Concerns three years ago that county taxpayers would get stuck with the old NorthWestern Energy office building in Uptown Butte have -- at least so far -- been validated.
After repeated claims of optimism about finding buyers and a growing tab to keep the heat and lights on in the vacant, hodgepodge building at 40 E. Broadway St., county officials are now asking commissioners to spend up to $17,820 more to market it.
Efforts by the giant utility, a real estate company, and the county have failed to find new owners, but Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer hopes a “last-ditch” effort by a Billings consulting firm will get the job done.
If commissioners agree to the request Wednesday night, the county would pay NAI Business Properties up to $17,820 to pitch the building to a national audience and be the “primary point of contact” for all prospective buyers.
NorthWestern Energy left the building in late 2015 and moved into its new $25-million Montana headquarters at Park and Main, but marketing of the old building goes back nearly three years. The complex is actually five buildings that were pieced together over decades.
Palmer said the new push would be a “national search” by a firm specializing in marketing business properties and he’s hopeful that “offering it to everyone” will result in a buyer or group of new owners.
“It’s one last-ditch effort to really market it well,” Palmer said Monday.
Commissioner Sheryl Ralph thinks the latest step is necessary.
“We don’t have the staff to do it,” she said. “We don’t have a real estate agency. Sometimes you need a professional, and this is one of those times.”
But Palmer said time is running out for keeping the power on, so the building is ready to show at a moment’s notice.
When the county took ownership last summer as part of a 2014 agreement with NorthWestern to stay in Butte, county officials said it would cost more than $1,000 a month to keep the building in showcase shape.
But bills far exceeded that this winter, Palmer said, to the tune of $5,000 to $6,000 a month.
“If we don’t get any takers, we cannot afford to keep it going another winter,” he said. “We are going to have to — by the end of the summer — cut off the heat and pretty much mothball it.”
All commissioners in March 2014 voted for the development agreement with NorthWestern, saying it was a boon to keep company’s Montana headquarters here.
The company built a new $25-million office building at Park and Main, keeping more than 200 jobs in Butte and providing a cornerstone of new property revenue for a newly drawn Uptown tax-increment financing district.
In return, the county gave the company land to construct its new five-story office building and agreed to build a parking garage Uptown where some NorthWestern employees could park. The garage, on Park Street a half-block away from the new office building, could be completed this fall.
Also as part of the deal, the county agreed to assume ownership of the old office building if a buyer could not be found within 18 months.
NorthWestern kept ownership longer than required because a possible purchase seemed promising. But a deal fell through, so ownership was transferred to the county last August.
Community Development Director Karen Byrnes told commissioners then that there had been 12 to 14 “walk-throughs” to show the building to prospective buyers, and five to six had expressed serious interest.
She showed commissioners a video made to promote the building, it had been listed on numerous real estate lists and websites, and NorthWestern would continue to help market it, Byrnes said. But, she said, the building had not sold.
Besides utility costs, the county has been paying a security company $12.25 per night for making two stops to check on things.
A real estate company has priced the 110,000-square-foot building at $750,000.
Ralph said the building is so big, marketing it to “mom and pop” businesses won’t work. She would love to see some local groups come together and buy it but said she isn’t sure that will happen.
Commissioner Bill Andersen said so far “nobody seems to be on the same page” in trying to market the building, and spending another $17,820 might be “throwing good money after bad.”
“I think it’s a good idea if it works and we can get away from the building, but I have little faith it will,” Andersen said. “We were told it was going to be $1,000 or $2,000 a month (to keep utilities on), but it’s two and three times that.
“It has been nothing but a headache.”