Westport poised for $4M city hall purchase

New building to host growing staff, other leases; sets up vision for public square

Slightly less than one year after the city of Westport signed a lease to move administrative offices into a three-story building on Montesano Street a few blocks down the road from its cramped and outdated city hall, the growing city has a chance to make a big purchase that will pave the way for a new headquarters, healthcare services and, potentially, a revitalized public square.

With the city council seemingly ready to swallow its $4 million sticker shock, the focus will turn to securing a loan to finance the purchase and uncertain final plans for ownership of multiple stories.

Giving time to hash out legal complications, the council tabled at a March 25 meeting a pair of purchase agreements totaling $4.2 million for the Pacific Professional Building at 801 S Montesano St., plus neighboring parcels. The city’s attorney said Monday the city has until the end of April to act — purchase, renew or pass — on a lease that expires May 31.

The city has spent $7,000 per month on rent since signing the lease last year — a total that will accumulate to $84,000 for a year of use. The council approved the lease with an option to purchase at $4 million at a meeting in May 2023.

Although some members of the council expressed concerns about the purchase price, the board indicated a readiness to seize the purchase opportunity.

“It’s more than just spending money, buying a piece of property,” Councilor Tom Aronson said Monday. “It’s about the future.”

City officials have already communicated with the United States Department Agriculture about receiving a loan through the federal Rural Development program but need a signed purchase agreement to finalize details and move forward. According to City Administrator Kevin Goodrich, the city would likely pay off the loan at a low interest rate over the next 40 years.

That money will come from general fund revenues, which city officials say are healthy enough to cover the mortgage without sacrificing other services or raising taxes.

Any money the city makes from leases will help offset the cost. By hosting a physical therapy clinic already operating out of the building, and with plans to bring in a primary care doctor’s office, the city already has $2,150 monthly in lease agreements committed. Goodrich predicts that number could rise to between $4,000 and $7,000 per month after recruiting new professional tenants.

According to the purchase agreement, the three-story building has more than 22,000 square feet of space. City officials said the third floor has bones to become a new council chambers and municipal court, while part of the second floor would accommodate offices of a growing city staff, which is anticipated as residential and development increase in Westport. That leaves half of each of those floors available for lease.

That will first require renovations to those floors. The previous owner applied for a permit in 2021 to convert the floors into apartments, but that project never happened, leaving the space not fully developed.

The city has not yet consulted an architect or received price estimates for any necessary construction work.

“Our plan was to acquire the property and then come up with a plan for how we want to move forward after that, and I think that’s reasonable,” Goodrich said.

Councilor Louis Summers, who made the motion Monday to table the purchase agreement, said he was under the impression the city would get a cost estimate for renovating the upper floors, though city staff informed him that wasn’t the case.

“I think I’d like to have that,” Summers said. “I think we’d all like to have that.”

Summers also said he thought the city should host a town meeting to involve the public in project discussions.

Kathryn Franzen, a real estate agent and former council candidate, told the council she wanted more public communication about pros and cons of buying the building.

“The city has some good reasons for wanting to do this,” Franzen said Monday. “I don’t disagree that they don’t have reasons. I think it ought to be more of a public comment. Let the people understand why you think this is important, and what the cost will be, now and in the future.”

A few others on the council acknowledged some amount of wariness at the building’s $4 million price tag. Melissa Huerta said she has “never been a fan of the amount,” but, “I get it, we’re going to grow as a city. … To build something brand new, it’s going to cost us way more than $4 million dollars.”

Troy Meyers said he believed in the long run the purchase would be “not an expense for the city but will actually save us money.”

While plans for the upper floors aren’t finalized, supporters said a purchase is important because it puts the destiny of the building — which is more than a city hall — in the city’s hands. That was part of the reason the city acted on the lease last year.

The sellers, George and Shelley Dueber, ran the city’s lone primary care clinic at the property, but retired from the practice in 2022, leaving a vacancy of medical services in Westport. To bring back similar services, the city signed a lease in February with Harbor Regional Health to bring a provider to the new city hall building in Westport.

“I’d like people to understand that this discussion came about at its core about saving healthcare in Westport,” said John Shaw, a hospital commissioner for Harbor Regional Health. “It isn’t a grab for space, it isn’t a grab for money. The city took a risk in leadership to go out and stabilize that building and hold on to it so that we can bring healthcare back to Westport. We were in danger of losing all healthcare, which we did.”

According to Shaw, there were other buyers interested in converting the building into a drug rehab center or institutional housing before the city bought it.

As the city fleshes out plans for its new city hall building, it will also have to decide on a use — or a fate — for the old government buildings.

The old city hall at 604 N Montesano St. was built in 1966 and consists of 3,500 square feet. One block south lies a building with structural issues that includes the council chambers and police department at a little more than 5,000 square feet. Also hosting a few equipment sheds and a maintenance yard, the city owns about a block and half of land there.

Westport Mayor Ed Welter, who took office three months ago, said it’s his vision to develop that central chunk of land in the city to be some kind of “town square,” floating ideas of a community center, a gym and a redeveloped public garden.

Welter created a new committee tasked with examining each of the properties the city owns to see what could be surplused and reinvested into future projects.

“What are we going to do with all of the properties that we own, the developed and the undeveloped, and how are we going to leverage them to make things better for the community?” he said.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.