Atascadero Printery taken off the auction block — for now

The vacant Printery — one of Atascadero’s oldest and most treasured landmarks — was badly damaged in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake.
The vacant Printery — one of Atascadero’s oldest and most treasured landmarks — was badly damaged in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. David Middlecamp

Just days away from a potential sale, the San Luis Obispo County Tax Collector’s Office pulled the Atascadero Printery Building from this year’s public auction of tax-defaulted properties, to the relief of a local nonprofit scrambling to find a way to buy the historical building.

The Printery was scheduled to go to public auction Saturday.

The building, built in 1915, is one of Atascadero’s earliest structures and a registered historical landmark completed by city founder E.G. Lewis. It has been shuttered since being damaged in the 2003 San Simeon earthquake and is now $244,000 deep in delinquent taxes, after being purchased by local developer-turned-felon Kelly Gearhart and becoming one of several properties listed in his bankruptcy case.

Gearhart was convicted in May 2014 of fraud and money laundering after scamming investors out of $20 million in a real estate scheme.

The Atascadero Printery Foundation is looking to give the building new life as a community center for youth sports and recreation, a theater and other public activities. Karen McNamara, co-chair of the Atascadero Printery Foundation, has said the nonprofit has for months been seeking to either find a buyer for the building who shares the same community vision for the property, or to begin their own fundraising efforts.

The 19,354-square-foot building has an estimated value of just over $1.3 million, including assessed value and back taxes, according to figures from the county Tax Assessor’s Office.

On Wednesday, county tax division manager Gordon Eiland said state law requires counties to offer tax-defaulted properties for sale within four years of the time the property becomes subject to sale for non-payment, which is within five years of default. The Printery defaulted in July 2008, Eiland said, making it subject to sale in July 2013.

However, because it is still within the four-year period ending July 2017, County Tax Collector Jim Erb has the discretion to keep it off the list for one more year. Such a move is not typical, but exceptions can be made in cases where a property owner has several properties in default, if there’s a potential larger use for the property, or if a property owner is caught up in bankruptcy court.

The county announced in February that the building would be going to auction this weekend. In a prepared statement Wednesday, Erb said he felt it was in the best interest of the county and Atascadero residents to pull the Printery from the list and give the foundation time to determine its strategy.

“One of the reasons (it was posted in February) was to force some kind of action, and I think that’s served its purpose,” Eiland said. “Now (the foundation) has enough time to figure out what they’re going to do.”

McNamara said late Wednesday she was “ecstatic” that the property was removed from the list, but she said she wanted to confer with other members of the nonprofit before commenting further.

City Manager Rachelle Rickard previously told The Tribune that the city wants to help the foundation, but can’t make any financial commitment to do so. Since the building is a historical site, the city could have objected to its sale and bought it, but Atascadero officials have said the city has no intention of purchasing it.

Eiland said that “unless something happens,” the property will not go up for public auction again until May 2017. Should the foundation still not have the money to buy the building, the county has one final, and rarely used, option to postpone its sale: The County Cousel could determine it is in the county’s best interest not to auction the property and issue a memorandum, which would remove a property from the auction list, at least temporarily, Eiland said.

Eiland said the county auctions its tax-defaulted properties in May of each year.