Some Vacant Montana Buildings Drain Cash, Others Deteriorate

There are 46 unused state buildings, a group scattered across 18 locations

By Jayme Fraser and Holly Michels, Billings Gazette

WARM SPRINGS –Nobody noticed during last week’s windstorm when a large fir tree fell in an interior courtyard of the old receiving building at the Montana State Hospital.

Or maybe it fell a few weeks earlier. It’s hard to tell since the building is unoccupied.

The building has “just sat here since Oct. 7, 2009,” said John Glueckert, the administrator at the hospital.

It is one of 46 unused state buildings, a group scattered across 18 locations that make up just 1 percent of the 4,170 structures owned by Montana, according to a list of vacancies compiled for the first time in response to a records request by the Gazette State Bureau.

The age, purpose and condition of the buildings vary, as do the stories of how they became empty and how much tax money has gone for their upkeep. One was vacated decades ago, while others are simply rental properties between tenants. Most are planned for demolition, auction or sale.

They include an unused fire lookout near Missoula, a nursing home near Columbia Falls built for Civil War veterans, an abandoned student union at Montana State University Billings and a secure complex near Condon that served as a prison and then a youth home.

On a recent Thursday, about 5 inches of snow, not all fresh, covered the walkways into the abandoned hospital facility in Warm Springs. No footprints led to the doors.

The receiving building first closed in 2000 when a new facility opened and all patient services transferred. Because of persistent overcrowding, it was brought back into duty in April 2006 and 20 people moved onto the B ward. A gas leak forced everyone out in 2009.

The patients who lived there during that three-year stint were among the more stable at the hospital, a part of the Residential Care Unit. Some of their belongings remain piled in cardboard boxes along the hallway floors. There’s a small blue suitcase, a box with Bob Seger and John Fogerty CDs, a few jackets, a DVD player and a small, stuffed yellow dog.

Glueckert said the building was considered state-of-the-art when it opened, noting the internal courtyard that allowed patients to go outside but remain secured.

Today, the building is often walked past and rarely entered as it awaits a spring demolition, maybe to make way for a parking lot. Glueckert, who has been administrator at the state hospital for six years, walked through its doors for the first time.

“It’s been used for storage all that time,” he said. “There’s no heat, no gas, no water.”

In 2008, there was a push to rehabilitate the building and use it to house an alternative treatment program for repeat DUI offenders. The Legislature approved $5.8 million for renovations hospital-wide, $4.5 million of which was set aside for the old receiving hospital. The architect and engineering division looked deeper into the building’s needs and calculated that rehabilitation would cost $2.5 million more than that. Beyond a failing heating system and structural flaws, the sulfur from the mound behind the hospital — which gives Warm Springs its name and smell — is so pervasive in groundwater that it erodes the sewer lines.

“It wasn’t worth pressing on,” Glueckert said.

As part of the records request, the governor’s office reported no annual upkeep costs for the abandoned hospital. Those that have been abandoned generally are allowed to deteriorate until they are demolished or sold, so long as they don’t pose an immediate safety threat.

Although each agency chooses whether to do so, nearly all state-owned buildings are insured through the Department of Administration, said Chief Program Manager Sheryl Olson.

“I was surprised at how comprehensive it is,” she said. “Every latrine is listed.”

The same agency processes requests for renovations and demolitions to be funded through the Long Range Building Program, which the Legislature funds with cash and maybe some bonding each session.

That’s how MSUB hopes to pay for a $1.4 million demolition of the Poly building and an old computer annex.

“Both of them have very, very high deferred maintenance and bringing them back up to where we could use them would be very difficult,” Chancellor Mark Nook said. “It probably would cost more than tearing them down and building new ones.”

Beyond just being old, Facility Services Director Jason McGimpsey also noted that neither building was designed a way that could easily be adapted for academic use.

The two-story Poly building sits on a wedge-shaped lot at the edge of campus, one of the first buildings people see when they drive down off the Rimrocks from the airport. It was built by a private operator as an office building and the university later bought it to add to the campus footprint. The college rented it to the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology until February. It now sits vacant.

McGimpsey said that even the largest office in the Poly building wouldn’t be large enough for a 20-student class and the school has no need for more office space.

Near the center of campus, the old computer annex has sat vacant since 2011. The T-shaped building was constructed in 1955 as a student union with a large ballroom at one end. It later served as office space and a computer work room. With limited space on campus, McGimpsey said it makes little sense to renovate a one-story building instead of building one that’s taller.

In contrast, McMullen Hall is larger, has more flexible interior space and has been renovated several times. The university hopes that a proposed new building, Yellowstone Hall, also will have a long life because of thoughtful planning. McGimpsey described lab spaces that could be moved and reconfigured into groups of two, three or four as different departments grow and shrink or project needs change.

“It’s in our best interests to try to keep those buildings viable for many, many decades to come,” Nook said.

The oldest building on the state’s vacancy list is the original nursing home built in 1897 Columbia Falls for Civil War veterans.

“Today, it’s just padlocked and shuttered,” Montana Veterans’ Home Superintendent Joren Underdahl said. “The last time it was used was in the mid-to-late ’60s.”

Over the decades, a handful of groups have come forward with ideas for renovating the building, maybe as offices, a health clinic or museum, said Administrator Kelly Williams.

“No one has come forward with the amount of cash it would take to do the significant renovations to come up to any codes of accessibility and to be occupied,” she said. “It’s probably symbolic in that it was one of the first human service programs developed for this specific purpose, to provide a place for aging veterans to live.”

Because of its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, the state was able to secure federal funding in 2002 to replace the roof and undertake other minor repairs to protect the building from weather. Beyond the occasional repair that pops up, like replacing a broken window, Underdahl said the veterans’ home spends no money on upkeep for the building.

But 67 miles south near Condon, the Swan Valley Retreat tallies an annual maintenance bill of $10,000 for the state, largely because of an advanced sewer treatment system like many that support small towns. The 78-acre property was first built out in the 1960s as a boot camp for boys, then became a minimum-security prison called the Swan River Correctional Training Center, which closed in 1997 when a convicted murderer attacked a staff member. Shortly after that, the state leased the property’s 12 buildings for an alternative placement program called the Swan Valley Youth Academy, which shut down in 2006 amid allegations of child abuse and neglect.

Since the closure, the state has been unable to find a new tenant.

“It’s a pretty remote location,” said Shawn Thomas, a trust lands administrator. “It’s a pretty specific type of person that would want to use it.”

The state plans to auction the property for at least $780,000 this June through the Land Banking Program, which sells trust properties and uses the proceeds to buy new ones that produce better returns for trust beneficiaries, which include schools. Most sales are of isolated grazing lands and rarely include buildings.

But Thomas said the state also will consider proposals to again lease the property — any reasonable offer that will again bring in more money than it costs the state to maintain the site.

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