Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, April 10, 2000

Winsted council accepts bid for city hall demolition

By Jane Otto

Despite the presence and pleas of members of the Winsted Preservation Society, the Winsted City Council accepted Wickenhauser Excavating's bid of $59,780 to demolish city hall on a 3-2 vote at its meeting Tuesday.

Standing firm on their previously stated sentiments of saving the historic building, council members Tom Wiemiller and Gary Lenz cast the nay votes.

The bid was accepted, however, contingent on the passage of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) and the resolution of any pending legal issues. The city hall is listed on the National Historic Register and thus, is required to have an EAW done. The legal issues revolve around the injunction that the preservationists are seeking to stop the city from demolishing the building.

The council chose the smaller footprint for demolition based on the advice of City Administrator Aaron Reeves that you can upgrade to a larger footprint at a later date if necessary.

Acceptance of a demolition bid did not come easily.

Lenz asked what would happen with the site once the city hall is gone. He stressed that there aren't any finite plans.

"I'm not going to vote on tearing it down, but you need to know what you're going to put in its place," said Lenz.

Council member Jeff Albers said the council has gone back and forth on this issue for more than a year and a half and that it's time to take some action.

"Do we want to go on with demolition when we still have (legal) issues hanging in the air?" asked Tom Wiemiller.

Reeves reminded the council that they were working on a decision that the council made at its Feb. 1 meeting, which was to demolish the building.

"Until that motion is changed, we are working toward demolition. Now, it's time to finalize that motion," Reeves said.

Mayor Floyd Sneer said he has heard from many, if not more, citizens who want the building gone, rather than restored. He asked the audience if anyone was in favor of tearing it down.

Three of the 12 or so in the room replied yes.

Mary Wiemiller of the Winsted Preservation Society, stood up to refute Sneer's statement.

A frustrated mayor said, "We've argued this enough. I'm not taking any argument on city hall tonight."

Mary Wiemiller than informed the council that the preservation society will file an injunction the next day unless the city decides that no further harm will come to the building.

The city hall issue didn't end there however, as the Niro-Sterner building, a possible option for new city offices, was next on the agenda.

The Niro-Sterner building, of which the city once rented half for office space, is located on County Road 1. Reeves said the place is up for sale and could fill the needs for a city hall and library. The building, he said, is about 5,000 square feet and can easily handle an addition.

The high-end estimated cost for the purchase and remodeling is approximately $600,000. This is less than the cost of building new, which is slightly under $1 million.

The question of library space was brought up, but Reeves said he spoke with Pioneerland Library director John Houlahan who said the Niro-Sterner building would be adequate.

Lisa Ebert, a Winsted Library Commission member, reminded the council that it would lose its $150,000 grant for a library if it was installed in the Niro-Sterner building.

Reeves said that city would lose all grant money if it pursued any other option other than remodeling city hall.

But the Niro-Sterner option could possibly put a halt to the city hall demolition and any related legal action and costs, he said. More time could be given to look for interested buyers to renovate city hall and without additions that would change the look of the existing building, Reeves added

Sneer expressed concern about the time it would take to find an interested buyer.

"You can't keep a building like that there forever," he said.

Albers said the council could be in some muddy waters if it went with this option.

"We're leaving an albatross around our neck. If we leave this building standing, sooner or later it will come back to haunt us." said Albers. "I really, truly believe that that building is a hazard."

"The Minnesota Historical Society doesn't throw money into hazards," said Mary Wiemiller, referring to the $50,000 grant from the society to restore city hall.

Along those lines, Tom Wiemiller said that the city really can't afford to look at other options while the historic city hall issue remains unresolved.

City Attorney Fran Eggert advised the council that this is an option that is available now, but may not be available later.

More experts

Discussion of the old city hall roof came up several times throughout the evening.

Lenz told the council that he had contacted Frank King, a Minneapolis roofer recommended by Charlie Nelson, an architect with the State Historical Preservation Office. Lenz said King is an expert on roof repair and will examine the city hall roof at no charge to the city.

"Why another expert?" asked Sneer. "The stack of paper on city hall reaches 6 inches already. Expert, expert, expert."

"You throw enough money into it, and anything can be salvaged," added Sneer.

"I'm just trying to get facts and figures," Lenz commented.

Lenz requested that a special meeting be called so that council members could meet with King the next day when he examines the roof.

Reeves said that before the council could meet, a notice would have to be published in the newspaper and that could not be accomplished by the next day. Two council members could get together and not be in violation of the open meeting law, he added.

The city hall roof topic generated more city hall discussion in general, which prompted someone to ask if the public could vote on the issue.

Reeves explained that for the public to decide the city hall matter, it would have to be a bond referendum, that is, voting on an issue that involves the city spending tax dollars.

"You can't have a straw vote every time an issue comes up," said Eggert.

"It's government by representation," said Albers.

The injunction

The law firm of Dorsey and Whitney, representing the Winsted Preservation Society, served the City of Winsted with an injunction March 27, to stop the city hall demolition.

At the council meeting Tuesday, City Attorney Fran Eggert said that he had spoken with an attorney from the firm. He said that the attorney asked if the city would voluntarily put a moratorium on the demolition until the injunction is heard in court.

Mary Wiemiller of the Winsted Preservation Society, told the council that the society intends to file a temporary injunction if the council did not agree to halt further destruction of the city hall. She later asked if the council could make a decision that night.

Eggert suggested that the council wait on the decision until he could advise the council on the pros and cons of the issue.

In speaking with Eggert the next day, he explained that a temporary injunction can be filed to stop any city hall demolition until the permanent injunction is heard in court. To file a temporary injunction, an affidavit is presented to a judge for his signature and a hearing is held within about 10 days.

"This is a truly last ditch effort to protect the building from further harm," said Wiemiller in a later interview. "We don't want to go to court with the city."

She explained that the society wants the city to look at the issue dollar-for-dollar ­ what it costs per square foot for new, as to what it costs per square foot to renovate.

Most of the members would not stay in the fight, if this wasn't a tax-savings measure, Wiemiller added.

She also explained that the reuse study, which the city had authorized to be done on the city hall, stated that the building was an "excellent candidate for restoration."

"If at any point, these experts said this building was hazardous, we would back off," Wiemiller said.

If this were three years ago, Mayor Floyd Sneer would have agreed with Wiemiller.

"This is a sad thing. Up to three years ago, I was in favor of saving that building," said Sneer in a later interview.

He said it's admirable the way this group is fighting to save the building. However, with the possibility of new high school, he doesn't want to saddle senior citizens on fixed incomes with any more taxes.

The property is more valuable with the building gone, than with it standing, he said.

"That's economic development," he commented.

Sneer would like to see the property developed into senior housing and office space below.

But, an injunction looms over the city to prevent any further destruction to the building. Sneer said the League of Minnesota Cities will represent the city in court, if neccessary.

"I'm sorry to see this happen, but it's got to be resolved one way or another," said Sneer.

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