Jesse Lee Home project moving forward

This old piano used to be played by possibly generations of children who lived in the old Jesse Lee Home. Photos of the students sit atop it at the Balto School office in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.

This old piano used to be played by possibly generations of children who lived in the old Jesse Lee Home. Photos of the students sit atop it at the Balto School office in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.

Heidi Zemach for SCN -

Progress is apparently being made between the City of Seward administration, Seward City Council, and representatives of the nonprofit group, Friends of Jesse Lee Home toward the sale and transfer of city land to the FJLH for its building renovation project. After many years of not seeing eye to eye on the proposed renovation project, things have changed with a better-organized group now relatively well-funded through its own statewide lobbying efforts. With $12 million already banked toward future renovation and construction efforts, both parties are apparently now in agreement that transferring the historic city property to the nonprofit would be in the best interest of all. But not before Friends of Jesse Lee agrees to first address important structural issues that could haunt the city should the project fail, such as stability of the building, and environmental abatement of paint, asbestos and other hazards.

Friends of Jesse Lee and city administrators recently concluded private meetings on the topic of a land transfer, and presented the issue to the City Council at a work session May 27th.

Kirsten Vesel, the executive director of Friends of Jesse Lee Home, made the public case for the city transferring the property over to the nonprofit soon. She pointed to a new economic impact study it commissioned by C&S Management Associates, of Anchorage, covering the construction of the school, and its annual operations. The study claims that the construction will create 127 jobs, many of which should be local, and $21.2 million in economic activity, which would have a ripple effect in Seward, Kenai Peninsula, and the Anchorage Metropolitan areas.  Based on 75 students enrolled there upon opening, there would be 21 local jobs created, and $2.9 million in economic impact to the Kenai Peninsula, the study states. When enrollment grows to 150 students, the school would support 31 local jobs and have an $4.1 million economic impact.



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The estimated project budget is for $18.5 million in renovation and construction costs, which leaves a $6.5 million shortfall. To make up difference, the nonprofit hopes to obtain a low-interest loan for historic buildings, which is contingent on the transfer of the site to FJLH, Vesel said.

If the city didn’t move forward soon, and the grants that the nonprofit had already acquired based on the assumption of acquiring the historic site fall through, she said, the city would face the prospect of having to demolish the building on its own, and all of the cost and hazards associated with that job in order to sell it to another party. She also suggested that the city might be liable for some funds already spent on the effort.

Friends of Jesse Lee estimates it would cost $216,000 for HAZMAT abatement, $105,000 for site preparation, $100,000 for demolition, and $316,000 for utilities upgrades—the latter being money the project currently has, and could get started working on this summer. Friends of Jesse Lee is still hoping to acquire the property, which is valued at over $600,000 for $2 dollars, in exchange for the effort it puts into those renovations.

The historic orphanage site sits on prime real estate, high on a hill overlooking Seward and Resurrection Bay, and the land has been suggested for a number of other uses, including affordable private or public housing, particularly by the late council member Vanta Shafer.

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