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The Council that Kicked the Hornets' Nest 

Eureka's new political guard halts the Jefferson School purchase, raising the ire of neighbors

It's 12:30 on a weekday afternoon in January, and Jefferson School is empty. Right about now, all across the county, children are erupting joyously from classrooms and cafeterias for recess. But in Jefferson's asphalt playground there's nothing but weeds, graffiti and long shadows cast by the winter sun. By the back double-doors, in a cold, concrete-floored vestibule, evidence of a lonely night: a blanket tossed on flattened cardboard boxes and, on the step below, a sauce-smeared KFC box with a lone boneless chicken wing lying turd-like on greasy wax paper.

Like most other WWII-era American elementary schools, Jefferson was designed for utility rather than style. Single-story and boxy, it's fronted by grids of rectangular windows, like empty Jeopardy! screens, displaying dark, barren classrooms. Many of the panes have been broken and replaced by particle board, now warped with rain damage. In the surviving frames the blinds are dusty and bent.

The building's physical deterioration invites thoughts of larger social declines -- like the drop in district-wide enrollment that prompted Eureka City Schools to close the school back in 2005. Or the economic slump that has led many Humboldt County families to seek greener pastures. The list goes on: declines in funding for education, in achievement by American public school students, in the American empire itself.

A yellow plastic sign has been cinched to the chain-link out front. In handwritten block letters it reads, "FIGHT NEIGHBORHOOD BLIGHT." For more than 60 years Jefferson School served as the cornerstone of Eureka's West Side. In the five-and-a-half years since it closed the property has been in the eye of an increasingly heated political firestorm. A group of neighbors -- first assembled through a city-sanctioned Jefferson School Committee and charged with exploring future uses for the site -- has spent years steadfastly pursuing an array of moving targets for both tenants and funding sources while urging the city to spend precious redevelopment dollars to purchase the property.

With dreams of converting the campus into a public park, a charter school, a community kitchen and more, the committee -- now called the Westside Community Group, or WCG -- has gradually increased both in size and determination. Over the past two-and-a-half years, each time the group's quest hit a roadblock -- and there have been several big ones, including a competing offer for the property from College of the Redwoods last January and, in August, a last-minute pull-out from a proposed anchor tenant -- the WCG simply redoubled its efforts, working harder to firm up plans and persuade the City Council. They pledged as a group to assume some responsibility for the maintenance of the site, should the city move ahead. In September, following months of deliberations, the council unanimously approved the purchase of Jefferson School from Eureka City Schools for $600,000 in redevelopment money. The WCG rejoiced.

But their jubilation was premature. With the purchase still in escrow, a new roadblock appeared, one that's evidently unmoved by the WCG's assurances of success. On Election Day, the Eureka City Council was turned upside down: Three new members were swept into office -- Mike Newman, Marian Brady and Lance Madsen -- and Fourth Ward incumbent Frank Jager was elected mayor, requiring him to vacate his voting position on the council. At the first meeting of the new guard on Dec. 7, Newman made it known that he wasn't comfortable with the pending real estate deal, much to the horror of the WCG as well as Second Ward representative Linda Atkins, the lone holdover from the previous council. Newman argued that the particulars of the deal were shaky, that if it fell apart it could impact the city's shoestring budget. Redevelopment money, he argued, would be better spent elsewhere. And with that, Newman recommended putting the deal on hold.

Atkins was taken aback. While it was widely understood that the new councilmembers were more conservative, more "business-friendly," than the candidates they'd defeated (and thus Atkins' political foils), this was a particularly bold gesture by Newman, one that suggested undoing the work of the previous council. "This is wrong. ..." Atkins said angrily. "You're not going to be able to do whatever you want." Given the makeup of the new council, however, Atkins' conclusion was arguable. Brady and Madsen immediately joined Newman in expressing reservations about the deal, saying they weren't convinced it was fiscally responsible given the costs of renovation and maintenance and the lack of guaranteed tenants.

