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MEL OLSON: Fixing a problem years in the making

By Mel Olson

Mitchell City Councilman

Councilman Travis Carpenter argued vehemently for buying the Longhorn for $1, and I angrily opposed him.

I won, and the city didn't buy the building at that time. Travis left the council at the end of his term, and the Longhorn sat there, progressively getting worse. Eventually, I came to admit Councilman Carpenter had been right; the city needed to buy the building and move on.

We could have let it deteriorate and left it all to Mr. Bates to repair in his own time as his finances would permit. We could have sued Mr. Bates into bankruptcy and then bought it for $1. We could have placed a lien on the building and recouped some money if it sold, which begs the question, who would buy the building with such a lien, in that condition and how much would they have paid?

That "solution" still left the demolition costs to the city. So, the city bought it for $1 and tore it down.

The commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars came to the council when Mr. Bates still owned the building and was waiting for him to take some remedial action. The VFW begged the council not to damage its building, citing its financial inability to repair a problem it had not created and was not a party to. Several members of the council promised to hold the VFW harmless, myself included. The Longhorn came down, along with a shared wall. The city looked into the possibility of insurance paying a portion of the costs. The VFW's insurance company was of the opinion the city caused the problem, and thus the cost -- a view that's hard to argue with.

Meanwhile, the VFW was losing money because it could not do business with a gaping hole in its wall. All throughout this process, the VFW was in touch with the city in a cooperative fashion, asking for updates and looking for solutions. Estimates to repair the wall oscillated wildly, but settled around the $150,000 range. For that kind of money. I wanted to own the building, not repair an aging structure that may have the same issues as the Longhorn in a short time. The council generally, with the exception of Dan Allen who opposed the purchase of the VFW throughout this long process, agreed.

I would have been less likely to favor the purchase of the VFW and its subsequent demolition but for two things.

First, the VFW was forthright from the very beginning about its financial status and need to be held harmless. It was cooperative and positive even though it bore the brunt of cost and inconvenience as an innocent third party. Second, the Longhorn/VFW site is adjacent to the location for the proposed new City Hall, so that property can be used to build on for a plaza (perhaps honoring Oscar Howe), a parking lot or some other use that fits with the new City Hall.

Public safety demanded the council do something about the crumbling Longhorn, decency suggested the city do the right thing by the VFW and pragmatism directs that property be incorporated into the design of a new City Hall.

This was a problem dumped in all our laps by our forebears, who decided decades ago to use the building materials they did and to share a wall between two buildings. The real question for the City Council now is to develop a strategy for the rest of Main Street in order to prevent more crumbling edifices and to enhance downtown.