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Brainerd City Council: Council sets 'sunset date' for water tower

The "sunset date" is set -- Aug. 6, 2020 -- for backers of the historic water tower to raise funds for its rehabilitation, a project estimated to cost between $2.4 million to $3 million. Brainerd Dispatch File Photo

Aug. 6, 2020.

That's how much time the Brainerd City Council is giving backers to raise funds for the historic water tower—both residents and nonprofits of Brainerd, as well as supporters abroad.

"I hope that everyone heard you have two years—two years—and the clock starts now," council member Dave Badeaux said. "People need to realize that. It's two years and $3 million—so if you needed a fire under your rears, that's the point."

While the city spent about $10,000 to fence the tower's perimeter and cover the entrance of the law offices of Breen & Person, the short-term rehabilitative measures—namely, chipping off deteriorated stucco on the tower's bowl—quickly proved unfeasible, City Engineer Paul Sandy told the council.

"If you want to keep chipping away at the stucco, I think you're going to find you'll have to take the whole bowl," Sandy said.

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Timeline set to raise funds, determine fate for iconic lakes area structure

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As such, these measures represent efforts to protect citizens and ease insurance liabilities for the tower short term, while giving the city avenues to raise funds instead of going to a referendum vote prematurely—when costs associated with rehabilitation projects, estimated between $2.4 million to roughly $3 million, can cause price tag shock for residents before they can properly consider the situation.

That and, council member Gabe Johnson noted, there's little need to go through the referendum process if grassroots methods crash and burn.

"I don't think we should guarantee a referendum," Johnson said. "If we do two years of fundraising and we get $700, I'm not putting it to referendum—the people have spoken."

By unanimous vote, Monday, Aug. 6, members backed a resolution that stipulates four measures to potentially save the tower:

• To form and appoint a citizens committee to organize and coordinate efforts to raise funds for the rehabilitation of the historic water towers. "I think it would be premature to send it to referendum now," said Badeaux, who introduced the concept of a grassroots, citizens committee. "I think it would be important to give the citizens a chance to raise the money."

• To maintain a protective fence and other security measures around the tower/entrance of adjoining Breen & Person for three years, or roughly Aug. 6, 2021. The date comes from estimates by City Engineer Paul Sandy, who said the current state of the structure—while extremely difficult to predict—is stable for about three years, which grants time for fundraising efforts and formulating plans for a project that has virtually no similar projects to reference or precedents to follow.

• To allow residents, nonprofits and backers of the tower until Aug. 6, 2020—or, as Mayor Ed Menk called it, a "sunset date"—to raise funds for the tower through grassroots means. Council members noted this allows Brainerd to spread out the cost burden of a regionally iconic structure to backers outside of city limits and it also allows the city to craft an informed, well-structured financing scheme of its own. Because the structure is considered non-essential, most kinds of bonding and grants are not feasible, Finance Director Connie Hillman said, which means if grassroots methods fail it will fall to voters to determine the tower's fate through referendum.

• Earmark funds each year over three years until 2021 to account for the roughly $300,000 estimated cost to demolish the tower. Projected anyway between $150,000-$300,000 to demolish, this measure represents an inevitable cost to citizens, irrespective of the tower's fate. "The taxpayers are in for this amount of money whether it stays or whether it goes," Johnson said.

Sunset approaching

While council members, nonprofit organizations, residents and backers abroad scramble to raise funds, city staff and representatives will mull the fate of the historic water tower.

The top of the historic water tower is open and—resulting from a mix of less durable materials in its original construction, its advanced age, water runoff and other forms of erosion—the stucco on the exterior is deteriorating at a significant rate, particularly around the rim of the bowl.

During previous meetings, Sandy presented a list of construction options for the council to consider. These changes would ultimately address the long-term status of the historic water tower going forward.

• Domed roof: Sandy said this option would be to install a steel, domed roof within the existing concrete bowl. This would stop water intrusion and provide interior drainage to the existing drain pipe. Notably, this option is reversible, does not change the tower visibly from the street, nor does it threaten its historical status. Estimated cost: $2,443,238 for all phases of project, including installation, cosmetic changes and restoration to stucco/structure.

• Low slope roof: Essentially, the same option involving the domed roof. The main difference, Sandy noted, is the option stipulates a more concave roof, while the other stipulates a more convex roof. They both function and pose nearly identical benefits and risks. Estimated cost: $2,443,238 for all phases of project, including installation, cosmetic changes and restoration to stucco/structure.

• Concrete roof: Sandy said a second option would be to install a domed concrete roof as a replica of the original roof circa 1919-22. This installation would require substantial repair of the existing bowl and crenulations to support the roof, as the bowl is currently not structurally able to support a concrete cap. Sandy noted these changes would threaten the water tower's historic status. Estimated cost: $3,062,412 for all phases of project, including installation, cosmetic changes and restoration to stucco/structure.

• Demolition: In addition, Sandy included quotes for demolishing the tower, if the council so chooses. Costs for demolishing the water tower account for the 2,000 tons of structural concrete, its height, its complexity, the tower's proximity to buildings and neighboring streets or railways. Estimated cost: $150,000 to $300,000.

A little history

Designed by L.P. Wolff, the Brainerd historic water tower was constructed between 1919-22 when a new water system was implemented in the city. It stands at 134 feet high, at one time featuring a maximum capacity of 300,000 gallons housed in a bowl created by a single pouring of concrete.

It's one of two water towers by the architect still standing—the other being the Pipestone water tower—and it was the first all-concrete elevated water depository used by a municipality in the United States. Retired in 1959-60 from use, the historic water tower evolved from practical to symbolic purposes, elevated to a status as an icon of the city, an imposing presence on the Brainerd skyline and an image emblemized on the city's seal. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974.

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