By Jennifer Von Ohlen
HOWARD LAKE, MN Wheels were turning during the former Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW) Middle School informational meeting, hosted by the City of Howard Lake and the HLWW School District July 14.
Howard Lake City Administrator Nick Haggenmiller and HLWW Superindentent Brad Sellner presented background information, expressed the city’s and school’s interests, and opened the floor to all attendees who had ideas, questions, or concerns about what could be done with the property.
To open the meeting, Sellner told the story of how the site became a topic of discussion when the a new middle school facility was added to the existing high school, located two miles south of town, and citizens started wondering what was to become of the former middle school site.
When the decision to relocate the middle school was underway, Sellner said no vision or plan for the former site was discussed.
Now, the conversation has started, and the city and school board are asking locals to bring their ideas to the table.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” stated Howard Lake Mayor Pete Zimmerman, who was also in attendance. “And we can do a lot of good working with the school and other local agencies and groups.”
The building’s uses
When the decision was made to bring the middle school to the high school location, action had to be taken on the former middle school location: whether to repair the building for potential future use, or to demolish it and use the space for other possibilities.
A referendum determined the building was to be torn down. At that time, the Meeker and Wright Special Education Cooperative (MAWSECO) was leasing an older portion of the building, and decided to switch over and renovate a newer portion for continued use.
Currently, the remaining building is used by the school for its gymnasium, for Extracurricular activities, and the Area Learning Center program. Yager Field, located just outside of the building is also operated by the school, but will no longer be needed once the two new ballfields at the current HLWW building site are completed.
Other than these purposes, Sellner said the school has no foreseen need of the property.
Where a green lot now stands, old sections of the building once stood.
A few months ago, a meeting took place between the city council and school board members, known as the intergovernmental committee.
Its discussions regarded the area’s physical boundaries, constraints, and concerns. The committee also discussed goals it would like to meet with the site, which resulted in the possibility of a park plan; in particular, a community park.
“This is not necessarily proposing what will happen here, but by definition, it would include things like sports facilities, court and field games, community centers, as well as restrooms, [and] drinking water,” Haggenmiller said.
He explained that, ultimately, the committee wants the space to be usable for recreational activities suitable for all segments and ages in the area. In addition, the committee would like the end result to increase community pride.
“I think that’s a big thing that we need to talk about moving forward,” said Haggenmiller. “More sense of place, more things to do, more ways to bring community members together in central locations like parks. That’s a big deal. You see that with Good Neighbor Days, you see that with the [Wright County] fair, and potentially, you can see that at sites like this.”
To help make that happen, the committee is reaching out to community members for what could be done with the site.
Before the school year ended, students of HLWW were asked what they would like to see the property become, and the responses ranged from adding park benches to waterslides. Now, the committee is reaching out to the rest of the population, and has already received some feedback.
Haggenmiller explained that the typical city Facebook post engages about 40-50 people, total. The post asking for input on the property, however, received about 3,200 views, 400 individual engages, and 65 shared ideas.
At the meeting, attendees were asked to participate in a coloring activity, where they could design their “ideal” park for the council and school board’s consideration.
The exercise resulted in a number of ideas, including
• horseshoe courts,
• frisbee courts,
• a sand volleyball court,
• a picnic shelter/gazebo,
• plants and trees/community garden,
• a splash pad,
• a stage/bandshell/ampitheater/gathering area,
• a trail
• local art,
• a hockey rink, and
• a ‘Welcome’ entrance.
There was also an inquiry about a child care center, to which Haggenmiller informed attendees that the city has three acres of land dedicated to a potential operator for that purpose. “Very optimistically” it could happen within the next few years.
It was also mentioned that MAWSECO is planning to install a playground at the former middle school site later this summer.
Among the possibilities the committee has received, some ideas will not be taken carried into action. Haggenmiller said that no housing facilities single, multi-family, or senior will be built on property.
Commercial buildings, such as a McDonalds or Chipotle, are also unlikely, even though several community members have suggested them to the committee.
“When you talk to those folks that want to put in a McDonald’s somewhere, it’s highway plumage, there’s so much foot traffic long story short: this site just does not work for those people.”
Budget constraints also determine which ideas are possible, and which are, for the present, on hold.
“At least to-date, the city and school have said, ‘We are not going to raise taxes,’” Haggenmiller stated.
He continued by saying that the committee does not want to take out a large loan. Therefore, despite strong community interest, a pool and community center are presently out of reach.
However, the sidewalks and parking lots from the former school were left in place, and will therefore not need to be factored into development costs.
Fundraising is also expected to occur.
The details of ownership, maintance, and insurance will be discussed by the committee as the project progresses.
One possibility is having costs divided between the city and school board, based on the individual features added to the park and the interest or needs each party has for them.
“I think it’s awesome that the school district and the city are working together on this project,” retired city clerk Gene Gilbert stated. “The school district has land, and [the city does not], and [the city] want[s] something to enhance Howard Lake. I think it’s awesome, I think that’s the center of interest: that the school district and city want to work together and enhance things that happen in town.”
To share ideas, ask questions, or express concerns with the committee, contact any city council or school board member.