PREBLE COUNTY — During the Preble County Commissioners’ meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, several citizens spoke out in support of the Preble County Art Association (PCAA) concerning the ongoing discussions regarding the PCAA’s former building on Hillcrest Drive.
Cheri Simon explained that while she is not a resident of the City of Eaton, she has worked and played in the city for many years and currently sits on the PCAA Board. In fact, she was around when the Hillcrest Drive building was constructed 30 years ago and has a “connection” to the building.
She explained, the board realized they were outgrowing that building and was brainstorming whether to expand or move locations. She was not in support of purchasing a new building and moving. She was the only board member who voted against the move, due to her sentimental connection to the original building.
“What I want to tell you today is how wrong I was to not be on board with that. I have totally been amazed with how this worked out over the last two years,” she said.
She added, she is frustrated because she’s been party to the discussions with the commissioners, where they individually promised there was something they could do to resolve the issue with the sale or purchase of the building, and since then there have been little updates.
“I’m frustrated as a volunteer and someone who gives a lot of time to the art center, something that seems so easy is making a really big transaction, the box just keeps getting kicked down the driveways, or lane, or whatever. I think there is a way to resolve this,” she said. “I just hope and pray you guys can make this come to a good [conclusion] and get this resolved. I would hate to see this continue or see the art center held up on funding.”
Commissioner Denise Robertson asked if she had read the original lease and Simon replied she had.
“It’s more complicated. There is no easy way to do this. It’s not simple — it’s not a matter of transferring property from one to the other,” Robertson said.
According to Commissioner Rodney Creech, they did get a legal opinion from their prosecutor and he said it “could be done.”
“I believe in contracts, I believe in handshakes, and I think everybody’s word is so important. Contracts have to be fair to both parties — if both parties don’t think it’s fair, we don’t have to honor that contract,” Creech said. “I think it is our duty to make it right. The county can sell the land, which they should have done originally.”
He added, he wants to “do what’s right.”
Simon asked the other commissioners for their opinions.
“I would like to see a resolution to this and it is something we should discuss further,” Robertson said. “We have kind of pushed it to the side, because we’ve had bigger fish to fry.”
Mary Bullen asked for Commissioner Chris Day’s opinion on the subject.
“We have to be very careful on how we handle this — we just can’t give money away. If you go back to the original agreement, it is pretty cut and dry. When the Art Association, is done [with the building] it ultimately reverts back. That is as plain and simple as it is. My caution is, if we give you guys money, if someone else comes to the table, we have to give them money. That is our biggest concern, because we can’t just be giving money away,” Day said.
Bullen responded, “No, you shouldn’t be giving our money away. But you’re standing in front of our money and the people who have provided it. We elect you with the hope that you can make intelligent decisions about when you can do things that maybe in your mind are giving something away, but it is benefiting the quality of life in Preble County and it’s citizens.”
“Not everybody feels the way that you do,” Robertson answered. “There are people that are adamant in the other direction. We represent everyone, so we really do want to make this — at least I do, this is my opinion only — we really do want a resolution that is fair to both sides. That is what I’m looking for. You all donated, you’re all tax payers, but you’re not the whole county.”
She added, the issue does need to be resolved.
Bullen suggested they take a “vote” or canvas the community to weigh “everyone’s side” for the benefit of Preble County. She added, the board has the money to improve the quality of Preble County and work with the Art Association.
Robertson and Bullen also discussed their different views on Preble County’s cash balance — where Bullen thinks money should be invested back into the county and Robertson wants to save money for a potential economic downturn.
Creech clarified, the county would not be “giving” PCAA money, they would be auctioning the land and PCAA would be given the opportunity to purchase it.
“We can’t say, ‘We can’t give tax payer money away,’ because we’re actually selling the land and bringing tax payer dollars in,” Creech said. “For clarification, we would not be buying anything, we would be selling something.”
Jim Simon, President of Simon Insurance Agency, spoke, sharing he participated in the fundraiser for the Hillcrest Building 30 years ago. He explained, the 99-year lease was made because there were many obstacles at the time to actually selling the building. He reiterated, this is his recollection and he is not sure if it is accurate.
He added, he does not speak for past Preble County Commissioners, but believes their “first choice” would have been to give PCAA the building.
“I don’t think the commissioners back then really wanted to do the 99-year lease, but it was done just to expedite things,” he said.
Guy Benge, Treasurer of PCAA, also spoke in front of the board.
“I just wanted to add my support — let’s get this worked out. I‘d rather do this in a much less formal situation — let’s just talk about this. I feel like the county really doesn’t have anything to lose. If the county wants to gain, hold out, and hope that we abandon the building, I guess the county is gaining from that, but you’re not gaining from anybody personally, it’s all other county money. We’re all just trying to support the county in one way or another,” he said.
Benge added, another option is for PCAA and the Preble County Commissioners to renegotiate the contract.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH