely be refunded.
"That building is costing us money every day," public works director Dave Peterson said.
Rice said it's money the city doesn't have.
The reason for not considering other bids now that Nault's has been made public is fairness, he said. Competitors would already know Nault's price.
Council member Dana West said the council shouldn't exclude other offers.
"Since the buyer had the Jan. 6 deadline, my thought was to leave options," West said after the meeting.
Woodwick said today the city should accept an offer from the anti-poverty coalition.
"We need to consider both of the offers side by side," Woodwick said. "I don't think we gave Northcentral Community Ventures a fair shake."
The council will vote on Nault's proposal at the next City Council meeting in two weeks.
One condition of Nault's proposal was that the buyer be allowed to decide if the building remains on the National Register of Historical Places.
Mayer Lossing said the process of removing the building from the register would not be up to the city, and possibly not the state, but she said the improvements Nault proposed would likely be allowed.
Nault said he would like to install air-conditioning and new heating as well as renovate the interior for apartments and stores. He said the outside appearance would not be changed, but the inside needed substantial "updates."
Nault said he has not contacted the Montana Historical Society, but following the suggestion of the council, said he would do so.
Kate Hampton, National Registry coordinator for the society, said in an interview that covenants on the building may limit changes an owner can make.