At the next meeting, on Dec. 21, the new council voted 3 to 1, with Atkins strongly dissenting, to put the Jefferson School purchase on hold. They did so despite vociferous objections from members of the WCG (though it should be noted that a few community members applauded the move). Livid and in disbelief, nearly half of those in attendance stormed out of the meeting in a huff while Newman was mid-sentence.

Thus was a showdown born. Newman, Brady and Madsen, on the one side, hold that the previous council acted irresponsibly and that it's simple prudence -- in fact it's their duty -- to examine the numbers more closely. The WCG, on the other side, contends that that's a smokescreen, that in truth the new council is deliberately sabotaging years of community efforts in a dastardly plot to hand Jefferson School over to their high-powered friends -- property developers, say, or maybe College of the Redwoods.

 

In his office on the second floor of City Hall one recent afternoon, Lance Madsen sat cross-legged, hands clasped in his lap, leaning back slightly. In blue jeans and Doc Marten slip-ons he calmly explained his reservations. Essentially, he said, his experience with community groups and nonprofits has taught him that despite their best intentions, things often don't work out as planned. He has personally served on the board of the Eureka Theater and the local chapter of the Boys & Girls Club, and in both cases he's seen projects fall through and grant monies evaporate unexpectedly. The WCG, he said, has even less clout.

"This is a neighborhood group that has no substance," Madsen said. "They have a title, but they don't even have a private nonprofit status." The group does plan to pursue that status, but Madsen said he requires more than plans and verbal assurances. For example, while the WCG and their de facto leader, Heidi Benzonelli, promise that maintenance costs won't fall to the city's depleted general fund, there's no guarantee, given the current economic climate, that city government won't end up holding the bag. "Community groups have a lot of enthusiasm," he allowed, "but they come and they go, unfortunately."

Madsen suggested that he'd prefer to see College of the Redwoods purchase the property. Last year, CR President Jeff Marsee pursued Jefferson School, aiming to convert it into a vocational training and education facility to replace the college's existing downtown site. Their January 2010 offer was accepted by Eureka City Schools despite being $50,000 less than what the City of Eureka had on the table. (ECS said they accepted CR's offer only because the city had been incommunicado for months. See "Schoolyard Scrap," Feb. 18, 2010.) But in the face of fierce community objections and threats of a lawsuit from city officials, who felt CR had interrupted active negotiations, the CR board withdrew its offer.

Nevertheless, Madsen said he'd recently spoken to a CR board member, someone he's know for years (though he declined to identify who, specifically), and that in light of this private conversation he feels "pretty reassured that CR does have the capacity and they do have the interest [to purchase the site]."

In an interview at Ramone's in Old Town last week, Newman said that he, too, has it on good authority that CR still wants to buy Jefferson School, provided there's a change of heart from both the City Council (check) and the community. Like Madsen, Newman refused to reveal the source of this information beyond "someone placed up high" at CR. The most likely suspect would be President Marsee, who serves on the board of directors of the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce; until recently, Newman was president of that board. "I don't know if [Marsee] was the one I talked to," Newman said coyly.

CR last week issued a press release patently denying renewed negotiations for Jefferson School. According to CR spokesman Paul DeMark, the CR Board of Trustees held a closed-session meeting Jan. 4 to discuss the matter. The press release, issued two days later, said CR would not re-enter negotiations unless a) the city backs out and b) the community becomes supportive of the idea. Eureka City Schools Superintendent Gregg Haulk confirmed that he's heard nothing from CR since they pulled their offer last year. "There's only one offer on the table for Jefferson School right now, and that's [from] the City of Eureka," Haulk said.

But Atkins, after watching the unified actions of her new council colleagues, is convinced there's more going on behind closed doors. "I don't know where they're meeting but it's not out in the public or with me," she said. At the Dec. 21 council meeting she argued that putting the purchase on hold not only insults the work of the previous council and the WCG, it's also a waste of money. The city spent $15,000 for an April 2009 feasibility study from SHN Consulting, plus $20,000 to $25,000 in legal costs related to the project, according to City Manager David Tyson -- not to mention untold hours of staff time. From Atkins' perspective, all the ducks were in a row: funds to purchase the property, grant money to renovate it and a list of tenants ready and eager to move in.

