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Officials look for new ways to use old buildings

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — After years of sitting vacant, the old Kenyon high school building is considered a community eyesore. Next year, the city of Kenyon hopes to make headway toward getting rid of it.

The state became the owner of the 1916 school building last year after a local developer, who purchased it from the school district in 2000, defaulted on his taxes.

Though the columns adorning its entrance give the old building a stately appearance, much of the structure is in bad shape, including dozens of broken and boarded-up windows. Vandals have broken into the school and done damage more than once.

The old Kenyon high school is one example of how school districts and local governments sometimes find themselves struggling with what to do with old public buildings that no longer meet the needs of their communities. In southeastern Minnesota, many school districts, especially those that have consolidated, have found themselves with unwanted buildings.

Recently, Goodhue County, the state-appointed caretaker of the old Kenyon school, put a fence around the building to make it more secure.

"But it's still a blight and frustration to many people, especially those who live nearby," said Kenyon City Administrator Chris Heineman.

The city wants to purchase the building so it can demolish it and transform the site into a green space or park, Heineman said. A $25,000 study by the city determined the cost to abate asbestos in the building — required before demolition — would range between $200,000 and $300,000. Demolition would cost an additional $100,000 to $300,000.

Goodhue County sent Kenyon's plans to the state for approval, but that process has been held up in bureaucratic red tape.

Once the city holds the title to the old school, it can apply to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for a brownfield redevelopment grant. The program helps local governments and developers clean up contaminated properties for redevelopment.

In the meantime, the city of Kenyon would, no doubt, welcome somebody like Lynn Schmeling. This year, the Blooming Prairie farmer took care of asbestos abatement and demolition of the former Kingsland Elementary School in Spring Valley. He bought the 62-year-old building from the district for $1 and transformed the site into a flower garden.

Of course, Kingsland, which includes the towns of Spring Valley and Wykoff, had to be willing to give up possession of the property, knowing that Schmeling could sell or redevelop it in the future.

Some school districts find ways to reuse their old buildings. Rochester Public Schools has a few examples of that, including its Northrup Education Center, an old elementary school that, today, houses the district's Community Education department and serves other uses.

Winona Area Public Schools recently found a use for one of its old elementary schools. Closed at the end of last school year, the district plans to house a new mentoring program there and rent out some of the other space. Also, the building will continue to be the home of the district's Community Education department.

Private developers in southeastern Minnesota also have found value in purchasing old school buildings and converting them for commercial uses.

Dan and Ronaele Hoffman, of Rochester, who co-own Hoffman Enterprises, purchased old school buildings in Dexter and Grand Meadow. The Dexter building had been converted into a five-unit apartment building during the mid-1970s. The Hoffmans bought it in 1988 and made improvements, including a metal roof, new windows and steel siding.

The other school building is now the Grand Meadow Business Center. The Hoffmans bought it from Grand Meadow Public Schools in 2003 and renovated it for commercial use. The 20,000-square-foot building is about half occupied, Dan Hoffman said. Tenants include a chiropractor, a fitness center, a massage therapy clinic, a model railroad club, a food shelf and a crafts boutique.

Hoffman said he became interested in old schools as investments because the buildings are well-constructed and reusing them can be beneficial to communities.

He said he paid fair market price for the Grand Meadow building and then put tens of thousands of dollars into it. The school district no longer had to worry about the building and it was able to use the money from the sale for another facility, he said.

"So, the property went from generating no money for the county and district to a private citizen paying taxes and generating growth, and improving the quality of life here," he said.

Dave Dickie, owner of Dickie Equipment in Dodge Center, also has purchased old school buildings and converted them for multi-housing and commercial uses. He has one in Claremont that is now a 21-unit apartment building. He said he invested $850,000 into the building many years ago to renovate it.

Dickie also owns a converted school building in Dodge Center that houses a number of different business tenants.

"I look at these other people trying to do things with other schools. They should come look at mine and see how I did it," Dickie said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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