Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Feb. 21, 2000

Old city hall debated, but still slated to come down

By Luis Puga

Winsted City Council heard from a filled council chamber of residents who wanted to save the old city hall building from demolition Tuesday.

In a previous city council meeting, members unanimously voted that Winsted should advertise for bids for the demolition of the historic building.

In this meeting, that advertisement of bids stood and council members Jeff Albers, Bob Kegler, and Mayor Floyd Sneer voted down spending $2,500 on further research on maintenance for the old city hall.

The motion, made by Council Member Gary Lenz, was to have Bonestroo, Rosene, Anderlik, and Associate's architect Bob Russek look into the costs of maintaining the old city hall if it were to be used as a library and/or city hall.

While Russek provided some indications over his two-day study of the building and its needs as to how much maintenance would be, he said a detailed study would be necessary to get exact figures. Russek estimated at the meeting that the difference in maintenance between the old city hall and a completely new building for the library and city offices would be between $5,000 and $10,000.

The higher maintenance cost for the old building was for sealing the soft brick exterior of the building every five years. Also, the brick would also need to be tuck-pointed every 10 years, as well.

Initially, the council was told that tuck-pointing would have to occur every two to three years, but Russek said new information had been found since the last time he spoke with the council.

Russek said that maintenance on the carpets, which would wear quicker due to the floor's unevenness, would also contribute to the higher maintenance cost of the building.

Russek admitted that the information was gathered quickly over two days, and, if so directed, he would get a more detailed cost comparison between maintaining a new building and the old building.

Lenz also included as part of his motion a request for a cost description of the project to refurbish the old city hall if it were to be done in phases. He said that he had requested that description before, and asked audience members and council members if they had seen such a document.

It should be noted that Lenz was not present for the meeting in which the council approved advertising bids for demolition.

City Administrator Aaron Reeves, along with other council members, said that while they hadn't seen a plan for a phased project, Russek had told them that doing the project in phases would be more expensive. He noted that Delano's city hall is being done in phases and has cost more.

Despite calls from the audience for the elements of Lenz's motion, the measure was defeated. Some confusion was expressed on the part of audience members later, who initially heard Sneer indicating that the measure was passed, but were then told that it hadn't.

Lenz took some issue with the fact that he had not been present for the decision to advertise the old city hall for demolition. "Imagine my surprise when I got home, and found out that the city hall was going to be demolished," he said.

That provoked a reaction in council members who felt Lenz was implying that his absence and the vote on the issue was engineered. Sneer insisted that it was not, and took offense to the implication, which Lenz did not deny making.

Albers insisted that no such effort was made to exclude Lenz from voting on the issue and felt that the council's integrity was being attacked.

Reeves said that the item was on the agenda for the evening and that the business of the council cannot always be halted for an absent member.

However, Council Member Tom Wiemiller noted that in his experience in previous councils, former Mayor Don Guggemos had held off votes on major decisions due to absent members.

The council received a great deal of debate from audience members that evening. The preservationists were mostly citizens and former members of a committee who had drafted the old city hall's re-use plan.

Essentially, the council argued that the refurbishment of the old building would cost as much or more for the city, and that the city would still have to contend with a 100-year-old building.

However, preservationists argued the need to maintain the building for historical purposes.

Council members pointed out that they had received a number of phone calls from citizens who wanted to see the old city hall torn down due to the higher cost and age of the building.

However, audience members presented a petition of 202 signatures for preserving the building gathered over a weekend. Albers wondered whether he could also obtain 200 signatures for tearing the building down.

Another point of contention is the condition of the building, which audience members felt was a sturdy building that was built to last. However, Sneer recounted his own personal experiences of being inside the building, and argued that the building hadn't been maintained well.

Preservationists pointed out that previous architects, including those from the re-use study, had indicated that the building was sound and could last another 100 years.

Sneer replied, "They get paid," and added that the council takes the advice of architects and engineers with a "grain of salt."

He also pointed out that it was some of those same architects who had included designs for a floor emblem of the city, driving up costs, in a previous plan to build a city hall, showing a lack of concern for saving city monies.

