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Ah-Gwah-Ching sale delayed by Cass board

WALKER — Cass County Board voted Tuesday to delay placing for sale any portion of land the county owns at the former Ah-Gwah-Ching state hospital property until the board can review its own long-range plans.

Also to be accomplished first will be to determine where the county will establish road rights of way on the property, to record known information about hazardous materials at the site and establish that any purchaser would be responsible for future cleanup, to modify easements to the lake over property Minnesota DNR owns between the county land and Leech Lake and to confirm the state’s role in setting an appraised value for land.

When Cass County purchased the Ah-Gwah-Ching acreage from the state for $1, the board’s concept was to eventually build a new county government center there in stages.

The county ultimately would abandon downtown Walker county buildings where there is no more adjacent open land to for expansion.

The county also hoped to see a critical access hospital and related medical complex built there. Essentia, which owns the hospital at Brainerd, initially expressed interest in being lead provider for that project, but dropped the idea during the economic downturn.

Since then, other medical service providers in the area have been approached, but none to date, including Sanford, which owns the hospital at Bemidji, have come forward to take on building a hospital at Walker.

Cass County Economic Development Director Gail Leverson presented to the board in January multi-family residential proposals from two developers who are interested in purchasing some of the Ah-Gwah-Ching land from the county.

Boser Construction of Sauk Rapids proposed to purchase five acres where they would build a 12-unit general occupancy single-story apartment building.

Russ Wood sought to purchase three lots where he proposed to build single-story duplexes and four-flexes to rent as pre-assisted living residences for seniors. A caretaker residence and office would be built on one lot.

In the last month, Leverson met with a committee of county and city of Walker officials to discuss the developer proposals and directions the county and city plan to take.

City officials indicated they would be open to considering tax-increment financing for the residential proposals. They also noted the county-owned property currently is zoned public for public use and would have to be rezoned if it were to be sold for residential development.

Developers would have to obtain city land use permits and pay any special assessments for connecting to city water and sewer services the county ran to the property.

“We never talked about housing in the beginning,” Commissioner Jim Dowson said of the county’s original intent when purchasing Ah-Gwah-Ching property.

“Tell Economic Development (Corporation) to take it off the table until we decide what we’re going to do,” he added, summing up the board’s consensus Tuesday.

Dowson noted that while the county currently is happy with its arrangement for jail services with Crow Wing County, and there currently are additional beds available in Cass’s old jail at Walker, the first need he sees for beginning to build government offices at Ah-Gwah-Ching likely would be for larger court and county attorney space.

Administrator Robert Yochum told the board he will work on preparing an updated capital improvement plan for future county buildings and will have staff work on road right of way issues, hazardous materials concerns and DNR easements for the board to consider.