In early 2013, the volunteers from the Quercus Grove United Methodist Church moved their community food pantry from worn out trailers in the church yard to a new facility built by the county in the Markland Business Park.
Now, it appears that they may be moving again.
Lewis Gordon, who, with his wife Mary, are the backbone of the food pantry, said that at the Monday, July 7th meeting of the Switzerland County Commissioners, the county may be looking to sell the property, and if that happens – the food pantry will have to find a new place to distribute food.
At another meeting held at the Community Foundation of Switzerland County office this past Monday, the group was told that negotiations were ongoing for a new tenant for the building, known as the Markland Center.
“The basis of the whole meeting was, the food pantry may be moved out of the Markland Center because they may have it sold,” Lew Gordon said of the meeting this week. “They were asking us about the end of July, and I was thinking, ‘they don’t want much’; but he’s got a piece of equipment that he wants to move in the first part of August. At this point the commissioners haven’t finalized an agreement, but they are answering questions that he has about the building.”
The identity of the potential buyer has not been made known since negotiations are ongoing.
Lew Gordon said that the commissioners didn’t provide many details because of the confidentiality of the negotiations, and he said that the end of July referred to was not deadline but rather a point of discussion due to the delivery of the equipment.
“We would be open to suggestions as to who and where and what would be available, should the commissioners ask us to move out,” Lew Gordon said. “If anyone has any idea of a facility that would work that would have safe driving and parking and things like that. Not something like we had at Quercus Grove.”
Returning to the church is not an option because the serving trailer is gone and the storage trailer is still there but in a state of disrepair.
“They asked us what we would do if we had to be out by the end of July. That’s two weeks. We really couldn’t do it. We’d have to have a place that was approved by the Free Store Food Bank and the State of Indiana and the federal government would probably be involved, too, because we get commodities,” he said. “All of that takes time.”
Lew Gordon acknowledged that the county does have a lot of money invested in the Markland Center.
According to Commissioner Steve Lyons, the county originally agreed to spend $250,000 on the building at the Markland Center, but the totals, after all things were completed, ended up at $600,000. The county also doesn’t charge the food pantry rent, and pays all utility bills.
“When the possibility came up that we may have an interested tenant for the building, I felt like it was my obligation to the people of the county who I work for to investigate it,” Steve Lyons said. “I wouldn’t be doing what the people of the county elected me to do if I ignored the chance to bring a company here.”
“We were told that the company who wants to come in employs four or five people, and they are currently in Madison,” Lew Gordon said. “It’s not a big employment generator.”
Although the county owns the building, the walk in freezer and cooler that are in the Markland Center belong to the food pantry, and were purchased through grants from the Vevay-Switzerland County Foundation; and grants have also been approved through the Community Foundation of Switzerland County.
If and when a move is made, a big factor in where the new location is will be finding a structure that can support the size and weight of the freezer and cooler; along with the palates of canned goods and boxes of other non-perishable food that is distributed each month.
Currently, the food pantry distributes food on the third Sunday of each month, and Lew Gordon said that each distribution averages 209 families, which translates to over 700 Switzerland County residents.
“Right now the freezer is full and the cooler will be full by the end of the week,” Lew Gordon said. “Supplies will be coming in on Thursday and Friday.”
Lew Gordon said that the biggest demand comes in November and December, because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“We’ve gotten up on those months to 240-245 families,” Lew Gordon said.
Lew Gordon said that he really appreciated Commissioner Steve Lyons meeting with he and other members of the church to explain what was going on; but would still like to get the chance present the case for leaving the food pantry where it is.
“He’s the one who was the one initiated us getting together,” Lew Gordon said.
The Quercus Grove Food Pantry originally began in October of 1998 at the church; and moved to the Markland Center in 2013.
Commissioner Steve Lyons said that county is simply pursuing avenues to bring economic development to the county. He said that the potential to sell the building has come up rather quickly.
