Langley residents and the city’s mayor have deemed two vacant buildings in town a public “eye sore,” and the city council has subsequently requested an audience with the structure’s owner, South Whidbey businessman George Henny.
Mayor Tim Callison said Henny isn’t in trouble, but said the buildings have raised the “persistent” ire of neighbors as they’ve sat vacant and shuttered for about nine years. This is a chance for the public to hear what plans are in store for the buildings, and to set a deadline for when action needs to occur.
“I wouldn’t call it a summons,” Callison said. “It’s not like he’s being called to the principal’s office.”
“We appreciate the history of the building and we do respect what George is doing here, but we’d like to see it move along,” he added.
Henny, speaking to The Record by telephone from Philadelphia, Pa., says he’ll be ready to outline preliminary plans for the building to the city council and public at the Nov. 6 meeting. He’s also eager to hear what the community wants to see happen with it, as the public is invited to voice their thoughts on the building. As of now, nothing is set in stone, Henny said, though making it into a museum of Whidbey Telecom’s 110-year history is among the ideas floating around.
“Basically, we agree with the desire,” Henny said. “We want to find a home for the Little Red Building.”
Henny is the co-CEO of Whidbey Telecom, and one of the two buildings is a piece of the utility company’s history. The “Little Red Building” at the corner of Third Street and DeBruyn Avenue consists of two parts. One half was built in 1913 and formerly used as the business’ headquarters; Whidbey Tel was founded in 1908. A second half was added on in the late 1960s or early 1970s and was home to a barber shop and photography studio.
The original 1913 building was located in downtown Langley next to what is now the Rob Schouten Gallery on Anthes Avenue. The original building, along with the addition, was relocated across the street from the fairgrounds, and then to its current location due to the construction of a new fire station and Island Transit Park and Ride.
The “Little Red Building” has been there ever since.
Callison said he’s been in contact with Henny for the past two years asking about the disposition of the building, but plans have not come to fruition. Callison presented this information to the council on Sept. 18, after which they motioned to invite Henny to present about his plans at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting.
The building is subject to condemnation, dismantlement and/or disposal, as its derelict status is not in compliance with city building codes. If it did not have fencing, it would also be a safety nuisance, as its foundations are on blocks, Callison said. The council will not jump to any action yet, as they will wait to hear what Henny’s plans are.
According to former mayor Neil Colburn and former City councilman Bob Waterman, the understanding at the time was that it was a temporary move; it was agreed that the building would remain in the lot owned by the Hennys for no more than a year while plans to transform the historic building into a museum were being made.
Henny said the recession in 2008, other priorities of the family and company and questions surrounding how it would manage the building were also factors that contributed to a lack of action. He also said that more recently, efforts to bring gigabit internet to South Whidbey devoted their attention elsewhere.
“That being said, I still believe there’s a solution that can honor our past, as well as look forward to a good future in Langley.
It is possible that the newer part of the building could be dismantled to make things easier for the moving process, Henny said. One of the possible landing spots for the Little Red Building is next to the BiG GiG Center on the corner of Second Street and Anthes Avenue. Henny said some “due diligence” is necessary to determine if the building move is feasible and if can fit in the space next to the BiG GiG Center. Ultimately, he said it’s important that the museum is within walking distance of downtown Langley.
“That’s why I want to move it down there and tuck it in there,” Henny said. “It may be that the cost of redoing the structure will be cost-prohibitive. But, I don’t know that yet.”
Henny also contended that his plans have bogged down due to a lack of knowing the wishes of the city council and citizens. He said he’s made efforts to start a dialogue with council members and residents about the historic structure, but that no one has taken him up on his offers to chat.
“It’s not like I’m trying to hide from this,” Henny said. “I’m trying to engage people.”
Callison said there is added importance for progress to be made because there are several efforts being made to improve the visual look of Langley in the area, including a housing development project by Habitat for Humanity.
“We think it would give the best look for the city to have a development there and something on the corner lot,” Callison said.
The council briefly discussed the possibility of imposing fines if Henny does not meet the deadline, but will wait until after his presentation to discuss the matter further. Henny said he didn’t like or agree with the idea of fines.