Last July, we editorialized strongly against Tooele County’s plan to purchase the former Sweat Fitness building to expand its relief services operation. We agreed with Tooele City officials’ assertion that the county had no business interfering with the business of downtown, and removing a viable commercial property from the city’s tax rolls to use it as a day facility for the homeless was wrongheaded.
After going back to the drawing board, Tooele County officials are now eyeing the former Al and Lid’s furniture store immediately south of the Kirk Hotel as a possible site for relief services expansion. But that plan, too, is garnering opposition. As Tooele City Council Chairman Scott Wardle said, “I don’t support the taking of any commercial property in the downtown area and using it for governmental purposes.”
However, we believe the former Al and Lid’s building may present a workable compromise to a difficult situation.
It’s pretty to think of downtown as an area where commercial space is highly sought after and every building rises to its highest and best purpose. The reality, as shown again by the closure of Stowe Family Music last week, is that attracting and keeping viable businesses on Main Street is an uphill battle. It’s hard to imagine any business owner getting excited about a large, off-Main location like the Al and Lid’s building — an assumption supported by the fact that the building sat empty for years before Liddiard Home Furnishings’ Budget and Clearance Outlet moved into the space in 2008. That outlet store went out of business after a year despite the fact that Liddiard Home Furnishings already owned the building.
It’s also hard to envision the public getting excited about the idea of a homeless facility in a residential neighborhood. Which means our strapped-for-cash county government has little choice but to purchase an existing building in a commercial district.
As a general rule, we don’t like government (read: Tooele County) repeatedly buying up commercial real estate. But we also don’t like government (read: Tooele City) attempting to influence a property transaction involving a private seller.
If the county buys the former Al and Lid’s building, we’d like to see them sell the former JCPenney building that currently houses relief services. That would be a decent horse trade for Tooele City, since it would put a viable commercial space on Main Street back into the private sector in exchange for a empty off-Main building that has attracted little interest.
It’s easy to draw a line in the sand where homelessness is concerned. But that’s neither compassionate nor pragmatic. Homelessness is a worsening problem that affects all of us, and government, including the local variety, has long accepted its obligation to help these least fortunate members of our society. Whether the county buys the Al and Lid’s building or not, we’re going to have to address the growing need for relief services. And that will require compromise on all sides of the issue.