“Honest to goodness, one of the first things on the list was, ‘Well, that’s good, there’s some employment there. There’s some investment there. There’s the potential to enhance the park for somebody else to come – but what do we do with the food pantry?'” Steve Lyons said. “There’s been no talk of throwing them out on their ear or that kind of stuff. We’ve been looking at buildings, talking among ourselves and looking around and talking with Pam Acton of the foundation and what not on what we can do.”
Steve Lyons said he’s also very aware of the need in the county that the food pantry fills.
“I know that the food pantry is needed. I said that quite some time ago,” Steve Lyons said. “I don’t know that the county needed to be in the food pantry business, quite honestly, and I said that when I was on the council. When the building was built, there were significant overruns in the price of the building.”
Steve Lyons also said that along with providing the building, the county is paying all utilities, handles all maintenance, and even mows the grass. All of that adds up to an ongoing investment by the county.
So, when the interest was expressed, Steve Lyons felt that it was his duty to investigate the matter.
“The reason we had that meeting the other day (this past Monday) was, I’m President of the Community Foundation, and Pam called me and said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of talk, and somebody needs to talk to the folks from the food pantry’,” Steve Lyons said. “And I just said ‘I’ll do it. You line it up with Lew and I’ll do it. I didn’t have the blessing of the commissioners or anything, I’d just said I’d do it. I just wanted to tell them what I could tell them. I told them I was going to be as upfront as I can possibly be, and I’m going to tell you what I can tell you.
“You’ve always been on the front burner as far as what we can do with them and for them if this was to happen,” Steve Lyons continued. “We had a pretty good discussion. I know Lew does not want to leave that building, and I don’t blame him.”
Steve Lyons said that the person who has the interest will employ four to five persons, at least to start; and he is interested in Switzerland County because he lives in the county, but the commissioner also believes that he has some options in Madison.
“He is interested in coming up there, and he wants a lease with an option to purchase,” Commissioner Lyons said. “That’s not a very quick or simple process with the government, and it’s that way for a reason. He’s got a shorter timeline. He’s got a piece of equipment that he has ordered that is going to be delivered on the first of August. He’s got a business and he’s got to keep going; and it’s like anything else – time is of the essence.”
Steve Lyons said that he brought up the possibility of bringing in the piece of equipment and setting it off to the side or in a corner (if the size of the equipment allows that) until other arrangements could be made; and that at the meeting all sorts of options were being thrown around. That’s when he said that the question was asked about the possibility of the food pantry being out by the end of July; but it was not a demand, but simply a question.
“I’m just trying to be logical about it,” Steve Lyons said. “I’m trying to look at the county’s situation. I’m trying to look at their situation. It’s not skin off of my back if he comes or he doesn’t come. But looking at it, if he can locate there and because of that a spin off business can come, it’s also the kind of business that can be a catalyst for other people locating there, then it’s a positive thing for the entire county.”
The commissioners have been evaluating different options for where the food pantry may relocate to, but acknowledge that there currently isn’t a county-owned facility that could take the pantry in.
A private property owner may require monthly rent and utilities, something that the food pantry is not paying currently. Because all of the staff and organization of the food pantry are volunteers, there’s little or no money to pay those possible expenses.
As for the process of selling the building, should the commissioners decide to pursue that, is covered by state law.
Indiana Code 36-7-14-22 deals with the public sale or lease of real property and the procedures.
In part, the code says: “Before offering for sale or lease to the public any of the real property acquired, the redevelopment commission shall cause two (2) separate appraisals of the sale value, or rental value in case of a lease, to be made by independent appraisers…
“The redevelopment commission shall then prepare an offering sheet showing the parcels to be offered and the offering prices, which may not be less than the average of the two (2) appraisals…
“A notice shall be published in accordance with IC 5-3-1. The notice must state that a designated time the commission will open and consider written offers for the purchase or lease of the real property being offered….At the time fixed in the notice the commission shall open and consider any offers received…”.
At this time, no offer has been officially accepted by the commissioners or the Switzerland County Redevelopment Commission.
The next meeting of the County Commissioners will be this Monday, July 21st, at 5 p.m. in the basement of the Switzerland County Courthouse.
- Pat Lanman