Our View: Sphar building renovation raises many questions

Published 9:21 am Tuesday, October 30, 2018

In the case of the Sphar building renovations, it is time for the City of Winchester and other stakeholders to step back, take a hard look at the information presented to them and answer some tough questions — none being tougher than, “Is the project really worth the price tag?”

City officials are considering their options on the project after two bids came in significantly higher than anticipated.

Initial estimates were that the project would cost about $2 million.

The city has been working for a couple of years to turn the former seed warehouse at North Main and Depot streets into a welcome center, office space and more, and secured grants and pledges of nearly $2 million for the work.

However, the latest round of bids came in at $2.89 million and $3.64 million.

As with any construction project, it is likely unexpected expenses will arise when the project gets underway. The $75,000 gap in the bids is also concerning, raising questions about the understanding of the scope of the project.

City Manager Matt Belcher said the city is discussing three options with the Clark County Fiscal Court, which received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant for the project, and The Greater Clark Foundation, which pledged $350,000 in matching funds. The city had also been awarded a $1 million state Transportation Enhancement grant.

The options are to find another $1 million or so to complete the project as designed, scale the project back to stabilize the building and forego the $1 million state grant, or demolish the building and fill and grade the property.

If we could start the process over, there are probably a lot of things that could have been done differently. Most importantly, the property should not have been allowed to get to this condition before purchasing and starting this project. The building has been allowed to get into such a bad state it may not be salvageable at a reasonable cost.

The roof has collapsed twice, and officials fear the structure may not make it through another winter.

There is no doubt there were serious code and safety violations even decades ago that should have been addressed with the previous owner. Had the building at least been kept up to the most basic of codes, the price tag for such a venture might not be so hefty.

At this point, some tough calls need to be made.

We’ve been loud proponents for this project in the past. Saving a historic building, especially one adjacent to beautiful Depot Street on North Main Street, would be a great thing for downtown Winchester.

But with the timeline stretching further and further and the price increasing on a project involving a crumbling building, it may be time to cut our losses.

The city should only consider moving forward with the project using additional funding or demolishing the building and using that space for investments downtown.

If the city opts not to move forward with the project, it would have to pay the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet 80 percent of the design fees, currently estimated at $68,000, plus the cost of demolition and finishing the lot. According to the meeting minutes, that could cost up to $150,000. That cost may be worth investigating saving the historic building. After all, even the noblest of plans sometimes fall through.

If the decision is to move forward with the projects, the city and other stakeholders must come up with a clearly-defined plan with a concrete timeline and financing plan and do so quickly.

The city should at least examine what else could it could put in that location for the same $3 million. Could it become a park or a site for festivals and other outdoor meetings? Could it be used to expand the Winchester-Clark County Farmers’ Market’s footprint downtown? Or would someone be interested in purchasing the land and making an investment downtown to bring a restaurant or some other business on that end of town? Public input should be welcomed in regards to some of these questions.

The most important question that needs to be addressed, however, is whether the $3 million-plus price tag is worth what value a potential welcome center and office space would add to downtown Winchester.