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Morris City Council takes first step towards demolishing old elementary school building

Vandalism - in the form of graffiti, pirate flags and other damage - is an increasing problem at the abandoned elementary school property. With no reuse ideas in sight, it looks as if the city will be responsible for demolishing the building and bidding the land to a developer.

MORRIS, Minn. - Attempts to reuse the old Morris Area Elementary School have apparently been exhausted, it's becoming an increasingly dangerous public safety risk and the costs for getting rid of potential environmental problems could rise soon.

At their meeting Tuesday, the Morris City Council took the first step down the long road to address the problem by passing a resolution authorizing City Manager Blaine Hill to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, which is necessary because the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Council members Jeff Miller and Bill Storck, along with Mayor Sheldon Giese, voted in favor of the measure. Council member Twig Webster was absent from the meeting, and council member Matt Carrington abstained.

The question of what to do with the building has been on the city's plate since the city purchased the building from the school district for $1 in 2005. The property, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, was the focus of redevelopment plans in the intervening years, the most recent of which won a statewide architectural award.

"The whole reason that the city bought the property was the idea that it could be reused for something," said Hill. "Four studies later, there was a determination made that there probably isn't a good use for the building."

The economic downturn of 2008, which put a damper on investments in residential property and redevelopment, was "probably the death nail" for plans to reuse the old building, said Hill.

As time as passed, Morris police have often complained that vandalism and damage have reached the point that the building is not only becoming an eyesore but a public safety and health hazard.

Hill estimates that removing asbestos will cost $300,000 and that total demolition will cost about $800,000 (not including any state and county disposal fees the project might incur).

Troy Engebretson, of Engebretson Sanitary Disposal and Demolition Landfill, said that removing lead paint also could prove to be a difficult and costly endeavor. Once the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency begins to examine the building, other disposal snags might be encountered regarding such things as mercury switches and light fixtures, he said.

"I have no clue what it might cost," Engebretson said, "but it's going to be expensive. The MPCA will have to make some bid decisions when the time comes."

Morris Police Sgt. Ross Tiegs said vandals have done extensive damage to the building and that it often is broken into. Officers used to make routine walk-throughs of the building but not any more.

"There's so much debris, broken glass and mold in there," Tiegs said. "It's really deteriorating. We used to do walk-throughs but now we won't go into the building unless we think there's actually somebody in there."

But while the city has more or less determined what has to be done, figuring out the timeline for demolition and how to pay for the work will remain a challenge.

The Environmental Assessment Worksheet is the first step towards being able to legally demolish the building. The EAW is a six page report that describes the project and is distributed to state and federal agencies for comments. After a 30-day comment period, the council will decide if further environmental assessment needs to happen. If not, the city will be clear to tear down the building.

Based on a timeline that Hill provided to the council on Tuesday, the earliest this city could be authorized to tear down the building is July 2012. When you add in the time for drawing up demolition plans and bidding out for a contractor, it's likely the project won't begin until 2013.

According to Hill, the next step - which could happen concurrently with the EAW - is to advertise the property to potential developers. Typically, a developer will make a proposal for review by the city that includes both the cost and what the developer's plans for the property are. In the first round of advertisement, Hill said the proposal would have to include a plan for what to do with the old building.

"You never know, you might find somebody that's interested in it," said Hill. Advertising the property would "close another door," and give the city the knowledge to move ahead with a demolition plan.

Another challenge will be to find a way to finance the demolition project. The city considered selling bonds to pay for the demolition but that's really not a feasible solution. The State of Minnesota requires that, if the city is not assessing taxpayers for at least 20 percent of the project, it can't use General Obligation special assessment or improvement bonds. Standard General Obligation bonds can be used but then the sale of the bonds must be approved by a public vote, Hill said.

The city also could create a Tax Increment Financing district. Hill said this is a likely solution, where the city would back the Tax Increment Bond with its general taxing authority if there is not a developer for the property. A Tax Increment Bond usually stays open between 15 and 25 years, depending on the project.

"I anticipate the property will be sold fairly quick and that things will probably start developing on the property," said Hill.