She's now convinced that none of that actually matters to the new councilmembers (excluding, for now, Melinda Ciarabellini, who was sworn in as Jager's Fourth Ward replacement on Jan. 4 and who told the Journal she's still researching the Jefferson School issue). Atkins suspects that the purported objections of Newman, Brady and Madsen are in fact red herrings and that the threesome is receiving marching orders from on high. All three of them, she said, were swept into office thanks to a political campaign unlike anything the county had seen before -- a campaign carefully orchestrated and generously financed by a relatively small group of monied interests. "Whoever the monied interests [are] who did that ... their interests are gonna be the ones that are put forth," Atkins predicted.

Newman, Brady and Madsen called the accusations ridiculous and insisted their concerns are well grounded. In a recent phone interview, Brady pointed out that the SHN report from almost two years ago fell short of a ringing endorsement of the project, especially considering that several of the proposed tenants have since backed out. The report concedes that the cost of upgrading the campus to comply with current building standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act "appears to be financially feasible only if [the owners] can obtain a larger site lessee, such as CR."

Newman, for his part, said he's simply not comfortable with the city assuming ownership of any new properties right now. And he said redevelopment money should be used on projects that have been sidelined by the Jefferson deal, including the city's first-time homebuyers' program, the facade improvement program and the seismic upgrade loan program. Plus, he noted, there's talk that Governor Jerry Brown wants to eliminate local redevelopment agencies altogether.

The bottom line is that neither Newman, Brady nor Madsen fully trust the WCG. The group's enthusiasm is laudable, Madsen said. "I don't want to belittle that in any way, shape or form. But they aren't an entity that we can work with at this particular point in time." Brady doubled down on that, suggesting that the previous council's approval was based on little more than hope. "I mean, it was like, 'Yeah, we think this is a good idea. We think the city should buy this.' But there was no plan in place," she said. "I guess they were just optimistic. They were just hoping that everything would work out."

The WCG disputes that, saying they have a solid plan to finance the project, including renovation and maintenance, but Newman remains dubious. "That's a wing and a prayer," he said. "It's not guaranteed."

 

If, in the wake of the new council's actions, there's a prevailing mood among members of the WCG, it's somewhere between flabbergasted and irate. Heidi Benzonelli, the group's informal spokeswoman, put none too fine a point on this sentiment at the Dec. 7 council meeting. "I feel like I just got a shotgun leveled at me," she said in response to Newman's comments. His underlying implication -- that the group was just a fly-by-night assemblage of starry-eyed dreamers -- was a slap in the face, she said. "I'm educated. I'm professional. ... I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this. I have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C." She paused and took a breath. "I don't like to come up here and speak in anger, but I'm angry."

That anger hadn't faded much by last week when nine members of the group -- just "the core" of roughly 60 altogether, they said -- came to the Journal offices to tell their side of things. Despite reminders from Benzonelli to "stay positive," the group's collective indignation was such that few sentences were allowed to finish before a fellow WCG member interrupted with more tales of civic effrontery.

Richard Evans, a longtime WCG member (and sometime author of the Journal's "Art Beat" column), echoed Benzonelli's point. "There doesn't seem to be a belief that in the neighborhood there are people who have talents, who have education, who can seek funding and grants, who can do things. I mean, we have proven this again and again," he said.

Over the past two-and-a-half years the WCG has undertaken a variety of projects in service to their banner objective: "Fight neighborhood blight." The property may appear run down, they said, but it would be far worse off without the group's maintenance, cleanup and security efforts (the latter in cooperation with the Eureka Police Department). Last year they decided to enact an "adopt-a-window" program, and in short order they gathered enough pledges at $100 apiece to replace every broken pane in the building. (Like many other efforts, they said, this one was ultimately thwarted. Eureka City Schools told them that the building couldn't be modified while in escrow.)

