County purchased building for $1.5 million; total project cost will be much higher

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - John Gumm was used as a school until 1999. In recent years, business tenants occupied a few spaces in the building, but much of it has been unused for years.More than a year after Columbia County purchased the historic John Gumm school building in St. Helens, the future office space is still far from move-in ready.

County officials anticipated costly upgrades when they purchased the 30,000-square-foot building — which ceased operating as a school because of concerns about the structural integrity — for $1.5 million.

The latest estimates show the county could spend as much $12.7 million to renovate the three-floor building, which is more than double earlier cost estimates.

The county originally started leasing the building in 2020 to use as office space for the county's growing public health department during the COVID-19 pandemic. But two years later, no employees have worked out of John Gumm.

When Columbia County first started leasing the building near the St. Helens Riverfront, now-Commissioner Casey Garrett — a former county employee — estimated the county government could spend $400,000 to $500,000 on HVAC, security, and ADA-accessibility improvements in just a few months, using federal COVID-19 relief funds.

That budget quickly moved up to $1 million to $3 million, then $5 million to $6 million, and then, most recently, to $12.7 million. PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County doesnt currently have a large meeting space, but the auditorium at the John Gumm building is expected to fill that role.

Ameresco, the project developer that is working with the county, came back with the higher estimates after county staff in various departments were asked about their needs.

"We started into this on a budget," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said at a June meeting. "We started into this trying to figure out how we could pay for it with cash, with money that we either had or knew we could get. … When we were crawling up toward the $7-8 million phase, I think we were all still reasonably comfortable that that was stuff we could do between … grants you guys could come up with and money that we had or could get pretty easily."

As the estimates continued to rise, Heimuller and the other commissioners asked to look into a phased approach.

In March, the Oregon Legislature allocated $2 million for Columbia County Courthouse improvements, easing some of the financial burden.

County officials now expect to renovate John Gumm in phases.

Riley Baker, who directs parks and facilities for the county, said the budget for John Gumm was still preliminary because the plans weren't yet developed enough to have a firm cost estimate.

John Gumm would also include an auditorium with more than 100 seats, a museum, and offices for the Columbia Economic Team and small business resource center.

Progress has also been slowed by the commissioners deciding to also renovate the courthouse annex, which houses the commissioners' offices, most county staff, and the county's location of the state court system.

Ameresco's projected project cost for the annex was $1.3 million, as of the last update. That's also quite a bit more than county leaders had initially planned to pay.

"I'd just like to see a breakdown of … how we've increased the cost of that project by fivefold without a lot of discussion," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said at a June meeting.

For his part, Garrett said he believed the original budget for the annex was $400,000, so the estimate had tripled.

The county moved its land development services department, which includes building and planning, to a newly leased office space late last year in a step toward making the lower level of the annex into public health space. The county's public health department has grown steadily in recent years as it has taken over public health functions from Columbia Health Services.

The county ultimately plans to use the lower level of the annex, which has a separate entrance for more privacy, for public health; the John Gumm building for county administrative offices; and the main level of the annex for "counter-driven services" like the county clerk and bill payment.

As of mid-August, Ameresco said permitting and construction bidding for the annex would take place in September, with construction starting in October and completed by the end of January 2023.

For John Gumm, Ameresco staff said the design and cost would be ready for approval by county commissioners in December. Permitting and construction bidding would be complete by early next summer, and construction would run from June 2023 through March 2024.

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