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Erik Burgess, Published June 18 2013

Fargo officials want new City Hall

FARGO - City officials agree: the decades-old City Hall here is cramped, outdated and failing.

That’s why City Administrator Pat Zavoral wants to build a new City Hall, hoping to start construction perhaps as early as 2014, he told the Forum Editorial Board on Tuesday.

Many of the city’s departments are crammed into the current City Hall, which is about 24,000 square feet, Zavoral said.

A 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot building is ideal for the city’s growth, he said, based on a study the city did 13 years ago.

Adding that much space could cost between $8 million and $12 million, Zavoral said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said he supports a new home for Fargo’s city government. City Hall, built in the 1960s, has serious infrastructure problems and has “lost its usefulness,” the mayor said.

“There’s nothing, in my opinion, salvageable in that whole structure,” said Walaker, who was the city’s public works director for nearly two decades before winning election as mayor in 2006. “And that’s from being in that building for a long time.”

Zavoral said that a citizen task force will be formed within the next couple of weeks to discuss possible options for a new City Hall, which include repurposing the attached Fargo Civic Center into office space.

Former Mayor Bruce Furness will head the task force, Zavoral said.

State aid would help pay for the new City Hall, Zavoral said.

The city has seen a recent uptick in the quarterly state aid, the city’s proceeds from state sales tax, and the city prefers to use that money to pay for capital improvements, instead of operating budget expenses, the city administrator said.

“The City Hall is our top priority right now,” he said.

A ‘crummy building’

City government’s existing home, the two-story rectangular building that fronts Third Street North, has needed to expand its walls for more than a decade, according to a study.

The report issued in 2000, the last time the space needs at City Hall were analyzed, found that while the city had 24,605 square feet of office space, the city offices actually required 34,490 square feet.

The study, completed by Fargo architecture and engineering firm Lightowler Johnson Associates, projected that the city would need 43,150 square feet as growth continued into the future.

“The City Hall is suffering from the same problems most older buildings and growing businesses are suffering. That problem is adaptation of new technologies and increasing staff/public population loads,” the firm wrote.

The city could’ve built a new City Hall in the early 2000s for between

$5 million and $8 million but instead chose to expand the Fargo Civic Center, Centennial Hall and the downtown skyway for

$5.1 million.

As part of that expansion, the City Commission chambers and some city offices were moved into a new 2,500-square-foot space, which opened July 2006.

At the time, city officials estimated the expansion would buy them another five or 10 years to consider a longer-term fix.

That time has come, Zavoral said Tuesday. State aid is coming in increasing amounts and the squeeze at City Hall is as bad as ever.

Consultants also say the heating system will fail soon, Walaker said, and he believes that will likely happen within the next five to 10 years. Zavoral said there are serious asbestos problems, too.

“Once a building reaches its useful life, something has to be done,” Walaker said. “I don’t want to be put in that point where it has to be done under emergency situations. I want us to plan for the future.”

The City Hall building is also physically impeding Fargo’s long-term Downtown Framework Plan, formulated in 2002, to turn the Red River greenway into a “gateway to the river,” said Commissioner Mike Williams.

“In every scenario, that building was in the way,” Williams said. “And we don’t want to put more money into that crummy building.”

Williams said he believes the commission chambers “works really well,” but the old office space has to go.

‘Bursting at the seams’

The city did recently purchase the former Sunmart/CVS building, a 58,000-square-foot structure at 13th Avenue and 25th Street South, but Zavoral said City Hall can’t be moved there because Fargo Cass Public Health Department needs the space.

“They’re bursting at the seams like everybody else,” Zavoral said.

The city is also using state aid funds to help fix up that building, another high priority for the city which will cost $8 million.

Besides, Zavoral said the goal would be to keep City Hall somewhat close to downtown.

One option might be the space directly across from the Ground Transportation Center downtown, Zavoral said. The space is currently occupied by Romantix, the adult merchandise retailer, and a pair of parking lots.

Repurposing the Civic Center into office space is another possibility, but Walaker said he’s uncertain about staying in the aging complex.

“Can they turn the old, old Civic, which was built approximately the same time (as City Hall)? That’s part of the problem: Can we turn that into a usable office space for the future?” he said. “I think we’ve spent enough time doing Band-Aid approaches to keep the system working.”

All options must be looked at, which is why setting up a task force is “time extremely well spent,” Walaker said.

“I think the need is there. There’s no reason to question the need for the (new) building,” he said. “It’s can we afford it, and when we can afford it?”

The City Commission will likely be asked to set up a task force to look at potential options for a new City Hall on Monday or at the following commission meeting, Zavoral said.

He said the data on the space needs at City Hall will also likely be updated as part of this project.

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