Editor's Note - Story corrected to show correct date of when the power plant could be demolished.
WILLMAR — The question on whether to tear down the old Willmar Power Plant, which was shut down permanently in late June, needs to be decided much sooner than expected. Willmar Municipal Utilities had originally planned to keep the plant standing for the foreseeable future. However, after meeting with representatives from Wenck Associates, who completed environmental studies on the facility, the timeline has been sped up.
"We can't wait five to seven years to demo this building," said John Harren, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager, during a work session of the Municipal Utilities Commission on Dec. 14. "This project has been moved forward."
The main worry is that the hazardous material in the plant, such as asbestos and lead paint, will begin to deteriorate in the unheated, uninsulated building, which could result in higher cleanup and demolition costs.
"The hard part about abatement is, time does not bring the costs down," said Erik Sundbo of Wenck Associates.
According to the Wenck report, to clean up the asbestos and other hazardous materials, demolish the plant and stabilize the site in its current state would cost an estimated $2.75 million. The asbestos abatement is $2.3 million of that.
"The abatement world is a very, very labor-intensive industry," Sundbo said.
Asbestos is hazardous when fibers become airborne and are breathed in. It can cause cancer. If the material in the plant begins to fall apart, or is damaged in some way, the costs to clean it up increase significantly.
"Those costs are enormous," Sundbo said.
Willmar Municipal Utilities has budgeted $5 million for the plant's demolition, but that isn't the only cost the utilities is facing. The Willmar substation is part of the power plant and will need to be removed, costing an additional $5 million.
"Before we can demo the power plant, we have equipment in there that has to be moved," Harren said.
The money for both projects is not sitting in the bank. Harren said staff is looking at bonding for the substation work, along with other upcoming utilities projects. That might make it possible to use reserves for some of the power plant and work to avoid possible rate increases.
The idea to renovate the plant and turn into something else, like housing or commercial space, has been raised. What happens to the plant will eventually come down to the Willmar City Council, which has final say. Willmar Municipal Utilities will be reaching out to the city to set up a work session between the Utilities Commission and the City Council in January to discuss the issue.
In Sundbo's experience working with power plants, most end up facing the wrecking ball due to the high costs associated with repurposing such facilities. A renovation project would include bringing the facility up to code for the proposed use.
One of the draws of the plant is the industrial and art deco style. However, after the asbestos abatement, which will happen no matter what, much of that character will be removed. What will be left is just a big concrete and brick building.
"The reasons people fall in love with power plants will no longer be intact and there. The windows will be gone, a lot of the siding and roofing will be gone," said Kevin Marti, Willmar Municipal Utilities facilities and maintenance supervisor. "They need to keep that in mind. It would add, in my opinion, exorbitant costs to any project."
Currently, there have been no serious offers about purchasing or renovating the plant and Marti doesn't believe such a project is even feasible.
"What has come up is a 1,000-foot view at best. No one from the city has taken up our offer to walk through the building to see what they are against," Marti said. "I would say right now, it is a big fat no."
A staff recommendation is to give the city until Sept. 1, 2021, to find a buyer for the building, who will need to escrow at least an additional 30 percent of the cost to abate the building. If no one comes forward, Willmar Municipal Utilities plans to tear it down by the summer of 2022.
"If there is anyone in the community that doesn't want to see it go away, they need to step up and step up relatively soon and let that be known and show they are serious about it," said Justin Mattern, Municipal Utilities Commission chair. "Please reach out to someone in the utilities or the city and let that be known."
The consensus of the commission though seemed to be tearing the building down.
"In addition to getting a piece of coal in remembrance of the coal plant, we can get an artist to do a sketch of it and then we move on with life," said Commissioner Carol Laumer.