Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Leaders initially proposed purchasing building, but opted for three-year lease

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Columbia County will lease part of the historic John Gumm building.The Columbia County Board of Commissioners has signed a lease for space in the former John Gumm School, now called the Olde School, in St. Helens.

The county will lease roughly 10,000 square feet on the main floor for a three-year term, for $5,500 per month.

The board was initially looking into purchasing the building, which is listed for sale at $1.5 million, but opted to rent after multiple executive session meetings, which are not open to the public.

Commissioners hoped to use federal CARES Act dollars to fund a portion of the purchase. CARES funding can be used to cover costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the funds must be used by Dec. 31.

CARES funding will cover the rental cost for the first three months, beginning Oct. 1, but county leaders intend to snag more dollars for the building.

Columbia County general services director Casey Garrett said the county plans to upgrade the building's security features, handicap accessibility, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (which have taken on new significance as offices try to slow the spread of COVID-19 by increasing ventilation), plus replace flooring and paint.

"$400-500,000 could be spent by the end of the year, all within CARES Act funding," Garrett said.

The agreement between the county and the property owner gives the county right of first refusal, meaning that the county has the right to buy the property before the current owner negotiates any other offers, a press release stated.

As of press time, the county had not provided a copy of the lease agreement. The lease was approved in a board of commissioners meeting on Aug. 28, but the meeting agenda did not specifically mention the building or lease. (The county initially uploaded the wrong meeting agenda to the website; an agenda uploaded after the meeting noted the board would meet in executive session to discuss property transactions.)

If the county doesn't ultimately purchase the building, it could end up spending half a million dollars on upgrades, just to be displaced by another buyer.

The John Gumm School was originally closed in 1999 because of concerns about the structural integrity of the building. Garrett estimated the owner, Ray Putnam, has spent more than $1 million on improvements to the building.

The Berkshire Hathaway broker listing the property, Karen Blades, said Putnam was not available to speak prior to press time.

County commissioners have long lamented the cramped quarters in which employees work, particularly as the public health department has grown.

Up until 2018, the county was not the official local public health authority. That role was filled by Columbia Health Services, a separate foundation, but statewide changes to public health policy pushed the county to reclaim the role.

Mike Paul was hired in late 2017 as the county's public health administrator.

The public health department grew relatively slowly and steadily for two years, but it ballooned when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The county now has 15 public health employees, Paul said in a press release from the county.

Just over 100 county employees work in the county courthouse and annex, plus 24 state court employees. The Justice Center, which contains the jail, sheriff's office, and parole and probation offices, holds 75 employees. Thirty more employees are spread throughout other county offices.

The county lacks a large meeting space. The board of commissioners' current meeting room would seat less than a dozen members of the public with the recommended spacing of six feet between each person.

The Olde School building offers that larger meeting space.

A handful of local businesses are being pushed out as the county comes in. The current tenants, which include a ceramist and an attorney, were informed they would need to vacate the property before the county moves in.

Sage Cortez, owner of Hand and Fire Ceramic Studio, announced the impending move on Instagram. Cortez wrote that she has long heard of — and experienced — difficulties for small businesses in the area.

"So it came as no surprise to get this news. However, the complete lack of support for small businesses in this time/at all has meant as locals to this community, we are now feeling the need to look elsewhere," Cortez wrote.

Other members of the community said they were dismayed to see the county, in effect, push out local businesses.

"In trying to do something good to meet capacity for our response to COVID, we inadvertently created consequences and displaced businesses during a pandemic, in a real time of need," said Commissioner Alex Tardif, who is running for re-election against Garrett this fall, on a KOHI radio show last week.

Tardif added, "In hindsight, there are things I think we could have done a lot better, conversations that should have (been) had that probably weren't had."

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