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Future of ‘The W’ still uncertain

April 12, 2011
By JOHN PEPIN Journal Staff Writer , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - No formal decisions were made Monday on the future of "The W" after a two-hour joint session between the Marquette County and West Branch township boards.

The special informational meeting was designed to have the two boards meet face-to-face to find sticking points or consensus on a potential agreement which would allow the non-profit group Community Hand-Up reopen and operate the former fitness and community center, which has been closed for roughly the past two years.

The township owns the facility, but is struggling under loans totaling about $210,000, which were previously secured for improvements on the building. The township plans to auction the building and its contents on May 21.

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Meanwhile, Community Hand-Up has developed a five-year business plan for operating the facility, with hopes of getting the county board to purchase the building. The group would begin paying the county back for the purchase in the final year of its plan.

The county board agreed reconsider the issue at its April 19 meeting to determine whether to propose some type of lease arrangement or counter a prior offer from the township to sell the building to the county for $196,000, the amount of the township's largest of two outstanding loans.

"Our preference would be to see that loan paid off," said township Supervisor Jack Heidtman.

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The Marquette County and West Branch Township boards met in a special joint session Monday to discuss the future of “The W”. No formal decisions were made during the two-hour informational meeting. (Journal photo by Danielle Pemble)

County Board Chairman Charles Bergdahl said the loan is a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan, which cannot be forgiven by the county board.

County Chief Civil Counsel Cheryl Hill said without payments from Community Hand-Up, the county could not just give money with nothing in exchange.

"I've never seen anything where a county can run a health club," Hill said. "We couldn't just lease a building and give it to a non-profit."

Township officials said they've leased the building in the past and it hasn't worked out well. For a lease, they would require a sizable deposit or down payment for utility costs.

"We're like anybody else, we don't want to see that building torn down," Heidtman said.

But Heidtman emphasized the township had to think responsibly including requiring a performance bond - if the structure is sold - of at least $150,000. It would fund razing the building, should that become necessary.

Asking for bottom-line lease and auction figures, Commissioner Michael Quayle said, "This W is certainly a world-class facility if we can get this thing up and running."

Heidtman said the township would negotiate prices if two-thirds of the county board would agree to pursue purchase or lease.

County Commissioner Nick Joseph said, "I don't think there's five votes on this board that will be willing to go for this if it's more than $100,000 or a lease is any longer than five years."

Commissioner Deborah Pellow said Heidtman told her previously the township would consider a $100,000 offer. She said the county votes are not there for $196,000.

"I think we have pretty close to five members on the board ready to listen to a reasonable offer," Pellow said.

Bergdahl said a new fitness center is opening in Gwinn, which will provide competition. County Commissioner Bill Nordeen said "The W" is more than a fitness center. It's also a community center.

Township Trustee Jack Frost said, "I think it's a great thing. It's a great opportunity."

Township Treasurer Laurie Karpinen said the business plan's reopening of the building in stages - without the pool - minimizes expenses, but also lessens revenue, with the pool the main drawing feature.

Forsyth Township Treasurer Jane Nordeen said her township is interested in participating in keeping "The W" open, but on what level is unclear. She said the township is waiting to see what happens with the county.

With the auction looming, Community Hand-Up President Lisa Johnson stressed the need for action.

"We need to have some momentum happening in the next couple of weeks at the most," Johnson said. "One way or another."

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is jpepin@miningjournal. net.



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