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Nathan Bowe, Forum News Service, Published April 11 2014

Detroit Lakes businesses required to dig deep to fill in cellars

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Back in the day, downtown Detroit Lakes businesses on Washington Avenue were heated with steam from the city power plant.

Most of those steam pipes ran through basements that extended out about 5 feet -- essentially under the sidewalk.

The steam is long gone, but the pipes, and extended basements, still exist in four businesses.

But with a major street renovation project planned for Washington Avenue this summer, the city has determined that those last four extended basements have to go.

First the city notified the property owners that the extended basements would have to be walled off and filled in at their own expense.

But the business owners balked, and Tuesday, the City Council agreed to offer three of them – Price’s Fine Jewelry, Barbara’s Hair-N-Body Care and Ginny’s Boutique – an incentive of up to $5,000 each to fill in the basements by June 1.

DLM Downtown Properties owns the fourth building, TLC Companies Inc. (the former White Drug building), and was offered up to $10,000 because it has three basement sections to wall off and fill in.

Becker County will pay half the incentive costs. Washington Avenue is a county road, but the city is managing the reconstruction project, and the right-of-way is part of that.

If the building owners reject the deal, the city will do the work and tack the cost on to the owner’s special assessment for the street project.

It will cost a lot more if the city does the work. It will have to hire a structural engineer to oversee the project, and will also incur other costs, said City Engineer Jon Pratt.

The buildings are approaching a century old, and were designed with extended basements to carry the steam pipes.

Some business owners were offended at the tone of city communications, and were not happy to be told their buildings were suddenly “encroaching” on the city right-of-way.

“To be labeled an encroacher for something that happened 100 years ago..,” said Roger Price. “There was no bargaining with us whatsoever. It was a very cold letter. They wouldn’t pay for anything. It was ‘you are a nuisance. You are an encroacher.’ ”

Dallas Flynn, one of the building owners, offered to deed that part of his building over to the city, but was turned down.

“I just think it’s unfair because they’re taking part of our building and we have to do everything,” he said. He pointed to large outlays by the city for the community center, the Detroit Mountain recreation area project and the new roundabout on Highway 59 and Willow Street, and wondered why the city was squabbling over a few thousand dollars for downtown.

“I just hope we don’t have to get legal – that will drag out,” he added.

Nobody knows how much it will cost to fill in the basements. Pratt said DLM got an estimate of about $15,000 for a poured concrete wall, and is exploring the cost of a brick wall instead. The city’s offer was based largely on that.

That worries the other business owners.

“No one knows what you’re going to run into,” Price said. “We have to sign that agreement – what if we run into $20,000?”