Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Aug. 7, 2000

Winsted to purchase former Niro building

By Jane Otto

City offices may return permanently to the former Niro-Sterner building on McLeod County Road 1 as a result of Winsted City Council action at its meeting Tuesday.

City offices were temporarily housed there in 1997 when they abandoned the old city hall. Local government later moved to its present location, Main Avenue and Second Street, where the city rents the office space.

The council opted to purchase the Niro-Sterner building, now owned by Millerbernd's on a 3-2 vote. The 3-2 split, with council members Tom Wiemiller and Gary Lenz voting against the purchase, has been characteristic of most city hall issues.

The decision to buy came after more than its share of input from both the council and the audience.

Mayor Floyd Sneer began discussion with a response to a letter that appeared in the July 31 issue of the Journal. Sneer said the purchase price of the Niro-Sterner building is $425,000 and not $500,000. Also, he said that the handicapped bathrooms would cost only $10,000 and not $20,000.

Resident Peggy Lenz, who wrote the letter, later responded that figures she had in her letter were taken from charts former city administrator Aaron Reeves prepared and distributed at a previous council meeting.

As for additional costs, Sneer asked Dan Boyum, an engineer from from Bonestroo, Rosene, Anderlik and Associates who was present at the meeting, what the approximate engineering costs to remodel the Niro-Sterner building would be.

Boyum replied that, typically, engineering costs, which would include building design, inspections, or drawing up studies, can run about 10 to 13 percent of the purchase cost.

Sneer said plans to renovate the Niro-Sterner building would not include a library and that would keep costs down.

"We would leave it (the library) where it is until we absolutely have to do something with it at a later date," said Sneer.

Discussion about any city hall inevitably leads to the old city hall, now the focus of a lawsuit between the Winsted Preservation Society, Inc. and the City of Winsted.

The society is seeking an injunction to stop the city from demolishing the building which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

A developer is interested in purchasing and renovating the historic building. Sneer said Dennis Brown is considering remodeling the old city hall and putting in "upscale" apartments.

Brown has also been in contact with the Minnesota Historical Society and National Register of Historic Places to see what tax breaks are available, said Sneer.

Brown's renovation plans would not alter the original structure, and he definitely wants those windows, said Sneer.

Peggy Lenz, who is a member of the Winsted Preservation Society, told the council that she had spoken with Brown the night before. She said he told her he was still crunching numbers and was not definite about purchasing the historic building.

"He said, 'We'll see who's going to buy a building with no access,'" Lenz said.

The area where city hall is located is zoned to have apartments on the upper level with businesses at street level.

For Brown to build apartments at street level he would need to petition the planning commission for a variance. The Journal later learned that the purchase agreement is only for the building and not the lot behind it.

Sneer later told the Journal that the city would have to allow two parking spaces per unit, which would probably be directly behind the building. However, the area nearest to the lake is a dedicated street and is needed for fire protection to get behind the buildings on that block.

At one point, Gary Lenz asked what happens if Brown decides not to remodel city hall.

Council member Jeff Albers didn't see a correlation with the old city hall and the possible purchase of the Niro-Sterner building

"That's not part of the issue. What he (Gary Lenz) is saying is 'What happens to old city hall?' Well, I thought that we had decided that by a 3-2 vote," said council member Jeff Albers.

Wiemiller reminded the council that it is in a lawsuit over its decision to demolish the old city hall.

Sneer said regardless, it can still buy a building.

Rather than the city buy the building, Peggy Lenz asked the council if it would be better to let the building go on the market and attract another business to town. She reminded the council that the city auditor said at a recent meeting that the city's budget is tight.

That meeting was May 22. Paul Harvego of Fawcett, Young and Associates, said the the city is getting "dangerously close to zero in its fund balance."

Harvego recommended that the city transfer bond fund balances, when available, to the general fund and to watch spending to slowly build up the general fund for a better cash flow.

"Can you afford to go out there and purchase that Sterner-Niro building? Maybe the best thing would be to rent for a few years until we can financially swing the thing," said Lenz.

"People's taxes are going up and the council needs to watch that," she said. "This issue isn't about old city hall, but our tax dollars. . . I really think you need to be conscientious of the tax dollars right now and the city budget."

In addition to money, the possibility of moving city hall out of the downtown area was another concern for some residents in attendance. A disagreement arose as to whether or not the city hall reuse study found that people want their city hall downtown.

Albers pointed out that the reuse study found that young people aren't concerned about where the city hall is and said that he took that to mean people 50 and under. However, Peggy Lenz said that the reuse study "clearly states the people want a city hall downtown."

"Do you think keeping city hall downtown is still a viable issue?" asked Wiemiller.

"Times have changed," said Sneer. "It isn't a big deal to jump in your car and drive a few blocks. I would change my mind if we could get a bakery or a clothing store downtown. We're getting to be a city of professionals (doctors, dentists, chiropractors)."

Gary Lenz said that one objective of the council was to attract businesses to town. He didn't want to see that objective thrown away.

"Let's make the town pedestrian friendly," he said.

Discussion ended shortly after and the council voted 3-2 to purchase the former Niro-Sterner building.

City attorney Fran Eggert will put together a purchase agreement and present it to Millerbernd's.

City hall reuse study - what it says

A reuse study of the old city hall was prepared by the Minnesota Consultation Team and Thomas R. Zahn and Associates in spring 1999.

At Tuesday's council meeting, there was some confusion as to what the reuse study found in regards to a "downtown" city hall.

Here is what the study says:

Page 23 ­ Community issues that positively impact reuse of the city hall: "Although the most ardent support for preservation of the city hall came from older adults, very few of the people interviewed during the reuse study process expressed an active desire to demolish the historic city hall.

Many people expressed a desire to keep city government functions concentrated near the center of town."

Page 24 ­ Community issues that negatively impact reuse of the city hall: "Several businesses have relocated to the highway in order to take advantage of business from commuters to the industrial park. Many Winsted residents appear willing to drive long distances to take advantage of shopping and entertainment opportunities elsewhere.

Winsted's younger residents, in particular, are less rooted in the community than the generation that preceded them. Their outward focus translates to a certain amount of ambivalence about the preservation of the city hall."

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