GSA prepares for negotiations to sell old federal building in Cape Girardeau

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The General Services Administration is preparing to try to sell the Broadway federal building in Cape Girardeau to any interested public entity, a spokesman said Tuesday.

And Cape Girardeau County is definitely interested.

The Department of Health and Human Services decision that denied the New Life Evangelistic Center's application to operate a homeless shelter in the building at 339 Broadway was announced Monday. While New Life's founder and director, the Rev. Larry Rice, repeated his statements that he intends to challenge the decision in federal court, that threat or actual court action shouldn't hold up sale negotiations, said Charlie Cook, spokesman for the GSA in Kansas City, Mo.

The old federal building at 339 Broadway (Fred Lynch)

The disposal of surplus federal property occurs in three steps. The first step, completed with the denial of New Life's application, is a chance to give the property for public benefit, such as the homeless shelter. The next step, which now begins, is to offer the building for sale to a public entity. Negotiations start at the fair market value of the building, and the price can be lowered to keep the building in public ownership or a land swap can be arranged if the government needs property in the area, Cook said.

If the negotiations fail, the property would be sold on the open market to the highest bidder through an auction, Cook said.

"We will be proceeding with a negotiated sale and reaching out to all parties that have expressed an interest so far," Cook said.

Cape Girardeau County leaders have viewed the federal building as a potential replacement for the Common Pleas Courthouse, the Courthouse Annex and perhaps other offices in Cape Girardeau since construction began on the new federal courthouse at 555 Independence St. A bid to obtain the building at no charge fell through earlier this year, so a purchase is the only path open.

The Cape Girardeau County Commission must now discuss how to finance the purchase and whether it really wants to proceed, said Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell, who has commission responsibilities for buildings and public works. "I have always maintained that it would go a long way to address many needs," he said.

The Common Pleas Courthouse is not handicapped-accessible, is difficult to make secure and has maintenance issues, Purcell said. A purchase, even at what may be considered a substantial price, is still likely to be a better deal than any new construction the county might contemplate, Purcell said.

"I think it is a no-brainer," he said.

The county has a $5 million reserve fund. Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones has said he supports purchase of the building. The reserve fund, he said, could be used as collateral for any loan the county obtains to finance the purchase.

But all of those plans could be on hold if Rice follows through on his threats to sue. He intends to visit Cape Girardeau on Thursday, attend a luncheon with the local NAACP chapter and then speak to the media about his plans. Rice said Tuesday he won't ask the Department of Health and Human Services to reconsider its decision.

"I will release the HHS letter" denying the New Life application "along with our response, with the services we offered," Rice said. "This is what we will bring into court proceedings and get the politics out of it."

Noting that the Health and Human Services decision was reported to congressional offices -- U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill announced the denial -- Rice said politics, not services, were the main consideration in the denial.

'Has become politicized'

After Rice initially applied for the courthouse May 4, Cape Girardeau city leaders under the direction of Mayor Jay Knudtson organized an opposition campaign that enlisted politicians at the local and federal level, community groups and religious organizations.

"It has become politicized," Rice said. "The only way to get it out of politics is to put it in the courts."

Rice sued over a similar denial for a building in St. Louis. He withdrew that lawsuit after city leaders there expanded programs designed to move homeless from the streets to permanent housing.

If Cape Girardeau leaders make a similar commitment, including emergency shelter, Rice said he would consider backing away.

"If you have a problem with alcohol or drugs, the first part of the solution is admitting you have a problem," Rice said. "Up to now, no one, not the mayor or the social service agencies, have admitted they have a problem."

A petition campaign locally has shown there is support from parts of the community, Rice said. Local NAACP chapter president Deborah Young has aided the drive, he said. Young could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The city response has been an attempt to show that any issues locally with the homeless can and are being addressed locally, Knudtson said. The city, which had expressed interest in the federal building, will support the county purchase, he added.

"We are going to work swiftly to support them 100 percent in their pursuit of negotiating and acquiring the old federal building," Knudtson said.

The city will not participate financially in the deal, he said. The city owns the Common Pleas Courthouse, which it leases for a nominal amount to the county in exchange for upkeep. If the county court offices move, that building will again become the city's responsibility.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent addresses:

339 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

555 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Common Pleas Courthouse, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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