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EDA reviews old elementary school property proposals

MORRIS – Members of the Morris City Council got their first detailed look at the three proposals to develop the old elementary school property at a meeting of the Morris Economic Development Authority on Tuesday.

Last month, City Manager Blaine Hill indicated that the EDA might meet in a closed-door meeting to discuss the proposals, but since decided to present them in a public meeting for discussion before planning a work session to develop a negotiation strategy.

During their discussion, the EDA briefly looked at the one-page proposal submitted by Riley Bros. Properties of Morris. The proposal indicated the company would like to purchase the entire property and develop it primarily into housing to address “the most urgent and basic needs of our community.”

The proposal mentions possible uses including cemetery expansion, student and faculty housing for the University of Minnesota, Morris, and housing for elderly residents.

The EDA spent most of the meeting discussing the more detailed proposals from Prairieland Partners of Minnetonka, Minn. and Bear Paw Properties Development Company out of Hutchinson, Minn.

Prairieland Partners is interested in purchasing between 9.5 and 12 acres of the property to use for a “mix of higher density housing types” for a variety of demographics.

The proposal includes about 50 to 60 units of post-secondary student housing on four or five acres along College Avenue; 20 units of senior assisted living on 2.5 to three acres along Seventh Street; and 24 to 30 units of affordable housing on three or four acres along Columbia Avenue. The company is not interested in the section of property that includes the old football field.

Prairieland Partners also requested a four to six month commitment from the city and the EDA to negotiate exclusively on the project. As part of the negations, the proposals includes time to conduct a market suitability study and community interviews.

Council member Bill Storck expressed disappointment with the assisted living and affordable housing space on the plan.

“If you've got assisted living homes or student homes, I don't think you're going to find anybody that's living out in the country that wants to move to town and build a townhome in that area,” said Storck.

Hill noted that because the proposal doesn't use the whole property, there could still be other options. If the city went with this proposal, the EDA could sit down and organize the property with the developers using a neighborhood organization plan developed in previous studies of the property.

“The base work for this neighborhood has already been done in other studies,” said Hill. “If nobody is interested in doing that, we could do that ourselves – plat that out and sell those lots – because all the utilities are right in front already.”

The proposal from Bear Paw Properties' covers the entire site. The developer's primary interest in the site is to build a 31-unit facility for people with higher needs or memory care services.

According to the proposal, the building will feature two communities – one with 21 units and another with 10 – located on five acres along Columbia Avenue. Adjacent space would be reserved for a future 50 unit assisted living facility, if future demand is warranted.

The proposal also includes a series of four-plexes for student housing on five acres at the corner of Fifth Street and College Avenue. Each unit contains four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and living room for 16 students per building.

The remaining seven acres of the property could be used for patio homes and twin homes, although the proposal indicates that Bear Paw Properties isn't primarily interested in private housing and are open to working on other compatible uses.

Council member Kevin Wohlers said it was important for the council to find a use for the property that supports the vision for the city.

“Whatever goes in there, we have a prime piece of real estate in the heart of our town – we want it to look presentable, we want to step back and be proud that this is something we had a hand in developing,” said Wohlers.

On the other hand, Council member Brian Solvie noted that it was important to respect what type of development will be viable in the community.

“What we want is one thing, but what they're going to be able to develop and sell can be another thing,” said Brian Solvie. “We did nine years of research on what we should do with it and where are we right now? Nobody really grabbed on.”

“We need a developer who has money who is going to come in and spend money,” agreed Council member Jeff Miller. “I don't think we want to spend taxpayer money when we can have a individual come in and put his money in and get the TIF money back. It'll be a tax base down the road for us.”

Solvie said he liked the aspects of student housing in the plans because UMM is a crucial part of the community and helps bring business to the area, but wanted a work session to discuss the proposals further.

The EDA agreed to hold a work session on Thursday, July 25 at 5 p.m. to discuss the proposals in more detail.