By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Ready to see something productive done with the old Goshen Inn property on Goshen’s south side? If city officials have anything to say about it, you may just get your wish.
The property, located at 1375 Lincolnway East, is one of a number of heavily tax-delinquent properties within Elkhart County set to go to a special public auction this spring where bidders will have the chance to purchase the properties from the county at a fraction of the back taxes owed. Such sales are done in an effort to get the properties back on the tax rolls and generating income.
However, according to Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, a tax sale may not be the best solution for dealing with the vacant Goshen Inn property, which over the years has degraded into an area rife with vagrancy, criminal mischief and drug activity, according to city police.
As an alternative to the tax sale option, Kauffman went before the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners Monday to request they instead sign the property over to the Goshen Redevelopment Commission, citing worries that a tax sale purchase will just perpetuate a string of failed enterprises that have plagued the property over the past decade.
“Our concern is that some bottom feeder is going to come in and offer some minimum amount of money and sit on the property, or worse yet it’s going to eventually become a motel that we don’t want in Goshen,” Kauffman told the board. “We would prefer that we be able to control that locally through our Redevelopment Commission, and get something decent in there.”
Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson told the commissioners he shares many of Kauffman’s concerns relating to the property, which years ago was a Holiday Inn. As a particularly vivid example, Branson sited the October 2011 murder of then-property owner Ken Patel, who was found beaten to death in one of the vacant motel rooms on the property.
“I’m sure that you already know that this property over the years has fallen into disrepair,” Branson said. “Its condition has only worsened since 2011 following the tragic death of the previous owner, Ken Patel. As with most vacant, unsecured properties, it is not long before opportunist individuals take advantage of the empty property resulting in, but not limited to, vandalism and other criminal mischief, trespassing, theft, unlawful entry and arson, not to mention the eyesore it has become along the primary corridor from the south of the city.”
Branson also noted the state of the property over the years has resulted in a significantly increased police presence in the area, consuming police patrols, investigative hours and evidentiary resources at a time when police resources are already stretched thin due to budget cuts and the down economy.
“In 2011 there were 18 calls for service to the property,” Branson said. “In 2012 there were 30 calls for services to this location, 20 of which were criminal activity associated with vacant buildings. This year we have already had two incidents of criminal behavior at the property. In addition to the calls for service, this property has also become part of a routine patrol for officers in hopes of deterring criminal activity. I only see the property becoming more of a problem the longer it remains unoccupied and in its deteriorating state.”
Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, also added her voice of support to the request Monday, noting that such old, dilapidated properties as the Goshen Inn can significantly hinder the county’s ability to attract new investment to the area.
“Those rooms stay as a part of the room inventory that we have in the county, which also then brings down the occupancy and all of the other metrics that are very, very important for us to convince other investors to invest in building new properties,” Lawson said. “So overall, it’s time for this property to be out of our inventory.”
Kauffman noted that while he isn’t sure yet whether the property can be rehabbed or will need to be demolished, he has spoken with Goshen Brownfield Coordinator Becky Hershberger to try and find a comparison between a possible Goshen Inn demolition and what the city had to spend to take down the old Western Rubber property.
“Becky’s estimate was $650,000 to $700,000 if we have to do the same thing to this that we did to the Western Rubber property,” Kauffman said.
When asked whether the Redevelopment Commission has the funds to handle such a large-scale demolition, Goshen Community Development Director Mark Brinson indicated the city is currently in the process of expanding a Tax Increment Finance district on the city’s south side which should provide the funding for such a project.
“We have a TIF that runs from U.S. 33 and comes downtown to the River Race area,” Brinson said. “We’re in the process of expanding that. It has already gone through the Redevelopment Commission. We haven’t done an appropriation yet, but we do have funds that could be allocated for that project.”
Brinson indicated that it may be best to first put out a Request For Proposal, or RFP, to the community to see if there is anyone with a viable plan and the ability to finance a project that would not require demolition of the property.
“There’s a chance that maybe that building could be reused,” Brinson said. “We don’t know that, but what we’ve talked about is possibly doing an RFP for the building as-is to see if there was somebody out there that could present a viable plan who had the ability to finance the project, who had experience, and who presented something we felt was a positive project and an improvement for the community. If they were willing to bring in a well know franchise, and somebody who has a history of being a good hotel operator, then yeah, we might take a look at that and save the money.”
In the end, the commissioners agreed to sign the property over to the Goshen Redevelopment Commission, but not without first inserting several caveats into the agreement. First to be inserted was a requirement that should the Redevelopment Commission ever successfully sell the property, the county would be paid a portion of that sale price to help cover legal expenses connected to the project.
In addition, the agreement also requires that the Redevelopment Commission either demolish the property or come up with a viable rehabilitation plan within a reasonable time.
“Those are the things that we’ve talked about as the Board of Commissioners,” said board president Terry Rodino. “We’re all in favor of what you want to do. We support what you want to do. But we just want to possibly put those two caveats in there if you agree with that, because the tax sale is getting ready to go out.”