Butte-Silver Bow has received no proposals for buying and developing the sprawling, vacant NorthWestern Energy building, 40 E. Broadway St., despite months of marketing by a Billings firm that's being paid up to $17,820.
Commissioners agreed in April to hire NAI Properties to market the building in Montana and nationally and proposals for buying and using it were initially due Sept. 5. The county took on the building as part of a 2014 agreement to keep NorthWestern Energy’s state headquarters in Butte.
Community Development Director Karen Byrnes says two parties are very interested in the building complex but did not have proposals solidified by the initial deadline. Offers from them or others will still be accepted into December, she said.
But if something doesn’t materialize in a few weeks, she said, county officials would have to consider a next move and that could include mothballing the building during cold-weather months to avoid more costly heating bills. County Chief Executive Dave Palmer has said utility bills ran $6,000 to $7,000 a month last winter.
“We are not at that point of deciding yet,” Byrnes said.
Cindy Perdue-Dolan, who joined Jim Fisher as the only two commissioners who voted against hiring NAI last spring, said Wednesday that temporarily mothballing the complex over the winter might be the only practical move right now.
“We are sinking so much money into this building, and we haven’t gotten any responses,” she said. “We have gotten some small bites at the apple but nothing has come to fruition. I think being realistic, going the mothball phase for the short-term is a very realistic approach.”
She and Fisher suggested in April that more be done locally to find buyers and she still favors that. Fisher said the county needs to quit worrying about buyers and just get someone to take on the building and use it for something.
He said he usually does not support that approach, sometimes referred to as a "developer's packet" that can mean little or no purchasing price. But, he said, "We need to get people in there who are going to be paying taxes and hiring some people."
The 110,000-square-foot complex is actually five buildings joined together over many years. Its size, age and mishmash set-up are cited often as reasons it is difficult to sell.
The county took ownership a year ago as part of the 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.
Byrnes said she has been talking with two people who are very interested in the building but did not have time to provide all details by the original Sept. 5 deadline for proposals.
“They both contacted me the day it was due,” she said.
The contract with NAI runs through December, she said, and the firm has a strategy to “double-down” on its efforts until then.
Perdue-Dolan said she knows people have tried hard to find a buyer, but she wants to see marketing input from the Butte Local Development Corp. and its new executive director, Joe Willauer, and other local economic development groups.
Fisher said if the county cannot find anyone to simply take the building, he definitely opposes paying NAI any more money to keep marketing it. And mothballing it over the winter is the only practical thing to do, he said.
"We cant afford to keep paying paying the power bills," he said. "This could go on for years."