RTC demo process started, door left openPublished 11:01am Tuesday, May 8, 2012 Updated 11:19am Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Though there were comments upon comments at Monday’s Fergus Falls City Council meetings, nothing encapsulated the audience of 200’s sentiment more than the spontaneous outcry that went up when Randy Synstelien moved that city staff begin preparing plans and specifications for demolition of most of the Kirkbride building – everything besides the center tower.
The council still unanimously approved the motion, disappointing most of the crowd, but preservationists’ hopes were kept alive when aldermen voted to create a community task force dedicated to finding solid marketing for the whole structure.
Synstelien made the motion around a half hour into the RTC discussion, which went on for more than two hours. The council had recently learned that the Minnesota Department of Administration would extend the city’s Kirkbride demolition grant to the end of 2014, but special advisor on the RTC Kent Mattson said that in light of recent developments with people challenging the grant, the city should move forward with whatever its plan would be sooner rather than later to allow time to get past potential lawsuits.
“That extension might be eroded through those processes, unfortunately,” he said.
Though aldermen asked some clarifying questions, much of the meeting was given up to the throng of RTC preservation supporters, from both inside and outside of city limits, who came to give their points of view on the building. Ideas for reuse varied from historical tourism destination to haunted house to long-term mothballing to getting Mayor Hal Leland to put in a plug for the building to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, but the intent behind all of the ideas was the same: save the Kirkbride.
The most common theme of the comments was that the Kirkbride represents a city asset, not an albatross.
The Kirkbride, said Tim Hunt, is the only thing that sets Fergus Falls apart from other prairie towns. If it torn down, he said, “Might as well put a sign on each side of the city and the freeway: ‘Approaching Fergus Falls – Welcome to Nowheresville.’”
Maianne Preble, an Excelsior resident with a master’s degree in historic preservation, came to the meeting to say that her study of the nation’s Kirkbrides shows that the Fergus Falls site still has potential.
“The Kirkbride you have is in fact the best preserved in the country,” she said. “To argue that it is, you know, deteriorating beyond any ability to rehabilitate it is outlandish.”
Former council member Desta Hunt took some of the blame for letting the RTC reach this point in the demolition process during her plea to save the building.
“You never really got a feeling that it might go away,” she said. “And so I think right now … suddenly we’re saying, oh my gosh, it might go away.”
Some were frustrated, lobbing out angry comments as council members spoke. Others expressed their frustration at the podium.
“I’m tired of seeing the city eviscerating itself in ways like this,” said Jake Krohn.
The lone citizen who spoke at the meeting not fully in favor of redevelopment was Jerry Johnson, who identified himself as neither a friend nor foe of the building.
“It can stand there for a hundred years, I don’t care, as long as it doesn’t affect my pocket tax-wise,” he said.
Some aldermen zeroed in on Johnson’s statements, referring to calls and letters they had received from taxpayers who don’t want the cost of the RTC’s upkeep or demolition to fall on local shoulders.
“Demolition is not our goal, but if it’s the only thing that comes up because nobody else can come up with something … we aren’t developers ourselves,” said Stan Synstelien. “We’ve got to come to an end sometime.”
Led by JoEllen Thacker, the council also approved the formation of a community task force with the goal of helping the council come up with an aggressive marketing strategy to find a developer for the RTC. The city can then pursue redevelopment while still preparing for demolition if no one comes through (a timeline for demolition will be further discussed at a later meeting, but previous estimates had the city going out for demolition bids in July). The city’s heritage preservation commission will make recommendations of task force members.
Though approving of the task force decision, many in the audience still felt the council was doing a poor job handling the situation, as evidenced by a comment from John Strauch during the demolition discussion referencing Election Day.
“If we can just hold off, come November maybe some of you won’t have to make that decision,” he said.
The crowd went wild.