Lander council frustrated by funding plan for new chamber building

Nov 30, 2017 By Kelli Ameling, Staff Wrier

A funding request and update on construction regarding the new Lander Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center ended in councilors noticeably frustrated this week.

Chamber Executive Director Brian Fabel approached the Lander City Council Nov. 28 during a work-session meeting regarding a funding issue for the new building, asking the council to consider helping the chamber out financially for the time being.

Funding issue

The city of Lander was awarded $779,920 in a combination of grant and loan funding through the Wyoming Business Council's Community Enhancement, Business Readiness Communities program this week, making the new structure possible.

In October 2016 Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming State Land and Investments Board voted unanimously to approve $466,210 in grant funds and $194,316 loan funding for the project. The total cost also includes an in-kind match from the city of Lander of Jaycee Chamber Park, the property the chamber building sits on.

The chamber has pushed an effort to help raise money for funding as well, with private donations, events and more.

Fabel reminded the council on Nov. 28 the grant was a 60-40 percent match, leaving the city of Lander to cover the 40 percent match. Once this amount was paid back to the city by the chamber, the new building would officially belong to the Lander Chamber of Commerce instead of the city of Lander as it currently does.

However, because of payment conflicts surrounding the low-interest loan and grant, the 40 percent is needing to be paid sooner rather than later.

Council President Cade Maestas confirmed the city planned to pay the 40 percent, they just thought it would be at a later date.

On top of that finding, Fabel told the council there is about a $119,000 shortfall he asked the city to help cover.

Fabel explained when the application was submitted, $313,710 was supposed to be awarded to the city of Lander. But, Fabel said, the business council over estimated how much they would be able to give, and only awarded the city of Lander $194,000, leaving a $119,710 shortfall that needs to be paid.

Fabel said he has spoke to institutions about bridge financing, but they would not lend the money without the chamber providing collateral. Fabel did say one institute said they would lend the money without collateral at a 4 percent higher interest rate that the other institutes.

Currently, the chamber is fundraising to help pay the city's loan down. Fabel said he was "confident we will reach the amount" to pay the loan down quickly through more fundraising. However, the chamber did not have the money to cover all of the new shortfall at this time.

This led Fabel to ask the council to provide a guarantee to help support bridge financing.

City Treasurer Charri Lara and City Attorney Adam Phillips told the council it would be a constitutional violation for a municipality to lend money or credit and they could not do that. Phillips noted there could possibly be legal issues with the city funding the project to this point.

However, Mayor Del McOmie clarified there were not issues because the buildings, property and funding is all owned by the city, currently.

"We keep calling this the chamber project, but it is actually a city project until its all complete," McOmie said.

Councilwoman Melinda Cox said this has been a concern of the council's since the beginning especially when the budget is already not that great.

"What is your plan B?" Cox asked Fabel.

Fabel said they have not thought about a "plan B" because the council had a guarantee of $313,000.

Maestas said he was frustrated because, through prior discussions, the city was assured by the chamber this kind of situation would not happen, noting that Fabel is telling the council the "city is on the hook. It's your problem."

"These were the public's concerns - our concerns," Maestas said.

Councilman Dan Hahn agreed, stating he asked Fabel previously if there were problems, could the chamber get get a loan, "and it wasn't a big deal."

"This whole thing has been thin all along," Hahn said. "I don't believe it's right."

Fabel explained they have bridge financing through an institution, however, it is just at a higher interest rate.

"We are trying to save money on the project," Fabel said. "I don't agree (with the council) but I understand your frustration."

The bridge financing would be in the amount of $200,000 from the financial institution, Fabel said, which he reiterated the chamber plans to pay back through private-fundraising efforts. He believed the loan would be paid off in a year if the fundraising continued.

"We still have outstanding donations for the community center (the city of Lander counted on) - those are not guaranteed," Lara said.

Councilman Monte Richardson said he believes, when taking into account non-guaranteed private-fundraising efforts of $170,000 the chamber is relaying on for the overall project, along with the newly-requested short-term loan, there is actually about a $289,000 shortfall.

Maestas noted because the city cannot lend money or credit, the only option was taking it from the reserves.

