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updated: 12/15/2013 7:34 AM

New twists in plan to convert former Libertyville High

Tax hike plan for Brainerd to be on March ballot

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  • Libertyville voters will be asked in March whether they would approve a tax hike to pay for up to $11.5 million in bonds to be issued by the village to rehab the former Libertyville High School into a community center.

       Libertyville voters will be asked in March whether they would approve a tax hike to pay for up to $11.5 million in bonds to be issued by the village to rehab the former Libertyville High School into a community center.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Brainerd building was built in 1916 as Libertyville Township High School. Voters will be asked in March whether they would approve a tax hike to pay for up to $11.5 million in bonds to be issued by the village to convert it into a community center.

       The Brainerd building was built in 1916 as Libertyville Township High School. Voters will be asked in March whether they would approve a tax hike to pay for up to $11.5 million in bonds to be issued by the village to convert it into a community center.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Jackson Gym would be demolished under a plan to renovate the adjoining Brainerd building in Libertyville. Voters will decide whether to give the village authority to issue bonds for the work.

       The Jackson Gym would be demolished under a plan to renovate the adjoining Brainerd building in Libertyville. Voters will decide whether to give the village authority to issue bonds for the work.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Libertyville Township High School was built in 1916.

      Libertyville Township High School was built in 1916.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

A long-standing proposal to save and convert the former Libertyville High School to a community center will go to voters with a higher cost estimate and will include aspects different from what originally was envisioned, according to information provided to the village board.

The changes, which were suggested by an advisory group, surfaced this past week when the Libertyville village board agreed to put a question on the March 18 primary election ballot to determine the fate of the landmark Brainerd building.

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Voters will be asked whether the village should be allowed to borrow up to $11.5 million, to be repaid with property taxes, to rehab the building at Route 176 and Brainerd Avenue.

New wrinkles that are expected to raise questions include demolishing the adjoining Jackson Gym and moving operations of the village-owned and operated Libertyville Civic Center, a hub of activity for seniors, to the renovated building.

"The board has not agreed to that," Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler said of the Civic Center move. "There could be some pushback from seniors and the Civic Center board."

Also, the $11.5 million in bonds voters will be asked to approve represents a significant increase from the original bare bones estimate of $3.5 million to open the doors. That was revised to a $6.5 million ready-to-lease plan as the numbers were crunched in more detail.

The higher borrowing authority would cover what would essentially be a new building interior and expanded parking. It also would include demolition of the gym and other costs.

Those details also are expected to be explored in depth at community forums beginning in February. Whether and how the center would sustain itself, and who is on the hook if it doesn't, are other considerations.

"I have questions about the viability," said village Trustee Drew Cullum, the lone vote against putting the question on the ballot. Cullum said he was disappointed with the lack of financial and operating detail provided to date by the nonprofit Brainerd Community Center Inc.

"These information sessions should be very helpful for us and everybody," he said.

The vote was 4-1, with Trustee Jim Moran abstaining because he is a member of the Brainerd group that has been pursuing the idea for seven years.

The village will dedicate an entire issue of a future newsletter to explain details of the proposal.

The original vision of converting the Brainerd building to a performing arts center has evolved over time. Plans are to transform the building into a 25,000-square-foot multipurpose facility to include catering and rental space for performing arts, wedding receptions, civic organizations and large events.

Supporters say the facility, which would serve as a new home for the Civic Center, would replace a "patchwork" of village-owned buildings.

Voters will be asked whether the village should be authorized to borrow up to $11.5 million for the project, and set up a reserve for initial lease payments to Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128, which owns the building and Jackson Gym.

The village leases the buildings from the school district and subleases them to the Brainerd group, which asked the village to put the question on the ballot.

That the question is being put to voters is not an endorsement of the plan by the village board, Weppler emphasized. Cullum echoed that sentiment before casting his vote.

"The board is taking no sides and is looking to the public to tell us yes or no -- should we do this project at taxpayers' expense?" Weppler said.

The Brainerd group has been steadfast in the pursuit of a performing arts center but has been able to raise only $100,000 to $150,000. That money has been used for roof repairs, heating system, plumbing and other improvements.

A negative vote on the tax hike question essentially would end the quest. Approval would give the village legal authority to issue bonds to raise money for the project, but would not obligate officials to do so.

"We can't issue those until the residents give us authority (but) it's not binding on the board," Weppler said.

If the bonds are issued, the owner of a home valued at $300,000 would pay an estimated $141.98 more in property taxes each year over the 10-year life of the bond.

The costs of demolishing the gym and replacing it with 200 parking spaces and a drop-off area are included in the $11.5 million request, as are $350,000 in bond proceeds to cover initial lease payments.

But the lease does not give the village authority to tear down the gym. Whether that would be allowed and whether or how much District 128 would contribute to the demolition or parking lot costs also remain unanswered questions.

"We need all those questions answered as far as what we can and can't do," Weppler said.

The original Libertyville Township High School was built in 1916 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jackson Gym was built in 1929 but has become expendable in revised plans.

"The rationale for giving up on the Jackson Gym, even though it's truly a gem ... is it doesn't really have much of an ability to earn its way," said John Snow, a member of the Brainerd's group executive committee. "The earning power just wasn't there. It's regrettable."

Snow said having the proven customer base of the Civic Center with enough parking to handle major events makes more financial sense than the original vision.

However, Cullum and others question whether the center can sustain itself.

Trustee Rich Moras, who chairs the board's finance committee, said he is "very concerned about the future liabilities."

"I don't have a strong fiscal level of confidence," he said before the vote.

The business plan submitted to the village board, which includes the Civic Center as a tenant, estimates gross income would exceed operating expenses by $76,921 over the first five years of operation.

If Brainerd is unable to break even or meet its obligations, the costs would be covered by the village's general fund, a possibility that would require cuts in village services, according to Weppler

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