Old Moose building a point of contention

Photo by Linda Harris Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna, left, and 4th Ward Councilman Scott Dressel disagree Tuesday over the old Moose building. Villamagna said damage to the building is extensive and he couldn’t support spending taxpayer money trying to fix it, but Dressel insists it can be repaired.

STEUBENVILLE — While City Council members seem intrigued at the idea of turning what they’re now calling the municipal court building into a market house, the good will was stretched thin Tuesday when the discussion turned to the old Moose building.

The Moose building, located on South Fourth Street, has been condemned: The estimated cost to tear it down is well in excess of $150,000, in part because of the large amount of asbestos that would have to be abated. Water damage inside has caused floors to buckle and walls to crumble. Its owner can’t be located.

The municipal building, although in need of a new roof and other repairs, is still in limited use. While the police department is in the final stages of relocating to the new City Building next door, municipal court offices remain in use with no plans in the foreseeable future to move out.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna had asked council last week to think about turning the municipal court building into a market house along the lines of Wheeling’s Centre Market, and said he’d already had inquiries from two entrepreneurs who are interested in leasing space there.

Villamagna and City Manager Jim Mavromatis did a walk-through Monday with an engineer who said there were no structural issues, though asbestos could be a problem.

“My big concern was whether the structure was sound,” Mavromatis said. “There’s no sense putting any money into it if it’s not sound, but it is sound so that’s not a problem.”

Now that the engineer has signed off, Mavromatis said they need to assess the asbestos contained in the building and figure out how much it would cost to repair and convert the property.

“For the building to be as old as it is and in the condition it’s in, is great,” Villamagna added.

Jefferson County Port Authority Executive Director Evan Scurti already is working with city officials to explore grant opportunities, though he said that’s just in the early stages. Mavromatis suggested they might even be able to get grants for a new municipal court facility, which would free up the entire building for other uses.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel said he’s “all in favor” of turning the municipal court building into a commercial center, saying he’s been kicking the idea around with Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi for years. He said it could be “a great thing for the downtown.”

“It’s been discussed multiple times over the past 20 years,” Dressel said. “Now may be the right time.”

Dressel, though, butted heads with Villamagna over the Moose property during the committee meetings — planning and economic development — which preceded the actual council meeting: While the city doesn’t own the Moose building, Dressel maintains the couple hundred thousand dollars it would cost to tear it down might be better spent preserving it.

Mayor Jerry Barilla said the Moose property had been a recurring theme at Monday’s meeting of the Steubenville Revitalization Group.

“There’ve been concerns among some people because of the location across from the Grand (theater) and the parking lot next door, (that) maybe we should, rather than take it down, try to see if it possibly could be saved,” Barilla said. “Preserve it rather than take it down. If you take it down, it’s just another parking lot, If a contractor could be brought in to look at it, maybe we could even give it to the contractor (to fix up).”

Villamagna said that was unrealistic, pointing out the privately owned building has been “unattended” for years.

“We don’t own the building, so a contractor can’t just walk in and say they’ll take it over,” Villamagna said. “The city doesn’t have the authority to give the building away, we don’t own it.”

Barilla pointed out the Grand Theater, located across the street from the Moose, had been in even worse shape when Dressel took on the task of restoring it years ago.

“I’m not for putting a dime of city money in a building no one cares about,” Villamagna said.

Dressel said the Moose owner owns dozens of properties in Jefferson and Columbiana counties, as well as Brooke and Ohio counties in West Virginia.

The Moose building isn’t the only one of them in need of repairs.

“I’m not arguing to save one building,” he told Villamagna. “The front does look like crap, but it’s (not original). I have a picture of what it looked like originally.”

Dressel said even though the Moose building is a mess, he’s aware of two people interested in purchasing it.

“If no one wants it, that’s a different issue,” he added. “I’ve done a lot of restorations in my life, probably (at least) 30. It just depends how much you want to spend (to preserve a building). I think the Moose building is right on the cusp” in terms of cost vs potential return on investment.

“On the Moose, why don’t we (get a cost estimate) to figure out if it can or cannot be done?” 2nd Ward Councilman Craig Petrella asked.

Dressel told Villamagna he’s “not arguing to repair it,” though he thinks the building is fixable.

“It 100 percent can be fixed,” Villamagna replied. “But by somebody who has more money than we do.”

Petrella and 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul voiced concern that the exterior brick on the side facing the city parking lot is a concern.

“There’s water going down (that wall),” Paul said. “Couldn’t that wall fall on all those cars?”

Mavromatis said the city’s inspectors could go inside to inspect it again, but they’d need to secure an administrative warrant first.

To do that the city would have to “justify the threat to the parking lot” to a judge.

“I think we need to do that, to at least mitigate the liability of the city if this thing does collapse,” Petrella replied.

Villamagna said he has no interest in spending city money on a building so badly deteriorated.

“If someone wants to buy it, good luck,” Villamagna said. “I’ll never vote for the city to spend a dime on it.”

When the council meeting convened, Mavromatis was authorized to look into securing cost estimates for asbestos abatement in the municipal court building as well as the market house project.

The police department was commended for improvements to the city’s annual year-end crime rate assessment.

“We always hear how bad crime is,” 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons said. “It’s nice to hear that progress is being made.”

Water Superintendent Jim Jenkins told council work on the valve replacement project is under way. He said he’ll issue a weekly news release “so residents know where the work areas will be.”

Utilities Director Chuck Baird, however, told council the sinkhole behind the Jefferson County Jail “has gotten worse.” Not only is the sink hole getting bigger, but a coke gas line, believed to be abandoned, was discovered and it’s “created issues for the contractor.”

“No one wants to claim ownership of the gas line,” Baird said, noting that its especially tricky because Norfolk-Southern has strict rules about what is allowable near its railroad tracks.

Baird said a meeting has been scheduled with Norfolk-Southern representatives, city personnel and engineers to discuss a solution.

Baird also told council roof repairs to the wastewater treatment plant need to be moved up: He said the roof is leaking into the control center, which could have serious ramifications.

Council budgeted funds for a new roof for the building, but had planned to tackle the job later in the year. Baird told council it should be treated as an emergency.