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Erik Burgess, Published February 23 2013

Moorhead’s old power plant by Woodlawn to be razed

MOORHEAD – It appears it’s finally lights out for the old Moorhead power plant.

While residents once hoped to repurpose the more than 100-year-old brick building into a public gathering place, city officials say recent technical data shows it’s more cost-effective to demolish the building, which sits just west of Woodlawn Park along the Red River.

In late 2012, an engineering firm discovered that about 20 percent of the plant’s main building is on a fault line and is basically sliding slowly into the river. To make repurposing the building viable, upward of

$3 million would need to be spent to stabilize the riverbank.

“It’s like a ship going over a waterfall,” said Bill Schwandt, general manager of Moorhead Public Service. “Twenty percent of it is hanging over a waterfall. Nobody is going to invest in that.”

Knocking the building down will cost half as much as fixing it up, Schwandt said. Environmental cleanup and demolition has a projected price tag of

$1.5 million, and MPS is in the process of bidding out the project now.

Demolition should begin in the fall, Schwandt said.

About 80 percent of environmental cleanup was already done in 2008-09 when the city was considering moving the library to the site. Schwandt said $700,000 was spent on cleaning up asbestos and mercury on the site.

A piece of city history

For Mark Chekola, who was chairman of the recently disbanded Moorhead Power Plant Study Group, the news of demolition is somewhat disheartening.

The citizens group was formed in late 2008 and gathered feedback from residents, who wanted the historic building to be turned into anything from a community center to a museum.

“It’s part of the history of the city, and we’ve lost a lot of the history of our city,” Chekola said. “Had it worked out to repurpose the building, that would’ve been a great thing.”

The group was officially recognized by the City Council on Feb. 11, and its seven members received thank-you letters from Mayor Mark Voxland, Chekola said.

But Chekola added that the news isn’t all that surprising. The former Minnesota State University Moorhead professor lived within walking distance of the plant for 35 years before similar issues with a fault line forced him from his riverside home, which would’ve been on the wrong side of the levee during a major flood.

“I had seen the slumping of the bank,” he said.

Plant used until recently

The plant has not been fully operational for some time. One of its four generators was still being used until August 2011. MPS was leasing it to Missouri River Energy Services, from whom the city gets around 50 percent of its energy.

That generator was built in the mid-1950s, Schwandt said, and was actually the newest one in the plant. The other generators dated as far back as the 1920s. Finding parts and the skilled labor to use such dated equipment was difficult, he said.

The city began using five new generators on the east side of town in 2011.

Even after the final generator was powered down, the site continued to be an electrical substation for a portion of the city until December 2012.

During flooding, protecting the old building, which has a very deep basement, is costly and labor intensive, city staff says in council documents.

“(It’s) just time for it to be gone,” Schwandt said.

The building may be slated for demolition, but the city is still “very interested” in redeveloping the site, said Peter Doll, manager of development services in Moorhead.

Doll said the city is preparing to establish a redevelopment tax-increment finance district on the site to help lure developers once the plant is gone.

A TIF zone allows a developer and the city to be repaid some of the dollars used in redevelopment of the site.

The first step in establishing such a district is by setting up an interfund loan, Doll said, which the City Council will consider at their Monday meeting.

The item is currently on the council’s consent agenda, meaning it is considered non-controversial and is expected to pass. The MPS Commission authorized an interfund loan not to exceed $2 million for the district at their Feb. 12 meeting.

An interfund loan does not allocate or commit the city or MPS to spending any funds, council documents say, but it preserves future rights to repay demolition or cleanup costs if a tax-increment financing district is eventually established.

Chekola said one thing his study group discovered was that Moorhead residents wanted the site to largely remain accessible to the public. He hopes the city will remember that as future developers bid for the site.

“There isn’t the building to use, but there is that marvelous site with the great view,” he said.

Schwandt said the Plains Art Museum still plans on setting up a “defiant garden” near the site, although their grant language might have to be reworked. The museum, along with two artists from Brooklyn, N.Y., were awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 to create a community art space utilizing pieces from the plant.

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

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