ELLINWOOD -- Downtown blight is a tricky problem to deal with, as many rural cities have found. Ellinwood is finding that out too, and the learning process is causing acute hardship for one couple whose business and livelihood are now at risk because of what started out as the city’s good intentions. Early in 2014, the city acquired two dilapidated buildings at 100 and 102 N. Main Stret at a county tax sale. They intended to tear them down, ridding the city of an eyesore. But, as the demolition began, it became clear that the south wall of the adjoining building could collapse, and the contractor immediately ceased work. That was back in October, 2014.
Since then, the partially demolished building has remained standing, the back wall replaced by a gaping hole exposing beams and the insides of the crumbling structure. A fence has been set up around the property, but nothing else has been done while the city attempts to sort out its next step. For 10 months, Mark and Cassie Batchman have been held in a cruel state of limbo. During that time, the couple have tried to deal with the city quietly, but their patience is running out, and they feel betrayed by the city they’ve called home their entire lives.
For the Batchmans, their trouble started in September, 2014,when they learned via word of mouth that the city planned to begin demolition of the buildings adjoining theirs.
They visited with Ellinwood City Manager and City Attorney Bob Peter, asking for assurance that they would not be held liable for any damages during the demolition. When Peter refused, they asked to see an engineer report, and learned none had been made. That’s when they demanded the city halt demolition until they could produce an engineer’s report showing that the adjoining buildings would not be structurally at risk.
“Peter was hopping mad about that,” Cassie Batchman told The Great Bend Tribune Thursday, July 9.
Batchman was given no notice, and she and the stylists at her salon were in the middle of servicing their clients as the wall began to shake, she recalls. The damage was already done to The Cutting Edge.
The city brought in Engineering firms to look at the property in the weeks that followed, to offer opinions on what would need to be done to complete the job in a safe, secure manner.
Engineers called in
According to Cassie Batchman, she and her husband were asked to meet with several engineers, and were never given more than an hour’s notice before these visits. At no time did anyone from the city meet to join them.
The engineers gave ideas, about what they would do to proceed with demo. The Batchman’s didn’t receive any estimates. Then the city contacted construction companies. Three Kansas construction firms gave bids to shore up the property.
“No matter what engineer’s report they would choose, none would be beneficial for the salon,” Cassie said. All would require temporary shoring inside, which involves beams running evenly through the salon floor and through the ceiling, and they happen to be located right where the stations are located. The shoring would transfer the weight load in hopes that when final demolition is completed, the south wall would not collapse. More than one engineer cautioned it might be enough.
While she is only all too aware the shoring is necessary, it’s impractical to do business that way. It would require her to close her business, but she needs to earn a living, as do the stylists that have rented booth space. She can’t risk losing her clientele, something that would likely happen if she had to cancel appointments for an unspecified period of time.
Meanwhile, the Batchmans were visited in January by their insurance company for a routine inspection, and their property insurance promptly cancelled, prompting the bank that held their mortgage to call their note due. They’ve had to sell their truck and a family home that has been in Mark Batchman’s family for three generations to cover the note and the mounting attorney’s fees the couple has incurred since that fateful October day.
After their insurance was cancelled, the couple asked to address the city council and were placed on the agenda for the Feb. 10 meeting, Cassie Batchman recalled.
“The night before the meeting, Bob Peter, the city attorney, contacted my husband and asked if we were still coming,” she said. “When he said we were, he was told that we had been removed from the agenda, and we could talk during the patrons comments.”
Batchman told the council what had happened to them since October and pleaded with them to help her family. The Great Bend Tribune was there and reported on the conversation.
“As far as your insurance goes, I have no quick answers,” Peters said. “I will contact your attorney tomorrow and we will see if we can’t get things moving at a faster pace.”
Batchman’s attorney, on behalf of his clients, asked the city to simply purchase the couple’s property for fair market value, and provided a May 12 deadline for their response. They received none.
But at the May 12 city council meeting, the Ellinwood City Council entered into executive session for the purpose of discussing matters subject to attorney/client privilege for 30 minutes at the end of the meeting. According to the minutes of that meeting, after resuming open session, no action was taken and the meeting was adjourned. Another 20-minute executive session was held at the June meeting for the purpose of discussing matters that would be subject to attorney/client privileges. Upon returning to open session, again, no action was taken. With no further discussion, that meeting was adjourned.
City moving ahead, public not informed
Fast forward to June 19 when the Ellinwood Leader, the city’s official newspaper, carried a front-page profile of City Manager “Bud” Newberry. He referred to some of the issues facing the city, the halted demolition being one of them. He was quoted as saying, “it will be demolished in the next few weeks.”
This came as a surprise to the Batchmans, who have tried to speak with city officials since then, but have received no response to their inquiries. Thursday, July 9, The Tribune received a call back from Newberry and inquired further about the statement.
