City expresses interest in taking over old R-P school property

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The Rushford-Peterson School District and the City of Rushford have worked together in exploring what to do with the vacated school buildings on Mill Street in Rushford.

As the structure sits empty for a second straight winter, time is drawing near to make a decision on the future of the buildings and the lot. City Administrator Tony Chladek said the City of Rushford has put together a plan to use that lot constructively.

Chladek said the city’s plan calls for a housing development on the lot. After all, Chladek points out that Rushford is basically “built out.” The only exception is a handful of buildable lots. He said city officials understand their responsibility to maximize the land within the city and recognize there is a continuing demand for housing.

“The school has moved into the new facility and have the old property left sitting there,” Chladek said. “They’ve looked at different ideas on what to do with the lot. However, they’re not really in the business of real estate. They want to do what’s in the best interest of the district, as well as the community’s best interest.

“There are financial and political interests that the school board has to think about when it comes to the property,” he added. “They don’t want to take a lot of heat selling a building that understandably has a lot of historical significance to the community, especially if it’s going to get demolished.”

There’s no question that a lot of history and community sentiment is tied up in the building. School and city officials have looked into refurbishing the building through historical grants. They also looked at the possibility of getting the buildings officially named to the National Register of Historic Places. Neither option is feasible for a number of reasons, which Chladek outlined in an email to Mayor Chris Hallum and members of the Rushford City Council.

“Historical tax credits, which would be a potential key to saving the buildings, aren’t available for the old school buildings,” Chladek said. “The reason is because of too many alterations made to the school buildings over the years.”

That fact was confirmed by Denis Gardner, National Register Historian with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. He evaluated the buildings back in 2013. In a letter to city officials he acknowledged that, while the building is historical, it comes up short in one key requirement; too many changes. One of the requirements of being added to the Historic Register is the components of a school must retain enough of their character-defining features to reflect the school’s period of significance.

“One of the biggest changes involves the roof,” Gardner added. “The original flat roof of the 1957 roof was replaced with a gable roof. The flat roof was a major character-defining part of the 1957 building and replacing it with a gable roof is not sympathetic to its original modern aesthetic.”

Gardner said that buildings can withstand some changes and still be considered historic. After digging into the details of the buildings and the alterations, Gardner said the State Historic Preservation Office can’t recommend it to the National Register of Historic Places.

City and school officials also reached out to multiple property developers, looking for possible interest in redeveloping the property. The school sent the letters out in March of this year, asking developers to submit potential ideas. David Kane, an architect with Widseth, Smith, and Nolting, also spoke with several experienced property developers over the years.

In an e-mail to Superintendent Chuck Ehler in May 2018, Kane listed seven specific developers he’d spoken to about the repurposing project. Everyone from structural engineers to assisted living builders to companies that had successfully repurposed schools in the past, all took a look at the Rushford project. Kane told Ehler in the email that, “The developers and contractors listened carefully to the project ideas and respectfully declined for a multitude of reasons.”

Kane mentioned several of those reasons in an email to city officials on May 16th. Developers cited reasons like unavailable local tax credits, their lack of direct historical rehabilitation experience, the overall size of the project (too big), concerns about finding users for the end product, and Rushford isn’t strategically located for a major project like this.

Right now, the City of Rushford is still working with the school to find a prospect that has a realistic idea to repurpose the old buildings. However, the city also has a backup plan in the event that no one comes forward. If that doesn’t happen, Chladek said the property is too valuable to the city to remain unused.

“The city would then propose to take control of the site, raze it, and put out for proposals to build housing on it,” Chladek said. “If real estate is all about location, imagine what housing would look like in that location and you’ll see we’ve thought this through. What would the benefits be to have housing that close to churches, the library, and the downtown area?”

A company called Maxwell Research did a study back in 2015 that looked into housing needs in Rushford. The study projected potential housing needs between 2015 and 2025. The study identified a potential demand for 240 new housing units through 2025. Fifty-eight percent of the housing was for senior housing, while 44 percent of the estimated demand was for general-occupancy housing.

In a letter to former Rushford City Administrator Stephen Sarvi, Maxfield vice president Matt Mullins said, “Based on our findings, we recommend that a moderate-income general occupancy development could be supported, as well as move-up single-family homes.”

“New housing benefits our workforce, provides options for families to enjoy the new school, supports the tax base, and helps sustain downtown businesses by providing more customers,” said Chladek. “There is a demand (for housing) and our aim is to ensure that all city property is maximized for the best possible use.

“We have a new school, so it's time to reimagine the space where the old school sits,” Chladek added. “It's time to build up the housing stock to support all the needs of the community with the limited space we have. We have a plan to do that.”