Photo by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star
Since being condemned in January 2020, the Wesch-Oak building at 717 North River Street has been surrounded by barricades.
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – A potential new chapter in the Wesch-Oak building saga – and not a final chapter – was teased during Communications from the Public at the March 1 Hot Springs City Council meeting, when former Hot Springs resident Ron Eastep came to the microphone and expressed his interest in buying the condemned downtown sandstone structure and saving it from its planned demolition.
Eastep, who graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1972, still owns property in Hot Springs and has been a Black Hills area entrepreneur for many years. For the past 30 years, he has owned and operated a seasonal restaurant and gift shop in Keystone called Red’s Chicken House & BBQ.
In a phone interview with Eastep last Friday, March 5, he elaborated a bit more on what he hopes to do with the Wesch-Oak building, should he be able to strike a deal with the building’s current owner and the City of Hot Springs, which is currently considering awarding one of three sealed bids to tear the building down.
To revisit some of the previously written chapters of the Wesch-Oak’s story:
• Located at 717 N. River Street, the building was built in 1893 and is considered to be one of the oldest sandstone structures still standing in the community.
• Also known as the Mower House, the building has been mostly vacant for the past 20 to 30 years. Prior to that, the building served as a boarding house in Hot Springs’ early days, but in later years, transitioned into an auto repair shop.
• The building was first condemned by the City of Hot Springs in 1994. A local grassroots organization that became known as S.O.S. (Save Our Sandstones) worked to raise funds and saved the building from demolition. The S.O.S. then sold the building in 2001 to Paul Amundson who set out to restore the building and began working on it himself.
• Amundson eventually sold it to its current owner, which is the non-profit known as Hot Springs Citizens for Progress, which lists Robert Johnson of Arizona as its Principal Officer.
• In January 2020, the building was condemned by the City of Hot Springs following an Inspection Warrant that was executed in part to ensure the building’s stability in relation to the pending Hwy. 385 road reconstruction, along with concerns by the adjoining landowner whose building is attached to the Wesch-Oak.
• During that January 2020 inspection, which was the first inspection performed since 2013, it was determined by Albertson Engineering there had not been any improvements to the building’s condition and that it had deteriorated to a point that required “immediate evacuation of the structure by all inspection participants, due to imminent danger to life.” The area around the building was then barricaded off to prevent pedestrians from accessing the sidewalk in front of the building.
• Over the past year, the city solicited proposals from across the state in hopes of an individual or group who would step forward with an acceptable plan that would include purchasing the condemned building at a Sheriff’s Sale and then stabilizing its foundation and facade to a level of acceptance by the S.D. Department of Transportation, which would allow them to move forward with the letting of bids on the Hwy. 385 reconstruction project, slated to happen around Sept. 2021.
• One proposal was presented to the City Council on Dec. 7, 2020, by a group known as WORK, LLC, but it was denied by the council due to their uneasiness that the group, led by Uriah Luallin, would be able to fulfill the requirements to stabilize the building prior to the DOT’s hoped-for bid-letting timeline. At that same meeting, the council unanimously approved Resolution 2020-33 to Abate Nuisance of the Wesch-Oak Building, which paved the way for the city to put out an RFP (Request For Proposals) to demolish the building.
• At the council’s Feb. 16, 2021, meeting, the city held a bid opening for the Wesch-Oak Building Demolition Services. A total of three bids were submitted, including Heinert’s Landscaping of Hot Springs for $74,000 which includes removal and saving of the front and back sandstone blocks; Veit of Minneapolis, Minn., for $241,500 plus an additional bid of $281,300 total which includes stabilizing the facade; and, RCS Construction of Rapid City for $183,000 for the complete demolition plus an additional $89,000 to stabilize the facade.
Eastep stated at last week’s city council meeting on March 1 that he had been in contact with both the building owner, Robert Johnson, and Rich Zacher with the SD DOT, and feels there is adequate time for him to step in now to save the building from being demolished.
In the interview with Eastep last Friday following the city council meeting, he said he found out about the Wesch-Oak’s planned demise only recently through a discussion with City Councilmember Debra Johnston, who has been a proponent of saving the Wesch-Oak even before she was appointed to her council seat last July.
Upon learning more about the situation, Eastep made arrangements to inspect the building himself last week and is hiring his own engineer to inspect it this week. Based on his own observations, Eastep feels the building can be stabilized rather easily with his own equipment, while also utilizing some of his own materials, which includes several hundred 8-inch x 16-inch x 20-foot wood beams he acquired many years ago in a salvage sale and demolition of multiple dry storage buildings in the former town of Igloo.
Eastep added that he has also gained support of several other individuals in Hot Springs who have since reached out to him and offered their assistance, including Uriah Luallin who had presented his plans to save the Wesch-Oak at the aforementioned Dec. 7, 2020, council meeting.
One of Luallin’s contentions in his proposal was that he believed the Anderson Engineer’s report about the dangerous condition of building was way overstated. Eastep said he believes this to be the case as well, and is confident that a second opinion from his own engineer will help convince the DOT and the City of Hot Springs that stabilizing the building can be an easier fix than previously perceived.
Should that be the case, Eastep said he has already come to somewhat of an agreed upon price with Johnson to purchase the building from him directly, and than also pay the back taxes of around $9,500, which would give him clean title to the building. The biggest financial hurdle then would be getting the City of Hot Springs to agree to forgiving the $74,000 lien against the property, which was the result of the city having to demolish another of Johnson’s downtown North River Street buildings a few years ago.
If all things then go as planned, Eastep said he feels he could realistically stabilize the foundation in time to still meet the DOT’s bid letting deadline. However, he said he has looked into purchasing the trusses needed to fully replace and repair the roof, but those materials may not arrive until later this year.
When reached for comment about Eastep’s plans, Hot Springs Mayor Bob Nelson said the city has not seen his engineering plans. Nelson expressed skepticism that Eastep would be able to meet the July 1 deadline set by the SD DOT, which is when they are requiring an engineer’s certification that the building is either secure or removed so that they could move forward with a September bid letting. Anything less than that would jeopardize the timeline of the planned Hwy. 385 reconstruction project, which Mayor Nelson said he did not foresee the council being willing to gamble on, considering the project has already been delayed numerous times for other reasons.
In explaining his motivations for attempting to buy the Wesch-Oak, Eastep said he has been very fortunate in his life with his various business ventures. Since he does not have a lot of relatives, his goals later in life, including after he died, included somehow giving back to the community of Hot Springs. When her heard about a potential historic sandstone having to be destroyed, he decided that this could be his way of giving back to the town where he grew up.
While his current plans only include saving the building, it is his hope that an organization similar to the S.O.S. from the 1990s could be revived and then take it from there, by working to find a suitable function for the building, which he said, could include remodeling the upstairs into apartments and then a potential business on the main floor. But those are things which would happen well down the road and after the road construction in front of the building would be completed.
Despite Eastep’s announcement coming very late in the process of the city’s plans to demolish the building, it was stated at a city council meeting last December that it was possible to reverse the process. At that meeting, Dec. 7, 2020, meeting, City Attorney Garland Goff pointed out that since the decision to abate the nusiance was being made by resolution, the council had the power to reverse the action, prior to the building actually coming down.
Goff described the passage of the resolution as “turning on a switch” to begin the process of soliciting bids for demolition. However, if by a “miracle” someone of great wealth stepped forward and was able to perform the needed improvements to save the building in a quick timeframe, “the switch could be turned off.”