As the new federal courthouse in downtown Billings nears completion, the U.S. General Services Administration has decided to dispose of the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse as surplus property.
Homeless assistance agencies and local and state government, under GSA's disposal process, will get first crack at the Battin building, which has a long history of asbestos problems.
"As for any perceived problems with the building, we will be conveying the property as is, where is," said William Morgan, GSA project manager with the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Division in Fort Worth, Texas, in an email response.
If GSA fails to reach a deal with an eligible nonprofit organization or state or local government, the agency will put the building up for sale in a competitive online auction.
The problem with the five-story, 221,367 square-foot building is that it has asbestos troubles.
The most recent began in the early 2000s, when a renovation project stirred up flecks of asbestos, a fireproofing and insulating material that had been sprayed throughout the courthouse when it was built in 1965. The material has weakened and become crumbly, making it hard to do routine work, like moving ceiling tiles, without potentially releasing asbestos fibers.
The renovation project was halted after asbestos abatement efforts led to containment breaches and fiber leaks and took longer and cost more than estimated.
The federal government banned asbestos in the 1970s. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause cancer and other health problems.
GSA ultimately decided to build a new $59 million courthouse and a new $30 million federal office building for federal employees now working in the Battin building, at 316 N. 26th St.
Tina Volek, Billings' city manager, notified the mayor and council on Monday that staff will be meeting later this week or early next week to discuss potential uses for the building and will report to the council.
Lynda Woods, the city's community development coordinator, said information has been sent to those who provide services to the homeless, who are discussing the issue.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno said he'd like to see the building used as city-county law and justice center but is concerned about the asbestos and health issues.
Reno said the county shouldn't acquire the building if it has asbestos problems. "Not if it's dirty. I'm just speaking for myself," he said.
Mike Tuss of CTA Architects Engineers, which worked on the renovation project, said somebody is going to have to remove the asbestos. "It's a pretty pricey project," he said.
Beyond the asbestos, Tuss said, the building needs significant work, including upgrading windows. "It's got some problems that need to be addressed," he said.
Some might view the Battin building as a boxy white elephant. But Marty Connell, a Billings businessman and president of the East Billings Urban Renewal District, sees a diamond in the rough and dismissed asbestos concerns as a red herring.
"It's got to be dealt with, but laws and procedures and well-qualified people in Yellowstone County can deal with those issues," he said.
"They all laughed at me over Pierce Packing 10 years ago," Connell said. Connell cleaned up asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, a banned substance used in transformers, at the former packing plant on First Avenue North and restored the space into the Kairos Center, a storage and shop space center.
For three years, Connell said, he's had a plan to turn the Battin building into a city-county office without costing taxpayers a significant amount of money. But people will need to work hard and leave "all the negative off the table," he said.
GSA had to first offer the property to other federal agencies. Because no other agencies were interested, GSA declared it surplus.
Now homeless assistance groups and state or local government have the chance to acquire the property through a negotiated sale for up to a 100 percent discount of the fair-market value, the GSA said.
The value of the property may be discounted if a homeless assistance organization or government entity agrees to a restriction on the use of the property for a designated public benefit. "This use restriction becomes, in effect, the 'payment' for the property," Morgan said.
Without specifically addressing the asbestos issue, Morgan said that in conveying the property "as is" and "where is," the government makes no agreement or promise "to alter, improve, adapt or repair" the property. The purchaser is responsible for his own evaluation of the property.
If the property ends up on the auction block, GSA expects the Battin building "would develop adequate market interest as it is a valuable property in a significant city," Morgan said.
Parties interested in the building have 60 days from an April 13 notice published in the Federal Register to submit a letter of intent to the GSA.