COLUMBIA — Presented with an offer to to buy the Heibel-March Building, the City Council asked Monday for guidance from four organizations.
On Thursday evening one of those organizations — Parks and Recreation Commission — became the first to debate its recommendation – and consensus was in short supply.
After a spirited discussion, the commission passed a motion detailing its recommendations to the council. But disagreements between the commission's members kept them from deciding on a specific course of action.
The Heibel-March Building stands at the corner of Range Line Street and Wilkes Boulevard, across from Columbia College and north of downtown. For decades it housed drug and grocery stores but has been unoccupied since the late 1990s. Since the city purchased the building in 1999, a number of groups have unsuccessfully attempted to find a community use for the building.
On Monday, the council was presented with a report detailing an offer from Legacy Construction to buy the building. Legacy, which has operated in Columbia since 2006, plans to spend $75,000 renovating the building for use as its offices. The council decided to reach out to four groups before coming to a decision:
- The Parks and Recreation Commission because the Heibel-March Building occupies a corner of Field Park
- The Historic Preservation Commission because the 100-year-old Heibel-March Building was placed on the commission's list of notable downtown properties in 2005
- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because the building was originally purchased with funds from the department's Community Development Block Grant program
- The North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, which has been involved in previous attempts to find a community use for the building
The most immediate question to arise at the council meeting was whether selling the building to a for-profit business would violate stipulations of the block grant. To figure that out, the Parks and Recreation Department will work in the coming weeks with Housing and Urban Development.
"We need to confirm ... that this would even be an allowable use of the building," said Mike Hood, the director of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. "It may hang on some very technical calls as to whether the park includes the land that the building sets on."
The Park and Recreation Commission discussed the report at its meeting Thursday. Over the course of the discussion, the group split into two roughly even factions. One side wanted to recommend that the city tear down the building and incorporate the land into Field Park. The other side, frustrated by numerous failed attempts, expressed an urgent desire to see the building renovated.
"That land was purchased to build a park," said Dan Devine, speaking for one side. "I have a problem in trying to restore a building just because it's there and not because we have a good reason to do so."
Bill Pauls disagreed.
"We have a local business trying to make a go of it and it won't cost the city a dime," Pauls said. "It seems like we have been talking about this building for a decade, and it's deteriorating as we speak."
In the end, the commission members could not overcome their differences. Their official report to the council will recommend three opposing courses of action: selling the building to Legacy; soliciting alternative proposals for the site; or razing the building and incorporating that area into Field Park.
The other two groups solicited for recommendations — the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association and the Historic Preservation Commission – will deliberate next month.
The council will consider the issue again in its next meeting at 7 p.m. Dec. 6.