The Merchants Wharf may be a money pit for its owners, but it apparently sits on a gold mine.
A real estate appraiser hired by the downtown Juneau building's owners said it is worth $6 million to $7.5 million, $3 million more than the city's previous tax assessment for the land alone. The owners' appraisal includes at least $1.3 million for demolition.
The city remains interested in the land despite the price gap, City Manager Rod Swope said after a city Waterfront Committee meeting in which Juneau Assembly members discussed the building.
"It fits our waterfront plan," Swope said. "We can expand Marine Park and open up more views of the water."
Swope said at the meeting that the city, like the wharf's owners, doesn't want the 66-year-old building, which many residents say is a living testimony to Juneau's waterfront aviation history and should be preserved.
"It won't be cost-effective to maintain it and bring it up to acceptable code," Swope said.
Daniel Glidman, property manger of the wharf for 19 years, said the rents from the building barely cover the maintenance.
"The building reduces the value of the land," Glidman said. "It doesn't make any money."
The owners have announced that they will close the wharf by the end of 2008. Glidman said the owners would like to close the wharf sooner but they feel obliged to give tenants more time to relocate or make other plans.
Over the years, Glidman said the owners have explored different options - everything from building a cruise ship dock to selling the property to a private developer. But none of the options worked out.
Selling the land to the city would be a desired middle ground, Glidman said.
While the city and owners of the wharf don't think the building is worth keeping, many residents view it as a treasure.
"The heart of our community is the sea," Barbara Wilmot said in a letter to the Juneau Assembly. "The wharf has the life, ambiance, history, charm, character and personality of our community at its best."
During the past few months, Wilmot and a group of citizens and historians has tried to find ways to save the wharf.
The group, which conducts "Preserve the Hangar/Save the Wharf" meetings over lunch, proposed putting the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Another option is to have someone or the city purchase the building and let a nonprofit committee operate it.
Group members say they have approached one owner of the building and asked him if he would allow an independent engineer to inspect it. He turned down the offer, group member Dee Longenbaugh said.
Glidman, who spoke on behalf of the owners, said the owner would have accepted it if the group were interested in buying the building.
"If anybody comes up with the right price, the owners will be interested in talking to them," Glidman said. "I don't see a group of serious people interested in buying the building. I see a group of people interested in having the city buy the building."
Glidman said the owners of the wharf still are evaluating whether it would be profitable to build a smaller building on the parking lot and sell part of the land to the city.
Swope said he is ready to talk to the owners when they are ready.
"They have to decide how much of the property they want to sell and how much they want to sell it for," Swope said. "It's entirely up to them."
I-Chun Che can be reached at email@example.com.
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