A real estate developer would market the vacant NorthWestern Energy building in Uptown Butte for a year while splitting utility and maintenance costs with the county under a proposal commissioners will consider Wednesday.
But Commissioner Bill Andersen wants the council to postpone a decision on that until it hears a separate but late pitch from Eric Fulton, who heads a Helena-based internet company. Fulton says he could commit $500,000 for immediate renovations to the building if he gets it and wants to present his ideas to the council on Feb. 14.
Under the deal before council this week, Wishrock Housing Partners LLC would offer incentives in hopes of securing an anchor tenant and if it got enough commitments to buy or lease space, could buy the sprawling complex from the county for $1.
That might sound like a steal, but as it stands, the county owns the hodge-podge of buildings at 40 E. Broadway and it has been unable to sell while utility and maintenance costs mount. Those costs were nearly $70,000 last year.
“They (Wishrock) are paying to play,” Karen Byrnes, Butte-Silver Bow’s community development director, said Monday. “They would be entering into a partnership with us so they have the exclusive right to make a go of it.”
The county took ownership of the complex in 2016 as part of an agreement to keep NorthWestern Energy’s Montana headquarters in Butte. The company built a new $25 million building at Park and Main streets, which kept more than 200 jobs and significant property tax dollars here.
The county has been unable to find a buyer of the old office complex, in part because of its size, age and mish-mashed set-up. The 110,000-square-foot complex is actually five buildings joined together over the years.
In the meantime, the county spent about $70,000 last year for utility and maintenance costs, including security and staff time to monitor the buildings. Utility costs alone topped $45,000.
The county also paid a Billings firm $12,920 last year to market the building, which resulted in two proposals submitted by a Dec. 8 deadline. The one from Wishrock was the strongest, most detailed plan, Byrnes said, so a committee that includes her and Chief Executive Dave Palmer is asking the council to OK it when it meets at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Courthouse, 155 W. Granite.
Wishrock, a national real estate developer with offices in Missoula, Portland, Maine, and three other cities, focuses primarily on creating and preserving affordable housing. It owns more than 9,000 units located in several states.
But it also has experience in renovating and re-positioning large historic buildings, including the Wilma building in downtown Missoula, although it hasn’t engaged in that type of development since 2009.
“We feel like they have the financial wherewithal to make it successful,” Byrnes said. “We have met with them multiple times and they are really good at what they do.”
Wishrock says its overall goal is to return the property to five individual building facades with “multiple commercial and residential tenants.” Joint ventures and condominiums would be considered.
Specifically, it would market the building for up to a year, using discount leasing rates or other incentives in hopes of getting an anchor tenant – preferably from outside of Butte so it creates new jobs.
“Securing an anchor tenant will help make the redevelopment financially feasible and help to change the negative stigma currently associated with the property,” the company said in a December letter to Byrnes.
The marketing team would include J.J. Adams, who recently joined three others to buy the historic Finlen Hotel and complex in Butte. The firm would work with the city to address parking and access issues and for up to one year, pay all marketing costs and 50 percent of utility and maintenance expenses.
If Wishrock gets enough leasing commitments, it would exercise its option to buy the complex. If that occurred, it intends to remove the blue, 1960s façade and restore the face of each individual building “to its original appearance.”
Byrnes said proposals were publicly sought for months and the deadline to submit them was Dec. 8. For several weeks since then, county officials have been negotiating terms of the proposed pack with Wishrock and even now, they have no written proposal from Fulton, she said.
Fulton, co-founder of a Helena-based company called Treasure State Internet that provides Internet services, acknowledged that he is late coming forward. He said he was in China on business from October through December and wasn’t aware a proposal process was in play.
But he wants to present a plan to council on Feb. 14, something Andersen has also requested on his behalf. Fulton said if he got the buildings, he would pay for all the utility costs and has enough capital to put $500,000 into renovations while also seeking tenants.
He said he has talked with someone about locating a new brewery on the street level of the complex and two or three others are interested in locating coffee shops there. He envisions using discount leases to get other entities there, perhaps nonprofits included.
“I know I’m late but I’m asking them (commissioners) to hold up,” he said. “I think I can present something better.”
Andersen said under the lone proposal before council now, Wishrock “assumes half the risks now but gets all of the reward” later if it finds tenants.
But Byrnes said Butte-Silver Bow would get plenty of rewards, too.
If they find tenants, she said, “We have a publicly owned building back in the private sector paying taxes and employing people. If they are successful, and we want them to be successful, we are successful."