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Libby City Council backs effort to redevelop historic high school building

Hagadone News Network | January 24, 2024 12:00 AM

Libby City Council agreed last week to endorse an effort by developers to secure a grant to restore and convert the old high school into a an apartment building with community space.

The approval for a letter of support was unanimous at the Jan. 16 meeting following a motion by Council President Brian Zimmerman.

Zimmerman’s motion was initially for TZ Management, but Tracy McNew, who made the presentation of the project as a member of Libby Lofts LLC, pointed out the letter of support should be addressed to Libby Lofts.

The corporation is applying for a National Historic Preservation Grant from the state of Montana for $650,000 to restore the exterior of the old building as well as replace and refurbish windows and fix the roof. If the grant is secured, the developers must supply a 20% match.

The money for the program comes from the state lodging tax. The state Legislature approved the Montana Museums Act of 2020, which increased the bed tax from 3% to 4%.

According to McNew, if the structure is refurbished, it will become a new home to 26 apartments, with three set aside for teacher housing.

Bruce Weatherby and Joan Oakland, local business owners who operate Sherpa Trailers in Libby, are partnering with the McNews as well as Scott Curry, in the venture.

“I’m very optimistic it’s gonna happen,” Weatherby said in an interview with The Western News. “Right now, it’s a huge puzzle and the only question is how it gets done.”

Weatherby got to know Zach McNew through their shared membership in the Rotary Club of Kootenai Valley. 

“Zach, he’s a piece of that puzzle and it’ll take a partnership with the community to get this done,” Weatherby said. “I love it here and this is as close to Mayberry as it gets.

“It’s a beautiful building and instead of complaining about it, I want to do something about it.”

Zach McNew, a former city councilor, said he is appreciative of the city’s letter of support.

“It’s a blighted property in our community and we appreciate the support from the city,” McNew said. “We’re gonna need community support to bring it back and today, you can’t get a loan for a blighted property.”

McNew said he believes his experience buying and refurbishing rundown properties is particularly important.

“For Tracy and I, it’s a progression of the work we’ve been doing. We have the experience purchasing distressed properties and renovating them,” he said.

McNew said the complex would have a variety of apartment sizes as well as a meeting room and restroom facilities.

“Keeping the park part of it is really something everyone wanted to see,” McNew said. 

The large brick building on East Lincoln Boulevard next to the Memorial Center, built in 1917, served as the high school, then elementary school and finally the home of the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College until 2000.

The grant Libby Lofts is seeking supports public or private entities with the preservation of historic sites throughout Montana. The old school received its historic designation in 2008 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Grant funding, if awarded by the state legislature in its next session, would be available in September 2025, according to McNew.

BUT IT'S been nearly a quarter century since the structure was occupied and it’s as much an eyesore at this point with a caved-in roof and several broken windows on the south end while being surrounded with a patchwork fence that is meant to dissuade trespassers.

According to prior reporting in The Western News, the roof partially collapsed in February 2017 after several feet of snow fell.

Prior to the collapse, the Libby School District sold the building to Eric Berry and Scott Curry of Libby Lofts in April 2008.

Libby Lofts had one year to pay the district the remainder of the purchase price. The property was to be held in escrow in the meantime. The goal of the developers was to turn the building into condominiums and office space.

A month later, tragedy struck when Berry died following a motorcycle accident near Marion.

“After his death, the project imploded and it was very unfortunate,” Weatherby said.

But some progress had occurred. In an Aug. 1, 2008, story in The Western News, Curry said spaces on the top floor for condominiums were nearly sold out.

Nevertheless, Berry’s death meant his estate was in probate, investor interest waned and renovations were stalled. Curry’s hopes of having the work completed early in 2009 were ended.

Weatherby said Curry is still a partner in Libby Lofts, but described his involvement as, “more of a silent partner.”

Most recently, a February 2022 story in The Western News explained the Libby Vendors Market announced it would take up shop around the former high school after a turf war at Fireman Park.

The market partnered with Curry for the new location.

LIBBY LOFTS reorganized in 2023. In its application, it said, “it has the experience and expertise to make this vision a reality.”

The cost of the renovation is estimated at $5 million. Two alternatives include tearing down the structure or tearing down the most damaged part of the structure.

Councilor Kristin Smith welcomed the news.

“It’s sorely needed. We tried to get the previous owner to do something without success,” she said.

“We’d like the community to buy in to what we’re trying to do,” Weatherby said. “Keeping a building of historical value and being able to use it, it would be something special.”

During the public comment portion of the hearing at the Jan. 16 meeting, Libby resident DC Orr expressed mixed feelings.

“It’s a good project that needs to be done, but there’s no urgency to fixing the wall. And one of the problems with the McNews is that they spend a lot of time in court and if you (the city) get involved in this project, you’ll spend a lot of time in court, too.”

Weatherby also spoke at last week’s meeting as he sought a 25% matching grant from the Libby Economic Development Fund to help pay for some of the work that needs done at the old school.

“We’re basically at the end of time to refurbish the property,” Weatherby said. “The cost to do the wall and roof work is $178,000. We put in 25%, so we’re asking about $133,000. Further delays could lead to irreversible damage to this iconic structure.”

Council said it would set a special meeting for his grant request.