Sesquicentennial laid foundation for new city hall Mayor was constant, early critic of building By David Lias
Plain Talk A centerpiece of Vermillion's sesquicentennial celebration is the community's new city hall. "This is certainly a dream come true," said Mayor Dan Christopherson at dedication ceremonies of the building, held April 30. " … I think it turned out better than we had hoped," he said. "It's just amazing." That dream became a reality due in a large part to two major factors: the efforts of a city hall committee appointed by former Mayor Roger Kozak, and the arrival of Vermillion's sesquicentennial this year. The notion of someday constructing a new city hall building had been talked about with varying degrees of seriousness in the community for a number of years. It became a burning issue in Vermillion earlier this decade. Adding heat to the debate was Christopherson, who served on the city council for a term before being elected mayor in 2004. While an alderman, he consistently opposed plans calling for the construction of a new city hall building. Christopherson voiced support at that time for attempting to remodel the old city hall building rather than pursuing new construction. Reached by phone Wednesday, a day before the city's sesquicentennial activities were about to begin, the mayor recalled those days, and said a turning point in his vision of a possible solution to the city hall issue came when he learned approximately five years ago that the city would celebrate its 150th birthday in 2009. "Ted Muenster first alerted to that in about 2004," Christopherson said. "He said the city's sesquicentennial was coming up and that I might want to start thinking about that." The mayor admits at the time he didn't know what the word sesquicentennial meant when Muenster first used the term. The importance of the city's upcoming anniversary brought key people from across the community together to plan the event. It also brought widespread public and political support to replacing the city's aging city hall with a new building. "Once we got all of the engineering reports and stuff, I finally came to the realization that there wasn't going to be any remodeling to the old city hall," Christopherson said Wednesday. "I've always been an advocate of historic buildings and saving what we can, but once we got into the engineering reports and architects' reports, I could see that it wasn't going to work and that wasn't the long-term solution, so I changed my thinking on that." The old building Engineers and architects had studied the design and condition of the old city hall, and estimated that remodeling the building would cost nearly $2 million. According to a report of a task force appointed by the late Mayor William Radigan in 1997 — a report available to all members of the city council — there were a number of deficiencies inherent in the old city hall structure that couldn't easily be repaired. The building that once housed city hall was built in 1915 to serve as Vermillion's power plant. After several years, an addition was made to a portion of it and it was converted to a city hall. Even more additions were made to the building in the 1970s. In its report to the city council, the task force submitted these findings: • The building proper was in an adequate state of repair with generally satisfactory heating and electrical systems in place. • File space was critically short. • Lighting was marginal. • The most serious building problems included the failure of the rest rooms to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. • A solution to accessibility of the council chambers for the handicapped is needed. The present arrangement with the library cannot be used permanently. • Cosmetically, the building presents a sterile, uninteresting appearance. Because of its site location there is no opportunity to provide attractive landscaping. • Outside parking for visitors is primarily provided on the street. An outside drive-in for dropping off payments would enhance the building functionally. The old city hall didn't have ample parking. According to architects and structural engineers who inspected the structure, there was no cost-effective way to make the building ADA compliant. The old city hall's offices and conference rooms took up about 9,000 square feet of space. An additional 5,000 square feet of interior space was used for vehicle storage and as a satellite fire station. Despite these shortcomings and the estimated $2 million price tag at the time for remodeling, Christopherson called for keeping city government housed in the old building. "I think we could save the whole front facade – even though it might not be the most beautiful historic structure, it is historic just because it's been there for many, many years," Christopherson said in 2003 of the old city hall. "I think there are ways, with the right kinds of innovative engineering, that we could utilize a lot of this existing space without having to spend as much money as some engineers have said." The haggling among citizens concerning city hall grew more intense shortly after Christopherson announced his candidacy for mayor in February 2004. Christopherson made the issue a major plank in his election campaign. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of his candidacy, he was a vocal opponent to many of the ideas discussed as city leaders tried to find a realistic solution to the city hall problem. Christopherson often cited the need for public input to help with the decision-making process as the issue grew more and more complicated. The city council decided on Dec. 13, 2003, to open up discussions once again on the city hall issue. Christopherson, then an alderman on the council, said early in the meeting, "The main reason I will support the motion (to continue discussion) is because the first thing on the list is a public forum to receive public input," he said. "I think we need that. We need lots of that – not just one time but lots of times." The proposal presented to the council during that meeting called for a public forum on Jan. 12, 2004, followed by a council decision Jan. 19, 2004 on the overall scope of services needed of an architect. Following the Jan. 19 decision, Kozak and Patrick urged the council to make a decision on the number of public forums desired during the process. Christopherson opposed that idea. "One public meeting isn't going to do it," Christopherson said at