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Don’t Bail Out The Landowner

Ever make a bad financial decision? Perhaps you bought swamp land in Florida. Or, if you are a business owner, you may have bought some alleged hot sellers and found customers were not interested.

Call Wheeling City Council. They may be willing to offer taxpayer dollars to help you out.

Council members and Mayor Glenn Elliott want to erect a new $14.5 million public safety building for the police and fire departments. Their preferred site for it appears to be a 2.8-acre plot at 19th and Jacob streets, owned by Frank Calabrese.

On Dec. 17, council agreed — with members Wendy Scatterday and Melinda Koslik voting “no” — to enter into a 90-day option to buy the property.

Tuesday, council heard concerns about the site from Chris Hamm, who is a candidate for mayor. Hamm warned of serious environmental contamination there, saying he once worked at a manufacturer located on the property.

“A ton of chemicals were used in that facility,” Hamm said, adding that some people who had worked there “died of cancer, of tumors.” He expressed concern about firefighters and police officers who would occupy the public safety building, if it is built at the site.

Environmental assessments of the lot, on which set nine structures, have revealed “recognized environmental conditions.” That means hazardous materials that would have to be dealt with.

“If this property isn’t suitable, we don’t want to put our guys there,” Fire Chief Larry Helms commented after hearing Hamm.

Under the purchase option agreement, Calabrese would receive $150,000 for the property, along with about $30,000 in reimbursement for relocation expenses. In addition, he could net another $195,000 if the city receives federal assistance in cleaning up the site.

It is not worth the $375,000 Calabrese could get for it.

But after Tuesday’s meeting, Elliott expressed another reason he favors the site. “We know the property is a problem,” he said. “Part of the issue that I think is not given attention is that if the city does not address this property through this process, it will fall to a future city council to address it. It’s not going away … but it also is an opportunity to get rid of a blight,” he told our reporter. He added that the property was “a very, very bad investment” by Calabrese.

Why should the city bail out anyone who made a bad investment? Why should the city hand Calabrese — who paid $58,862 for the land and buildings between 1997 and 2001 — a tidy profit and in the process free him of any responsibility for environmental remediation? It shouldn’t. The more the public hears about the well-planned fiasco, the worse it sounds.

Why should taxpayers make a bad investment to bail out a property owner who made one?

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