City of Helena and Lewis and Clark County officials are now considering purchasing both wings of the former Blue Cross Blue Shield building on Fuller Avenue to house their new law enforcement offices.
The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Helena Police Department currently share the Law Enforcement Center on Breckenridge Street with the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center. Voters approved a $6.5 million bond in 2016 to fund renovation of all of the Law Enforcement Center’s floors into detention space, expanding capacity from its current 80 inmates to 156, which means the law enforcement offices must be relocated.
The county detention center held 137 inmates as of Friday afternoon, according to Lewis and Clark County's chief administrative officer, Roger Baltz.
The city and county entered into a lease on May 29 with intent to purchase the north wing of the former Blue Cross property, 406 Fuller Ave., by the end of 2018. The 40,000-square-foot property would come with 94 parking spaces at a cost of $1.29 million. Lease payments were set at $12,500 per month.
Baltz confirmed that city and county officials are also considering purchasing the south wing of the property, 404 Fuller Ave., which is recognizable by its characteristic white pillars. The 25,000-square-foot addition and the 42 parking spaces that come with it are appraised at $660,000.
If the purchase is approved, the entire building would become the new Law and Justice Center.
“Even from day one, there was conversation about whether it might make good sense to purchase this entire property,” Baltz said.
Baltz said the idea has been floated to charge for parking in the lot attached to the pillar building, which could generate $30,000 or more per year to help fund maintenance or pay for the property itself. He added that there is no intent or budget for renovation of the pillar building at this time.
However, he said purchasing the property would give officials the opportunity to relocate Helena Municipal Court in the future. The municipal court is currently housed at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on Broadway Avenue.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about in the past is that we may add another … Justice of the Peace judge,” Baltz said. “The space in the courthouse is tight now.”
Discussion of purchasing the entire property began in earnest when officials started looking into the legalities of separating 404 and 406 Fuller Ave. with owner Cottonwood LLC. They found that the separation would require a three-hour firewall between the two wings per Helena city code, at a cost of what Baltz said would be “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Baltz said a county commission vote on the purchase of the pillar building is intended to be held within two to three weeks, and that Helena's interim city manager Dennis Taylor hopes to have a proposal before city commissioners by Dec. 3.
Both commissions have financial incentive to act quickly.
The lease on 406 Fuller Ave. with Cottonwood LLC allows all lease payments to be made toward the purchase price if the property is purchased by Dec. 31. If a purchase is not made by Dec. 31, only half of lease payments — of which Baltz said $75,806 have been made so far — go toward the purchase price.
Last week's joint city/county work session included discussion of the expanded Fuller Avenue purchase, though Baltz said the issue was not addressed “at any great depth.”
Lewis and Clark County contracted Sletten Construction Service of Great Falls last month to renovate 406 Fuller Ave. Baltz said the necessary permits were approved last week and work is scheduled to begin Monday. The top floor will be used by the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the main floor by the Helena Police Department, with a basement and subbasement for storage.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that renovation of 406 Fuller Ave is expected to begin Monday, Nov. 12. Renovation is expected to begin Monday, Nov. 5.