Tooele County officials won’t confirm they’re planning to purchase the former Sweat Fitness building for an expansion of the relief services program, but the building’s current tenant said he’s been asked to move out to make way for the deal, and Tooele City officials say they’re upset the county wants to take another downtown building out of the private sector.
On Wednesday, the current tenant of the Main Street building, Grinders skate shop owner Chris Escobedo, had closed his doors and was packing up merchandise.
“I was told by the owner of the building that the county had applied for some money to buy the building and if they got the money I would have to move out,” said Escobedo, who leased 5,000 square feet of space in the 18,710-square-foot building last February after it had sat vacant for two years following the closure of Sweat Fitness.
Earlier this month, the county was awarded a $402,900 Community Development Block Grant to acquire facilities for the expansion of the Tooele County Food Bank and relief services. The county applied for the grant in February, two weeks before Escobedo moved into the building, according to Tooele County Relief Services coordinator Karen Kuipers. The contract with the state Department of Workforce Services for the grant — a contract the Tooele County Commission approved last week — states the money will be used to “acquire specific real property adjacent to the Tooele County Community Resource Center.” The Sweat Fitness building is next door to the community resource center.
Tooele County Commissioner Colleen Johnson, who has spearheaded the drive to expand relief services, would not confirm or deny the county intended to purchase the former Sweat Fitness building. She said discussion of buying any property with the grant money is premature because the county will not receive the funds until the contract for the grant is signed by state officials at the Division of Housing and Community Development.
According to the minutes of a public hearing held on May 1 by the Tooele County Commission on the CDBG grant application, Kuipers told commissioners the grant proposal included partial funding for acquisition of the building next door to the present community resources center.
The former Sweat Fitness building’s owner, Paul Hatch, a property investor from Glendora, Calif., who bought the building in April 2012, denies ordering Escobedo to clear out.
“He has a lease that doesn’t expire until December,” said Hatch. “I have no offer on the building and nothing being negotiated.”
Hatch said he has no connections to Tooele, but has invested in many properties in Utah, primarily in the Salt Lake area.
Kuipers said county officials would never put even indirect pressure on a tenant to vacate a building.
“CDBG policy prevents us from displacing a tenant [for the purchase], even after their lease expires,” she said. “We wouldn’t tell anybody they had to move.”
In April 2010, UtahHomes.com listed the old Sweat Fitness building for sale for $499,900.
Tooele City officials believe the county intends to purchase the former Sweat Fitness building, and they aren’t happy about it.
“If they buy the property on Main Street, it will be the fourth piece of prime retail property in Tooele’s downtown area that the county has purchased,” said Tooele City Mayor Patrick Dunlavy. “Currently, the property generates property tax revenue and as a retail location it generates sales tax revenue.”
The county previously purchased the site where the Tooele County Health Department now stands at 151 N. Main Street, the old Mantes Chevrolet building just north of the county building at 23 S. Main Street, and the current location of the community resource center at 38 S. Main Street, according to Dunlavy.
The county also purchased and demolished the old Caldwell gas station on the corner of Main Street and 100 South to make room for the emergency management center.
Once the county buys the Sweat Fitness property, sales tax and property tax revenue — plus greater potential future revenue — will be lost, Dunlavy said.
Tooele City Council Chairman Scott Wardle agrees that there is a need for more space for county relief services, but also questions the choice of location.
“Why downtown, where we have been working to bring in retail businesses, when there are other places available?” asks Wardle. “It’s kind of hard to do economic development in the downtown area when the county is buying up property and taking it off the tax rolls.”
Johnson said any deal for any property to expand relief services hinges on the county being able to fund those operations after a property is bought.
“Before we buy any new property, we will have to look at how to fund the ongoing costs associated with the property,” she said. “The county will not buy property unless we can identify a funding source for the ongoing expenses of the property.”
Vicki Griffith, chairwomen of the Tooele Valley Community Cooperative, a non-profit organization that has received grants, donations, and other contributions to support Tooele County Relief Services, strongly opposes the purchase of the old Sweat Fitness building by the county. She’s concerned about the resource center becoming an attraction for homeless people that will loiter in Veteran’s Memorial Park and discourage retail businesses from setting up in the downtown area.
“I am dead set against it,” said Griffith. “It is probably the worst thing that could happen to downtown Tooele. We don’t have the need for the type of services they want to have there, such as showers and bathrooms for homeless people, and it is the wrong location for that type of thing.”