Town of Bluff and Utah Diné Bikéyah agree to joint purchase of old Bluff Elementary School

The town of Bluff and Utah Diné Bikéyah have entered into an agreement to purchase the old Bluff Elementary School.

By a vote of 3-2, the Bluff Town Council approved an agreement at their September 30 public hearing. The Utah Diné Bikéyah board approved the agreement earlier in September. The agreement between the two organizations is for the joint acquisition and redevelopment of the old elementary school building.

Leading up to the town council vote, the council solicited feedback both spoken and written. Draft minutes from the town council shows a similarly equal split amongst residents who voiced their opinion on the purchase with the draft minutes, noting 18 names in favor of the acquisition and 19 against.

Town council members Brant Murray, Luanne Hook, and Jim Sayers voted for the acquisition, while Linda Sosa and Ann Leppenan voted against.

Although comments varied by individual, in essence those in favor of the purchase spoke of the opportunity for future growth the building would provide. They also mentioned the favorably price and location of the property and the importance of seizing an opportunity that may not be there in the future.

In broad terms, those against the purchase voiced concerns about the lack of detailed planning of how to pay to retrofit the building, looking past the mark on other projects, and concerns about the overall fiscal responsibility of the purchase.

The older building in Bluff became available when the San Juan School District completed its work on the newest school in the district in the fall of 2020.

The new elementary school, on the west side of Bluff, left an empty building on four acres of land located on the east side of town.

The San Juan School District accepted an offer of $307,500 from the Town of Bluff to purchase the old Bluff Elementary School at their June 2021 meeting.

Utah Diné Bikéyah is a Native American-led nonprofit organization created in 2010 to advocate for public lands. It was involved in the effort to create Bears Ears National Monument. The group sponsors a variety of projects and initiatives throughout the area.

In the agreement, Utah Diné Bikeyah expressed a desire to acquire the property for a future headquarters for its organization, with the intent to use the center for non-profit activities, including Native American arts and cultural programs and other community services. The town says they would use their portions of the building as a town hall and community center.

Proposed shared common portions of the building and grounds would exist, including parking, the kitchen, and a multi-purpose room. The agreement includes further details about conveyance, how rooms would be divided, redevelopment procedures, and other items.

At the meeting, council member Luanne Hook shared that she had lived in Bluff for 33 years and has seen opportunities come and go in that time.

“If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, it’ll go out to who knows who,” said Hook. “This is a combined effort with our Native American neighbors. They are fully in supportive of this.”

Mayor Ann Leppenan shared that her vote against the purchase came down to fiscal responsibility for the town.

“I want to make it really clear to Utah Diné Bikéyah this is not about your organization, it’s not about your mission, or what you support,” said Leppenan. “I fully support what you do. This is truly, for me, fiscal responsibility.

“We are not volunteers; the five of us are not volunteers. We are public elected officials required and charged with the duty of maintaining the health of this community, and that includes the financial health of this community.

“I feel I would be totally shirking my duty to this town of three years if I said this is a great idea.”

Council member Jim Sayers shared his support for the purchase, noting the high cost to build a new building for the town and their partner’s willingness to provide substantial fincianial support.

“The average construction cost for municipal buildings across the nation is a minimum of about $300 a square foot,” said Sayers. “If we are to get 4,380 square feet for basically nothing, of course there’s going to be upkeep costs, but the initial outlay is zero.

“If we were to acquire or purchase that at that many feet of construction, it would be over a million dollars. That’s pretty powerful for me. It outweighs a lot of expense we may have down the line.”

Council member Linda Sosa expressed concerns about tackling the enormity of the project.

“Your words are great, but this is going to take a huge amount of time...and it could easily be a money pit,” said Sosa. “I don’t have a sense that others are willing – or able even – to put in the time that’s going to be necessary, which really concerns me.”

Council member Brant Murray views the redevelopment and the addition of the Utah Diné Bikéyah arts and cultural center as a potential economic engine for the town. 

“For me the idea of doing this is not scary based on our projected cost,” said Murray. “It just makes sense to provide services that are needed for our citizens. Office space, maybe the health center, wood cutting permits.

“We could raise the standard of living here by having that center here. I think we can save our citizens money and time from travel to go do things that they could do here once this thing is fully developed.”

The board also heard from Woody Lee, Executive Director of Utah Diné Bikéyah. Ahead of the vote, Lee said if the Bluff council votes positive, Utah Diné Bikéyah will begin paying for the facility. 

“Thereafter it’s pretty much an open door to whatever both sides wish to do and then basically a whole bunch of plans in place administering the building,” said Lee. “With that, I do appreciate everybody here, and let’s make an investment on this building.”

The ten-page agreement and the proposed division of classrooms in the building can both be found online at sjrnews.com or townofbluff.org.

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