Testimony by Alan Nicholson
Federal Building in Helena, Montana
February 17, 1998

My name is Alan Nicholson. I have lived in Helena since 1970 and for most of that time I have been a real estate developer and property manager here and in Billings. Most of our properties are in downtown locations. I am a believer in urban development and redevelopment. I am a former chair of the Montana Board of Public Education, a past president of the Helena Chamber of Commerce and the immediate past president of the Montana Ambassadors, a group of state business leaders appointed by the governor to make Montana a better place to work and live. I believe government is our collective responsibility, that it is what we do together for the common good and that we should do it well. My wife and I serve in many public arenas and contribute very significantly to federal, state and local taxes. As it turns out, I have land and buildings which would be suitable for a new federal building in the downtown area, but I agree with other community leaders that it is in the best interests of our town for the Federal offices to stay where they are. I have been an outspoken advocate of that position.

I am disappointed and dismayed by the behavior of the General Services Administration which apparently intends to ignore executive orders issued by every president since Carter, to ignore the interests of the Helena community and its elected officials, to ignore the protocols of fair play and good business and to ignore the best interests of the government they serve.

I believe the executive orders are quite clear in their mandate to assist central cities to remain economically strong by locating, federal offices in the downtown areas whenever reasonably possible. Certainly this city did much to encourage the Federal Building to locate in its central business district by building roads, clearing land and co˙2Dlocating other public facilities such as the city library and the neighborhood center. Now, for no apparent good reason, GSA would not only like to vacate their present building, but move entirely out of the downtown area.

The city commission and other public bodies are on record and in agreement that it is in the community's best interests to have the Federal offices stay put. Everyone realizes that there are problems requiring remediation at the present site and that certain functions of ; government may need to locate elsewhere in order to serve effectively and efficiently.... If the collective best interests of all parties are to be served, everybody has to give a little.... But GSA has routinely rejected efforts to compromise and negotiate. Even before any definitive request for proposals for a Federal Building in Helena, GSA asked the city to extend the boundaries suitable for location of the Federal Building well beyond the central business district.

Ordinary protocols of fair play and good business are out the window where GSA is concerned. The owners of the existing building found it necessary to publish a hefty volume to set the record straight after the half truths and outright breeches of verity (damned lies) were spread about by GSA officials.. So far as I know, GSA has not responded either to dispute the owner's effort to set the record straight or to apologize for playing fast and loose with the facts.

I submitted an alternative site to GSA in the central business district in the event that a reasonable solution could not be reached between GSA and the present owner. GSA thereupon publicly proclaimed that my site was not suitable and was polluted. I asked for an apology from GSA to which they responded "It is common knowledge of Helena citizens that the Great Northern site was once used as a garbage dump." I pointed out that we had the benefit of two independent environmental studies which found that the site was neither polluted nor a garbage dump. In a subsequent letter, after my continued request for an apology, GSA denied ever having said it! Letters documenting this exchange are attached for the record. One does not expect a campaign of disinformation by the government in an area so far removed from the usual standards of political intrigue and national consequence.

All of this tends to sour one's respect for government at a time when those of us who still have vestiges of respect for government exist in ever decreasing numbers.

What should GSA do?

They should proclaim that they will first exhaust all reasonable efforts to stay in their present building. If negotiations break down or this becomes otherwise impossible, they should explain, within the constraints of protecting the rights of the private parties involved, precisely why it is necessary to move including all pertinent laws, statutes, ordinances, regulations and other government ornaments by which they are bound. They should then exhaust all possibilities to remain in the boundaries of the central business district within the procedures described in the executive orders pertaining to location of federal offices. If this proves impossible and after full explanation why, they should work with the city to locate in a mutually agreeable place.

Many of us have wondered why GSA has acted so badly, why they have been so covert and so arbitrary and why they have behaved as though they are under siege by an enemy. Many theories have been batted about including unholy alliances between the administration and large developers, some political favor in need of repayment, a rebellion by GSA against government itselfon and on some theories have even more sinister implications. The simple truth is that the behavior of GSA in this matter is so without a reasonable explanation that it begs a gum explanation.

For myself, I believe it is a combination of ignorance stemming from unchecked bureaucratic power and a determination to serve the wishes of local federal department heads who want new digs, executive orders and local needs be damned.

While I hope GSA, after this hearing, will behave more appropriately and in keeping with good public policy, I have no faith in it. And this lack of faith from ordinary folks like me, who believe in government and want it to work, should scare the living hell out of folks like you who have dedicated a substantial part of your short tenure on earth to this fragile experiment we call American democracy. It is failing.