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June 27, 2019

4/18/2019 7:30:00 AM
OC board kills Petco study committee
County will no longer pursue buying Foster & Smith facility

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

In a sweeping and dramatic reversal Tuesday, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors abruptly ended its consideration of buying the Petco facility in Rhinelander, both rejecting funds to carry out a structural assessment and disbanding the committee it established to study the feasibility of a purchase.

The final vote was 17-2.

The county board had just established the committee in March. The idea ran into trouble from the start. For one thing, supervisor Jack Sorensen vociferously opposed getting the county into the leasing business - proponents said leasing much of the gigantic space would be essential to make the project viable and sustainable - citing the county's bad real estate transactions in the past.

For another, the sheer magnitude of the task made some study committee members wonder if the county was in over its head. The questions to be studied ranged from the sale price to appraisal and building inspection costs to remodeling costs associated with accommodating highway and transit and possibly other government agencies, as well as revisiting the potential sale of the current highway facility property to Kwik Trip, including purchase details, utility and moving costs, and needed upgrades at the Petco property.

Costs, too, were mounting as every item studied seemed to portend a huge expense for the county. Utilities alone at the former Foster & Smith property were reported to be $280,000 versus $30,000 at the current highway facility.

But the project suffered its biggest setback when the county's public works committee - the highway department's committee of jurisdiction - rejected on a 3-1 vote a resolution to spend $15,000 for a facility condition assessment by Barrientos Design considered vital to determine if the highway department could re-locate to the site.

That vote came after the committee toured the facility and set the stage for Tuesday, when everyone seemed to sense the end was near.

Buying time

The resolution to spend the $15,000 was the action actually before the county board Tuesday. The public works committee's rejection of the resolution was only a recommendation.

Perhaps sensing the project was in trouble, supervisor Bob Mott, who introduced the resolution to create the Petco study committee and who served as the committee's chairman, called for a delay of two months in voting on the funding resolution.

Many serious questions remained unanswered, Mott said, and the delay would give the county time to answer some of those questions before committing $15,000 to assess the facility.

Most serious among those unanswered questions was the condition of the building and hence the resolution for $15,000 to assess it. But officials have had problems getting the blueprints for the facility, which Mott called puzzling and which he said was necessary to conduct the inspection.

Another major issue concerned potential lessees at the site - how much space they would lease, how much they would pay, the potential cost of modifications required for leasing the space, and perhaps most important, how long the leases would run for.

"There's a lot we don't know," Mott told the county board. "Bear in mind that it doesn't cost us anything right now. It doesn't cost us any money, other than committee time. My motion is to give us time to come up with the information that we need and I would like to postpone it until June so that we can have something definite to present to the county board."

But others saw that as a stalling tactic designed to forestall the inevitable. Supervisor Scott Holewinski, a leading opponent of the idea, urged his fellow supervisors to reject the motion to delay.

"I think what we need to do is discuss this," Holewinski said. "I've come prepared to discuss this resolution today. I would like to voice my opinion on parts of the Petco deal. I'm voting no against postponing."

Sorensen also said he would vote no.

But supervisor Bill Liebert, another opponent of the project, said he would support the motion to delay because it was the correct way to proceed. Why potentially spend $15,000, he asked, when other questions needed to be answered to determine if spending the money should even be considered.

"This is just proper process," Liebert said. "Before we would even entertain this resolution, there are other steps that should take place before we get to this point."

Yet another project opponent, supervisor Mike Timmons, said he would vote against delay because it was time to know where supervisors stood.

"This is to get the conversation rolling, to find out exactly where everybody's feelings are, so that we don't waste any more money or efforts," Timmons said.

Mott made one more appeal to delay the vote to give the study committee time to find critical answers.

"It's always hard for me to understand why people would say, 'I don't want to know if the county can gain something by doing something,'" he said.

Mott went on to say that if the committee voted down the funding resolution, the Petco study committee would still be in business.

"Our committee was given the charge to look into the pros and cons, the advantages and disadvantages," he said. "That's what the committee is doing."

