BY JOE BUTTWEILER
RACINE - Using what its attorney called an "abundance of caution,'' The Imaginarium of Racine Inc. will hire an expert to see if Bukacek Construction Inc. did as much work as it claimed in renovating a Downtown building for use as a children's museum.
In a series of counterclaims to Bukacek's law suit to recover $445,000 for uncompensated work, the Imaginarium's attorney, Adrian Schoone, said there is reason to believe the value of labor and services provided by Bukacek may be less than the roughly $2.9 million paid by the Imaginarium.
The Imaginarium also contends Bukacek wrongfully terminated its contract to renovate the former Zahn's Department Store building into the proposed Imaginarium Children's Museum, and that public comments by Bukacek owner Nick Bukacek unjustly impaired the Imaginarium's ability to raise funds.
Bukacek called the Imaginarium's counterclaims "a smoke screen.'' He said Jess Levin, president of the Imaginarium's board of directors, has publicly acknowledged the Imaginarium owes money to contractors.
Bukacek said his firm's contract allowed it to stop work if the Imaginarium didn't keep up on payments. Work on the $3.8 million project stopped last July after repeated attempts by Bukacek to obtain proof of adequate funding were unsuccessful.
Contractors were owed $620,000 at that time, according to a subsequent audit. Some of the debt was paid off last fall when subcontractors were called in to winterize the unfinished building. Bukacek filed suit for the $445,000 in January, naming as defendants both the Imaginarium and the Bank of Elmwood, which loaned the Imaginarium about $2.5 million.
As for making public comments that hurt Imaginarium finances, Bukacek said, "When people asked me questions, I told the truth.''
He said that before stopping work, he gave the Imaginarium plenty of time to prove it had enough money to finish the project. But when the Imaginarium got behind on payments and couldn't prove it had enough money, work had to stop, Bukacek said.
"For them to say I created a problem …. You have to look at who really created the problem,'' he said.
Bukacek said he has tried to take the advice of Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder, who at a Feb. 7 hearing suggested the Imaginarium, Bank of Elmwood and Bukacek Construction work together to resolve their problems.
Bukacek said he has tried to get together with Levin, who also is president of the Bank of Elmwood, but has been turned down. Bukacek said he has asked for minutes of Imaginarium meetings, but has not received them.
"It seems their response has been not to be cooperative. If that's the case, the meter starts running on the attorneys and you start going to blows. I didn't want to go down that path.''
He said he finds the Imaginarium's counterclaims amazing. "All of them are frivolous. There is no foundation of truth in any of them.''
Schoone said he's not making any rash accusations. "We're going to hire a construction expert to match what work has been done with the invoices to see if we got our money's worth.''
Asked about Levin's acknowledgment that money is owed to contractors, Schoone said, "We'll find out.'' He said he expects the expert evaluation of the Zahn's building, 500 Monument Square, will take place next month at the earliest.
Besides questioning the amount of work done and alleging Bukacek wrongfully stopped work and hurt Imaginarium finances, the counterclaims seek compensation for the lost funding, and say that Bukacek's request for corporate dissolution of the Imaginarium is frivolous.
For its part, the Bank of Elmwood has also filed a response to Bukacek's original claim. Dissolution would kill the Imaginarium's ongoing "Museum Without Walls,'' program, which teaches science to thousands of youngsters, and would nix any chance of completing the museum, the bank's response says..
Levin and Karen Johnson, vice president of the Imaginarium board, have said they are seeking a developer who will buy the Zahn's building and lease back two floors for the children's museum.
The Bank of Elmwood's response also said the Imaginarium's finances have improved by reasonably settling claims of its former executive director, Tony Gazzana. He claimed he was owed more than $200,000 for his work, which included fund-raising, but the board paid him $32,000.
The bank's response to Bukacek's lawsuit also said the value of the Zahn's building will increase, and said the action Bukacek is seeking is not in Bukacek's best interest. The bank has priority as a creditor, so if the Imaginarium were dissolved, Bukacek would get little or nothing, said the bank's response.
Levin is president, chief executive officer and chairman of the Bank of Elmwood. Johnson is also a member of the bank's board of directors.