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North Tonawanda History Museum awaits ruling on museum's fate

NORTH TONAWANDA — The fate of 27,000 square feet of  "city history" — approximately 100,000 donated artifacts — remains in limbo, as the North Tonawanda History Museum awaits the outcome of a foreclosure ruling.

The museum, located in the 1888 building at 54 Webster St., is filled with memories of the Lumber City's past — most donated by residents who wanted a place to preserve their family's, and their city's, history.

Several museum board members and supporters turned to the Common Council on Tuesday, asking for their support and intervention, suggesting letters of support be written to the court.

Board member Audrey Monkiewicz even asked the council to collect an annual tax from property owners to support the museum.

But time may be running out. After years of ignoring a lien on the building, the North Tonawanda History Museum was hauled into court by a private seller, who filed suit to foreclose on the museum.

Both sides appeared in State Supreme Court before Judge Richard C. Kloch on Dec. 8. He has reserved  judgment in the case, but his decision will determine what is next for the museum.

California realtor Vadim Gorobets paid $575,000 for the building in 2006 and sold it to the museum for $675,000 in 2009.

Donna Zellner Neal, the former executive director who died in March, was able to negotiate with HSBC to forgive a $352,386 mortgage on the property, claiming she and Gorobets were the victims of fraud, paying an inflated price for the building.

But Gorobets has claimed that he gave the museum a business loan of $289,252 to help the museum "pay down" the full mortgage and is still owed that money.

The museum started a gofundme/nthistory account to raise $200,000, but has raised less than $1,000 since they started the fund in August.

City Building Inspector Cosimo R. Cappozzi said he had cautioned Neal about buying the building in 2009.

"We looked at a number of buildings before they settled on this one and they were aware of what they needed to do for the building before they bought it," Cappozzi told The Buffalo News.

He told the Council that the museum is violating building codes as well, including a lack of sprinklers which were required when the building changed from a mercantile to a museum. He said a rear outside wall is crumbling and covered by tarps, which is also a violation.

Cappozzi said originally there were some sprinklers in the rear of the building, but they broke when the museum couldn't afford to heat the large building. The lack of heat caused the water meter to freeze and water lines going to the sprinklers to break. He told the News that for a time the city paid the museum's heat at a reduced city rate, but the museum didn't pay back the city.

"They cannot afford this building. They could never afford this building," said Cappozzi. "And there's nothing to stop a fire from spreading to the entire building. We advised them, before they bought the building, of all the things they would need. If this (property) is so valuable you need to protect it."

Board member Jann MacDonald said after the meeting that they need help in raising dollars and a backer to take over the mortgage and then they would like to bring in a tenant, like a coffee shop to help continue to pay the bills.

But, she said, they have already been preparing in case they lose the case. Museum supporters have also asked for the city's help if they are forced to move from Webster Street, noting they have 100,000 artifacts that would need to be moved to another location.

"You have the museum on one hand and the building on the other," said MacDonald. "The museum isn't going anywhere. We are only talking about the building."

Alderman-at-large Robert E. Pecoraro, a former museum board member who left the board after he clashed with Neal, said they need to have a professional running the organization so they would be better able to take care of these things.

"We want to do what we can, but it's not going to happen tonight," said Pecoraro, after Tuesday's meeting. "I'm sorry that they are coming at us so late."

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