the December 2003 meeting. "We've got to have other methods to get feedback from the public and find out what they'll accept and what they won't accept before we start engaging an architect." "I don't disagree with what's being said," Kozak said, "but I think we have to say more than 'lots more.' I think we have to give direction to the city manager on how we want that done." Christopherson suggested the timeline be changed to eliminate any discussion of the need of an architect until later in the process, after several public meetings had been held. "At some point we need an architect to sit down and look at where we want to go and what we want to do," Patrick said. "Are we going to have 11 options, two options or whatever? We're not saying to hire an architect at that point, what we're saying is 'What is it that you want and how do you want to structure this thing?' " "I just disagree with that," Christopherson said. "I think that anything in reference to an architect ought to be farther down in the process so that at least in the first two meetings, we're deciding how many more we need." "I agree with the city manager that you have to have something to present to the public other than just having a fireside chat," Alderman Jack Powell said at that meeting. "I think you need to talk about what the scope of services that are needed of an architect. "This is not picking an architect, this is simply saying what is it we need when we talk with the public," Powell said. "What kind of services are we going to be looking at that's going to require a professional to help us interpret?" The bank building This second attempt at gathering public input followed a failed effort by the city council to purchase the Community First National Bank building and remodel the then-20-year old structure into Vermillion's new city hall. In September 2003, the bank agreed to sell its building, located downtown on the corner of Church and Main streets, to the city for $1.1 million. Aldermen also passed a resolution calling for setting aside an additional $1.1 million for remodeling the structure. Christopherson made it known that he believed that was the wrong approach to take. "I'm in favor of purchasing the building because we've looked at other options," he said. "The thing that concerns me is the remodeling costs. I really believe they are way out of line, and that our citizens would not want to spend 1.1 million additional dollars on a building that's already in great shape." Christopherson was the only member of the city council to vote against the purchase of the bank building. The city council's action spurred a petition drive, and its decision to purchase and remodel the bank building was referred to a public vote. Shortly before the referendum election, Christopherson told the Plain Talk that he felt the purchase of the building would be a waste of public money. "My feeling is that it is a blatant waste of taxpayers' dollars to even think about spending $1.1 million to renovate or remodel a perfectly good building," he said. "It's perfectly functional the way it is." Christopherson agreed at the time that some interior changes would need to be made to the building, such as constructing some office space and rest rooms, to transform it from a bank into a city hall. "But nothing that would approach $1.1 million," he said. Despite city leaders' attempts to convince the public that all of the $1.1 million set aside for remodeling likely wouldn't be needed, voters decided the bank building idea was too costly. In a city election held Nov. 18, 2003, the purchase of the building failed by a 61 to 39 percent margin. After presiding over a number of meetings that had city hall as a major agenda item, Kozak noted in early December 2003 that he wanted an architect to give a more detailed analysis of the costs of renovating the bank building. Kozak added that he wanted the public involved in every phase of that process. "I think if we're going to engage an architect, they should look at all the information that we have on the current city hall building, and they should have access to all the work that was done on the bank building," Christopherson said at that meeting. "They should be able to look at everything and blend that all together and not just get stuck on one building. They should look at everything that we have available without re-inventing the wheel." Christopherson said at that December 2003 meeting he wanted to know who the architect is going to be and how he or she will be chosen by the city. Continuing the public input theme A week after he declared his candidacy for mayor in February 2004, with the failure of the bank purchase moving the city council back to square one on its attempt to solve the city hall problem, Christopherson continued to insist that more input was needed from the public. During a Feb. 20, 2004 meeting, the city council decided to form a public committee that would provide virtually all input to aldermen on the city hall issue. Kozak and Patrick noted at the meeting that a needs assessment by an architectural firm was required to provide information to the city council. The assessment wouldn't single out a particular building. Rather, Kozak said, it would give aldermen an idea of the space needs that would be required to meet city staff requirements in a new or remodeled city hall. This public committee formed at Kozak's urging would later be known as the city hall advisory committee and it would play a pivotal role in making construction of Vermillion's new city hall a reality. Kozak reiterated at the Feb. 20 meeting that his goal was to involve Vermillion citizens in the entire city hall process. Christopherson, now a candidate for mayor, indicated that Kozak hadn't sought enough public input. "I just want to reiterate that this would be part of the process," said Christopherson. "I certainly agree about involving people who are affected or who are critical of the process. We need to get that involvement early on. We need to be sensitive to the needs of the people, and if we can get them involved early on, I think there will be a lot less controversy." Christopherson's position didn't go unnoticed by Alderman Powell during the Feb. 20 meeting. Powell noted that the city council was criticized at a public input meeting hosted by the Vermillion Conflict Resolution Center (VCRC) for not having a proper needs assessment in place when it approved the 2003 resolution