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Clarkfield debates fate of closed school buildings

Submitted/ Yellow Medicine County pursued an expedited process to gain possession of the vacant Clarkfield School buildings, but the interior damage due to water and mold and the clutter from materials left behind led them to conclude that most of the buildings will need to be razed. The city of Clarkfield is asking residents to consider saving the west gymnasium building for use by the community. 1 / 4
Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny / Clarkfield City Administrator Amanda Luepke outline a proposal by a task force to save the west gymnasium of the former Clarkfield Schools at a public meeting on Tuesday evening in the city offices. 2 / 4
Submitted/ Yellow Medicine County pursued an expedited process to gain possession of the vacant Clarkfield School buildings, but the interior damage due to water and mold and the clutter from materials left behind led them to conclude that most of the buildings will need to be razed. The city of Clarkfield is asking residents to consider saving the west gymnasium building for use by the community. 3 / 4
Photo by Tom Cherveny / After hearing concerns about the potential costs and challenges of raising the funds needed, Clarkfield council member Sue Fritz told those attending a public meeting on the fate of the Clarkfield School buildings on Tuesday evening that residents will be surveyed before the city council decides whether or not to puruse saving the west gymansium building. 4 / 4

CLARKFIELD — Residents in Clarkfield will be deciding whether to rally around their vacant school buildings and save a portion of one for community use.

The remaining structures will be demolished, quite possibly over a period of years.

The city of Clarkfield has decided to survey residents about the fate of the former school buildings. The decision comes after a number of people raised concerns at a public meeting on Tuesday evening about a city proposal to save a gymnasium complex for community use.

"We'd all like to have a lot of things, but you have to be able to pay for it,'' said resident Bob Schlenner at the meeting. He was among those who raised concerns about whether the city of 850 could raise the funds to save the gymnasium, and whether it should do so in light of its many other needs.

There were also others urging the city to take on the challenge of raising funds to save the gymnasium. "We have to do things that are going to keep our community growing,'' said one young mother. "We can't just say screw it, don't do anything and let everything crumble to the ground because then we definitely will have nothing in this town and nobody will be here.''

A task force created by the city's economic development commission recommended that the city raise private funds to rehabilitate the west gymnasium on the four-acre campus of buildings totaling 144,000 square feet. The proposal calls for saving the west gym complex and its locker rooms, converting a concession stand into a commercial kitchen, and remodeling a wrestling room to hold memorabilia, according to Amanda Luepke, city administrator.

She told the approximately 40 people attending the meeting that the task force is hoping to raise the funds needed entirely through donations. A rough estimate indicates it would cost possibly $600,000 to $800,000 to renovate the facility. The estimates include new heating and ventilation systems, she said.

She said the gymnasium building is in good shape. City workers leveled a buckled floor. A weekly airing of the building has eliminated the smell of mold in it. Yellow Medicine County recently approved $12,000 to restore electrical service to it and make it possible to heat it through the winter.

Newly-appointed Mayor Dale Stringer III said he believes the gymnasium could be restored for community use for much less, possibly no more than $200,000.

Luepke said the task force is recommending that the remaining structures on the school grounds be razed, although a portion of a building adjacent to the gymnasium could be saved if community members support a larger project. The buildings have experienced extensive water and mold damage. The elementary school building is the worst, and will have to be demolished regardless of what is decided, Luepke said.

The school buildings were sold to a private investor and subsequently purchased in 2013 on eBay for $70,411 by two brothers from Iceland: Einar and Agust Agustsson. The brothers operated a company producing portable wind generators and lived in the buildings with their families, but left in 2014. The property was in the process of tax forfeiture at the time.

At the request of the city of Clarkfield, Yellow Medicine County initiated court action to transfer the property to the state in 2016, or two years earlier than the normal pace, according to Gary Johnson, a Yellow Medicine County commissioner.

The county is currently asking State Sen. Gary Dahms and Rep. Chris Swedzinski to author legislation to fund the demolition of the buildings not wanted by the city. The county is under the belief that it and the city would share in the costs for the demolition, which has been estimated to be in the range of $500,000 to $700,000, not counting possible asbestos removal.

Yellow Medicine County Administrator Peg Heglund cautioned that those numbers are rough estimates, based only on walk-throughs of the buildings by professional contractors. She and Johnson told the Clarkfield citizens that they are concerned about youth who are trespassing into the buildings and vandalizing them, as well as the condition of the structures.

Both said that absent state funds to help with the demolition costs, the county would likely have to take on the task of razing the buildings by using highway crew staff. They would likely chip away at the demolition over a period of years as their schedule allows, Johnson explained.

Clarkfield City Council member Sue Fritz and Luepke said that until Tuesday night's meeting, they had mainly heard support from citizens for raising funds to save the gymnasium. Fritz cited the discord evident at the meeting, and said she supported a call by Schlenner and George Risdahl to survey community members on what to do.

Luepke said she'd get the survey out to households in the coming week with hopes of getting results within two weeks.

In the meantime, city and county staff will be reviewing minutes of prior meetings to determine whether or not the city and county had agreed to split the costs for demolition. Johnson urged the city to make a decision so that the county knows what it can seek from the state for demolition help, and address the issues presented by the vacant structures.

If the city walks away from it, the county will have to deal with it, he noted. "But the point of it is the City Council has to make a decision and we don't want to have to keep kicking the can down the road here for another two years,'' said the commissioner.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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