Mess at the Mill
Alarmed community members are seeing red flags over the rebuild of the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point after resignations by foundation members, questions about accounting practices, a lawsuit from a contractor and a project manager with a criminal background.
“It’s been a comedy of errors for some time,” said former Eagle Point Mayor Bob Russell, who sold the mill to the Butte Creek Foundation for $136,000 and has resigned from a mill advisory committee because it never had a meeting in over a year.
Destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day in 2015, the 1872 grist mill, at 402 N. Royal Ave., is on the National Register of Historic Places and was the last commercially operated mill of its type this side of the Mississippi.
Hamcon Builders LLC, which is also working on the Holly Theatre renovation in Medford, filed a lawsuit March 14 against the Butte Creek Mill Foundation for $166,111.41, saying it had not been paid for extensive work on the mill project.
“If they win the suit, I’d lose the property,” said Russell, while emphasizing he’s not worried about Hamcon getting the property but is more concerned that the Eagle Point company gets paid for its work.
Russell gave the foundation 10 years to pay off the $136,000 it owes him for the mill.
Russell said he’s also concerned about the historical accuracy of the mill, such as the Butte Creek Mill sign that he says is smaller than the original, and an elevator that takes up a lot of space inside the store area.
He said he’s also concerned about finances and hiring choices.
“There are so many really troublesome things going on,” he said.
Despite the problems, the reconstruction of the mill is almost 75% complete, with most of the exterior taking shape with materials that match the original structure.
On its website, the mill says it has raised $2,124,915 of the $2.5 million needed to finish the project.
Dave Hammond, owner of Hamcon, said he doesn’t have any interest in owning the mill or surrounding properties. He just wants to get paid for the work he performed.
“I want nothing but good thoughts for the mill,” he said. “We have no desire to take anything over.”
Hammond said his company’s effort to rebuild the mill was done more to help the community than to make money, though he’d like to cover his costs.
“It was never going to be a for-profit job,” he said.
In its response to the suit filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, the foundation claimed Hamcon charged sums that were not in the original contract, failed to provide accounting records that substantiate its costs and failed to adequately perform the work.
The foundation claimed Hamcon attempted to pass off defective work or work that wasn’t actually performed, and it alleged Hamcon made false and misleading statements and that the lien was filed in a fraudulent manner.
After Hamcon stopped working on the mill Sept. 18, 2018, Adroit Construction Co. of Ashland took over for several months before the project was turned over to a project manager who works for the foundation.
Therese Hoehne, who worked at the mill before the fire, was administrative assistant from April 1 to July 23.
“I quit three weeks ago,” Hoehne said. “I could not take another minute.”
Hoehne said the problems at the mill have undermined the mill’s support in the community. She said some of the problems involved personality clashes, miscommunication and invoicing irregularities.
Hoehne, along with other community members, said they are concerned that the mill foundation hired Melissa Jonelle Jones-Hanscom as project manager.
According to court records, Jones-Hanscom, whose contractor’s license has expired, has past convictions for driving under the influence of intoxicants, refusing to take a test for intoxicants, driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest, reckless driving and interfering with a peace, parole or probation officer.
In 2016, she was arrested for allegedly spitting blood into a deputy’s eyes at the Jackson County Jail.
Jones-Hanscom acknowledged she spit at the deputy but denied she spit blood. She was convicted of felony aggravated harassment.
Jones-Hanscom said she’s not proud of spitting in the deputy’s eyes at the jail.
“I’m totally ashamed of it,” she said. “I had to publicly own my own bad behavior.”
But she said her criminal background has no bearing on her efforts to rebuild the mill, pointing out that work continues and that every effort is being made to make the new mill as faithful to the old mill as possible.
“We know where every piece of our timber comes from,” she said. “Things are going amazingly and beautifully.”
Every Thursday at 4 p.m., the community is invited to attend tours, she said.
Jones-Hanscom said she understands some community members are concerned about the progress on the mill, but she insists the project is on track and will be completed by next spring.
“There are a handful of naysayers who got pissed off at the foundation before my time,” she said. “A few people got burned by this project, and they’re coming up every week with some new issue.”
