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Panel votes for Oakhill takeover



Published: Fri, May 19, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The facility's future is in the hands of the bankruptcy court.

By DEBORA SHAULIS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- If Mahoning County loses a bid to assume operations at Oakhill Renaissance Place, Commissioner Anthony Traficanti says he'll recommend construction of a new county administration building in downtown Youngstown.

Rumors of another party's possible bid on Oakhill surfaced Thursday, hours after commissioners voted 2-1 to demonstrate its interest by taking responsibility for a $450,000 loan from Ohio Department of Development to Southside Community Development Corp.

The nonprofit SCDC, which owns Oakhill, filed bankruptcy May 3. The development loan is the only lien on the property, formerly known as Forum Health Southside Medical Center.

Traficanti said he didn't know the identity of the other party.

"If they outbid us, they outbid us. There's nothing else we can do" about Oakhill, Traficanti said. If that occurs, Traficanti said he'll propose building a new center and moving all county offices there. "It's time we consolidate," he added.

Letter of interest

As president of the board of commissioners, Traficanti sent a letter Tuesday to Lucas Ward, an assistant attorney general, to express interest in the county's acquisition of Oakhill's title as well as the loan.

The loan balance is about $430,000, and payments are about $3,500 per month, County Administrator George Tablack said.

Ward called late Wednesday to ask commissioners to acknowledge by resolution their willingness to assume the ODOD loan, Tablack said.

That motion was made during the commissioners' regular weekly meeting by David N. Ludt, who voted for it with Traficanti. Commissioner John McNally IV, who dissented, said the vote was hasty and made "without any thought whatsoever."

In the two years since SCDC offered to donate the building to the county, "absolutely nothing has been done," McNally said. Questions, such as which county departments should be moved there and the cost of utilities at Oakhill, should have been answered first, he added.

Swift action was essential, however, Tablack said. The trustee overseeing SCDC's bankruptcy case may recommend that Oakhill be abandoned after May 28, when current insurance expires, unless someone shows him "a clear direction" for the property, he said.

If it is abandoned, Oakhill ownership would revert to ODOD, Tablack said.

Tablack and McNally agreed the final outcome of the Oakhill property depends on bankruptcy proceedings. The trustee, Atty. Andrew Suhar, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Background

Forum Health sold the building to SCDC for $1 in 1998, then subsidized Oakhill's operations and guaranteed a $2 million loan that also was for development. When SCDC defaulted on that loan, Forum Health officials said they became responsible for the $1.9 million balance.

Forum stopped subsidizing Oakhill in March. Tenants were told April 19 that the building could close April 30 because of financial problems.

Oakhill's tenants collectively occupied about 41 percent of the building's space and paid about $1.3 million annually in rent, SCDC figures show. The county coroner's office and Youngstown Health Department are among the remaining tenants.

News of Mahoning Valley Hospital's relocation from Oakhill to a Boardman location next week "makes it even more palatable for the county to assume" operations, Traficanti said. Without the hospital, Oakhill will change from a round-the-clock operation to a less-costly office complex, he noted.

Support for proposal

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams was pleased to hear of the commissioners' vote. Oakhill could become a successful governmental hub, and "we will certainly be looking at all options to consolidate our services."

Architect Ray Jaminet of Youngstown spoke to commissioners Thursday, saying the city and county would benefit from keeping Oakhill open and occupied.

"I cannot conceive of that building being abandoned," Jaminet said. If Oakhill were demolished, it would cost millions of dollars because hazardous building materials would need to be disposed of safely, he said. Those materials pose no risk as long as the building remains intact, he added.

John Paulette of Austintown, who often attends commissioners' meetings, cheered the county's interest in Oakhill. Paulette has criticized public officials for not finding alternatives to renting space for county offices. It costs $37,000 per month in rent, plus utilities and upkeep, to lease space in McGuffey Plaza on North Garland Avenue for Department of Job and Family Services. The plaza is owned by Cafaro Co.

"Whatever is reasonable for the good of this county, that's what we should be looking at," Paulette said.

shaulis@vindy.com




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