Commissioners have agreed to spend up to $17,820 for a Billings firm to market the old NorthWestern Energy building the county took on as part of an agreement to keep the utility’s Montana headquarters in Uptown Butte.
“We don’t have the experience in pushing this out on a national scale to a national audience,” Community Development Director Karen Byrnes told council members Wednesday night. “We need partners.”
Commissioners Jim Fisher and Cindy Perdue-Dolan suggested more be done locally to find buyers for the vacant, 110,000-square-foot complex at 40 E. Broadway St., but they were easily outnumbered on a voice vote to hire Billings-based NAI Business Properties to market it.
Byrnes said Thursday that several people who have shown interest in the complex — including some from Bozeman and Helena — will meet with her and other county representatives on Friday to discuss the proposal process, possible uses for the building, timelines, and joint-ownership possibilities.
“We are hoping we can foster some partnerships between them,” she said.
The aim is to find a buyer or buyers who will provide the “highest and best use” for the building and be successful in it, she said. The complex is actually five buildings joined together over many years.
Eric Fulton, chief executive officer of a Helena-based company called Treasure State Internet that provides internet services, said he planned to be among those meeting with Byrnes on Friday.
He said it was "a spectacular building" but was so massive it might take a group of people to put it to use.
The county took ownership last September as part of a 2014 agreement with NorthWestern to stay in Butte. The company built a $25 million office building at Park and Main streets, keeping more than 200 employees here and pumping new property tax revenue into a special Uptown taxing district.
In return, the county gave up land for the new building, is building a parking garage where some NorthWestern employees can park, and agreed to take ownership of the old building at 40 E. Broadway if the company couldn’t find new owners within 18 months.
NorthWestern hung onto it longer than 18 months, but early and repeated claims of optimism by the company and county officials that it would sell have not panned out.
The county has been paying to keep the lights and heat on so the building can be shown on short notice, but utility bills were $6,000 to $7,000 per month this winter, Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer said this week.
Byrnes told commissioners that NAI is the premiere business real estate firm in Montana with offices in Billings and Missoula. It approached the county about marketing the building, she said, because it is doing the same for other properties in Butte.
The firm has national outreach, she said, and that should increase chances of getting good offers. Money to pay NAI is coming from revolving grant funds, she said.
Commissioner Brendan McDonough suggested that structural engineers or contractors examine the complex first to see if it could be broken down into smaller buildings first. That might make it easier to find buyers, he said.
Byrnes said NorthWestern determined it could be separated into three buildings, but that would require major electrical upgrades. And Commissioner John Morgan said that should only be considered if a prospective buyer shows great interest in doing that.
Fisher said there were “ample people in our community” – including the Butte Local Development Corp., Headwaters RC&D, and the county officials – that could network and seek buyers first.
“I just think we need a more concerted effort between the people in our community before we go spending money for an out-of-town firm from Billings,” he said.
Byrnes said those talks and efforts had been made, and Commissioners Sheryl Ralph, John Sorich, and Cindi Shaw all said the professional marketing push was a good idea.
“I think we need to have someone with new ideas,” Sorich said.