BY Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN Located at the northeast corner of Highway 12 and County Road 3 is the Cokato Cooperative Creamery building.
In recent years, the creamery has received both compliments and complaints regarding its appearance and the positive/negative impact it may have on Cokato.
These topics went before the Cokato City Council Monday evening, but focused on a more specific matter: the building’s deterioration and its qualification for abatement.
A commercial building qualifies for abatement if it has been vacant for at least one year and has shown no improvement of use.
Areas of concern within the building include the chimney, cracked walls, broken windows, and other safety hazards.
The building was purchased by Brad Halonen in 2015, who went before the city council that year to discuss safety concerns and the risk of abatement then.
At the time, the council directed city staff to have the building inspector look at the property and provide input for how the council should proceed.
According to Halonen’s account at the most recent council meeting, he did not receive a report from the building inspector after that initial inspection, and was under the impression that the building had no concerning issues.
City Administrator Annita Smythe shared with the council that the building inspector had stated that he didn’t feel comfortable writing up a report without additional inspections from other safety professionals. Smythe reported that Halonen was responsible for setting up those appointments, but nothing was known to have come from it.
The council recalled that at Halonen’s 2015 meeting with them, he had expressed interest in remodeling/repurposing the building in the near future.
When asked why nothing had been done with the building yet, Halonen said that he still wants to do something with it, whether it involves remodeling, demolishing, or selling it.
“I want to wait for the right opportunity,” he shared. “You can’t force growth in a small town.”
Halonen added that he had received a few recent offers to purchase the building, but said that some were priced too low and at least one was only verbal. He added that he wasn’t going to sell the property at “any price” for the sake of making a sale.
He continued by saying he had been close to selling the building to a large company, but the offer involved obtaining land from another business’ property and that business turned the offer down.
Council Member Paul Boger stated that he “loves old buildings,” including the creamery; however, he said, without an engineer’s report stating otherwise, the chimney is a safety concern the city cannot ignore.
Council Member Carl Harju added that some of the bricks appeared ready to fall off at any moment.
Boger agreed, asking Halonen to consider the possibility of a storm coming through town and blowing bricks from the chimney onto Highway 12 travelers, or kids getting hurt while trespassing.
Mayor Gordy Erickson asked Halonen if he would be willing to get an engineer to inspect the chimney, and see what could be done with it.
Halonen estimated it would cost him $10,000 to $20,000 to have the inspection, and stated that he did not feel comfortable spending that much money on a building he may sell anyway.
Because the council had no word of consent that Halonen would take action on the property in the near future, and does not plan to pay for a chimney inspection, the council decided in a 4-to-1 vote to move forward with the abatement. Council Member Jarod Sebring opposed/abstained from the vote.
Boger added that there is a time-period during the abatement process for the building to be redeemed.
Preliminary levy approved
The council approved the city’s preliminary levy of $1,395,724 for 2019.
This represents an increase of $35,862 (2.64 percent) from the 2018 levy.
The council could reduce the amount before the final levy is approved in December, but it cannot be increased.
‘No hiccups’ at the Cokato Corn Carnival
Sara Keskey of the Cokato Corn Carnival committee stated that the 2018 carnival celebration “overall went smoothly with no hiccups.”
She noted that some of the big changes that took place included the new corn shelter, the purchase of a boiler (versus borrowing one, as was the procedure in previous years), and the ramp leading up to the coronation and performance stage.
Keskey also noted that the Corn Carnival committee honored those who had volunteered at the annual carnival for more than 45 years.
“That says a lot about the pride of this community in volunteering at the Corn Carnival year after year,” she commented, adding that it takes about 250 volunteers each year to make the carnival a success.
An article highlighting this recognition appeared in the Aug. 7 edition of the Enterprise Dispatch.
Council calls for second bidding period on old fire barn
During a special meeting Sept. 5, the city council reviewed bids placed for purchasing the old fire barn located on the corner of 3rd Street and Jenks Avenue.
In addition to the offers, the council also listened to members of the Cokato Museum and the Cokato Corn Carnival committee, who are interested in having the city maintain ownership of the property so it could be used by each party for storage, rather than depending on private citizens to house artifacts, old cars, the Corn Carnival float, and other items.
In discussing the options Monday evening, Harju shared that he felt the proposed bids were too low for the fire barn’s value, and was not comfortable making an agreement to sell at this time.
Council member Forrest “Butch” Amundsen, however, believes that one of the bidders (who was described as being a significant business owner in the area) is looking for local expansion opportunities, and Amundsen is concerned if the owner is not able to purchase the fire barn, he may relocate out of Cokato.
Amundsen added that none of the city’s Corn Carnival or museum possessions that are being stored elsewhere have ever received damage in their current location.
Boger agreed with Amundsen’s reasoning, saying that the business being discussed is “very important” to the community.
Sebring, however, disagreed with Boger and Amundsen, saying he did not get the impression that the business would leave town if it didn’t purchase the fire barn. He added that, to his knowledge, the business is already looking to develop a larger facility for its purposes.
Sebring went on to say that he felt the city should retain ownership of the fire barn for its own use, as it’s becoming more difficult to find available land within city limits.
Amundsen pointed out that while the city would not have to put money down for the purchase of the property, it would still need to pay for the building’s annual insurance and necessary upkeep.
Boger then made the comment, “We should send a video of this to Congress, showing them that a group of people can disagree with each other and yet not accuse one another of being Nazis or Communists.”
Moving forward with the discussion, Harju stated that he would like to open up the fire barn to a second round of bidding for one month.
Boger, who is a realtor himself, stated that if the city wants to get maximum dollar for the barn, the property should be listed on The Multiple Listing Service website.
The council agreed to move forward with the second bidding period, and will review the offers during a special closed meeting at a later date.
Odds and ends
In other news, the council:
• approved a park deed restriction for an Outdoor Recreation grant for park utility and maintenance;
• approved lot split and variance between Elim Mission Church and its parsonage;
• authorized the purchase of financial/budget transparency software, ClearGov;
• approved final payment for the Trailstone Drive extension project, $13,109;
• authorized the installment of noise ordinance signs on Highway 12 via the Minnesota Department of Transportation; and
• authorized the construction of a fence around the Field Crest detention pond at $13,855.