The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 15, 2013

Conneaut, schools could share building

Owners didn’t pay taxes; officials discuss bus, service dept. garage

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT —  School board members want to know more about sharing a cavernous commercial building that could fall to the city because of unpaid taxes.

Recently, school board members Cris Newcomb and Joan Norton, along with Superintendent Kent Houston and Treasurer Lindsey Cotton, toured the building at Jackson and Harbor streets. City officials extended the invitation at a joint school board/City Council meeting last month.

Newcomb, the board’s president, said he felt the building has “potential.”

“The size of it was most surprising,” Newcomb said. “We took a lot of photos.”

The city is in position to take over the building because owner Broad and Jackson LLC has not paid taxes. The amount owed, which exceeds $400,000 includes the city’s cost of demolishing an old factory on the site several years ago. The city flattened the building when the owner balked, then put its cost on the owner’s tax duplicate.

City officials last month suggested the school board occupy some of the building in a shared-services arrangement. In one scenario, the district would move its bus garage to the site, the city would do likewise with the Public Works Department and the two entities would share vehicle mechanics.

Newcomb said the board is “intrigued” by the idea but will require a lot more information on the district’s contribution to the building rehabilitation and upkeep.

“We need details on shared services and repairs,” Newcomb said. “Half of the building is in really great shape, while the other half will need quite a bit of work.”

Still, the concept is worth pursuing, Newcomb said.

“The board is very interested in (the idea), because of the condition of our current bus garage and the Southeast building,” Newcomb said.

The Southeast building is a former elementary school, and its gymnasium has been converted into a warehouse for district equipment and supplies. If the district becomes a partner in the Jackson/Harbor building project, the contents of Southeast gym could be moved there, freeing officials to deal with the aging ex-school.

Complicating the city’s eventual ownership of the building was the discovery last year of chemical contaminants in soil where the old factory once stood. If the city takes over the Broad and Jackson holdings, clean-up of the soil may become the city’s responsibility.

Meanwhile, the current owner is subleasing the good portion of the building to a Maryland-based, yacht-building company. The company has expressed interest in acquiring the building — if the city forgives the overdue taxes. City officials, unsure how long the yacht company may remain in town, are wary of the arrangement.

City administrators have touted the benefits of a schools/city partnership, saying it could help save money in the long term and could give the property — which abuts a residential neighborhood — more eye-appeal. “It could be put to a good community use,” Law Director David Schroeder said this week.

Newcomb said more meetings between the city and school board are ahead on the matter.