Billings Gazette: Daines bill would make sure those who buy federal buildings can maintain them

Inspired by the bizarre tale of Billings’ once-blighted federal courthouse, the U.S. Senate will consider raising the standards for who can bid on abandoned federal buildings.


U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., wants the government to make sure buyers of federal property have the resources to clean up the buildings and keep them from turning into eyesores or health hazards that communities are eventually stuck with.


Daines had Billings’ federal courthouse in mind when he introduced his bill Friday. The federal government sold the old James F. Battin Federal Building at auction was in 2013. The federal government was getting out of the building at 316 N. 26th St., because of an asbestos hazard. The building was bought by Colorado Tire Corp. bought for $3.27 million and renamed the Kono Building.


The building was all but abandoned and quickly fell into tax delinquency, with more than $250,000 in back taxes owed on the building in the first couple years. The county was at risk of acquiring the building because of those back taxes, which would have put the burden of Kono’s asbestos cleanup on local taxpayers.


“A promise made must be a promise kept,” Daines said in a press release. “An abandoned asbestos-filled building in downtown Billings could have serious health implications. That’s why I’m taking action to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again.”


When Kono went bust, the Downtown Billings Partnership was just recovering from two major abandoned sites in the downtown area. The Northern Hotel was being brought back online. After years of disrepair, the building was becoming a downtown showpiece.


The Babcock Building was also firing up again.


Kono, became an immediate drag on downtown’s government services cooridor. Located north of the Yellowstone County Courthouse, the firve-story building it began to gather trash at its entrances.


Downtown busieness had hoped the building would contribute to the tax increment financing district used to improve downtown, said Greg Kruger of DBP. As a tax exempt federal building, the structure had contributed nothing to improvement efforts. As a private structure, Kono was expected to help out. It didn’t.


The building sold last year and is now being renovated. Once the abatement work is complete, the building’s owner, Joe Holden, plans a public open house this summer to allow curious residents — and prospective tenants — to see how far along the work has progressed.