After two decades of gently nudging the owners of Ukiah's historic Palace Hotel to rehabilitate the decaying, vine-covered building in the heart of downtown, frustrated city officials are considering using force.

They are contemplating reinstating the Ukiah Redevelopment Agency's power of eminent domain, which expired nine years ago for lack of use.

Eminent domain would give the city the power to force the 119-year-old hotel's Marin County owners to either rehabilitate the property or sell it to the city, which could then sell it to someone with a concrete plan to do something with the vacant three-story building that dominates a half-block on Ukiah's main drag.

Officials and downtown business leaders say eminent domain could be a useful, last-ditch tool to convince real estate agents Eladia Laines and Mike Leddy to step up or give up.

"It's a leverage factor," said Ukiah photographer Tom Liden, a member of Friends of the Palace, a group that is urging the city to take action.

After 20 years of trying to work with Laines and Leddy, including conducting at least five studies that have cost the city thousands of dollars, it may be time to wield a disincentive for doing nothing, officials say.

"We want to get the owners involved with the city on a regular, credible basis," said Ukiah City Councilwoman Mary Anne Landis, who is on a committee that is investigating eminent domain.

Laines and Leddy did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

They have periodically made gestures of fixing up the landmark, most recently last year when they hosted a wine and cheese gathering to show off plans for a remodel that included condominiums and businesses.

Over the years, they've also boarded up broken windows, added some paint and repaired a fire sprinkler system, just enough to keep the Palace from being declared a public safety hazard, which can lead to demolition.

After last year's showing, Laines and Leddy disappeared from public view. They've been out of contact with city officials and Friends of the Palace — formed to support rehabilitation efforts — for about eight months.

They've not only failed to make progress, Ukiah Planning Commission Judy Pruden said they've rebuffed offers from people interested in purchasing the property, which is worth only the price of the land because of the building's poor condition.

The property was appraised in 2006 at $309,000 but the owners reportedly want more than $1 million. Laines and her former partners purchased it in a 1990 bankruptcy sale for $115,000.

A study commissioned by the city in 2001 determined it would cost $4.5 million just to tear it down.

Area residents have long called on the city to do something about the Palace Hotel, which they fondly recall as a hub of activity in the 1970s and 1980s, when it included a restaurant, bar and a popular music venue that attracted well-known acts.

It has been sitting vacant and deteriorating since 1988.

In 1994, more than 200 downtown merchants and customers signed a petition demanding that the city have the building either cleaned up or torn down. That led to some cleanup and increased efforts to keep out vandals and curious youth.

Most everyone agrees something needs to happen with the Palace, but not everyone agrees how.

Staunch property rights advocates say they don't agree with eminent domain under any circumstances.

"It's like me sticking my gun in your ribs and saying, &‘Give me your wallet,'" said real estate broker Dick Selzer.

Property owners must be paid for the fair market value of their property and there are numerous restrictions on how and when eminent domain can be used for redevelopment, including that it must benefit the public, city officials note.

Selzer and like-minded businessman John Mayfield, members of the Employers Council of Mendocino County, said no amount of restrictions would make them trust city officials with eminent domain.

Others think eminent domain may be the only option remaining for the Palace Hotel.

"I think this is a real special circumstance," said Ann Kilkenny, owner of the Mendocino Book Company, located one block south of the hotel's west side.

"This is a neglected building in the center of downtown. Is it just going to sit there until it falls down?"

Information about how eminent domain works can be found at www.calredevelop.org