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Museum left twisting in Westside saga

The courthouse, erected in 1961, may look like it would stand forever — a gray concrete mass, a monument to basic simplicity, featuring that Cold War, Stand Forever design. But it’s not necessarily sturdy. While it looks like it would have pancaked a Soviet missile, it isn’t even earthquake proof.

But, remember, the courthouse was built for just $370,000. Elevators later added cost more than the building itself. That bargain of a building has served us for over 50 years. We taxpayers got our money’s worth out of it, and then some.

The county now is marching toward building a new courthouse, with land donated by the city of Madras, west of its new city hall, and the state committing to pay half of the cost. The assistance is aligning, the need is there, and it appears it’s time to move forward with a new courthouse.

Meanwhile, the county’s interest in another old building in Madras, the Westside school building, is apparently waning.

Westside opened 75 years ago, and it’s owned by 509-J School District. The district has no interest in utilizing the entirety of the building as a school again, and instead has operated with the concept of turning it into a community center. The district provides a huge service to the community by allowing the Kids Club of Jefferson County to operate there rent and utility free.

The Jefferson County Museum was to move into the southeast wing. Last year about this time, the museum’s goods were moved into the site. But then it was determined that the museum couldn’t open to the public without a fire-suppressing sprinkler system installed.

Faced with the huge cost of modernizing the building for the museum, and other elements, the school had a good idea to sell it to the county. The county could apply for a community development block grant (school districts cannot) that would fund such work as the sprinkler system. The idea was then for a nonprofit, namely the Madras Aquatic Center, to take over operation of the building (so the county, theoretically, wouldn’t have to worry about it), and the MAC could use it and also lease out rooms as offices with the idea of bringing in profit. (It’s OK for nonprofits to bring in more money than they spend.)

The county, under the idea, could utilize some of the building when it inevitably built its courthouse nearby.

It was an intriguing, if not a tad complex, concept. The county met with MAC officials on it. But, the idea is losing steam. County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen said “definitely maybe” when asked if the Westside purchase idea was dead.

With a new courthouse, and with room to expand on the property, the county simply wouldn’t need to “tie a Westside purchase into the courthouse formula,” said Rasmussen.

If not dead, sounds like the county-Westside possibility is on a thin thread.

Meanwhile, after excitedly buying into the community center concept two years ago, the Jefferson County Museum is still without a home — on the eve of the county’s centennial in 2014.

“The historical society has hoped and planned for several years based on, if not a written agreement, an understanding (that a museum could be housed at Westside),” said Jerry Ramsey, president of the historical society. “We are just aghast at the prospect that, two years later, it will go nowhere.”

The school district and county were haggling some about price (with discussion thought to be in the $500,000 range), which is understandable. They should be. However, maybe the school district would be better off just giving the building to the county, with the stipulation that it could reserve space for district needs (it currently utilizes the north wing for alternative and special needs education, and inside classrooms for family education programs) at a small utility-covering rent. The school district had several projects penciled in at Westside under the 2012 levy package. More than $500,000 in savings could be found if improvements at Westside were generally bypassed.

Plus, the school and county could agree that the Kids Club, which serves upwards of 200 kids each school day and throughout the summer, can remain rent and utility free (maybe combining to cover those costs). The school district doesn’t get enough public credit for its commitment to the Kids Club. If something happened to Westside, it’s likely the Kids Club would be begging the district for space elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the county could get a free building, apply for the CDBG, essentially “free” (don’t get angry, fiscal hardliners) federal money that could get the museum up and running, and the building could find its way to being a true community center.

This is just an idea that could keep the potential Westside revamping alive. Obviously, there are a lot of interests at play here: the county’s, the school district’s, the museum’s, the Kids Club’s, the community center concept, the need for a new courthouse. It’s all a moving target.

But with all the push for “new,” the important entity focused on keeping our past celebrated and our heritage alive — the county historical society and its museum — should not be left in the dust.

“I’m hopeful that the county commissioners (and other players) re-examine their positions,” said Ramsey. “The Westside Community Center is a unique opportunity for the county to invest in our community’s future.”

I want to throw more attention to one of our letters to the editor this week, that written by Cindy Schmidt. Schmidt addresses the recent fatal accidents on U.S. Highway 97 and the dangerous intersections with the highway and Dover Lane and Bear Drive. Everyone knows those are two proven dangerous intersections. Schmidt suggests a simple idea that would greatly enhance the safety of the intersections — rumble strips.

These are county roads leading the highway, and placing rumble strips along these and other more dangerous intersections within the county is an excellent idea. Excellent letter, Ms. Schmidt.




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