In a 4-3 vote, the Highland Township Board of Trustees gave new Supervisor Rick Hamill the green light to move ahead with negotiations for the vacant Highland Middle School Building.
The move was necessary after the Huron Valley Schools Board of Education gave the township until Dec. 4 to decide if they wanted to purchase the building. The deadline had previously been March 2013, but recent state legislation that could take away the local control districts have over their vacant buildings was introduced in early November prompting the district to speed up the deadline.
"In a perfect world, I would have had the time necessary to come up with a full business plan and be able to tell you with certainty if this would work for the township or not," Hamill said to a crowd during Monday night's special meeting in Highland. "Unfortunately I do not have that time, so I am asking you to take a leap of faith with me."
Hamill said the township will be able to opt out at any time during the process should the township board feel the purchase is not in the township's best interest.
"If anything goes awry, we can walk away," Hamill said.
Hamill explained in general terms his plan for the vacant building, saying he saw this building as an opportunity for Highland to develop its downtown district. Hamill said he will rely heavily on the township's Downtown Development Authority, the business community and residents to make his vision for the space work.
The township board then moved into a closed session for nearly an hour to go over an opinion from the township attorney on the issue.
During the closed session, residents at the meeting were invited to brainstorm their ideas for the vacant building. Those ideas included converting the space into an office building, moving the Highland Adult Activity Center to the space, and moving township offices to the building.
Following the closed session, the board voted 4-3 to allow Hamill to start the negotiation process with the district. Treasurer Judy Cooper, Clerk Mary McDonell and Trustee Mary Pat Chynoweth voted against the measure. Trustees Brian Howe, Charles Dittmar and Russ Tierney, along with Supervisor Hamill, voted in favor.
Some residents at the meeting expressed their approval for purchasing the building, stating it's a great opportunity for the township. Others, like longtime resident Ross Gofton, said they did not agree with the plan to purchase the building - worrying the burden for upkeep would be placed on the taxpayers.
Hamill said nothing is set in stone.
"This is by no means a done deal," he said following the vote of the board. "It's my job to prove to those who don't agree with this move that this is the wise decision, and that it can be successful. At the end of the day, I want a deal that's good for Highland. We have a healthy fund balance right now, and I want to leave this process and still have that same fund balance."
Hamill did not detail how the township would finance the purchase of the building, but said it would include things that might be considered out of the box, like an exchange of some sort.
"I'm not really sure how much I want to give away in a public setting," he said. "I am used to doing negotiations in private. I will give all the details as we move through the process, but I am a little hesitant tonight because we have yet to sit down with the school district."