Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City News

The Blanche Hotel
The seventh inning stretch

By Stew Lilker

"The most important thing right now is the safety of the people that are using and visiting the building. That is the main reason that I did this. The structural analysis is a small price to pay to assure that they are safe." City Manager Johnson

Since September of 2009, when the Observer first broke the story about the rundown conditions inside and outside the Blanche, there has been a lot of talk, energy and ink – both electronic and traditional – spent on the Blanche Hotel. On Monday night, the City Council approved a structural engineering study that is going to cost Lake City $19,500. When the Council meeting adjourned there were some unanswered questions about the Blanche, the structural engineering report and Councilman Jake Hill's dissenting vote regarding the study.

As the City is working on the multitude of code violations and everyone waits to see if the Blanche is going to fall down, now is a good time to look at those issues.

Councilman Hill and his no vote

In a telephone interview with Councilman Hill on Wednesday evening Mr. Hill explained his position on the Blanche:

Observer:     Mr. Hill, have you spoken with City Manager Johnson since the council meeting on Monday when you voted against the engineering study?

Mr. Hill:        I spoke with Mr. Johnson today. He told me that the reason that he ordered the structural engineering study was that he was concerned about the safety of the people who work in and visit the Blanche. I can’t argue with that and certainly support the City Manager in his concerns. I am looking forward to seeing the engineering report. I am hopping the City Manager puts the engineers on notice that the Blanche engineering study must be on the fast track and I will be following this closely to see that it is.

Observer:  Mr. Hill, now that you are aware of this, if you had it to do over again, would you have changed your no vote against the engineering study and have supported it.

Mr. Hill:        Absolutely not. I am glad to hear the rest of the details and it certainly makes me feel better about the financial arrangements for the engineering study, but my “no” vote stands. It was a vote against any kind of bail out for the owners that let the Blanche deteriorate to the condition it is in now.

Observer:     Thanks for speaking with me.

Mr. Hill:    One more thing. I believe that an important reason the residents of Lake City voted me into office was to watch their money.  I am committed to do that and I want everyone to know that Jake Hill will never vote for any bailout of the owners of the Blanche Hotel.

The engineering study – who pays – and why

Who pays for the engineering study and is it part of a bailout has been a question that many folks in the community share with Councilman Hill.

During the past couple of days the Observer has spoken with Councilman Ward and CM Johnson about this issue, which was left in limbo, when Mayor Witt adjourned Monday night's council meeting.

The Blanche Boys contention that they had a "willingness to pay" for the structural analysis rang hollow with many, including your reporter, as the Blanche Hotel is their building and not the city's. Many folks thought that the Columbia Bank, the mortgage holder, and the Blanche Boys should have been paying for the study.

Many folks also thought that if the Blanche Boys were looking for a handout or a loan from the city, they should have been in front of the city council and asked for it.

At the conclusion of Monday's Council meeting, your reporter asked CM Johnson about the "willingness to pay" and what that meant.

CM Johnson said, "Richard Cole [the prime member of the Blanche Trust] told me that they would pay for half of the study within six months."

Your reporter mentioned to Mr. Johnson that if it is good enough to say, then it is good enough to write.

On Tuesday, there were still unanswered questions and CM Johnson made time on short notice to speak with the Observer that afternoon.

City Manager Johnson pulled no punches

Observer:    Thanks for taking the time to see me.

CM Johnson:      No problem.

Observer:     There seems to be a few issues hanging out there regarding the Blanche. One of the main ones is -- who is paying for the structural engineering study?

CM Johnson:     Richard Cole [one of the members of Blanche Trust] said they would commit to pay within six months.

Observer:     The bailout?

CM Johnson:     I am not here to bail anybody out. It is going to be a partnership. My position is it is not about the people. It is about the Blanche. It is not about those owners. They are going to be a component of it. They have to be.

Observer:     What if they default on the note?

CM Johnson:     That’s their problem. Then we will work to find someone else.

Observer:     Can you tell me a little about the structural analysis?

CM Johnson:      They [Jones Edmunds] are going to perform a structural analysis -- load capacity, structural analysis of the walls, the framing, the load capacity of the floors, the roof, the structure. That is what they are going to do.

     The Blanche is not going to be the cause of my demise.

     I have a vision for downtown Lake City. It is a dream. It has to be researched. We have a nice little trust fund that is recurring each year and if it is used wisely everyone will see a difference. That’s what the CRA is for. The Blanche is the most critical component of the commercial district. It is the biggest building and it is the one the city has to look at first. We have to do something and that something has yet to be determined. Step one has been determined.

Observer:      What is that?

CM Johnson:      The most important thing right now is the safety of the people that are using and visiting the building. That is the main reason that I did this. The structural analysis is a small price to pay to assure that they are safe.

Observer:     Thanks for your time.

After the discussion with City Manager Johnson, your reporter walked across the street to Ward's Jewelers and spent a few minutes with Councilman George Ward.

Mr. Ward told the Observer that he is not going to bail out anybody "but we can't let it [the Blanche] fail. We need it downtown."

The Observer asked about the Blanche Boys "willingness to pay" for the engineering report.

Mr. Ward said, "I was told that they would be sending a letter, committing in writing, that they will pay their half of the structural analyses."

The Blanche is now in the seventh inning stretch, as Lake City's employee of the year, code enforcer Sandra Caslow deals with the violations and everyone waits for the engineering report.

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