CRYSTAL LAKE – A half-vacant government building expansion that critics derided as a bad idea may find redemption as a central location for agencies working to improve the lives of McHenry County residents.
Occupants soon will start to move in to the 22,000-square foot annex to the McHenry County Mental Health Board’s headquarters in Crystal Lake. The McHenry County Community Foundation plans to relocate May 1 from Woodstock to the 620 Dakota St. building, and the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. is expected to follow suit from its current location at a business office just next door. And more are coming, Mental Health Board Executive Director Scott Block said.
Past Mental Health Board leadership built the expansion anticipating future growth that never took place, leaving new board members and leadership trying to find ways to fill it in as revenue-neutral a way as possible.
While the limited amount the law allows the board to charge will not come close to defraying the bonds that are still being paid off, Block said the expansion could serve to centralize like-minded agencies and bring them together into a hub serving the people of McHenry County.
“I feel this will be a welcome use of the building, and foster some bigger-picture collaborative efforts to help more people along the way,” Block said.
The board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee next month will start reviewing other applications from agencies wanting to occupy the dozen or so offices that will remain after the community foundation and the EDC move in.
The expansion, approved by a Mental Health Board and executive leadership that has almost completely changed since, has become something of a financial albatross around its neck.
Board members in 2009 pushed for the expansion, arguing that it ran out of space at its 8,000-square-foot headquarters. It funded the project to build the expansion and renovate its existing space – with $4 million in federal economic stimulus bonding authority granted to the McHenry County Board to help get people back to work in the midst of the Great Recession.
The County Board approved the bonds in 2010 over objections from members who questioned expanding government during a severe economic downturn, and from several agencies that receive funding through the Mental Health Board. The agencies argued that the Mental Health Board had far exceeded its primary mission to disburse property tax revenue to them, and that the money to repay the bonds would do much more good if given to them.
Opponents’ concerns were soon justified, because decreasing property values shrank the board’s budget, 96 percent of which comes from local property taxes. The Mental Health Board’s staff, which was about 50 full-time equivalents when the expansion was built, stands at 12 today.
But the federal laws that created the economic stimulus bond program place significant limits on what can be done with the building. The Mental Health Board can lease space only to fellow government or not-for-profit agencies. It cannot charge traditional rent, but can charge for an occupant's share, calculated by square foot, for utilities and maintenance. Occupants are in charge of purchasing their own supplies.
The location is an ideal one for the McHenry County Community Foundation, a philanthropic group that raises and directs funds to worthy community projects, Executive Director Robin Doeden said. While the agency has no problem with its current location at the BMO Harris Bank on Woodstock Square, many of the nonprofits it works with are located in the Crystal Lake and McHenry area.
Doeden said having many service groups under one roof, requiring a “walk down the hall” rather than a car ride, may prove beneficial.
“I really think this is going to become a crucial hub for agencies and services for the entire county,” Doeden said.
The Mental Health Board's administrative offices now occupy the first floor of the building expansion, and its original 8,000-square-foot facility is now home to three separate mental health agencies and the Mental Health Board’s 501(c)3 support organization. Those agencies also pay occupancy fees.
The bonds that financed the expansion will be paid off in 2024, but they are callable without penalty as of December 2018, Block said.