A tour of the Jesse Lee Home that had been offered to a suite of state dignitaries never got further than the front gate when the group arrived on Friday afternoon to find the gate locked and the locks changed.
The tour had been arranged by Dorene Lorenz, president of the board of the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, and timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Alaska Vocational Technical Center this past weekend.
The Friends of the Jesse Lee Home had been the owners of the property until Sept. 1, when a reversionary clause in the property deed took effect and returned ownership to the City of Seward.
The locked gate unleashed a flurry of activity, with frustrated tour-goers calling city officials and employees in an effort to track down a key.
Two state representatives, Chris Tuck and Gabrielle LeDoux, had appeared for the 4 p.m. tour, soon followed by Deputy Commissioner of Labor Cathy Muñoz. A small crowd of interested Sewardites was also on the scene, including City Council Member Sharyl Seese, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Tom Swann and Jesse Lee Home preservation proponents Iris Darling and Jeff Cobble.
The conversation among some in the group quickly turned to accusations that city officials had willfully frustrated the group’s efforts to visit the property, peppered with conflicting claims about who had the keys and when the locks had been changed.
City Manager Scott Meszaros told the Seward Journal that he had asked that the locks be changed at the first Wednesday staff meeting after the property hit the city’s books again, which would have been Sept. 4.
This agrees with the recollections of Public Works Director Doug Schoessler, who told the Journal that he did not get around to the replacement until two weeks later. He estimated that he changed the locks on or around Sept. 18.
“With the change of ownership and it going back to the city it goes onto our insurance then and all of a sudden we’re liable for what’s going on there,” Schoessler said in an interview Monday. “It was just a precaution.”
Nevertheless, several members of the tour group asserted Friday that the locks had been changed in anticipation of the group’s arrival. Representative Chris Tuck made a similar assertion following a phone call with City Council Member Sue McClure.
“The harbormaster has a key and the mayor has a key and both are out of town,” Tuck said after getting off the phone. “The police department was told to change the lock and to be prepared if someone cut the chain. They knew we were coming.”
McClure denied telling Tuck any of those things.
“I never said that the mayor had a key, ever,” she said. “I said there were two people who have keys, and I said you could call the police and see if they can help, and I gave him the non-emergency number.”
Meszaros, Schoessler and Harbormaster Norm Regis all gave consistent accounts of where the keys had been. All three said that there had been two keys, one of which was out of town with Regis and the other in Schoessler’s office at the time.
Tuck did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux said Tuesday that she had gotten the impression that the city did not want the group to visit the building.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the people at the city didn’t want us to tour it,” LeDoux said in a phone interview. “Assuming that they did know about it, and you have two legislators there and you’ve got the deputy commissioner of labor there, and they wouldn’t let us in, suggests to me that they didn’t want us in.”
The confusion appears to stem from a miscommunication between the tour group and the city. Lorenz was under the impression that the city was aware of the date and time of the proposed tour, and expected to be able to access the site as in the past.
The gate had long been locked with one of the city’s universal locks, to which the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home had a key.
Lorenz said that she raised the subject with Meszaros during an August walkthrough of the building, although she acknowledges that there was no further communication with him on the subject.
“Since then our conversation has been with council members and members of [the] Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation [Commissions], and all the Seward people were talking among themselves about who was going to show up and do what,” Lorenz said.
For his part, Meszaros says that he does not recall the topic coming up during the August walkthrough, “but we were up there two and a half hours, and I don’t specifically remember her saying that. I know that I didn’t receive an email or phone call or a follow up.”
“We didn’t know about any of this,” he added. “We apologize. I really am sorry that people were put out.”
One of the keys was eventually located on Sunday, according to Meszaros and Lorenz, but Meszaros still did not authorize entrance to the structure, citing safety concerns.
“To be honest even our people shouldn’t be going in the facility” without protective gear, he said in the interview. “It’s not a safe place to be. There’s tripping hazards, there’s asbestos. There are a lot of orange-painted spots on the floor where you can fall through.”
Lorenz did not buy that explanation.
“When representatives and commissioners show up, you don’t tell them no. It’s unheard of. They just gave. They’ve got $3 million in this project, you just don’t tell them no,” she said referring to the grant dollars that the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home spent preparing to open a charter school in the building.
“We drug people through there from the executive branch and the legislative branch when that building, portions of it, should have been condemned before we braced it up,” she added. “We took them through because of who they are.”