|By Tim Trainor, The Montana Standard,
ButteMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September. 27, 2008 --When the Copper King Hotel and Convention Center closes Wednesday, a business that employs 87 Montanans and funneled an estimated $21 million annually into the local economy will be no more.
The loss of such an important link in the area's economic chain -- it employed 70 to 80 full-time people -- has local business leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and government officials working to find a buyer to keep the property as a convention center.
That certainly won't happen by Wednesday, though, when the doors are locked, employees sent home and a 24-hour security team moves onto the grounds.
Pat Wills, bookkeeping manager at Copper King, said 70 to 80 full-time employees are on the payroll. A handful of seasonal workers have already been let go.
Catering manager Kacie Raybould said Friday she knows of only two employees who have landed hospitality jobs in the area Owner Ken Burningham, who purchased the property for $1.5 million in 2005, said Friday at a press conference in Butte that he will try for six months to sell the property as is.
He's asking $6 million for the 14.5-acre property. Joe Kissock of Butte is the real estate agents.
"You couldn't build another one as cheap as you can buy this," Kissock said.
Burningham said he spent more than $1 million in upgrades at the facility.
If he doesn't attract interest in the Copper King by next spring, he said he will empty the place, selling equipment, lights and furniture.
"The value is the lot, not the building anymore," said Burningham, a Seattle-area general contractor.
Marko Lucich, executive director of the Butte Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber, along with Butte-Silver Bow County, will make an effort to get the property sold and keep the area's largest convention center open.
"Obviously, there are so many issues, but I certainly hope it stays as a convention center," Lucich said. "It's a horrible loss." He said it may take a year to tally the total economic impact of losing the facility, as some of the estimated $21 million may be funneled to other area hotels and businesses.
Burningham said the Copper King is closing because it had become a losing venture.
He said for every $1 earned by the Copper King, he had to pay $1.27 in labor, insurance and energy costs.
He said the facility operated at an $800,000 net loss last year.
"Energy (cost) is just killing me," Burningham said.
Burningham said the next owner, if not a professional hotelier themselves, would need to hire one to make the Copper King profitable again.
People at Friday's gathering offered ideas on saving the 30-year-old structure.
Some thought Montana Tech may be interested; others said to contact state agencies looking for bigger office space and cheaper rent.
Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Paul Babb said tax abatement programs could be available to a buyer if they plan to make improvements to the site.
Still, they are prepared to move Butte forward without it.
"We can't let emotions overtake common sense," said Lucich. "If (Burningham) gets an offer he can't refuse, it could become anything." -- Reporter Tim Trainor may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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