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Dave Olson, Published May 25 2013

Plans may keep Fergus Falls' Kirkbride from wrecking ball

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – Could it be the Kirkbride is saved?

It’s looking that way, said City Administrator Mark Sievert. Developers have come forward with ideas to use the mammoth structure that was once a state hospital for the mentally ill.

“If we hadn’t found these developers, we were preparing to act, probably the first meeting in June, to approve plans and specifications (for demolition),” Sievert said.

The developers will have until October to refine their plans, after which purchase agreements and development agreements could be signed, he said.

Sievert said two groups are teaming up to breathe new life into the hospital complex that was built in the late 1890s and saw its patient population peak at about 2,000 in the 1930s.

By 1986, the facility was a regional treatment center serving about 400 clients.

The city of Fergus Falls took ownership of the property in 2007.

Since then, the city has sought ways to preserve what is known as the Kirkbride building. The building’s architecture was strongly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Kirkbride, a founder of the American Psychiatric Association who believed sunshine, fresh air and access to nature promoted good mental health.

One developer looking to make over the property is the Colonnade Design Group from the Twin Cities, which wants to set up what it is already calling “The Spa at Kirkbride.”

The other developer is Historic Properties Inc., a private real estate developer based in Norcross, Ga., specializing in acquiring and renovating historic buildings across the United States.

Sievert said Historic Properties is looking at doing some housing and restaurants, and possibly a boutique hotel.

Terrence Scholz, a principal of Colonnade Design Group, and Ray Willey, an official with Historic Properties, have signed a letter of understanding that states the two groups will work together to produce a master plan for the property.

Sievert said Historic Property’s participation will depend on whether it is successful in obtaining a federal housing tax credit it is applying for. He said it will probably be late summer before the company knows if will receive the tax credit.

Sievert said it appears Colonnade Design Group’s “The Spa at Kirkbride” could move forward on its own if it had to.

Based on information provided to the city, “The Spa at Kirkbride” would include:

• A 144-room resort hotel with a ballroom, retail space, a museum and artist studios.

• A spa with an indoor salt water swimming pool and an outdoor all-natural swim pond.

• A pet spa with separate large- and small-breed indoor and outdoor exercise areas, and indoor and outdoor heated pools.

Sievert said the potential development is possible, because the state Legislature extended the time the city has to use of about $4.3 million in state bonding dollars that may be spent on demolition, or making infrastructure improvements leading up to a transfer of the property to a private concern.

The new deadline for using the money is Dec. 31, 2016.

Sievert said under the previous deadline – Dec. 31, 2014 – the city would have had to start the demolition process this spring in order to use of the funds.

He said the hope now is to use some of the $4.3 million to aid redevelopment “and we won’t have to go down the demolition route.”

The latest plans have the approval of Maxine Schmidt, who along with her husband, Gene, has conducted tours at the Kirkbride for many years as a way to rally support for its preservation.

Schmidt said she likes the fact the proposals would bring good jobs to the community and carry on the Kirkbride’s legacy of promoting good health.

The Schmidts have resumed their tours of the campus following a winter hiatus.

Anyone interested in joining a tour can call (218) 736-5328 to determine availability.

Tours are at 2 p.m. Fridays.

Maxine Schmidt said she hopes the new plans put them out of a job.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555