Council Approves Demolition of Lair Building in Close Vote

By Jeremy Coumbes on November 22, 2022 at 10:48am

The fate of a beleaguered downtown building may have been decided by a close vote of the Jacksonville City Council last night.

During a special session Monday, the Jacksonville City Council approved a resolution to issue a demolition permit to West State Properties Ltd./ Rammelkamp Bradney P.C. for the Lair Building located at 234 West State Street. The approval was decided by a 6-4 vote with all members of the council present.

The council heard a presentation by Jacksonville Main Street Board member Tom Grojean who asked on behalf of the non-profit to deny issuing the permit. Grojean says Main Street wanted instead for the city to take its current liens against the property to court in order to take possession of the building. Grojean says Main Street wished to continue pursuing efforts to find a new owner that would renovate the building after the group fixed the initial safety issues

Well we were going to take it off the city’s hands in some way shape or form and take it into our own hands and work with it over time. Do the immediate things needed to be done today in the next several months after we got title to it, and then in time, get rid of those objections and try to find a suitable buyer, as has been done before, a suitable buyer to come in and take it to the next level.

That’s what we would do and what we’ve done before. But the concern here was that it was a dangerous building that’s going to fall in and everyone‘s going to be killed, and I don’t know. You know, who can say, who can say how dangerous it is? I read the Benton [& Associates] report and it didn’t scare me, but it alarmed others, so that’s how it played out.”

Grojean also gave examples during his presentation of similar instances in recent years when both the former Elliot State Bank building on the east side of the plaza, and the former original Howe Electric building on West Morgan Street were both near demolition before new owners stepped in and made the buildings ready for remodeling then passed them on to new owners. Both buildings currently are back on the tax roles with new businesses coming in.

Koert Brown with Rammelkamp Bradney said during public comment following Grojean’s presentation that the firm had been prepared to renovate the building, but a lack of available TIF money from the city left them no other choice but to pursue demolition.

The meeting ran lengthy with both men being asked several questions by council members as both had varying opinions on the current state and safety of the building. Grojean said he felt some fear-mongering had gone on and that the current structure was in need of work, but not to the extent of the roof and structure that Rammelkamp had presented.

Brown recounted the estimates they acquired while looking to renovate the building which the firm says would cost more than $1 million to secure and renovate in order to expand their offices into the building which shares a common wall and footings with the Lair.

Brown also talked about how lucky they were that the rear section collapsed at night instead of three hours earlier when he was working in his office- an area that took some of the worst damage from the collapse that he would not have survived had he been sitting at this desk.

Following the meeting, Brown said the members of the firm just wanted to make sure the property was safe. “It’s not a happy day. There’s nothing good about the situation, I think I’ve told you that three or four times, it’s a terrible situation, there’s nothing good about it. Are we pleased at the fact that we are able to take some action and avoid having to worry about this in the future? Yes but it’s not a happy day.”

Brown told the council they have been given estimates by the demotion company that once all the proper permits were in hand, demolition could begin in approximately six to eight weeks.

Brown also said during discussion that the firm is open to the idea if someone approached them with enough funding and a solid plan to renovate the building, then they would be on board with keeping the building standing and put back into use.

Absolutely. Yep, Absolutely. That’s what we’ve said all along. We’ve tried to be really consistent from the first time I was sitting right over there in the corner until now. And, I mean, so we mean that. We mean that we’re not just saying it.”

Brown said no one at the law firm wanted the building to come down and worked many hours in an effort to find a way to make it work, but the costs were just too high.

Grojean said after the meeting that he didn’t envy the council members in making their decisions, but he understood their reasoning on the vote. “Well, it’s a hard decision for the aldermen. I’ve been in that chair and it’s a tough decision. You’ve got something that has to be certain versus something that’s more of a creative, and I tend to choose the creative side of things rather than the certainty but, I understand.

It’s taxpayers’ money that they are dealing with and have an obligation, and it was a pretty close vote, six to four. So we made our best effort to save a building in downtown Jacksonville and we took it as far as we could take it. We turned over every stone and this was the last stone so it is what it is.”

Both men said during discussion that they appreciated the other organization’s position on the matter and had no hard feelings in their opposition.

Council members Kent Hannant, Eren Williams, Darcella Speed, Brett Henry, Don Cook, and Mike Bartlett all voted in favor of demolition, with members Mary Watts, Alison Rubin de Celis, Lori Oldenettel, and Arron Scott all voting against.