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Former Columbia County Highway Department office building in limbo

December 7, 2018 GMT

WYOCENA — Jim Foley says the long-vacant Columbia County Highway Department administration building is a white elephant, and it’s past time to do something about it.

That is why Foley, chairman of the Highway Committee, included the matter on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.

“Sooner or later, we got to do something,” Foley said. “I don’t like the idea of it just sitting there.”

“Just sitting there” is pretty much what the structure, located along Old Highway 16 across the street from the highway department’s main shop in Wyocena, has done for the last five years.

From time to time, the small asphalt lot behind it is used for overflow parking. But other than that, no one except an occasional salvage crew has been inside the building since 2013.

The split-level brick structure, built in 1968 and 1969, does not comply with the accessibility requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even with a wooden ramp at its back entrance, its restrooms and other interior facilities are not accessible.

Foley said he can remember the water stains on the ceiling, and the damp carpet, stemming from a leaky roof.

The Highway Committee met in the building until 2013, when the meetings were moved to the cafeteria of the department’s shop. The department dipped into reserves for the nearly $500,000 it cost to build new administrative offices, and a new meeting room, on the second floor of the main shop building in 2014.

Columbia County Board Chairman Vern Gove said Thursday the fate of the old building got lost in the shuffle of Columbia County’s $46 million building project, which was approved in November 2014, and completed this summer.

Gove said the matter is in the hands of the county board’s executive committee, though that panel is not slated to discuss it at its next meeting.

Gove said he is not aware of any offers for the building.

Wyocena Village President Paul Crary said village officials hadconsidered acquiring the structure and the land as a potential future location for a “municipal building” with combined offices and vehicle storage for the public works department with a new station for the Wyocena Bureau of Fire.

Crary said he didn’t recall what price the county had asked for the property, but the acquisition wouldn’t have been the only cost.

In addition to being brought into accessibility compliance with the addition of elevators and accessible restrooms, the building also would need to be expanded to accommodate vehicle bays.

The existing building still is usable, Crary said.

“If you look at it from the outside, it’s a halfway attractive structure,” he said. “It just needs a lot of work.”

Gove said the property was first offered to other county departments, but none of them wanted it.

There was, almost three years ago, an unusual proposed government use.

Officials of the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage had proposed in January 2016 to use the structure for tactical training, including breaking down walls and locked doors. Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy took the proposal to the committee, but discouraged it, saying the building would be impossible to secure once the tactical training was done. The panel rejected the proposed use.

The Wyocena Bureau of Fire also proposed using the structure for training, but that use is not safe before asbestos can be abated.

It’s the asbestos abatement that resulted in a cost estimate, three years ago, of between $107,000 and $148,000 to tear the building down.

That may yet be what happens, Foley said.

“Sooner or later,” he said, “it’s going to cost us money to keep the building up.”