MARQUETTE - The Marquette County Board has recommended forming an ad hoc committee to explore a new five-year plan aiming to save the former West Branch Community Center from the wrecking ball.
West Branch Township, which currently owns the facility, is scheduled to auction the building for its contents in March. The auction proceeds, with a minimum $100,000 bid required, would help the township stave off a balloon loan payment due in 2019 on $235,000 the township borrowed for a new roof on the building.
The township postponed the auction last November, giving proponents of the saving the structure time to develop alternatives.
Members of the Sawyer citizens' non-profit group Community Hand-Up now have a plan, which would see the county buy the 56,000-square-foot facility from West Branch Township for an undisclosed amount, less than the minimum bid expected.
The township could put money from the sale toward its balloon payment, while keeping responsibilty for the loan. Meanwhile, Community Hand-Up would seek to operate the facility, known locally as the "W," as a multi-purpose athletic facility and community center.
"We're at a critical point," said Lisa Johnson, who heads the group.
Johnson said the facility would open in stages, at first without the swimming pool, as a substantial cost-saving measure. Opening the center would provide grant opportunities unavailable with the facility closed.
Meanwhile, the group continues to pursue a $650,000 federal budget appropriation for heat and energy improvements, with the support of Michigan's Congressional delegation.
Johnson said the group is considering creating an authority with townships or other governmental entities - perhaps even those from other counties - joining and contributing funding. Members of those communities could then use the facility free of charge.
Forsyth Township has agreed to be involved, according to Johnson. That community currently levies 2 mills for recreation, some of which may potentially be available for the facility.
Some members of the county board seemed fully behind the proposal Tuesday, with others appearing more skeptical, wanting to see more details, more input from others and a full accounting of related liabilities.
Commissioner Bill Nordeen supports the plan. He said the county has about $1.8 million remaining in proceeds from the sale of housing, utilities and other items from the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base.
"I think we have a responsibility to use some of that Air Force money to support that facility," Nordeen said.
County Administrator Steve Powers said the county spent $636,000 on the facility between 1999 and 2004, in addition to almost $500,000 spent by West Branch Township. The YMCA was previously involved, but left because of financial drain, he said.
Commissioner Gerald Corkin said, "Everybody'd love to see the facility open," but he questioned the amount of improvements necessary to make it viable.
"Every private group that looked at this facility over a 10-year period said it won't work," Corkin said.
Commissioner Nick Joseph wanted to know who would be responsible for unmet expenses, if the county owned the facility.
"I do have a problem with the operational costs if they're not met by this group under this five-year plan," Joseph said.
Commissioner Michael Quayle said he'd rather put money into keeping the facility open than paying to tear it down. Commissioner Deb Pellow agreed the effort was worth a five-year trial.
Commission Jim Cihak said the board needed input from civil counsel, staff and others before deciding, but he generally supports the facility.
The board voted 6-2 to form a three-member ad hoc subcommittee to meet with Forsyth and West Branch townships and Community Hand-Up and return to the full board with a recommendation within three weeks. Commissioners Joseph and Corkin dissented with Commissioner Paul Arsenault absent. The panel will take a final vote on the motion at its regular meeting next Tuesday.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.