She said she no longer has a contractor’s license but said it would be a conflict of interest for her to have the license and be employed by the foundation at the same time. She said her salary is less than $40,000 a year, saying that is less than a contractor might make.
“I have a completely unblemished contractor’s license with the Oregon (Construction) Contractors Board,” she said, noting she worked in the construction industry for 10 years. According to the Contractors Board website, Jones-Hanscom has had no complaints filed against her.
The subcontractors who are hired are licensed and bonded, Jones-Hanscom said.
She described her job duties as coordinating scheduling, sending out bids, problem-solving and dealing with issues voted on by the foundation board.
Jones-Hanscom’s sister, Kim Jones, is also on the foundation board.
Another concern for Hoehne and other community members is that the foundation hasn’t filled out all the paperwork needed to qualify for a $200,000 grant from Oregon Business.
“I had red flags from the beginning about invoices filed for the doors that were incomplete, even putting the name wrong for the mill, and the address was wrong,” Hoehne said.
Nathan Buehler, spokesman for Business Oregon, said both the city of Eagle Point and his organization didn’t find enough information in the invoice documents to satisfy the grant requirements.
“I got the impression there wasn’t a lot of detail in there,” he said. “I know they’ve been working on getting better records on all these invoices.”
Because of the problems with the mill’s financial records, the city has not submitted a disbursement request for the $200,000 grant, he said.
Under the agreement with the city and Business Oregon, the project deadline was originally May 2019. Buehler said his organization can continue to extend deadlines for the city until Dec. 20, 2021, if necessary.
Don Blaser, who was vice president and temporary treasurer of the foundation board, has resigned twice because of frustration over many issues.
“It was just extremely contentious,” Blaser said. “It was a blame game after a while.”
He said there was a lack of overall planning and a lack of solid leadership with the foundation.
At the same time, he said, the mill is one of the most important buildings in Eagle Point, which should be cultivating community support and creating goodwill.
“We all who live out in that community want that place to do well,” he said. “This is a tremendous draw for downtown Eagle Point.”
Blaser said he worries about the finances for the mill, particularly after a lot of early promises to bring the project in on time and under budget.
“That sent shivers down my spine,” he said.
Blaser thinks foundation chairwoman Sue Kupillas is working hard to keep the project on track.
Hoehne also said she thinks Kupillas has done as well as possible as chairwoman of the foundation board, although Russell said foundation board members and others previously warned Kupillas about Jones-Hanscom’s record.
Kupillas said she strives to provide communication with the community while dealing with the local rumor mill.
In an interview with the Mail Tribune, Kupillas initially said Jones-Hanscom didn’t have a criminal record, but after being confronted with her past arrests and convictions, Kupillas referred any questions to Jones-Hanscom.
“I understand all the discussion going on,” Kupillas said. “In any big building project, everybody’s going to have opinions.”
The project has faced pressure to get the building enclosed, and now that it has been enclosed, workers are doing electrical, heating and air conditioning and other work, she said.
Other features, including specialized mill machinery, are still being sourced.
Kupillas, who originally signed on to the mill rebuild project to do fundraising, stands behind the work that Jones-Hanscom has done to keep the project on track.
She said Jones-Hanscom has been working with the city to clear up issues around the invoices to submit for the grant and thinks that will be resolved.
Even with some hurdles left to clear, Kupillas said the new mill should open before summer 2020, and she thinks it should remain close to the $2.5 million budget.
Kupillas said building new construction as historically accurate as possible makes this project more of a challenge than conventional construction. The beams are fastened together with wooden pegs. Specialized rough-sawn beams were fashioned, and the original mill equipment has to be duplicated. Kupillas thinks the new Butte Creek Mill sign is the same size as the original, disagreeing with Russell’s assessment that it’s smaller.
Some changes had to be made to satisfy disability access regulations such as installing an elevator in the building, she pointed out.
A meat storage locker, which was no longer used, will be turned into an exhibit room.
Unlike the original mill, the new one will have a fire-suppression system.
Debbie’s Garden, an homage to Bob Russell’s late wife, will be built next to the mill.
Kupillas acknowledged that some of the changes haven’t sat well with some people in the community.
“It isn’t the old mill,” she said. “I can’t help that.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.