City Hall’s value should be decided by people

There aren’t a lot of historical buildings in Sweet Home, a town that was built rapidly and with little planning as the demand for lumber from nearby forests came during and following World War II.

But we have a few, and one is the old City Hall at the corner of 12th Avenue and Kalmia Street.

The City Council decided in 2016 to vacate the old City Hall in favor of a new one located in the former U.S. Forest Service Sweet Home District headquarters at 3225 Main St. City staff complained that the old City Hall had problems, ranging from rot in the walls to mold due to improper sealing back in the 1970s. There were leaks.

The city got the new building for a good price and created a sparkling “new” facility, with many amenities not available in the old City Hall. It moved in with fanfare just over a year ago.

Meanwhile, the old facility, built in 1954, sits empty, and various suggestions have been forwarded on how best to use it. They have included using the building as a remote working hub and small business incubator, as a new library, selling it to a business or simply tearing it down.

The first one to actually come to the council as a genuine proposal was last Tuesday, Oct. 13, when the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, located right next door, asked to use it for a training facility (see page 1).

The City Council responded, after a fairly one-sided discussion, by voting to enter an intergovernmental agreement with SHFAD to allow the organization to train in the building and work out in the basement.

While this might be a worthy use, this building belongs to the city: to all of us. It’s a large, prominent building with historic significance located in a crucial part of Sweet Home.

Frankly, a lot of the history in Sweet Home isn’t real visible – mostly memories and the collections at East Linn Museum.

Due to the hurried nature in which much of the town was built when forest products suddenly came into demand at the end of World War II, there wasn’t time or effort committed to creating the type of classic architecture we see in downtown Lebanon or Albany. Only a few buildings in town have historical significance and this is one.

We commend Councilor Lisa Gourley for speaking up, pointing out that the public has never been given a chance to have a real voice in the decision of what to do with old City Hall.

Gourley suggested that the city should hold a work session to discuss it.

We agree. Even better, perhaps the City Council should hold a public hearing to discuss the fate of the building. It is a prominent location, after all, and an asset for the community, even if city staff don’t wish to work there. Whether it is sold, renovated, or rented out, the public should have more say than to find out the fire department will be exercising in the basement and running drills in the stairways.

The IGA isn’t permanent and certainly can be undone with 30 days notice, but whether we get beyond that arrangement will depend on whether the public is concerned about City Hall’s future and whether city officials recognize that.

Councilor Susan Coleman may have the right idea: the fire district can use the building until the council comes up with a better use. It’s better than letting it sit empty, after all. But the city should work on finding a better option, rather than leaving it to proximity and the first caller.

The new City Hall is a beautiful facility, to be sure, and may spark more development in the mid-city area where it is located, particularly when the city develops a planned park behind the building.

But meanwhile, when more focused and aggressive economic development occurs in the downtown area, it could and should be a vital part of that. While Mayor Greg Mahler might be right that the land is worth more than the building, that’s only in economic terms.

In a community with relatively few historic structures, City Hall and its downtown location are important. And that’s why citizens need to have a chance to get involved in making crucial decisions about what its future is going to be.