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Crime at empty center threatens schools deal

School board votes tonight on withdrawal

Thieves ravaged the Joe E. Mann Army Reserve Center in the fall, leaving just a shell of the original facility and prompting the buyer – Spokane Public Schools – to suggest withdrawing from the deal, school officials said Monday.

“The damage is so extensive that the buildings would have to be demolished,” Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson said. Instead of $738,000 – the approximate price the district was prepared to pay – “it would cost about $3.7 million.”

“We were actually approved to be the entity to buy the building in 2008,” Anderson said. However, the U.S. Department of Defense had not transferred the deed to the district yet, and in the meanwhile criminals had caused extensive damage.

“The Department of Defense requires you to take the building as is,” Anderson said. “We can do something a lot cheaper than taking that building as is.”

The final decision will be up for a vote by Spokane Public Schools’ board tonight.

If the board approves the administration’s recommendation, the decision about what to do with the property will be back in the hands of the Spokane City Council because it’s the Local Development Authority, which vets potential buyers on behalf of the federal government.

“My understanding is we have a couple of options,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart. The city could go through the whole process of finding someone to purchase the property or the city could buy it.

The city could also decide, “This is just cost prohibitive and turn it back over to Department of Defense,” Stuckart said.

The Mann Center was emptied in 2010 when the Army Reserve unit relocated to Fairchild Air Force Base. Since then, the facility has been vacant.

Stuckart and Councilman Mike Fagan, who represents northeast Spokane where the property is located, recently toured the grounds along with several others.

“We had just gotten reports that the school district was backing out of the deal, and we wanted to see the vandalism,” Fagan said. “Up until that point, all we had was a letter from the district and word-of-mouth.”

Damage to the buildings on the property was reported last fall. The thieves had cut a hole in the fence and gotten into the buildings, which were still under the federal government’s watch.

“Police discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars damage. Most of it was copper wire that had been stripped from the building,” said Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer DeRuwe.

“Whoever it was had about a month to do what they did to the inside of the buildings,” Fagan said. “They stripped as much wire as they could and as much copper as they could. There are no panel boxes left. They even cut the wiring that went to the heater/air conditioners that were outside. Pipe installation was torn up. Light switches pulled out.”

A federal government employee who was caretaker of the property told Fagan he’d been instructed to do a “rattle of the door” and drive-by every couple of weeks. As soon as he noticed the damage, he called authorities.

Until recently, Spokane Public Schools was still willing to buy the Mann Center despite the damage, but the federal government was unwilling to negotiate, the school district said.

“We asked them to lower the price, but they wouldn’t,” said Superintendent Shelley Redinger.

Anderson added, “We are disappointed, but it just doesn’t meet our needs as is.”

“The city could buy it, and then what are we going to do with it?” said Fagan, who has been a Hillyard community leader and advocate for more than 15 years. The neighborhood group has had several ideas, including installing a community garden or an amphitheater.

“There are lots of needs up there in that community,” said Stuckart.

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