On top of all that, they said, the group has worked tirelessly with city staff to line up tenants and financing despite missed grant deadlines and tenant bail-outs caused by the seemingly endless bureaucratic delays. WCG member and former Eureka planning commissioner Ron Kuhnel -- who lost to Newman last November by 183 votes, with more than a thousand other votes going to fellow progressive/WCG member Xandra Manns -- said the new council's calls for guarantees are unreasonable. "The only things guaranteed are death and taxes," he said. "Everything else, to some degree, is a leap of faith based upon probability and credibility."

The WCG feels they've established that credibility. In response to the new council's skepticism, Benzonelli enlisted the services of Michigan-based Sigma Financial Corporation to reassess the project's feasibility given the current conditions and the latest list of proposed tenants, who include the Red Cross, the Humboldt Literacy Project, a local food production company and, most importantly, Fuente Nueva, a publicly funded Spanish-immersion charter school currently located in Arcata.

If Fuente Nueva could commit to becoming a tenant it would resolve many of the stated concerns of Newman, Brady and Madsen. It would also allow the WCG to realize the key goal of their efforts: the return of children to Jefferson School. But Fuente Nueva's administrators weren't quite prepared to be caught up in a political maelstrom. Charter Director Beth Wylie told the Journal via e-mail on Friday that the school's board of directors was set to meet this Tuesday, and she's hopeful that they'll approve a letter of intent toward becoming a tenant.

 

That's still no guarantee of fiscal soundness. Nor is the WCG's claim, which they made to the Journal, that they've received a pledge for a $100,000 donation from an unnamed private donor. Nor, for that matter, is the report that Benzonelli commissioned from Sigma Financial, which suggests two possible financing methods for the project -- traditional financing, whereby the city retains ownership of the land and the facilities, or a third-party lease agreement, in which the city would own the land while another party (say, a nonprofit) assumes responsibility for the building's development, renovation, maintenance and tenant management.

Is this latest batch of homework enough to establish credibility in the eyes of the new council? Val Martinez thinks it should be. She's executive director of the Redwood Community Action Agency, one of several local nonprofits that have worked with the WCG. "To me it looks like a sound business model," Martinez said. "They've been working for the last two and a half years with the city, the redevelopment agency staff and city planning staff to bring this to fruition. I would hope and I would encourage the new City Council to give them every opportunity to succeed."

City Manager David Tyson, on the other hand, is withholding judgment. He said he's familiar with third-party leases; the city has considered using them for several projects in the past. Still, he believes caution is appropriate. "I think the concern of the council is valid. We do have a tight budget," he said. City staff is in the process of gathering more data, including a new report from SHN Consulting and an analysis of maintenance costs under the worst-case scenario (that is, assuming the WCG and/or the new tenants can't take care of it as promised). The city is also making inquiries of potential grant sources, as is the WCG, Fuente Nueva and local nonprofits.

Whichever way the council ultimately votes on this issue, their decision will likely be interpreted as a sign of what's to come over the next four years. Like Atkins, the members of the WCG suspect dirty dealing. They believe the Jefferson School site to be worth far more than the $600,000 price tag, especially if it were to be subdivided and turned into apartments. Should the new councilmembers reverse the decision of their predecessors, many will interpret it as proof that an invisible hand is pulling strings for the enrichment of a select few. "My biggest fear is that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Kuhnel. "For people who live across the street [from Jefferson School] this seems like the end of the world. It's not. But what it portends is maybe bigger than people realize."

Newman, Brady and Madsen, meanwhile, will argue that the vote was in line with their campaign promises (or implied promises in the case of Madsen, who ran unopposed) to practice fiscal prudence. Interviews with all three councilmembers suggest that they're strongly inclined to go in that direction. If they do it seems unlikely that the West Side will welcome College of the Redwoods, in which case the search for a buyer will start again from scratch.

All the while, Jefferson School remains empty.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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