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Gene Marcinkowski's post is a solitary one these days.

He is the volunteer caretaker of the Cloverdale Veterans Memorial Hall, one of seven aging Sonoma County-owned veterans buildings with a future now in flux.

The 51-year-old Cloverdale hall has been closed to all but veterans' gatherings for months. Volunteers do any cleanup and the county is called only in emergencies, such as the leak that opened up in a rain storm last month.

"The building is slowly decaying," said Marcinkowski, 70, an Air Force veteran who lives a block away. "I want to keep it up."

County officials say they share the same goal, but the challenge for the budget-strapped government is monumental. The buildings have a combined $19 million maintenance backlog and operational losses have reached as high as $1.7 million in recent years.

The county's main solution, set in motion last year, is to outsource management of most of the buildings.

Those plans, now evolving in closed-door talks, focus on five of the halls — Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma, Cotati and Guerneville — said Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, whose department oversees the buildings.

At least three of those halls — Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Cotati — could be turned over to a Petaluma-based nonprofit that operates camps and retreats throughout Northern California.

Some veterans have voiced support for the effort, which they hope will improve marketing, use and upkeep of the halls.

The buildings are used by hundreds of community groups for 4,100 regular meetings, classes or special events each year. But aging infrastructure, rate hikes passed last year and cuts in upkeep and staffing have whittled away at those numbers.

"I'm anticipating some good things from this," said Pete Peterka, a veterans' representative for the Santa Rosa building.

But other veterans and building users are worried about how the halls might be managed by private outfits. They were built in the three decades after World War II to serve and honor veterans, who enjoy priority access. They also function as community gathering spots.

"No one is telling us who is taking over, what the costs might be," said Steve Kemmerle, organizer of Petaluma's annual Veteran's Day parade and veterans' representative for the Petaluma hall.

"We're not getting a lot of information out of the county," said Robert Safreno, chairman of the county-appointed Veterans Memorial Building Advisory Committee.

Veterans groups will have a chance to review the proposals before the Board of Supervisors acts on the deals, a step that could come as soon as next month, Hart said.

Authority to set rental rates, generally only charged to non-veteran groups, will remain with the Board of Supervisors, she said.

The Cloverdale building is not part of the discussions because the county is exploring other options for it, including a possible sale, Hart said.

The City of Cloverdale is the interested buyer, sources with knowledge of the talks said.

"We have an ongoing interest" in the building, Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell said. She declined to elaborate on the city's plans.

Hart and other county officials did not give further details on the closed-door process.

However, members of the veterans building committee and other county sources last week shared what they know about the negotiations so far.

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The lead contender to take over three of the buildings — Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Cotati — is United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, or UCCR, a Petaluma-based nonprofit that runs nine private recreational sites in Northern California and a state campground near Santa Cruz, sources said.

Michael Carr, the nonprofit's chief executive officer, confirmed on Friday the group's interest in the three buildings.

"We would continue to operate them as community gathering places," he said, stressing that operations would be tailored as much as possible to accommodate veterans. "That's very important to us."

The organization has an annual budget of about $4 million and a summer workforce of 150. Most operations would likely be handled out of the Santa Rosa hall, with reservations made at United Camps' Petaluma office and staff would be sent to other buildings for guest services and maintenance as needed, Carr said.

The group has agreed to honor the county's current rental rates, most of which were hiked last year by 30 to 70 percent, and in some cases more.

"We don't foresee increasing the rates. That would drive away traditional users. We want to provide a similar if not the same rate," he said.

United Camps also bid on the Sebastopol and Sonoma buildings. But the Sebastopol Center for the Arts is one of two local groups first in line for the Sebastopol building, sources said.

Linda Galletta, the Sebastopol center's executive director, confirmed the organization is exploring a lease agreement with the county but would not say if the center is planning on relocating from its current location off Depot Street.

"We're looking at lots of things at the moment," she said.

As of mid-January, the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center was the other local group involved in the talks, Board of Supervisors' documents show.

Two West County organizations are partners in a bid to take over management of the Guerneville building.

"When this opportunity came up we jumped on it," said Amber Twitchell, board chairwoman of River to Coast Children's Services. The Guerneville group would handle fiscal management while a coalition of care providers, Russian River Area Resources and Advocates, would handle operations, Twitchell said.

The Sonoma building was taken off the list after community members voiced strong opposition to "someone coming from outside to run the facility," said Supervisor Valerie Brown, who represents the area.

The move came despite operating bids submitted for the Sonoma hall by United Camps and a group backed by Kenwood Investments, the company headed by Sonoma-based developer, political strategist and lobbyist Darius Anderson.

The organization retracted its bid during the process, sources said.

Three kinds of deals are being discussed for the halls, according to sources:

; Property management agreements that would have the county pay a fee to an operator that reinvests net income back into the building.

; Lease agreements where the operator pays rent to occupy the building while also managing it.

; License agreements that would turn over operations but would not result in a fee charged to county or rent charges for the operator.

The operators' share of maintenance costs is a key point in the talks, Hart said. By outsourcing daily management and chores, the county may be able to divert savings to work on the long-term backlog, she said.

The access arrangement with veterans is another significant issue. It has sparked worries among some veterans' leaders.

"Are they going to make us make arrangements two years in advance or six weeks in advance? That would be my concern," said Warren Hopkins, a Cotati representative to the veterans building committee and a former Rohnert Park mayor and councilman.

Other building users said they're anxious to hear the terms of any new deals as soon as they are made public.

For decades Stephen Nordquist has taught dance classes to teenagers at the Santa Rosa hall. He has seen rents for the 62-year-old building continue to rise, but there are no other locations that fit his large groups.

"My fear last year was that they were going to close the building," he said.

He said the county put contracts on hold until after March, a move that Nordquist said made him uneasy about the building's future.

"Now the rates could go up again, and maybe I'll start crying," he said. "We love that building."

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