When Casper City Council decided to buy the Plains Furniture store about 18 months ago, members weren’t quite sure what to do with it.
What they were sure of, said Councilman Charlie Powell, was that a big plot of land was becoming available in the heart of downtown — an area the city had poured millions of dollars into improving.
It was adjacent to the site of the future David Street Station public plaza. A storage facility or warehouse could have spoiled the goal of a vibrant city center.
And there was a clock ticking.
“We were basically told the city has first opportunity to purchase this property,” Powell said. “If you don’t say yes within — I think it was about three weeks — this will be open to other people.”
So Council members pulled the trigger and purchased the building and adjoining lots, all located between Ash, Midwest and David streets, for $3 million in January 2016.
The footprint of Casper’s proposed downtown public plaza is growing.
Hasty real estate purchases carry risks. And when people acquire a new building, the last thing they generally want are surprises.
But the walls of the Plains building don’t appear to conceal black mold, dry rot or termites. There’s no indication that the foundation is sagging or that the basement was home to a meth lab.
Instead, the drab interior of the local big box store hid Casper’s municipal garage from 1921. Somehow, contractors simply built the furniture shop around the brick garage belonging to the historic fire station next door.
“Pop up some ceiling tiles, and lo and behold there’s still cornice, there’s still all the detailing,” architect Anthony Jacobsen told Council in October.
After purchasing the building, the city saw it as an obvious site for public parking as well as a way to help complete the public plaza.
The fire station next door is owned by Phil Schmidt, who restored the structure and converted it into offices. The city initially approached Schmidt about trading his building’s parking lot — located to the north and needed to build David Street Station — for another parking lot to the east. The parcels were both empty, both used for parking and both the same size. Schmidt was amenable to the deal. Easy.
But a wrinkle was introduced last fall when Schmidt discovered the garage extension was concealed within the Plains building and that it was in good shape and matched his existing property. The front of the fire station includes three carved archways, and there are two more of those archways on the facade of the garage.
Schmidt asked for a new deal last fall: Could the city trade him the garage in exchange for his parking lot?
At Council’s work session on Tuesday, Interim City Manager Liz Becher announced that such a swap was possible: The garage can be separated from the remainder of the Plains building without compromising the structural integrity of either structure.
But it won’t be quite so easy as the initial agreement.
Schmidt’s parking lot and the historic garage don’t have the same appraised value. And, to get to the garage, someone — either Schmidt or the city — will have to demolish part of the hulking Plains structure.
And either patch up the hole or demolish the entire building. And spend thousands of dollars to address the asbestos used in the floor, ceiling roof and pipe insulation.
(A historic photo of the fire station site shows that a store called “Asbestos Headquarters” was located next door.)
Council agreed to forge on, and the city has begun formal negotiations with Schmidt.
His parking lot is worth $52,000, whereas the historic garage is valued at $68,000 — but removing the asbestos will cost $25,000.
Powell was slightly baffled by the appraisal, given that the historic garage appeared to be only slightly more valuable than an empty parking lot.
In order for the city to conduct a land swap, as opposed to sale that would be open to the highest bidder, the values must match.
“If we make the trade, we’ll have to make up the difference,” City Attorney Bill Luben said.
That can be done through one party adding cash to the transaction.
Council also seemed to be leaning toward demolishing the Plains building once the sale is done rather than sealing it up. Becher said people have already sought to break into the building, and boarding up one side of the building after ripping it off would make that more of a risk.
“Sealing up that building — we would be the prime offenders of urban blight,” said Councilman Chris Walsh. “That’s not even an option in my mind.”
There is still not a cost estimate for the demolition because of questions over how much it will cost to remove and dispose of the asbestos, Becher said.
But Council seemed in generally good spirits about the progress being made on both addressing one of the city’s larger unused properties in the city core and transferring a historic structure into the hands of someone who will fix it up.
“It’s going to be beautiful when it’s all done,” Powell said.