COLUMBIA, 7/24/10 (Beat Byte) -- It was a small line in last week's Columbia City Council agenda, Bill R137-10 -- a "reprogramming" of $50,000 in Federal block grants -- that put a final stake in the heart of a 15-year plan to renovate the city-owned Field Park Building, aka the Heibel-March Store.
An officially-designated Notable Historic Property, the Field Park building (above) is notable for something far more dubious: It leads the list of vacant, abandoned, and derelict properties in Columbia's North Village neighborhood, around Columbia College in the First Ward.
Last year, for instance, scofflaws shot out the donated glass in the front door. Plywood has covered it since.
Originally proposed for demolition, neighbor concern stimulated several poorly-funded attempts to save the building, each with lip-service support from Columbia City Managers Ray Beck and Bill Watkins; and Columbia Parks Director Mike Hood.
The plan all along, neighbors say, was to let the building fall apart so that it had to be demolished. The building's condition, some insist, illustrates a long-term inequity in park funding: Central city parks rely on Federal block grants, while the rest of the city enjoys park sales taxes.
Hood let the truth about Heibel-March/Field Park slip last October.
"The city had been working to acquire open space and parkland in that area of the community," he told the Columbia Tribune. "His department bought the land the building sat on with the intent that it would be open space," the Tribune reported. "The original plan was to remove the building and turn it into a nice landscaped corner," Hood said.
Last September, the Tribune had city manager Bill Watkins and First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz dueling over the building's fate.
"I would hate to say that it’s doomed," said Watkins, whose palpable pessimism came across as self-fulfilling prophecy. "I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot of interest," in renovating the building, he added.
"It’s a very attractive concept," Sturtz said of a renovation plan from Columbia-area non-profit First Chance for Children.
"The Community Development Commission recommended the plan receive $50,000. Watkins recommended no money in his proposed 2009-10 budget," the Tribune reported.
"We have a group that’s doing really great work, and we have a building that needs to be brought back," Sturtz countered. "I really feel like as a city that we should be investing in that project."
Watkins fired back. In the past, he said, "the council has said no Community Development Block Grants can go for the Heibel-March building."
"Sturtz said he will vote for funding for the renovation."
"We are skeptical that the building can be renovated for the numbers they’ve suggested," Watkins retorted.
As usual, Watkins has apparently won the duel.
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat