For prospective library building buyers, bring your checkbook (and good intentions)

Two Tacoma Public Library branches, closed for a little more than a year due to budget shortfalls and costs related...

Two Tacoma Public Library branches, closed for a little more than a year due to budget shortfalls and costs related to deferred maintenance, and now slated to be sold as surplus properties, are drawing interest from a variety of prospective buyers. But the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma Public Library Board are looking for more than just the highest bidder. They want someone who will use the properties — the Swan Creek Branch located at 3828 East Portland Avenue, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Branch located at 1902 South Cedar Street — to benefit the surrounding communities.

Tacoma City Council’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee was briefed on the issue during a meeting on Jan. 26. According to Conor McCarthy, assistant division manager in Tacoma’s public works department, both branches were closed in January 2011, and in December the Library Board recommended the properties should be sold to buyers that would “improve and enhance the communities in which they are located.”

Both branches date back to 1984, when voters approved a $15.8 million library bond. In 1986, Tacoma acquired land for $155,000 to build the MLK branch, which cost $944,000 to construct, including $78,152 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. The MLK branch library opened in 1989. In 2012, the assessed value totaled approximately $1.14 million. However, the building has approximately $450,000 in deferred maintenance: the roof and ventilation system need to be replaced, and exterior walls and windows must be repaired. The Library Board estimates it will cost approximately $20,400 this year for insurance, security, utilities, and landscaping related to the mothballed building and property. An in-house estimate values the property somewhere between $421,740 and $631,000.

In 1984, Tacoma paid Fellowship Bible Church $37,500 for the property on which to build the Swan Creek Branch, which cost $743,000 to construct, including $42,114 in CDBG funds. Tacoma also paid the church $11,000 in 1988 to acquire land for the library’s parking lot. The library opened in 1989. In 2012, the assessed value totaled approximately $723,400. However, like the MLK branch building, the Swan Creek branch building has approximately $450,000 in deferred maintenance: the roof and ventilation system need to be replaced, and exterior walls and windows must be repaired. The Library Board estimates it will cost approximately $18,400 this year for insurance, security, utilities, and landscaping related to the vacant building and property. An in-house estimate values the property somewhere between $260,000 and $430,000.

McCarthy told committee members there is “significant interest” in the two properties. Five parties have inquired about the MLK branch, and two parties submitted offers: a verbal offer from a private investor who would like to lease the property back to the library; and a written offer of $410,000 from Tacoma doctor Thomas Lizotte, who would like to open a center that would provide care for individuals with diabetes who are a risk for limb-loss and provide prosthetic limbs for amputees.

Three parties have inquired about the Swan Creek branch, and two parties submitted written interest: The Puyallup Tribe would like to expand its governmental operations and house its historical department and museum; and Fellowship Bible Church would like to buy back the property and use it for church and outreach services.

McCarthy said the city could follow three processes for selling the surplus properties: selling them to the highest bidders; negotiating directly with interested parties; or issuing requests for proposals. Because of the Library Board’s recommendation the properties should be sold to buyers that would improve and enhance the communities in which they are located, criteria would need to be created to weigh each proposal against a mission to serve the community — a matrix that doesn’t yet exist. “We haven’t evaluated that criteria,” said McCarthy, who added that the requests for proposals would “take into account more than what someone is offering us.”

“Who sets the criteria?” asked Councilmember Joe Lonergan. “What does the request for proposal look like?”

“Right now, we don’t have a clear process,” said McCarthy. “We have a code that says you can sell to the highest bidder and a code that says you can negotiate with whoever you want. One approach could be for staff to generate criteria, score it, and say this is what we came up with and this is our recommendation.”

Councilmember Marty Campbell said a “great first step” would be to make presentations to the eastside neighborhood council and the central neighborhood council for their input. “These are probably two of our most engaged neighborhood councils,” said Campbell.

McCarthy and city staff are expected to meet with neighborhood councils and return to the committee later this year with criteria for requests for proposals on both properties.

Bruce Stabbert, pastor at Fellowship Bible Church, said he was “mystified” that his congregation would have to compete for purchasing the property. “No one is more concerned about what is done to this property than we are because it was part of our property,” he told committee members. He recalled how the church bought five acres more than 25 years ago and had plans to build on the lot that would become the Swan Creek branch when the church was approached by the city in the early-1980s. “At that point, we had a decision to make as to whether we would build on that lot. When it was a library, that fit just great.

“At this point, I guess our thought had been we should be negotiated with first because we have more to gain or lose than anybody,” Stabbert added. “The things we would like to do [with the property] would be helpful to the community . . . We would like a first shot at coming up with a proposal and negotiating.”

Dr. Thomas Lizotte said he operates clinics in Tacoma, Lakewood, and Gig Harbor, and the former MLK branch would serve as a home base for medical services to the community. “We’re in a real unique position to give back,” said Lizotte.

PJ McGuire, an associate broker at Coldwell Banker Bain Associates, said his client would like to purchase the MLK branch building and lease it back to the library for two to five years before renovating it into either a medical facility or a government facility.

When the properties are eventually sold, revenue would be directed in two places.

“The City utilized bond funding to acquire and construct the Martin Luther King Jr. and Swan Creek Library Branches,” wrote Tacoma Public Works Director Dick McKinley in a Jan. 26 memo to interim City Manager Rey Arellano. “In addition, the City contributed CDBG funding for capital improvements at each facility. Upon the sale of the library branches a portion of the proceeds must be allocated to the City’s CDBG program. The remaining proceeds may be used for any approved General Fund expenditure. However, the Library Board of Trustees has specifically requested that any money generated by a sale (over and above the amount returned to the Community Development Block Grant Fund) be deposited in the General Fund for the maintenance of Library facilities.”

Two Tacoma Public Library branches -- the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Branch located at 1902 South Cedar Street (TOP LEFT/RIGHT) and the Swan Creek Branch located at 3828 East Portland Avenue (ABOVE CENTER) -- are slated to be sold to buyers with means and community interest. (PHOTOS BY TODD MATTHEWS)
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