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Wendy Reuer, Published June 15 2013

Governments question of what to do with historic buildings

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. – City leaders here must decide whether to remodel or rebuild a crumbling City Hall.

It’s a dilemma many officials across the region face as historic government buildings begin to show their age. While residents may want to keep the local landmark, it can be more economical for taxpayers to build a new building.

Breckenridge Mayor Cliff Barth said that to repair City Hall, it likely would cost the city about $800,000, not including the cost of needed windows and roof repair.

“And you still have no idea how long (repairs) will last,” Barth said.

To build a new city hall on the south side of the current building, which would be razed to create a parking lot, the price tag is about $1.4 million.

Barth said city staff sent notices to residents asking if they prefer to rebuild City Hall or repair it. Of the 60 responses, the sentiment seems to be evenly split, he said.

The building built in 1917 at 420 Nebraska Ave. is an iconic pillar on the corner of U.S. Highway 75. The four sides are decorated in ornate brick, and on the east side, two grand columns adorn an entrance.

But on the inside, which was remodeled about 30 years ago, deep cracks show sagging walls, drooping from a shifting foundation.

The two-story building once was home to city offices along with the fire and police departments. The upstairs once was a gathering place for friends and neighbors where dances were held every Saturday night.

Today, firetrucks and police cruisers are located elsewhere. The City Council still meets on the second floor twice a month, but offices of city staff, the mayor and public utilities now only fill a fraction of the building space.

Similar choices

Across the region, city and county governments face a question of whether to rebuild or remodel their city buildings, many of which are courthouses where city and county offices also are located.

The Cass County Courthouse in Fargo opened a more than $20 million addition earlier this year.

In Washburn, N.D., demolition of the historic McLean County Courthouse began this spring after voters in 2010 approved construction of a new courthouse that now is in use.

In Jamestown, the North Dakota Emergency Commission stepped in to provide $60,000 for repairs to the old Stutsman County Courthouse. The courthouse was built in 1883, but mold, asbestos, lead paint and fire hazards were posing problems for the building.

The Historical Society of North Dakota currently is assisting Barnes County commissioners to do some minor work on the basement of the courthouse in Valley City.

“We ask those local governments to contact us and let us know what they are going to do so we can help guide them through the process to preserve the original fabric of the building but also use the building effectively,” said Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

The rash of courthouse needs is in part because many of the buildings are surpassing their 100th birthday. Paaverud said the Historical Society administers buildings that date back to the 1870s into the early 1900s, when populations began to boom in North Dakota and Minnesota after the installation of the railroad.

Many times, city halls and courthouses were the first buildings built and often funded by a well-to-do resident or town founder, some of whom have relatives who live in the city today, Paaverud said. The familiar ties and historical aspects of the buildings pique public interest, he said.

“We’ve found that numerous times, it’s a landmark in the city. It’s usually an interesting-looking building.”

Saving the historic Griggs County courthouse in Cooperstown, N.D., has become an emotional issue for residents. A group of residents recently started a petition to recall all five commissioners after they voted to move forward with building a new $3.5 million courthouse. Voters rejected the notion three times in 14 months, calling for repairs instead.

Commission Chairman Ron Halvorson told the Grand Forks Herald that the county will not have to raise taxes to fund the project but repairs to the old building are too costly to justify.

A justified choice

Breckenridge City Hall is not on the state or national Historical Registry, Barth said. He said the city considered requesting it be but found it would be unlikely to add much benefit.

“You don’t get a lot of grant money, just a lot of regulations,” Barth said.

The issue does not have to be approved by voters. To pay for it, the city plans to bond. Assessments likely would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $90 to $100 per year.

Barth said a new City Hall would save taxpayers money in the long run because heating and cooling of the current building is very expensive.

Deputy City Clerk Laurie Christensen said winter utilities for the building cost about $2,000 per month, a bill larger than what Barth said he pays to heat his 3,600 square-foot repair shop.

“And I’m opening and closing the (garage) doors all day long,” Barth said.

City Clerk Kristin Nicholson said many residents have stopped in to see the building since the City Council began debating the topic six months ago. Many who initially opposed the idea of razing the building often leave with a change of heart, she said.

Nicholson said she believes most people will understand the need for a new building once they look at all the facts.

“It’ll be hard for some people at first,” Nicholson said.

The City Council is expected to make a decision on the building after its regular meeting Monday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530