Helena Public Schools will soon issue a request for proposals from organizations interested in making use of the 7th Avenue Gym.
The gym, which is located on the Central Elementary School campus, has seen various stages of use since 2013, when it was last used as the school's gymnasium. Late last year, the district contracted with SMA Architects to analyze the structure for possible uses. Now the district is seeking potential partners to take over the building and do something with it.
An overview document regarding the request suggests the district suspects a potential partner would have to invest somewhere between $500,000 and $3.7 million, depending on the use. The monetary investment is largely due to the building's age. Completed in 1908, the building is considered to be a historical location. The analysis by SMA outlined several key issues the building may face in the future. However, the study did find the building to be "generally sound as a structure."
The school district's Superintendent Tyler Ream said this request process is a bit different than usual because it regards a building rather than a project. He told the board of trustees not to expect anything back on the request until at least August. This multi-stage process is expected to take the remainder of this year and will likely extend into next year.
After the request for proposals is released, the next steps will include a tentative award, a funding and design phase, a final award and the renovation process itself.
"Due to the nature of this RFP, I believe potential bidders will need time to come up with proposals," Ream said. "The hope is that the building can be used for the good of the community."
Ream said the district won't be asking for a full architectural plan upfront due to the investment of capital that requires. However, the board will be seeking a full concept of what the bidder wants to do, and renderings will help in that process.
The district is working to assemble a team whose members have a vested interest in seeing this project succeed, including a local Realtor and representatives of the Montana Historical Society and Helena Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We're really not trying to make any money off it," Ream said. "We just want to see it put to good use for the community."
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Full architectural plans will be required prior to any final award taking place and are expected within 12 months.
The school district's director of support services Kali Kind said she recently contracted with Tim Moore of Moore Appraisal Firm to conduct an appraisal on the property. According to Moore, this is only the second time in his career that he has completed an appraisal on a property with a negative value. The land under the building is estimated to be worth approximately $204,000, and it would cost approximately $206,000 to abate and demolish the gym, making the total property worth approximately negative $2,000.
"Really the value in the building is the personal attachment," Kind said.
One topic of uncertainty with the property is whether or not the school district would hand over ownership of the building or lease it. Regardless, there would be a clause in any contract stating that ownership of the property reverts to Helena Public Schools if the bidder doesn't fulfill their end of the contract.
"It appears we must keep this as school district property to maintain control of it," said board Vice-chair Terry Beaver.
Beaver also said he is unsure if Montana law would allow any for-profit business to lease the building, as it wouldn't pay property taxes due to operating out of school district property. Board Chair Luke Muszkiewicz said he hopes the district will eventually find someone to take ownership of the building, and that he "doesn't want the district in the business of being landlords."
The building's close proximity to Central Elementary School is one potential deterrent to relinquishing ownership. If the district has no ownership, it has no control over what shares a plot with the school. Ream said it will also be important for the district to consider if any proposed improvements hinder the use of the building for other purposes in the future.
Trustee Jeff Hindoien said it is important that the board remain pragmatic with its expectations. He said there is a very narrow scope of making this work and stressed the importance of the possibility that this simply won't be successful.
"I remain optimistic that we can find a partner willing to invest in this building," Muszkiewicz said. "However, I think it's going to take a value judgement by this board, this administration and this community."
Muszkiewicz said he is confident in the two-phase request process and that the district is taking it slow and being considerable throughout. Other trustees expressed their desire to see this request process move forward and observe what responses the district receives.
"There is a lot to consider," said Kind. "This is not a straightforward process."