L'ANSE - The Baraga County Board of Commissioners did not make a final decision to purchase a property to address the county's records storage and office space issues, but plenty of opinions were offered on the topic at a public hearing Friday afternoon at the county courthouse.
About 45 people packed the circuit court room for the 45-minute hearing, which opened with board chair Mike Koskinen reading a brief timeline of the potential acquisition of the Health Mart building (former L'Anse Pharmacy) building in downtown L'Anse.
From 2006 to 2011, the county explored numerous renovation, rental and purchase options before deciding the former Baraga County Memorial Hospital building was the best choice. Voters twice rejected that option, reopening the door to other possibilities.
Daily Mining Gazette/Stephen Anderson
Baraga County Board of Commissioners Chair Mike Koskinen, head of the table, responds to a public comment during a public hearing Friday afternoon addressing the county’s potential acquisition of the former Health Mart building in downtown L’Anse.
Most options were cost-prohibitive with a millage out of the question, but the former L'Anse Pharmacy building was appraised at $260,000 due to the depressed real estate market. Negotiations resulted in a tentative agreement for the county to pay the appraisal price and $150,000 for the current owner, Al Hendricks, to renovate the building to suit the county's needs.
"The seller would be doing the renovations, not the county," Koskinen clarified before opening the floor to questions and comments.
"I would love for you guys to get more space, but I would hate to take away a taxable entity out of downtown in a prime location," said Mark Massicotte, president of the Baraga County Chamber of Commerce.
Massicotte proposed renting space at the former hospital from the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, the vacant hospital's tentative next tenant, or buying the former Michigan State Police Post building in L'Anse.
The police post would cost too much to renovate and leasing from the tribe would only be a short-term option, responded Koskinen and Baraga County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph O'Leary.
Massicotte conceded, but then asked that out of all the empty buildings in the downtown, why did the county settle on the former pharmacy?
"Location and price," Koskinen quickly answered.
Later comments during the meeting revealed the basement was in great condition, an important consideration for county records, many of which are currently housed in a public storage facility.
Parking issues were brought up, as was additional concern about the loss of a prime commercial property in the downtown.
"I honestly think we're buying the wrong property. I think Menard's (former L'Anse Hardware) is the property to buy," said John Evans, who owns the L'Anse Frostie Freeze.
He cited the much larger parking lot and its even closer proximity to the courthouse as possible reasons, but Koskinen noted the former hardware store is an older building with major mold issues in the basement.
Evans, and others, did not understand the urgency of entering into an agreement now when other options could be on the table.
"This discussion started out as a search for storage. It turned into an opportunity to acquire a quality building at a very good price and built to suit - within the county's budget," O'Leary said. "There hasn't been a big rush."
The hospital kept surfacing as a proposed option during the hearing, including a suggestion from Ed Brinkman to lease just enough space for storage in the short term and explore business incubator options in the long term, which could start paying for itself.
"You get a SmartZone going up here like they have in Houghton, and maybe Baraga County will start changing into something besides a retirement community," Brinkman said.
But the hospital message was clear from the board: "We had two votes and the people voted and said they don't want the hospital," commissioner Bill Rolof said.
Several comments encouraged the board to slow down, pursue the committee option they had discussed and consider long-term results, but one Baraga resident expressed strong approval for the Health Mart purchase.
"For $400,000 we could meet the needs that the county has for their courthouse situation. We'll never vote a courthouse in, we'll never put up a building for $400,000," Jim Dompier said. "To be able to go into a building that they are going to renovate to your specifications, meeting our needs and we can do it for $400,000, I think it would be a mistake not to go forward."
O'Leary reemphasized that the move would stay within the county's existing budget.
"My message from the voter was to make do with what we have," he said. "This is living within our means as we were told to do."
The tentative $410,000 agreement would be financed over 15 years at 3.75 percent, equaling $1,600 a month, $400 per month cheaper than renting the building from Hendricks.
The county has $211,588 of available up-front general fund money, and the overall cost would be paid for through savings on current storage rental, utilities in former offices, and building and maintenance budget line items. Grant money is also being sought.
Solutions to other problems, such as demolishing the annex building and a courthouse furnace upgrade are being explored through possible financing and grants.
Offices for the county clerk, treasury, equalization, veterans affairs, Michigan State University Extension and 911 would be moved to the Health Mart building while offices currently housed in the annex building would move to the courthouse.
"Anything to do with probate court, district court, circuit court and the prosecutor would (stay in the courthouse)," Koskinen said.
The potential Health Mart purchase will be on the agenda at the board of commissioners regular meeting at 5 p.m. on Monday at the courthouse, though no clear indication was given from the board regarding the possibility of approving a deal then or waiting longer.