Lara suggested moving the already allocated $15,000 the city pays the chamber to provide services for the city to help cover the shortfall.

However, Fabel said if that were to happen, the chamber would have to reduce the services they provide.

"Point taken - not a good time," Maestas said, visibly frustrated of Fabel's comments.

McOmie suggested finding out what could be done on the city's part and bring the topic back up for discussion at a later time.

First Street Closure

While giving an update on the overall construction progress of the new chamber building, Mayor's Assistant RaJean Strube Fossen said contractors are currently working on the second story, and once the roof panels have been crane lifted into place, the plan is to open First Street with a single-lane, one-way-traffic pattern in place.

"Do you have a ballpark on when that will be?" Maestas asked Strube Fossen.

Strube Fossen said a committee meeting would be held Thursday at the city hall to discuss how to open it.

"Between now and Christmas," Strube Fossen answered.

Lander Bar and Gannett Grill Owner Kyle Vassilopoulos asked the council and Strube Fossen if the contractor, SDI, had the option of still keeping First Street closed during the construction period, which started in September and is projected to end in May or June.

Strube Fossen said companies that bid on the project did place bids on the understanding First Street would be closed. She noted if the city requests the street to be opened, the contractor could come back with extra costs of doing so because of how the bid contract went out.

The city would be responsible for paying that fee if there was a change order requested by the contractor to open First Street back up.

Cox said there has been some concerns surrounding First Street being closed, specifically for local businesses in that area.

"I hope it is opened soon," Cox said.

City Engineer Lance Hopkin said the street has been closed for this project to help secure safety for the crew workers and pedestrians.

"That is our primary focus," Hopkin said.

Mr. D's Food Center Owner Michelle Motherway compared the new chamber building to being the size of a residential home and noted the length of the expected closure for the project.

She asked the council if there has ever been a time the council has allowed a city street to be closed for months at a time for similar-sized project, in which the council did not have an answer.

Vassilopoulos told the council he has a problem with the closure because it has negatively effected his business. His business not only relies on local customers, but tourists as well. Not all people know they can detour two blocks to come back down First Street on the opposite side of the closure to look for access to the business down an alley.

He told the Lander Journal he relies on First Street to lead people to his business. However, he stressed his concerns are about access to his establishment and not about parking. Vassilopoulos even told councilors he would offer up part of that back parking lot to the contractors for storage if it meant opening First Street back up for customers to access his business.

Vassilopoulos said he was told the street would open after the sewer lines were completed, once it was, he was then told it would open after the roof panels are in place. He is concerned as soon as that is done, there will be another excuse on why the street cannot open.

Vassilopoulos said, overall, he thinks the chamber building "is a great thing for our community." He just wants a compromise on opening up First Street.

"Did anyone else know the street was going to be closed?" Hahn asked the rest of the council, noting he did not know First Street was going to be closed at all.

Cox answered "yes," but noted she did not realize it was going to be closed for as long as it has been.

Richardson said he knew when he drove by First Street and it was closed.

"I don't disagree with (Vassilopoulos) - I understand," Maestas said, noting he feels like the closure is just providing a parking lot for the contractor.

He added First Street is the main route for Guardian EMS, how some people are directed to get to the Fremont County Courthouse, an access point for businesses and more.

"It just doesn't seem logical," Maestas said.

McOmie asked if the city could speak with the contractor about getting the street opened.

Building progress

Fabel told the Lander Journal prior to the Lander City Council meeting everything was on track both financially and construction wise.

"We will be open in time for the 2018 tourism season," Fabel said.

He said it has been exciting to see the construction's progress each day.

Strube Fossen also told the Lander Journal before the council meeting the construction is going well.

"There wer a few delays for the utility work, but the building is back on track now," she said. "The city and chamber are proud that this local project is being built by a local contractor with local subcontractors."

Strube Fossen said, at this time, a permanent place for the caboose has not yet been chosen, and is still located at the Lander Municipal Golf Course.

"Public sentiment holds that it should be near where the rails end, however, the size and current use of Jaycee Park will not accommodate the caboose in the park," she said.

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