The storm that knocked down a portion of the 100-year-old building known as the blacksmith shop Oct. 20 has created some legal questions.

One is whether the contractor breached its contract and another is whether the city’s Redevelopment Authority can take steps to stabilize the building without exposing itself to increased liability.

The building is located in the riverfront redevelopment area that’s been the centerpiece of the city’s economic development strategy the past two years, and it’s been at the heart of controversy over whether to treat it as a historic structure. A compromise between two factions of the Common Council last year allowed contractors to demolish five other buildings in its factory complex, and now, the damage there has put the future of the last standing Highway Trailer building in question.

Two bays came down during a storm last month, leaving twisted metal girders and piles of collapsed brick where the northwest corner of the building had been.

RDA chair Roger Springman explained the situation was “in the limbo stage” as of the Nov. 14 RDA meeting.

RDA member Ald. Regina Hirsch (Dist. 3) wondered whether that might spell disaster for the building.

“If we don’t make a move, we have winter upon us,” Hirsch said. “If we have a big heavy snowstorm, are we just throwing up our hands?”

The RDA had been in talks with a structural engineering firm to stabilize the building before the collapse, but after the storm, some members, including vice-chair Carl Chenoweth, were concerned if the authority took that step, it could be held responsible for any further deterioration.

“If we go forward with any kind of bracing, are we on the hook?” Chenoweth asked. “We think the issue is the contractor didn’t perform the contract properly to address this problem. He didn’t maintain the structure we told him to maintain. It’s a chess game now.”

After the partial collapse, the contractor, Earth Construction, Inc., felt it had satisfied its contract and “was not going to take any corrective action … and walk away at that point,” he said.

The city disagreed, and Springman sent the project’s bonding company a letter of contract default. The presumptive next step Springman said, is a conference call with all concerned parties to try to talk the issue through.

The RDA passed a motion Nov. 14 to contract with engineering firm Structural Integrity, Inc., to stabilize the building at a cost not to exceed $30,000. But that motion is contingent on receiving a report from the city’s attorney, Matt Dregne, and risk manager, Amy Jo Gillingham, as to whether there are legal reasons that would prevent the group from moving forward.

Earth Construction Inc., of Orfordville, was awarded the $775,000 contract in April. The RDA still owes the contractor the final payment on the contract, around $150,000.

Attorney Matt Dregne told the Hub he is working with the RDA to evaluate how to proceed. The commission brought up whether to withhold all or part of the final payment, but it has not made a decision.

The 15-day window for the bonding company to respond closes the week of Nov. 19.

At its October meeting, when the RDA was debating stabilizing the building, Chenoweth said the cost should fall to the contractor. Chenoweth, a civil engineer, said it was stipulated in the contract the blacksmith shop would be left standing.

“The bottom line is it’s his responsibility is to maintain that structure and maintain it beyond the scope of his work,” Chenoweth said at last month’s meeting. “He can’t leave us with a building that’s going to come down in six months.”

The RDA has no revenue of its own, and it would pay for the stabilization with TIF money, which would be paid back by the site’s eventual developer.

Contact Alexander Cramer at alexander.cramer@wcinet.com.