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Commissioners approved the $1.5 million purchase of the building, now called the Olde School

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - The Olde School building in St. Helens will soon belong to the county. The building previously housed the John Gumm School.Columbia County will purchase the historic John Gumm School for $1.5 million.

The Columbia County board of commissioners approved the purchase for the property at its listed price on Wednesday, April 7. The purchase and sale agreement provides a 120-day review period, meaning the sale will be finalized by August.

The county began leasing the main floor of the building in October. It will have spent roughly $60,000 on rent by the time the sale closes, unless the commissioners opt to end the review period before the 120-day maximum.

The county had initially looked into purchasing the building but instead opted to start renting last fall after several closed-door discussions. County leaders plan to invest nearly half a million dollars into upgrades for the building.

Those upgrades were originally planned to take place before the end of 2020 in order to use CARES funding, which would have put the county in the position to potentially invest hundreds of thousands of dollars only to be displaced if another buyer purchased the building.

The county has completed some minor improvements so far, like painting and patching walls.

The John Gumm School was originally closed in 1999 because of concerns about the structural integrity of the building.

Columbia County Commissioner Casey Garrett led the initial discussions about the building in his previous role as director of general services.

Garrett estimated the building's owner, Ray Putnam, has spent more than $1 million on improvements to the building.

The property's assessed real market value was $1.7 million in 2020, including $368,000 for the land.

The school building itself is roughly 30,000 square feet.

Improvements will ultimately include more intensive work, including HVAC upgrades, a wheelchair ramp, bathroom upgrades, and updating electrical systems.

County commissioners have for years said the county government lacks sufficient space for staff. The old courthouse was built in 1906 and houses one of three courtrooms for the circuit court. The annex houses most county offices, as well as the other two courtrooms and other state court offices.

In particular, county officials have said, the growth of the public health department has put a strain on office space. Columbia Health Services functioned as the local public health authority for most of the past decade, but the county took over that role in 2018 and hired a public health administrator.

The department was growing steadily even before the pandemic necessitated hiring additional staff; it now has more than a dozen employees.

As of last fall, there were 105 county employees and 24 state court employees who would work out of the courthouse and annex when not working remotely. 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 also lacks a large meeting space. The board of commissioners' current meeting room seats less than 30 people. The old schoolhouse's auditorium offers that larger meeting space.


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