“Well, that’s a tough, tough deal and it’s been going on way too long,” he said. “Wish it had gone better. Can only tell you I’ve decided on a course of action, shared my thoughts with the city council in executive session at the last (June) meeting. It’s time to go ahead and complete the demolition of the building and deal with the outcome. If additional damage is done, I’m not sure what will happen. The city will have to at that time deal with the consequences.
He also admits that he has not shared his plans with the Batchmans.
“I have no problems with the owners. But, they did hire an attorney to represent them, and when that happens, then officials of the city get put out of the loop. You lose the right to talk directly because attorneys then have to talk to each other, and that slows the process down.”
When asked if he knew if the City Attorney Bob Peter had been in contact with the Batchmans’ attorney, he said he was not sure how much has been shared, but he has said the city has made a decision. He also said they were waiting on the completion of one more aspect of the process to be completed, having to do with the contractor the city would hire to complete the demolition.
“Its just time to get the building torn down, whatever it takes, and deal with the aftermath.” He anticipates it will be done in the next couple of weeks, after Ellinwood’s After Harvest Festival has passed.
When asked if he had seen the original engineer’s report, he commented that it was not an elaborate report, simply a letter that said it was hard to tell, but from the looks of things, didn’t see why it couldn’t be demolished. Newberry was vague on the reason demolition was halted, commenting that it had something to do with unexpected roof brackets. He knew that after the demolition was halted, an engineering company was called in and said that wall needed to be braced, and that was going to be a very big expense, and that’s when everything stopped.
When asked if the upcoming demolition would be on the agenda of the upcoming city council meeting on July 14, he stated it would not be. But he did expect it would be on the August agenda, where the council would likely be talking about “next steps.” He clarified that he anticipated the demolition would be complete at that time.
The Tribune also made several attempts both Thursday and Friday to communicate with Peter concerning this issue, both by telephone and email, which were not returned. However, the Batchman’s attorney received an email from Peter Thursday.
According to Cassie Batchman, who has seen and discussed the email with her attorney, Peter stated the city refuses to purchase the building from the Batchmans, and instead intends to demand Stone Construction finish the demolition in a safe and secure manner as their original bid stated could be done.
The Tribune attempted but was unable to contact Nelson Stone concerning this development by press time.
“I feel the city is trying to dump the blame on Stone,” Batchman said. “I’m grateful to him for using his judgment and stopping demo when he did, otherwise, the building would have more than likely fallen down.”
Every day, the Batchmans continue to deal with the aftermath of this botched demolition. In addition to moisture leaking into the building’s basement, some days Cassie can smell mold and mildew. Bricks fall into the driveway and the rear portion of the building. Sometimes she finds debris in her washing machine. Earlier this month, the compressor to her air conditioning unit burned out due to the debris that was left around it. She has had to continue to put money into a building she knows she’ll never get her investment back out of simply so she can continue to operate.
She worries when it rains or the wind blows. Engineers told her and Mark early on that something needed to be done to shore up the wall or else a heavy snow, rain or wind could compromise it, possibly even cause it to collapse. But, with an uninsurable building that she can’t even take a mortgage on, she has no capital to rebuild or move elsewhere.
“Moving a salon is a lot more involved than moving your average office,” she pointed out. “There are laws and regulations I have to follow, a lot of planning, money and labor goes into laying out booth spaces, bringing in the necessary plumbing and electricity.”
The couple also operate three other businesses in Ellinwood, a flooring store next door to the salon, a car dealership, and a construction company. The flooring store will also need a new home.
A matter of trust
Both Cassie and Mark grew up in Ellinwood, and lived Mark’s family home early on. It was the home his mother brought him home to as a baby, and where he and Cassie brought their babies home to. As their family grew, it became more practical to move into a larger home in town, so they fixed up and rented out the country house, with plans to move back and retire there after their children were grown. That dream now, too, is wrecked. This week, the Batchmans were busy putting the final touches on the place so it could be sold. The money will have to go to pay their attorney, Batchman said.
It causes her to question her family’s dedication to Ellinwood. Not one city councilperson has stepped foot in her salon to check things out, or to even inquire how their family is doing, she said.
“We’ve been team players,” she said. “We’ve waited for the city to do their part, but we can’t wait anymore.”
The Batchmans have personal ties to consider, too. Peter performed their wedding and was Cassie’s adoption agent, she said. The couple trusted that they could work out these issues the way people in small towns have for years, face to face and with a spirit of cooperation, through mediation and without lawsuits.
They recently secured a piece of property on Santa Fe Blvd., with hopes of building new when their current property issues are resolved.
“I will never own another building with an adjoining wall after this,” she said. But the day when that new building can be built waits on the outcome of her dilemma with the city.