The Litch Building is a tall and once-stately presence, built in 1903, on the south-west corner of River Street and West Main Street in Enterprise. Today, some might describe it as an eyesore, but the Bowlby Stone exterior, and its long history, lend an air of dignity to the building.
McKee Brothers Investments (Todd and Andy McKee), bought the nearly 20,000-square-foot building in June of 2017 for about $170,000, and many hoped the renovation would brighten up the look of West Main — particularly those with Main Street businesses.
McKee decided to buy the building after viewing it from the upstairs of the Burnbaugh Building, just north and across River Street from the Litch Building.
“You could see its once glory, that it was once an amazing building in downtown Enterprise, and I just wanted to fix it,” he said. “I’m not afraid of hard work.”
The building started as a single-story structure in 1903 with a second story added in 1909. McKee knew he had his work cut out for him. As he told the Chieftain earlier this year, he immediately ran into unforeseen structural problems with the second floor. He also had to ask least two businesses that occupied the building to move so he could do the needed re-constuction.
Early in 2019, Greater Enterprise Main Street, a group of local business owners of which McKee is a member, applied for and received a $200,000 matching grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The state awarded McKee the grant in June.
Contrary to rumor and mistaken concern,McKee did not apply for the grant in order to pocket $200,000 to finance other local projects. This particular grant is a reimbursement grant, which means McKee can only be reimbursed upon the presentation of receipts and an inspection of the work.
McKee, through a bank and private financing, is fronting $525,000 for the project.
According to Kuri Gill, the state of Oregon’s grant administrator for the Main Street Grant and reading material from the specific grant, McKee has until June of 2022 to complete the project.
McKee had seven benchmarks listed in the grant application, which includes structural, electrical, plumbing, insulation, heating, ventilation air conditioning and facade work with a scheduled completion date of the first six benchmarks to be completed between July and October of 2019. According to the grant application, the entire project was scheduled for completion in August of this year.
That won’t happen. And there’s a good reason.
The building’s sagging second floor has proved to be more of a problem to surmount than McKee first anticipated. The sagging in that floor can be plainly seen in what looks like wall framing on the first floor, intended to keep the second floor from collapsing.
The top plate on the “framing” looks like a wriggling serpent as it supports the second floor. The building was in danger of a major collapse, McKee said.
McKee initially couldn’t find an engineer to deal with the second floor. He finally managed to twist the arm of local engineer Ralph Swinehart enough that he agreed to help. Also, part of the building is being historically restored, which requires specialized assistance.
Some time ago, McKee hired Wade Phillips, who owns Restoration Enterprises in Portland and works in the building nearly seven days a week.
“There’s only one Wade Phillips, and this is right in his wheelhouse,” McKee said. “Most people don’t get excited about working on stuff like this, but he is.”
Phillips agreed with McKee and Swinehart that if the restoration was not started in the structural guts of the building, a front section collapse was imminent.
Also, the historical renovation calls for windows, doors, etc., that must be special ordered and historically accurate. McKee already ordered some from Wood Dale Windows in Portland, a company known for its restoration work.
Of course these things take time. Along with the sagging second floor, the building was filled with trash and refuse. Tearing out unwanted or rotten woodwork also took time. The concentration of work on the interior led to some tongue wagging about McKee and his motives for purchasing the building.
Few, if any, official complaints have been filed. Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said no one officially complained to the commissioners. Gina Birkmaier, who works at Enterprise City Hall, said initially that about four people made remarks about the building looking ugly, but couldn’t remember any written complaints, and she hasn’t heard any since last summer.
McKee said detractors of the project haven’t dissuaded him from working on it.
“At some point, you have to shut out the noise,” he said. “If you look at all the projects that we’ve done, they’ve all been good for the community.”
McKee laughed when he heard rumors he was pocketing the grant funds to finance other projects.
“If you call the grant people, they’ll tell you I haven’t submitted a single draw request from that grant,” he said.
The Chieftain confirmed the statement with the grant’s administrators. He also said he does not receive any funds from the city of Enterprise or from Wallowa County to aid in the project’s completion.
McKee knows he’ll overrun original cost estimates of $500,000 by at least $100,000 to $300,000. He knows he’ll be awhile getting a return on his investment, but he isn’t too concerned.
“Our investment strategy is buy something for a real good value, real low, do much of the work ourselves and get the building producing (cash flow),” he said. “Then we’ll refinance that building, get the money we initially invested out and take that money and invest it in something else.”
McKee said the Burnaugh Building at 107 River St. that he bought and restored should put naysayer minds at ease.
“The Burnaugh Building was completely vacant and empty with nothing going on in it,” he said. “That’s historical data that should prove what we’re all about.”
Back at the Litch Building, progress is moving rapidly on the first floor. Steel posts were recently installed to help shore up the second floor and now, laminated veneer lumber is sistered to 27 cracked floor joists. The temporary support walls are soon to come down.
Plans for the Litch Building have gone through a number of changes because commercial space is harder to fill in Enterprise than other places. Current plans call for the building’s ground floor to contain a mix of small commercial and Airbnb spaces.
At this point, McKee thinks the Airbnb spaces will provide the bread and butter of the building’s income. He said that one Airbnb space in the Burnaugh Building provides more income than the rest of the spaces combined. Still, he knows the market has a saturation point.
“We haven’t found it yet, and we want to have five uniquely set-up units that are cool and funky so they can almost be a vacation destination on their own,” he said.
He added that present plans for the LItch renovation include the rooms having individual themes, such as the “Vault Room.” All the rooms will have Wallowa County themes.
The upstairs once housed 11 apartments with a community bathroom and five offices. In 1981, for unclear reasons, all rentals stopped in the building. What was left wasn’t pretty.
“There was still food in the refrigerators up here. There were couches and beds. It was really strange,” he said.
He added that the upstairs has nine massive skylights that are currently boarded up, but he plans to fix them. Although now mostly clear of refuse, photos taken at the time of purchase show an extremely cluttered area with mattresses on the floor, etc.
McKee mainly sees living spaces for young professionals occupying the second floor in the future. Why rentals? Because McKee thinks that younger professionals are in transition and aren’t as sure they want to invest in a Wallowa County home.
From previous experience, McKee knows these projects are not for the faint of heart. However, he appreciates and admires the hard work that went into constructing the building. He’s not sure if people really appreciate the original efforts to build up downtown Enterprise, but McKee calls them visionaries who saw what Enterprise could become, and he hopes to follow their trail.
McKee said that despite the raft of unforeseen difficulties, he doesn’t harbor any regrets.
“Not now, but there’s times when I did,” he said. “It’s going to be awesome and amazing when it’s done, and it’ll be nice to say I had a part in preserving it. When it’s done, it’ll completely change what downtown Enterprise looks like.”