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Earl Wolleat, District 181 director of Buidings and Grounds talks about the feat

Essentia declines Whittier offer; city still mulling decision

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One more entity has declined an offer to acquire Whittier School from the Brainerd School District.

Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center officials recently turned down the offer, Superintendent Steve Razidlo told school leaders at a Facilities Committee meeting Tuesday.

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That leaves all eyes on the city of Brainerd.

The topic will go before the city’s Safety and Public Works Committee for more discussion at its next meeting. The committee will then bring a recommendation forward to the city council.

The district recently decided to ask both the city and Essentia if either were interested in acquiring the empty school building.

The move came after the future of the old school building was again left unknown following a November Brainerd City Council meeting where the council voted against a proposed amendment that would have allowed community centers in residentially zoned districts. The move was largely because neighborhood residents spoke out against it.

The school board initially gave the nod to Northern Pines Mental Health Center to repurpose the old Whittier school building into the Whittier Elementary Community Center for Health and Wellness. But before Northern Pines could move forward with plans, the city of Brainerd needed to look into how to rezone the north Brainerd property, which is located in a residential district.

On Tuesday, Brainerd city leaders toured the empty halls of the Whittier school.

Steve Lund, director of Business Services for the district, said a few other inquiries about the building have trickled in, but nothing concrete. Committee members Tuesday voiced concerned with the timetable in the process.

School board member Tom Haglin said the group should plan what to do if no one is interested in taking over the school.

“We should start working toward that rather than doing a wait-and-see,” he said.

The school board voted previously that should both the city and Essentia say they aren’t interested, they will advertise the building as being for sale, which it hasn’t done yet.

Lund said area Realtors he’s talked to suggested the chance of finding a buyer that way is slim, since the issue has already been very public.

If demolition is the final answer, that will have to be decided fairly soon, Lund said, as the process for that can be lengthy and expensive.

An estimate received two years ago to deconstruct the building was $260,000.

Committee member Bob Nystrom questioned if there was a way to work with the city to re-address the idea of issuing a conditional use permit for Northern Pines.

The committee decided to hold off on that discussion until after the city’s Safety and Public Works Committee holds its meeting.

Since 2008, the building has been vacant and has racked up $200,000 in heating and maintenance costs. In about eight years, the building will need a new roof at an estimated cost of $120,000.

In other committee news:

Approved adding three more site improvements in the Garfield Safe Routes to School project. A fourth improvement could be added later upon further review of the budget.

At the start of the Garfield Safe Routes to School project, the city and the district talked about each adding another $75,000 to expand the project. After the city backed out, school officials decided to take a closer look at what the district could expand on by itself.

The three site improvements are: widening the side walk from eight feet to 10 at the main bus staging area; install new playground perimeter fence (east side only); replace the bituminous area of the school’s playground.

The three come at an estimated cost of $55,000.

The fourth improvement, which could be added later upon further review of the budget, is to reconstruct the entrance of the school to create a secured point of entry. That could cost around $95,000.

The vote goes before the full School Board for final approval.

Heard an update on the lower athletic site project. Erica Marcussen with Widseth, Smith and Nolting said the project is on target to start construction in May as planned. A call for bids will go out in the first week of March and will be awarded during the last week of March or beginning of April.

Marcussen added that the unusually cold temperatures shouldn’t create any issues for the project.

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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