County: CREATE, tenant, violated lease allowing public to use showers

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Sept. 9 but has been updated, and has been removed from the paywall in an effort to combat misinformation on social media. 

By Brandi Makuski

A tenant of the county-owned 1039 Ellis St. had been offering free showers to community members, but now they’ve been ordered to stop because it violates their lease.

One Big Tent, a conglomeration of several churches in the area that help connect people and resources, has an office in CREATE’s The IDEA Center, and at some point opened the building to offer, at its peak, over 50 showers a week to the area homeless, which OBT refers to as “neighbors.”

The program
(One Big Tent)

“The shower ministry was a big hit,” said OBT in a statement on social media. “Every human deserves to be clean and have clean clothes. While the YMCA provides showers at a low cost, One Big Tent was able to provide showers (and towels and cleaning products) at no cost to our neighbors.”

County leaders say once they learned about the situation, they became concerned over safety and liability issues. Portage Co. issued a cease and desist order on Aug. 29 against CREATE, which is the primary tenant of 1039 Ellis St. although it has several member-tenants who share working space in the building.

The county’s reaction

County Facilities Director Todd Neuenfeldt’s department manages the property.

“We got a call asking to fix the showers, which I thought was weird. So I asked why they were using the showers, and that’s when we found out,” Neuenfeldt said. “It was news to us because that’s not allowed in their lease.”

Portage Co. Chairman Al Haga said the shower room is a leftover feature from earlier uses of the building. The building at 1039 Ellis St. was constructed in 1928 and was home to Weber Tackle Co. before it was repurposed as a bank, a fitness center, and a daycare facility for the children of employees at the former Noel Group before it was acquired by the county.

Haga said the shower system hasn’t been maintained because the county has not decided on a permanent use for the building, or if it should be razed.

Residency in 1039 Ellis St. was never meant to be permanent for CREATE, which moved into the space in 2016. With the rechristening as The IDEA (Innovators, Designers, Entrepreneurs and Artists) Center, the building offered co-working space for startups that otherwise had no physical address, office infrastructure, or lacked access to computers or other technology.

(Courtesy Portage Co.)

The Center was designed to help fill an expected gap in young professionals over the next decade.

County Executive John Pavelski said shower use is not permitted in the lease that CREATE has with the county because it’s not covered by the county’s insurance. It also increases liability and utility costs for county taxpayers, he said.

According to the lease, building use is “confined to…development of small businesses, support of entrepreneurship, support of community development projects, workforce training, arts and entertainment programs and classes and meetings in furtherance of these goals.”

The cease and desist letter was sent to CREATE by Corporation Counsel David Hickethier, the county’s lawyer.

“The hot water heater went out so they submitted a work order, and we said, ‘What do you need a water heater for?’ And they said, ‘For the people taking showers.’ And that’s when we’re like, ‘What?” Haga said.

“They didn’t ask if they could do this, and we weren’t aware they were doing this, so we don’t know if it’s been happening for a year or what,” he added. “We’ve had a lot of issues come up with this we’ve discussed internally — but the biggest issue we have is liability. If somebody slips and falls, we could be held liable.”

Haga said while he doesn’t follow social media, he’s heard about some online comments saying the cease and desist order was “awfully abrupt.”

“It’s not abrupt, and there shouldn’t be any surprise, because we have a lease; the lease is very clear on what you can and can’t do in the building,” he said.

CREATE’s lease expires at the end of 2023, Haga said, when the organization moves into the former convent building at 1300 Maria Dr.

The press coverage

OBT put out its response to the county’s cease and desist order on social media. Following the Metro Wire’s initial story on Sept. 9, WAOW published a two-minute, 30-second video showing some people who were adversely affected by the program’s closure.

The story also claims that the news station couldn’t reach anyone at the county, and did not reference the lease, or the violation.

Haga said WAOW never contacted him about the issue. Pavelski said the same.

“I wish they’d have sent something to my office instead of Corp. Counsel (the county’s lawyer), because I never saw [the news outlet’s request],” Pavelski told the Metro Wire on Sept. 15.

Pavelski said while the county’s cease and desist may “seem harsh,” it’s their answer to a contract violation that leaves the county open to a lawsuit.

“We have a lease with CREATE, and CREATE violated the lease; a part of the lease was to not allow showers over there because that creates liability for the county,” he added.

Pavelski said in order to allow shower use, the county’s insurance company would have required a number of upgrades, safety systems, and some kind of tracking on shower use. A county-owned shower room needs to be overseen by the county in some way, and can’t be used by just anyone, Pavelski said.

“We had no system in place to make sure it was being used properly, or that nobody was in trouble. CREATE should have contacted us to ask to discuss the issue. That never happened. That’s why we had to cover the county’s tail from a lawsuit or something else blowing up, which is why we sent the cease and desist order. I understand there’s a potential need and we’re not trying to be uncompassionate, but you have to think of the safety and security for all Portage County residents.”

Pavelski said he welcomes a meeting with CREATE and/or OBT to help identify a solution — if they’re willing.

Maggie Marquardt, director of CREATE, has not responded to a request for comment.