City seeks cost to raze community center

Jason Ferguson

The City of Custer has begun the process of finding out how much it would cost to raze the idle Custer Community Center.
That does not mean, however, that is what the city will end up doing with the property. Rather, city officials say, learning what it would cost to raze the building will provide them with yet more information needed to make a final decision on what to do with the building.
“We know we need to make a decision about this building,” said alderwoman Jeannie Fischer, who sits on the city’s General Government Committee, which recommended the city solicit bids to see how much the demolition would cost. “We know the condition of the building, especially after the fire. In order to successfully weigh our options we have to be able to do the math.”
The notice to bidders requests a quote for structure demolition and site restoration, including removal of the coal fired boilers, removal of other site improvements, disposal of the materials and restoration of the disturbed areas.
Bids will be received until 10 a.m. Dec. 16, and which time they will be opened.
Tim Hartmann, planning administrator for the city, said if any bids are received they will be taken to the following meeting of the Custer City Council, Dec. 20, at which time the council would review them and ultimately decide whether or not to accept a bid. If a bid is accepted, it would mean the community center will be torn down.
“I don’t know what they will decide for sure. They needed the data to weigh all their options,” Hartmann said. “The only way to figure out what the cost of demo would be is to get bids.”
It was 2012 when the city, for very little cost, took ownership of the building from the Custer School District. The idea at that time was to transform the old building into a community center that could house city hall, the YMCA, office spaces for rent, a playground, etc. The original timetable for the city and YMCA to be in the building was 18 months to two years. That was almost a decade ago. The original estimates for renovating the inside of the building were quoted at $400,000 to $1 million.
In February 2020, when the a revised guaranteed maximum price from Ainsworth Benning to renovate the building came in at $4.9 million (down from the initial $5.36 million) the cost of renovation had risen 500 percent since the original estimates. The $4.9 million was around half a million more than the city had budgeted for the project, and beyond the city’s borrowing power.
“I have to be a responsible steward of public funds. I can’t just vote for something a million over our capacity and say ‘oh, it’s going to work out,’” Fischer said.
The building has been a money pit from the beginning. The city spent $88,000 on the boiler and exhaust system for the 1981 wing. A few years later, over $150,000 was spent to have a sprinkler system put in the building and for fire rating. Nearly another $100,000 was spent on building and designing a support system for installation of steel beams to help with joist support. This doesn’t take into account the hours upon hours spent by volunteers (led by Custer YMCA director Rex Jorgensen) doing demo within the building, or the cost to heat the building all these years.
The project was scrapped altogether after the city rejected the guaranteed maximum bid and COVID-19 hit. The community center project has been on ice since, although the multipurpose gymnasium was being used for pickleball and a variety of YMCA-sponsored activities. Those ceased in April when three juveniles set a fire that severely damaged the multipurpose room in the center.
Fischer said she is as frustrated as anyone with the length of time the building has sat mostly empty, but called the fire, the guaranteed maximum price being so high, COVID-19 and other issues, such as the need for a sewer plant upgrade, a “perfect storm” of events that has continued to keep the community center on the back burner.
“The water treatment project is a need, the community center is a want,” she said. “We have to know the difference between needs and wants and we have to keep our priorities in order.”
Despite that, Fischer said she is eager to look ahead on the project, and wants to receive as much data as possible to make an informed decision on what to do with the building. She said some constituents have told her they want it torn down and for the city to start over. Others think the city has poured too much money into it already to turn back. She knows the council won’t be able to please everyone.
If the building is ultimately torn down the city may explore a “campus approach” to a community center, where parts of it are constructed on that land as desired. This could potentially open the door to various grant and loan programs for specific functions, rather than seeking funding for the entire scope of the building all at once.
Whatever happens the site will remain a community center, as the city passed at its Sept. 7 meeting a resolution indicating the land on which the center sits be dedicated as a “community base” that will include a community center in the future.
“That was important to me because I’m committed to having a community center on that land,” Fischer said.

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