Port ponders building’s fate

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer October 25, 2013 11:40 pm

Tear it down or bring it up to code?

Those were the two main options reached by a group of citizens and officials discussing the fate of the long-empty, unfinished green building at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

“If this was an easy problem, it would have been solved years ago,” said Tim Patterson, a member of the port commission and chair of a subcommittee formed to address the issue.

More than 20 people attended the workshop earlier this month to share their ideas of how the structure might be used. The two-story building sits on about 4 acres of land and has about 16,000-square-feet of usable space.

Proposed uses of the building included a restaurant, retail shops and office (the original purpose of the building), an event center, brewery and carousel and midway.

However, the discussion came to a halt early in the meeting as it became clear that the group needed more accurate cost estimates related to demolishing the building or completing construction and bringing it up to code. The latter, while a more expensive option, would give the port a better chance at selling it to potential business interests.

“The option of not doing anything is not an option,” said Port Manager Ted Fitzgerald. “It’s costing us money every day it sits there. There are other things that land can be used for.”

The group spent about two hours discussing the history of the building, it’s current condition and assessed value (about $375,000).

History

Construction on the building began about 10 years ago, using money from an $800,000 loan obtained from a state economic development agency, said Port Commissioner Jim Relaford, who researched the issue. He was not commissioner at the time the building was constructed.

Before the building could be completed, the port ran into financial trouble, having over extended itself on several projects happening at the same time. Work on the building was stopped. Only the framing and roof were complete. There was no electrical or plumbing systems installed.

The loan for the project was consolidated with other outstanding debt owed to the state — about $5 million, which the port is paying off to the tune of $68,000 a month.

“There never was a business plan for the building; the funding was a available and the port just grabbed it,” Relaford said.

To save money, the port used its own employees to construct the building, he said.

“They worked really hard, but there were some mistakes made,” he said. “Things were done that made it structurally unsafe.”

An example of that, he said, were notches that were cut into the bottom of several main support beams, undermining their integrity.

Relaford estimated the costs to make the structure safe for occupancy at $800,000 to $1 million. The port cannot afford that.

Any business person interested in purchasing the building as is would have to first spend that much money just to move in, he said.

In some cases, the port was willing to give the building away – but not the land – to someone who had a good business idea and was willing to shoulder that cost, Fitzgerald said.

No one has accepted that challenge yet, he said.

The building was recently painted by members of the Curry County Homebuilders Association (the port paid for the paint), with the understanding that the association would be provided space inside, Fitzgerald said.

Meanwhile the building continues to deteriorate and port employees are doing just the bare minimum to slow the process, he said.

In 2008, the port commission directed Fitzgerald to find a solution to the problem. An estimated cost of finishing the building was determined at the time, but is now out of date, he said.

In recent years, the port has been approached by numerous groups and individuals interested in using the building. Those interests included Southwestern Oregon Community College, Sutter Coast Hospital, local tribal officials, Friends of Music and Bi-Mart. 

Other suggested uses for the building included a Christmas market, auction house, computer support services, church services, a homeless shelter, county offices, a bohemian artists colony, an event center, a museum and an alcohol and drug treatment center.

“In each of the above cases, the building as it stands proved unworkable or not reasonably adapted to the proposed use,” Fitzgerald said.

Additionally, he said, anybody interested in using the building permanently — such as the college or hospital — were deterred by the substantial cost of bringing it up to code, as well as costs for paving the surrounding parking lot and installing a required turn lane.

Bi-Mart was interested in the site, but said the building would have to be razed to make room for a new structure. Bi-Mart has since built a store in downtown Brookings.

“Imagine if that didn’t have that building there; we could have had a Bi-Mart there,” Relaford said.

Looking ahead

Demolishing the building rose to the top of potential solutions discussed during this month’s workshop.

“If it’s a matter of a tear-down or fixing it up, I prefer to tear it down,” said local artisan Pete Chasar.

Roger Thompson, owner of the Driftwood RV Park at the port, agreed.

“The building is worth nothing,” Thompson said. “Look around. There are empty storefronts and businesses closing all around.”

He suggested the port contact tribal officials to see if one of the regional tribes would be interested in building a casino on the site.

Fitzgerald said he contacted the Smith River Rancheria but hadn’t heard back. He may approach the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians to see if it is interested in a casino.

“My job is to make the port economically viable,” Fitzgerald said. “We are trying to pay off our debt to the state by raising revenue, but this building is blocking revenue.”

If the port had never built the structure and instead leased or renting out the land for boat storage and other uses, it would have made more than $350,000 in the last 10 years.

If it were up to him, Fitzgerald said, he’d demolish the building down to the concrete foundation.

“I’m drooling over that slab,” he said, referring to possible uses for it.

He added, “Sometimes we just have say ‘this didn’t work’ and move on.”

At the end of the meeting, Fitzgerald was directed to determine the cost of demolition, to maintain the building, or bring it up to code.

He will present the information at another workshop tentatively scheduled for Nov. 21.