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Erik Burgess, Published February 19 2013

County morgue could set up shop in former Sunmart

FARGO – Add the county’s morgue services to the growing list of potential new tenants in the former Sunmart/CVS building.

The city of Fargo is officially the new owner of the roughly 58,000-square-foot structure at 13th Avenue and 25th Street South after commissioners voted unanimously to finalize the $3 million purchase at Monday night’s meeting.

City staff began negotiating the purchase from the building’s previous owner, CVS Corp., in December.

The city has been discussing for months making the building a headquarters for the Fargo Cass Public Health Department as well as a substation for Fargo police.

Now Cass County Coroner John Baird could join them, bringing with him some of his cold clientele.

“We would be planning ahead to have space if we needed to have temporary storage of bodies as investigations were being done and things like that,” Baird said.

In his 30 years as coroner, Baird said he has never had an office. He handles his part-time coroner duties out of the Fargo Cass Public Health downtown location, where he is health officer.

That means the county also depends on funeral homes to store the dead during investigations and for space to conduct preliminary examinations, Baird said.

“As the county grows and as we have more deaths that the coroner gets involved with, having an office would make sense,” he said.

Autopsies needed in Cass County would still have to be done by the state’s forensic medical examiner in Bismarck, but that could change soon.

Legislators are currently discussing the state health department’s budget, which could allocate funds to have more autopsies done in Grand Forks, Baird said.

Autopsies in Grand Forks County are already done by Dr. Mary Ann Sens, the chairwoman of the Department of Pathology at the University of North Dakota, but she could begin doing them for the eastern part of the state, including Fargo.

“Our deaths (statewide) have increased, especially with the western part of the state,” Baird said, which is putting pressure on the medical examiner in Bismarck.

This means in the future, bodies could be stored at the coroner’s new office and sent on a shorter trip to Grand Forks.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the city and county are still negotiating a lease to share some of the new building, and that it’s not yet a done deal.

Fixing up the former Sunmart location will cost around $8 million, Zavoral said, with funds coming from city savings as well as future state aid payments. Remodeling will take six months to design and 14 to 16 months to construct.

The purchase comes with some restrictions from the previous owner. The city cannot use the site to operate a pharmacy, retail health care center or a health or beauty aid store, and the like, City Attorney Erik Johnson said in a memo.

“CVS has asked for this restriction to avoid a neighbor who would enter into competition with the CVS Drug Store property,” Johnson wrote.

Public Health will be providing health services from the new location, including family planning and immunizations, and Johnson said CVS has approved of that use.

“Public Health gives out flu shots, but they don’t charge for it, so they’re not really a competitor,” said Assistant City Attorney Jason Loos.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518