Commissioners have put a developer’s proposal for the vacant NorthWestern Energy office building in Uptown Butte on hold, and they won’t hear a Helena man’s pitch for the sprawling complex.
Meanwhile, a Butte man wants county officials to take a closer look at his proposal and even says he’ll pay $12,920 up front — the same amount the county paid a Billings firm to market the mish-mash of buildings at 40 E. Broadway St. last year.
“Other proposals have all involved drastic changes to the building and hugely inflated price tags that go along with these changes,” Cameron Moylan told commissioners Wednesday night.
“I believe excessive costs brought on by these proposals are one big reason the property has been so hard to sell,” he said. “It is being viewed as a burden when it’s one of Butte’s biggest assets.”
Moylan has proposed turning the building into office space and apartments, but county officials question his financial wherewithal.
So, after a contentious meeting and accusations that one commissioner “circumvented” the proposal process at the last minute and got newspaper coverage on it, the building’s immediate future is still uncertain.
The county inherited the building in 2016 as part of a deal that helped keep NorthWestern Energy’s Montana headquarters in Butte. The power company built a new $25-million office building at Park and Main and abandoned the old building.
But the county has been unable to sell it, in part because of its age, size, and hodge-podge set-up. It is actually five buildings joined together, with a blue, 1960s façade that county officials privately acknowledge is ugly today.
After a months-long process of seeking and evaluating proposals for the 110,000-square-foot complex, county officials wanted commissioners on Wednesday night to sign off on a plan by real estate development firm Wishrock Housing Patners LLC.
Wishrock had said it would market the building for a year and seek tenants while splitting utility and maintenance costs with the county. If it got enough commitments to lease or buy space, it could buy the building from the county for $1.
But on Tuesday, Wishrock asked commissioners to table their plan because of a new proposal that just surfaced this week by Eric Fulton, co-founder of an internet services business in Helena.
“Wishrock has ties to Butte and supports any project that benefits the community and will gladly step aside if an alternative offer is considered to be a better option for the redevelopment,” the company said in a statement.
Commissioner Bill Andersen had formally asked the council to let Fulton make a presentation on his plan next week, even though he did not submit a proposal by a Dec. 8 deadline like Wishrock and Moylan did.
The Montana Standard reported on Andersen’s request and Fulton’s verbal pitch to spend at least $500,000 on immediate repairs to the complex while seeking tenants.
At least two commissioners — Brendan McDonough and Sheryl Ralph — said Andersen had skirted an established proposal process that Wishrock and county officials had followed.
McDonough said he was “disappointed a member of this body would suggest that we circumvent our process, policies, and procedures and question the proposal in the media before we discuss it in this body and this chamber.”
The full council tabled the Wishrock proposal, at least temporarily, then shot down Andersen’s request to have Fulton present his plan next week. But the criticisms didn’t stop there.
Ralph said Thursday that Wishrock had worked with county officials for 14 months and “followed the rules and did everything right” only to be undercut at the last minute.
“What kind of message is that for businesses?” she asked. “I sincerely hope they will come back to the table, but I don’t want them in the middle of this dirty laundry.”
Andersen said Wednesday night that he didn’t like Wishrock’s proposal. He noted their extensive experience in affordable housing projects and said Uptown Butte needed businesses, not low-income housing.
Karen Byrnes, the county’s community development director, said Wishrock was looking to market the building for mixed uses. She was not certain if affordable housing was envisioned but said she would talk more with the firm about that.
Andersen said Thursday that he knew the deadline for proposals had passed but said the council should “step outside the bounds” once in a while and consider something new.
“I do not believe the council is there just as a rubber stamp, and all too often (county) staff treats us just as that,” he said. “A lot of them don’t, but some of them view us as nothing more than a formality to get their way.”
Commissioner Jim Fisher dismissed criticisms that the proposals had “played out” in the Standard this week and suggested staff do a better job of keeping commissioners informed.
“Whether we read it there or somewhere else, that is our fault,” he said. “It’s not the newspaper’s fault. We have a lack of communication here.”