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South Salt Lake still hoping to buy Granite High property

Published: Monday, Jan. 23 2012 9:09 p.m. MST

SOUTH SALT LAKE — City officials face a July 31 deadline to purchase the old Granite High School property or lose the nearly $500,000 in taxpayer funds invested in the project.

South Salt Lake entered into a lease/purchase agreement with the Granite School District in April, with hopes that residents would authorize the purchase by supporting a bond measure in November.

City leaders proposed reusing the 105-year-old school and transforming its 28-acre campus into a civic center for arts, recreation and education, saying two years' worth of public input, studies and surveys showed that's what most residents wanted.

The Nov. 8 vote, however, told a different story. Following a pair of recounts, the $25 million bond proposal failed by just five votes — 1,006 to 1,001 — and put a crimp on the city's plans.

Since then, city leaders have been exploring other options for purchasing the former high school — including raising property taxes or proposing a scaled-back bond measure in June.

"The city is in a tough position of trying to make both sides of the issue happy and still do what's best for the city," said Sharen Hauri, the city's urban design director. "And (city leaders) still believe that keeping that property in public hands somehow is what's best for the city."

City leaders also aren't eager to walk away from the $460,000-plus committed to the project in the lease/purchase agreement with the school district.

The contract, signed April 19 by Mayor Cherie Wood and the city's attorney and recorder, included a $100,000 nonrefundable down payment and monthly rent payments of nearly $29,000 for 16 months. The city also has paid monthly utility bills on the property.

Opponents of the bond have said a civic center isn't in the city's best interest. A group of residents who organized as Citizens for a Responsible South Salt Lake to defeat the bond has advocated for allowing the property to be developed privately.

Residents will be able to weigh in on the issue during Wednesday's City Council meeting at City Hall, 220 E. Morris Ave. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. The city also has created an online forum where residents can post their opinions on the Granite High proposal through Jan. 31.

Bob LeMone, a South Salt Lake resident and bond opponent, said he believes city leaders are ignoring the will of the voters by continuing to try to find ways to purchase the property.

"I believe they're still going to buy it — election or no election," LeMone said.

Hauri said the vote in November didn't result in "a definitive answer" on what residents want to see happen with the property.

"But it was clear to us from the election that the majority of people don't want to spend $25 million on the mix of things we offered," she said.

The education component of the project, Hauri said, may be the exception. She says residents have been supportive of plans for reusing the school as a charter high school, a preschool or perhaps both.

There is no high school in South Salt Lake's boundaries, and preschools are in short supply, Hauri said.

"It would be ideal to be able to do that at Granite," she said, "so we haven't given up on that yet."

City officials have been meeting with Granite School District and potential education partners — including United Way — about possible reuses for the former high school. Prospective tenants have expressed interest in using the building as a charter high school, though no leases can be signed unless the city owns the building, Hauri said.

"We're sitting in limbo until we make a decision that we're going to own it," she said. "The vote kind of made that a very difficult process."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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