No bidders, no sale

By Charley Najacht

S.D. School and Public Lands commissioner Ryan Brunner welcomed the audience to the STAR Academy auction last Wednesday and explained the ground rules. There were no takers for the $2.34 million minimum price set by the state.

It was over before they knew it for the packed  audience in the commissioners’ room at the Custer County Courthouse last Wednesday, Oct. 18.

The highly-anticipated public auction of the former STAR Academy’s  173.9  acres and 26 of its buildings ended quickly when S.D. School of Public Lands land agent Mike Cornelison failed to get an opening bid of $2.34 million after three tries.

The amount of money is what the state Board of Appraisers placed as a value on the entire former academy grounds and could not be sold for less at the auction.

Now the ball is back in the governor’s court, according to School and Public Lands commissioner Ryan Brunner, who conducted the meeting and explained the ground rules prior to the auction.

“We’ll have to ask the governor’s office how they want to proceed,” Brunner said. “What do you do with the buildings? There is so much to repair and maintain.”.

State officials said publicly prior to the auction that it costs $500,000 annually to maintain the buildings on the property, which  Brunner said had an appraised value of $1 million.

The half million dollar annual maintenance cost is one of two factors that may have steered prospective bidders away from this auction, according to District 30 State Rep. Tim Goodwin.

“The two biggest things were the annual utility and maintenance cost of $500,000 and the fact that nobody knows what the real estate taxes on the property would be if they purchased it,” Goodwin said.

“It has never been on the tax rolls before,” he added.

Goodwin was one of a handful of state legislators who made a last-ditch effort to delay the scheduled Wednesday auction, citing six reasons to do so.

They wanted “an open and transparent discussion” in public on the property. Weak interest in the property was cited and “new state uses have been brought forward and need to be explored.”

State Sen. Neal Tapio of Watertown said, “A life skills training center could be a valuable tool for drug court judges as they confront the meth addiction issue where offenders need to be removed from a toxic home environment.”

He and Goodwin agreed that the marketing of the property by the state left something to be desired.

“They didn’t even have a sign in front of the property that it was for sale,” Goodwin said.

He, along with fellow District 30 Rep. Julie Frye-Mueller and Tapio and several Rapid City state representatives, sent out a news release Monday, Oct. 16, two days before the scheduled auction, requesting that the auction be postponed.

It turned out that wasn’t possible unless the governor’s office cancelled it, and it refused.

There were only three bidders who registered for the Oct. 18 auction and none raised their hand at the opening bid request.

“It was a good day for the state of South Dakota,” said Tapio. “The people want open and transparent government. This was a closed process that was pushed through.”

“Whether it was valid or invalid, it had the air of insider dealing and the people are tired of that process,” Tapio said.

“I am absolutely giddy over this,” said Frye-Mueller. “The people won today.”

“This was totally unexpected. I thought for sure it would be sold today,” said Candy Snyder who was operations manager at the academy from 1996 to January 2016.

“Hopefully, something will still happen in the next several months. I would like to see something happen that is beneficial to Custer County,” she said.

Snyder is now director of operations for the state Department of Corrections in Pierre.