CLARKFIELD — The former occupants and owners of the old school buildings in Clarkfield left the country three years ago, believed to have done so literally in the middle of the night, and now one of them sits in a prison in Iceland.
The tax-forfeited, 1.3-acre site of the former Clarkfield Public School is now the property of the state of Minnesota but the responsibility of Yellow Medicine County.
Most of the structures are water-damaged and filled with mold, have crumbling ceilings and walls, and filled with all kinds of items that were left behind.
Yellow Medicine County estimates it will cost as much as $1.4 million to demolish and remove most of the structures, assuming one of the buildings holding a gymnasium and locker rooms can be saved. The city of Clarkfield, population 815, is hoping to raise funds to restore the gymnasium as a community center, and convert one part of the building into a memorabilia room for Clarkfield School collectibles and souvenirs, according to Amanda Luepke, city administrator.
The county and city are willing to split one-half the cost of the demolition, but are hoping the state of Minnesota will fund the remainder, or up to $709,000, County Administrator Peg Heglund and Luepke told members of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee during a stop Monday in Montevideo.
Representatives from two different firms toured the building to provide the estimated costs for demolition, Heglund said. There remain some unknowns, she added. Some asbestos had been removed from the buildings while they were in use, but the county has not been able to find the records.
Heglund indicated that the $1.4 million price tag for demolition is more than the county with a population of just under 10,000 could manage at one time. If state help is not available, the county would likely attempt to demolish the structures over a period of years. Its public works staff would carry out the work as their schedules allow, she said.
City and county officials are hoping that the community's unusual dilemma and the liability represented by the buildings will compel state officials to provide help. The Yellow Medicine East School District closed the Clarkfield School in 2008 after deciding it could not afford to operate schools in two communities.
The Clarkfield School site was purchased for $6,100 in 2012 by a limited liability company based in Missouri. It was resold for $70,300 a few months later on an eBay auction to a corporation that was authorized to conduct business in the U.S., according to Luepke.
Two brothers from Iceland said they were going to manufacture small wind turbines and other portable, renewable energy devices in the school. They lived in the buildings with their families and "hastily departed" in December 2014, leaving behind many of their personal belongings and returning to Iceland.
One of the brothers, Einar Agustsson, was accused of fraudulently raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through Kickstarter campaigns, according to a June 2017 report in Iceland Magazine. The publication reports that he was convicted and is serving a prison sentence of three years and nine months for fraud in an unrelated case.
"When a school is forced to close, those individuals that attended classes, participated in activities, won sporting events and graduated, lose their identity,'' Luepke told the visiting members of the Capital Investment Committee. "Many in this community are excited at the prospect of having a place to go to share those memories and maintain their personal histories,'' she added.
She said that if the county and city are able to obtain state help to demolish the buildings, a community task force would be created to develop the green space. The community is building a day care center across from the site, and Heglund said she believes some of the former school site would be developed as a playground area.