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Brainerd City Council: Brain(erd)storming: Members convene retreat to discuss facilities solutions

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson (left), Council President Dave Pritschet, Mayor Ed Menk and council member Kelly Bevans -- along with the rest of the council -- spent later Monday afternoon and evening, June 25, hashing out possible visions for the city to follow. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd City Council discussed a number of options for addressing its facility needs Monday, June 25—thoroughly debated and hashed out ideas that were often termed as "out of the box" by members.

Monday's council retreat served as an opportunity for the city's brain trust—namely, staff, elected representatives and consultants—to take part in an extended, informal session dealing with a bevy of topics, most notably among them: the current state of the city of Brainerd's facilities and how best to move forward.

As the results of a comprehensive facilities study the city started in August 2017 indicate, numerous areas of maintenance and deterioration should be addressed—primarily, council members noted, city hall (which has a failing heating, cooling and ventilation system and a roof/external envelope on the cusp of failure), the Brainerd police department, and the parks and recreation building.

If the city were to address its facility issues, costs would sit at about $7 million. There's an additional $2 million in proposed projects by architectural-engineering firm Widseth Smith Nolting addressing facility issues in a more proactive and forward-minded manner.

In last week's meeting, WSN vice president Mike Angland said the city could be looking at a $9 million price tag to address the various facilities that house the city's offices, its council chambers, the police and fire departments and its parks and recreation department buildings, as well as others.

Big buildings, big wigs

Council members explored the idea of a facilities manager or administrative role for facility upkeep—currently, the city has no such position, and it's typically left up to department heads (like police Chief Corky McQuiston, who oversee the police building, or City Engineer Paul Sandy, who maintains city hall), although these roles do not fall in their traditional job descriptions, nor their areas of expertise.

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson cautioned the city in forming a new position—a role that would quickly address issues and form a more comprehensive plan for facilities, but wouldn't necessarily have the expertise to meet the individual need of each building or department.

"What you may get is a jack of all trades, but a master of none," Torstenson said.

Alternatively, Council President Dave Pristchet said the city could look to contract this role out to external help like Crow Wing County or the National Joint Powers Alliance (now known as Sourcewell). It possibly wouldn't be quite as centralized or expedient, but it ensures the city's facilities are being monitored and repairs would be contracted out anyway, even if the city hired a new facilities administrator, he said.

Centralizing city government

In an overarching sense, council members looked at ways to address deteriorating city facilities while also exploring possible ways to centralize and increase cohesiveness between the city's various branches.

Foremost, the council regarded city hall as a focal point in the city's efforts to revamp its facilities—whether that was the looming issue of its failing HVAC system that looks to cost about $209,000 to repair, all the way down to its chipped and deteriorated front steps that could cost between $13,000-$15,000 to repair.

Council member Kelly Bevans speculated whether the city might look at devoting much of its resources to the building that currently houses the parks and recreation department—characterized as something of an eyesore, he said, a bunch of "tin buildings" thrown to together.

"(The parks) are what people come to see, that's what brings them out," Bevans said. "They might see the fire department, what, once, in the event of a fire and hopefully they never see the inside of the police department."

However, multiple council members expressed a strong desire to retain city hall—described as a beautiful and iconic structure Brainerd residents pass every day, as well as a piece of its rich history dating back to its construction in 1914.

"I agree," council member Kevin Stunek said. "I think we as a city have destroyed some buildings we'd rather have back."

Two theories gradually emerged from the discussion to possibly consolidate the city's departments into a centralized, cohesive unit.

• Council members explored the idea of building a 28,000-square-foot addition to city hall to alleviate space issues and consolidate the city's resources together, as well as abandon old structural issue across the city and start afresh. City council member Gabe Johnson estimated that would cost about $6 million to build and he questioned whether it was feasible on the grounds city hall still needs extensive repairs, old structures would need to be demolished and this would add on a substantial amount of costs.

• Mayor Ed Menk said the city should explore the idea of a partnership—whether with a private entity like the NJPA (Sourcewell), or a public municipality like the city of Baxter—to pick a mutually operated building with enough office space to house both entities' offices, police and fire departments, zoning and engineering hubs, etc. Menk said he would be open to any structure, though he said the current site of Herberger's presented a viable option. Torstenson noted the city of Baxter expressed similar interest in expansions and space in the past.

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