But supervisor Tom Kelly pointed out that the inspection was needed before the study committee could answer many of the unknowns Mott was talking about.

"We can't make an intelligent decision on moving forward unless we have the information that Barrientos will get us," he said. "They may have an easier way to get the blueprints from the people who have been reluctant to share them with us, so I would vote no for a delay."

In his remarks before the vote, county board chairman Dave Hintz reminded the board that, even if the delay of the funding resolution failed, and even if the resolution itself failed, the Petco study committee would go forward, as Mott had said - a statement that would soon prove to be wrong.

"Whether we delay or don't delay, the committee can progress as it sees fit," he said.

In what turned out to be the really decisive vote of the day, the board then voted overwhelmingly not to delay the debate over the funding resolution.

As Sorensen later noted, that was a clear indication that the county board was poised to end the project.

The resolution

During debate on the main resolution, Holewinski took the board through a litany of reasons why the building was not suitable for the highway department - it was too large, he said, it was too old with an average age of 25 years, and it was a steel metal building, a type of structure the county would never consider building.

Holewinski also reminded the board of a series of bad real estate deals the county had gotten into between 2006 and 2013.

"In a seven-year period, we lost $1,485,000 in bad deals that this county board approved," he said. "And now we're looking at this."

Holewinski said the Petco purchase was yet another bad idea.

"This Petco building is so big, I don't know why we are wasting our time," he said. "It isn't going to work."

He then moved to amend the resolution to disband the Petco study committee if the board rejected the funding.

That raised a problem - what Hintz called a "double negative" - because if the amended funding resolution failed, so would Holewinski's amendment to disband the committee. That led to the county board recessing for a short period so corporation counsel Brian Desmond could rewrite the amendment to satisfy Holewinski's intention.

The new amendment would resolve both to reject funding for the building facility assessment and dissolve the study committee. The amendment passed 15-5.

During debate on the amended resolution, Mott said that leasing the building could potentially provide the county with a new revenue stream.

"In the back of my mind, I'm always looking for a revenue stream for the county," he said. "If the highway department doesn't go there, it is actually going to save us money because we don't have to do the studies. But by killing the committee, then we don't want to know the rest of it."

"The rest of it" being such things as what price might Petco be willing to sell the facility for and what the income stream might be, Mott said.

"If we don't look at it - and it's not going to cost us anything to look at it because we won't be spending any money to start with - then I think you are doing a disservice to taxpayers because you are not looking at possible revenue," he said.

The county board needs to look at all possibilities, Mott said.

"This is a possibility," he said. "It's not going to cost you a cent except per diems for that committee to continue to investigate. I just think it would be not looking at possibilities and just saying no. 'Just say no' is not good enough."

Sorensen recalled that he voted against the resolution to set up the committee in the first place, calling it a can of worms. But after the first study committee meeting, Sorensen said it was even worse than that.

"It became apparent that the overwhelming portion of this idea dealt in leasing out large portions of the building," he said. "The original resolution had one line about leasing. I feel strongly that Oneida County should not get into the leasing business. We'd be talking about hiring more people and/or going to an outside firm to do it. The can of worms had gotten to be a garbage can full of snakes."

Sorensen said the sentiment of the board was clear and it was time for a vote.

"I think with the vote on postponing the resolution, I think it really is the consensus of this county board that we just ought to drop the whole thing," he said.

By a 17-2 margin, the county board did just that.

As for the Petco facility itself, Stacey Johnson, the executive director of the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation, who served on the Petco study committee as a nonvoting member, said she and her organization would continue to work to make sure the facility ultimately serves the community productively.

"OCEDC will continue to be a resource to all parties interested in exploring the Petco property further," Johnson told The Times.

Johnson also said she respected the county board's decision to dissolve the committee and hopes the county board will continue to avail itself of what she sees as the county's deep talent pool in other projects going forward.

"I hope to see it become a regular practice as our county board supervisors form committees in the future to invite participation from our local experts in the community," she said. "Our greatest resource in Oneida County is the people that comprise our community, and I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to have worked with so many talented and driven people through this past year."

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