to purchase the Community First Bank building that was eventually overturned by voters. "To have a meeting before we do any assessment – it seems we've already done that," Powell said to Christopherson. "And we were criticized because we hadn't done it (the assessment). I'm a little confused by your request." "I think even the VCRC indicated that something else needed to be done to build consensus," Christopherson said. "We have a report from the VCRC, but we don't have consensus from the public." In a letter published in the Feb. 20 Plain Talk, Christopherson praised the formation of the committee while publicly branding Kozak's earlier attempts to seek public input on solutions to the city hall issue as inadequate. "This is a great instance of listening to the people and working together in an attempt to resolve a controversial issue," Christopherson wrote. Reversal In the June 1, 2004 city election, Christopherson defeated Kozak by approximately 400 votes in the mayor's race, and hasn't been challenged since. As mayor, Christopherson's criticism of steps taken to solve the city hall issue also ended, as he let the city hall advisory committee proceed with the work needed to eventually make the new building a reality. Now in the mayor's office, Christopherson used the upcoming sesquicentennial of Vermillion as a reason for a reversal in his position regarding the construction of a new city hall. In a letter to Vermillion citizens published in the Aug. 5, 2005 Plain Talk, Christopherson wrote that a city hall site selection committee had identified four possible sites for a new city hall. "It is my wish that we as a community adopt this city hall plan as our legacy project for our Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) coming up in 2009. I believe we owe it to ourselves and future generations to make a significant investment like this that will potentially serve our community for the next hundred years," he stated in the letter. "We ask private firms to make investments such as this in our city to create jobs, and it is just as important that we invest in ourselves and our future. "As you may remember, in years past I personally advocated the remodeling of the current city hall building. Although I still believe that almost any building can be remodeled given enough time and money, it is my opinion now that this would not be a wise and prudent use of tax dollars," he wrote. "Public buildings are held to a higher standard by building codes and rehabbing the current structure for use as city hall would cost more than it is worth, in my opinion," Christopherson added. "If we create a tasteful and functional building with state-of-the-art technology, it will still be in use many years after all of us are gone. This is the most cost-effective solution over the long haul and the most responsible use of public funds." Christopherson said Wednesday that Muenster helped convince him that Vermillion should mark its 150 anniversary by completing a "bricks and mortar" project. The mayor then reasoned that the new city hall would be a fitting project for the sesquicentennial. An expensive process No one has recorded the monetary value of the time put in over the past decade by city government officials, aldermen, and volunteer committee members to make the dream of a new city hall a reality. The city hall advisory committee, formed in March 2004, made its final recommendation to raze the old city hall and construct the new city hall in August 2005, after meeting numerous times with architects and the public. The extended time that city officials, including Christopherson while a member of the city council, spent grappling with the issue eventually drove up the price of the city hall project. In November 2003, he and a majority of voters criticized the attempt to purchase Community First State Bank and transform it to use as a city hall, stating that the building, at 20,000 square feet, was too big, and its purchase and remodeling price, estimated at $2.2 million, was too expensive. Vermillion's new two-story city hall, completed last spring, features 31,000 square feet of space with a total cost of approximately $6 million — $4.5 million for construction and $1.5 million for "soft" costs such as architectural and furnishing expenditures. Despite the costs involved, Christopherson notes that the city experienced a positive change as the sesquicentennial drew near. Committees that had been formed to tackle the problem began to work together without so much political wrangling. "I don't think we (the city council) ever officially adopted the new city hall as a sesquicentennial legacy project, but we decided back in 2005 that the new building was something we could try to do," they mayor said. "We started planning to get something done that we could occupy in time for the sesquicentennial, so it kind of did eventually become the legacy project." Once the planning was complete, Christopherson made the rounds in the community, speaking to every club and civic group possible to inform citizens of the architect's plans, the estimated costs, the goals of the city council and the city hall planning committee, and how those entities planned to achieve them. "We tried to get the objections out and up front," he said. "And apparently it worked, because we got through the process without a referendum, which I was very pleased about." A political reality Vermillion's sesquicentennial, the mayor believes, not only convinced him of the value of the new city hall project. It also made the new building easier to accept politically by citizens. And as a bonus, the city's ability to accomplish the construction of the building project served to spawn more improvements throughout downtown and other parts of the city this past sesquicentennial year. "It's like planning for a graduation party for your children, or a wedding, or anything like that," Christopherson said. "You kind of tend to spiff up your house and get things ready for the celebration. This (the sesquicentennial) gave us something as a community to hang our hat on and get ready for. "It's really been noticeable over the past few months and even the past week how much effort people have made to spruce up the city," he said, "that probably wouldn't happen if we didn't have this special celebration. "Having a specific date and a specific celebration to look forward to probably helped make the (city hall) project a reality," he said.