Sneer argued that despite the demonstration of a dedication to preserving the building, the city has clearly indicated that it is not interested in preserving the building due to the lack of upkeep at the building. He noted that in the past 39 years, the only approved maintenance has been a "Band-Aid," and that a bonding vote 10 years ago to approve refurbishing was defeated, as well as an option to spend tax dollars on maintenance.

He said, "That signifies to me that we don't care (about the building)."

An audience member replied,"We do now."

Some anger was expressed at how the building was allowed to deteriorate. One audience member said, "We let that building go to hell. That's our fault."

Lenz, who was on the council at the time, admitted some culpability in "dropping the ball" on maintenance. But he did note that the council at the time had sought the approval of refurbishing or regular maintenance, and was rejected three to one. As such, the only maintenance done on the building was the bare minimum.

He also hypothesized that perhaps an improved economy might explain the enthusiasm for saving the city hall building.

Preservationists also asked if the issue could be put to a vote. The previous vote had been to approve bonding for a project.

In this case, council members said that the issue could not be put to a vote because, by law, citizens cannot vote by referendum on issues the council is legally empowered to decide.

Another question that arose was what had happened with the citizen committee appointed to address the city hall issue.

Former committee members said they were told to disband after the reuse study was completed. However, Reeves said he did not communicate that to the committee and that he recalls they had scheduled a meeting after the study was completed.

Some audience members also questioned whether the committee was ever listened to. Council meetings during the reuse study last year did indicate a sentiment among citizens present to save the old city hall from demolition and refurbish it for city offices and a library.

Council members insisted that the reason the committee disbanded was a lack of time on the part of committee members, to which committee members disagreed.

Audience members asserted the need to explore options, such as a phased schedule for the project. Albers asked how much money would be enough to spend on the long debated building.

One audience member, library board member Lisa Ebert, indicated that she was neutral on the matter of demolition or preservation, but did indicate she would like to see a new library in Winsted's future. She also expressed concern that the political ramifications of the decision not detract from the possibility of a new library.

As of now, some citizens have contacted a preservation society in the Twin Cities to attempt to place the building on an endangered list, according to Peggy Lenz, a former committee member. Also, it was expressed at the meeting that they would like to work with that organization to save the building.

Peggy Lenz, in a later interview, expressed some concern whether the taxpayers of Winsted know what their money is being spent on and felt that they do not have all the facts and figures on the city hall issue.

Sneer also issued a challenge to audience members to form their own preservation society. He said the city could sell the building to the society for $1 and allow them to use private money to fund refurbishing it. Audience members indicated they would be interested, according to Peggy Lenz.

It was noted some grant money would not be available then since the building would have to be owned publicly for it to qualify for those dollars.

Sneer had received a request by private individuals last year interested in taking on the project, but noted that those individuals expected an immediate answer.

As for private use, Reeves said a set of developers had determined it would be impossible to refurbish the building for office or apartment space since costs of refurbishing the structure would make rent too high for the local market.

While the council is continuing with its bid advertisement for demolition, it left open the option for private citizens to do something to save the building.

Currently, the city estimates that the building will not be ready for demolition for about three to four months.

Russek warned that the council had the best window of opportunity to put the building up for demolition and that it should appear serious about doing so, since firms may raise their price for demolition if they feel the city will not go through with the project. However, the council does have the legal option of turning down any bid.

New city hall

A pause was given on the old city hall debate as Russek described plans for a new city hall.

He presented initial plans and estimated costs for a new building in two options. He noted that the cost of demolition would be approximately $30,000, but added that to level the ground at the site so a one-story building could be built on it may cost an additional $30,000 to $40,000.

He said the price of the bid of demolition would depend on whether the firm had its own disposal site or not. Both designs would be one floor to maximize savings, and have architecture which would match the city's architectural style.

Included in both options were city officers, a library, meeting space, an area for the police department, and restrooms. The second option would be slightly larger that the first, but Russek pointed out that the larger design would not require very much additional structure space.

The first option would include 1,650 square feet for a library and 6,150 square feet for a city hall at $97.40 per square foot unit cost. Construction would total about $700,000.

The second option would include 3,500 square feet for a library with 6,900 square feet for city offices at $91.40 per square foot unit cost. Construction was estimated at $880,000. Both options include about $60,000 figured in for grading and demolition. Russek felt that the final prices would not exceed the figures presented.

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