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A Hole Lot of Uncertainty
August 11th, 2008

Federal government courthouse funding uncertainty could leave Market Street, Salt Lake City without Port O'Call and a giant hole in downtown Salt Lake City for years to come.
Market Street Salt Lake City
hole in Market Street, Salt Lake City

Arguably Salt Lake City's most famous bar, located in historic Shubrick Building, will be demolished as part of the new Federal Courthouse expansion. This has been the plan, but far from the reality, leaving Port O' Call and the building owners in a state of limbo for nearly five years.

When residents consider downtown Salt Lake City nightlife, Port O' Call is top of the list. For nearly two decades Port O' Call has been known for crowds lining up out the door waiting to get into one of the hottest places in town. While surrounding bars have changed hands in ownership with changing fads of the day, Port O' Call has remained a Salt Lake City living institution. This begs the question: Why were the original Federal Courthouse plans changed to include Port O' Call for demolition?

Port'O Call Salt Lake City
Port'O Call Salt Lake City

The simple answer to this question is that after post 9/11 considerations the Federal Marshall determined that the area needed an added level of protection against terrorist threats. Therefore, the decision was made to raze Shubrick so the new courthouse could be recessed more from both State and Main Street. According to the Government Services Administration an environmental impact study apparently never took the long-term economic damage to downtown Salt Lake City into account, when making this decision; as far as Utah Stories could find, all studies that were conducted never included the demolishing absence of the Shubrick building and Port O' Call into consideration.

According to GSA, they conducted a supplemental environment impact study once the decision was made to include Shubrick, however not included in this study was an economic impact analysis, which already appears to be a significant detriment not factored into their studies for such a long drawn-out building process.

Currenly GSA is in their sixth-year of acquisition and demolition. Funding was appropriated by Congress for acquisition and design but not construction. Thus far GSA has paid out over $600,000 in relocation fees to former tenants. City Weekly, formerly on the Shubrick block, received $46,000 for relocation. The Galley, a former coffee shop, received an astounding $126,000 to relocate. Apparently, the Galley owners kept the money rather than spending it on actual business relocation.

Finally nearing completion of the acquisition process (sauf Shubrick), GSA says they have no funding for construction and they can say with certainty that there will be no construction progress in fiscal year 2009. Therefore, it will be at least April 2010 before construction could begin. That is only if the Salt Lake City Courthouse expansion received a high priority designation by the Courts and GSA.

Utah Stories has made a request to GSA to obtain a copy of their 250-page-report outlying how and why they choose Market Street and State for the site for courthouse expansion, but it could be weeks that our GRAMMA (freedom of information request) is granted. Comparing recent modern Federal Courthouses projects to what is proposed on Market Street, the site seems a poor choice.

Denver Federal Courthouse
Denver Federal Courthouse

According to former Denver resident, Eric Pettee, Denver's very secure Federal Courthouse is beautiful, yet "locked-down like a fortress." Which doesn't exactly go well with Salt Lake City's burgeoning night-life in the Market Street area.

Obtaining a big picture look as to what the study that determined the decision entailed, has turned out to be one of the most difficult and investigations Utah Stories has attempted. After nearly one month of speaking to groups such as the Utah Heritage Foundation, The Government Services Administration and Port O' Call, answers remain elusive and disjointed. Apparently this derth of articles and updates is due to a lack of public involvement. Kirk Huffaker of the Utah Heritage Foundation has said that he has been working on this project for years, but unlike other historic projects the public has not been very interested. Recently, the courthouse block has had one bit of progress that the local media has covered extensively.

Salt Lake City residents have been fascinated by the move of Odd Fellows Hall. An incredible undertaking: the four story 100-year-old brick building has been all but rebuilt. Steel structural reinforcements have been added, all windows have been reinforced with bricks; all so it can be picked up, rotated 180 degrees and transported across the street. The price tag for this Federal government funded operation: $6-$7 million, plus the cost of acquiring Oddfellows which as been estimated between $8 -$10 million. Once the move is complete GSA will sell Oddfellows Hall, and be lucky to recover half of their investment.

While Odd Fellows is a beautiful building, its economic impact as a bar, office or restaurant doesn't match that of Port O' Call, located in the Shubrick Building.

Oddfellows Hall Structural Reinforcements
Oddfellows Hall Structural Reinforcements

So why wasn't the decision made to keep Shubrick and raze Odd Fellows instead, saving at least $6 million of taxpayer money? Not to mention the untold millions in economic impact. Saving Shubrick and Port O'Call was the plan just six years ago as Government Services Administration (GSA) believed they had nearly finalized their design. These designs were a result of eight years of work and study by GSA working with Salt Lake City SHPO (state historic preservation officer)-- as well as a largely absent public community-- in hearings on how to best proceed with the expansion of the Federal Courthouse expansion on Main Street. While Shubrick was still not part of the plans in 2003, Kent Knowley, (owner of Port O'Call and the Shubrick Building), decided to fight back against the impact the disastrous project would have on his business.

Knowley understood that with a potential 10 year construction timeline, and his parking facilities gone, Port O' Call would lose a huge number of customers. For this reason he filed a federal lawsuit against GSA, which according to Janette Knowley, his wife, "has gotten them nowhere."

Part two of this story is about the Government Services Administration's Battle against Port O'Call owners the Knowleys and how they don't believe that the project will ever see completion in its current form.

You can also read our recent blog entry on this article about the ongoing theme of historic preservation and government projects infringing on personal property rights. (read it here) This topic will be addressed in-depth in a future story in an interview with Utah Heritage Foundation Executive Director, Kirk Huffaker.

Your Opinion Counts: Reader Comments

Add to the discussion by posting your comments using the form below

Clint Jensen

It's nice to hear that someone is paying attention to this story, the fed's have been dragging this out for over 12 years now, and still no concrete plans! I have been working at Port-O-Call for over 15 years now and have been appalled at the way that the GSA has handled this so called project.

There still is no evidence that they will ever buy the Port, contrary to the stories that everyone hears. Why has there still been no offer made or any significant contact between the GSA and the landlords of the building? You would think that at least negotiations would have to take place in order to move this thing forward, but to my knowledge still nothing and we at the Port have had to withstand years and years of rumors that we are going away, this is bad for business as you might imagine.

The GSA is an agency that the public has very little knowledge of and they are the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars in the country, yet they are never questioned or investigated by anyone. There utter incompetence alone should put this branch of the government into the spotlight and make the public aware of the ghastly way that projects like these are undertaken.

I am not against them building new buildings -- they should -- but why can't they do it in a professional manner like the rest of the contracting world? If this were a private contractor, everything would have been not only completed by now, but handled in a respectful, clear and fair manner. Just another glimpse into what our government has become, people justifying their jobs by making bad decisions and at the same time looking like heroes when they come along and fix it, all the while flushing untold amounts of money down the toilet!! Yep, I am pretty sure that the old Port will be around for a long time waiting for the GSA to get a clue as to what they even attempting to do, so let's all go and have some cocktails!!!

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