Brainerd City Council: Building up boys to men
The Brainerd City Council Monday night learned more about a plan to repurpose the former Brainerd Hotel and Conference Center. The council approved the first reading of ordinance 1463, which adds the definition for boarding schools to the zoning ...
The Brainerd City Council Monday night learned more about a plan to repurpose the former Brainerd Hotel and Conference Center.
The council approved the first reading of ordinance 1463, which adds the definition for boarding schools to the zoning code and adds boarding schools as a conditional use in B-4 general commercial districts.
Headley Williamson, chair of the board of directors of Exodus Boys Academy, wants to renovate the vacant hotel space into a boarding school for boys. He spoke with the Planning Commission at its March 15 meeting about the plans for the school and was present Monday night to field questions from the council.
Williamson, from Eagan, was watching a documentary on prison about 17 years ago, he said, when he noticed how many of the men in prison had bad or non-existent relationships with their fathers. About a year and a half ago, he decided to put together a plan for a Christian school for boys, in order to help them avoid a similar fate as the men in the documentary he watched.
"We wanted to build a school that's a church and a school," Williamson said. "So we could raise the next generation of fathers and leaders."
Williamson used to come up to the Brainerd lakes area during the summer, he said, and would stay in the Cinosam Road area. His first experience reading the Bible was at Pequot Lakes Baptist Church, he said, and he became a Christian.
"And now I'm trying to save the world," Williamson said.
There's no physical Exodus Boys Academy yet, Williamson said, and the plan is for the school to open in 2018. There's no teachers either, he said, but the school will go through the proper accreditation process.
Some students who are from the Twin Cities would be able to return home on the weekends, Williamson said. For the first year, the plan is to have grades 6-8, he said, with 20 students in each grade. The school would then add one grade and 20 students per year, until the school serves grades 6-12.
"I actually find Brainerd to be a calming, wonderful place to be," Williamson said. "I think it's a better fit for being here."
Funding for tuition will come from individual donations, Williamson said, following similar funding models as new private schools. Some of the rooms in the hotel would be converted to classrooms, computer labs or study halls, Williamson said, while the others would remain as rooms for the students and staff. The plan is for the school to run year-round, he said.
"We feel that we want their growth to be consistent," Williamson said.
The school plans on hiring staff and teachers from the surrounding area, Williamson said, as opposed to bringing in employees from outside the area.
"In fact, Brainerd would know more about the students than I would," Williamson said. "Because they would be running the school."
The school would want to partner with Brainerd Public Schools, because there are no athletics or arts spaces at the hotel, Williamson said. The goal would be to have students at the boarding school participate in sports with Brainerd Public Schools students, he said.
It doesn't matter where the students come from, Williamson said. The school wants to serve fatherless boys, wherever they may come from, he said.
"Set them in an environment where you have a 24-hour problem, 24-hour solution," Williamson said.
The school will be conservative when it comes to taking in students with emotional or academic issues, Williamson said. The school won't take in any violent students, he said, or students who are multiple grade levels behind where they should be in school. There would be academic testing and psychological evaluations during the application process, he said.
"Your return on investment is better if you take a child and you make them into an engineer or a plumber, as opposed to a prisoner," Williamson said.
Council member Sue Hilgart asked Williamson if he was worried about a potential conflict with the boarding school's proximity to the Pinnacle Recovery Services methadone clinic. Williamson said he saw the clinic as a teachable moment for students.
"Like, 'Don't do that,'" Williamson said. "Just look out the window, 'Don't do that, that's not good for you.'"
The school is near industrial businesses like WW Thompson Concrete and Crow Wing Recycling, both of which generate noise during the school day, council member Gabe Johnson said. He asked if Williamson would ask the council to change I-2 industrial zoning regulations once the school is open and the noise has become an issue. There's multiple ways to alleviate any noise issues, Williamson replied, from soundproof windows to locating classrooms away from noise.
"Those are the things you don't know about until you talk about it," Williamson said. "It's still a very viable building."
City Administrator Jim Thoreen mentioned how the property has deteriorated somewhat since it closed in the fall of 2013. Combined with high energy costs, he asked Williamson if he was still interested in the property. It would cost $10 million to build a similar building from the ground up, Williamson said, so repair costs and high electrical bills don't worry him much.
If the property were to become a boarding school, it would become tax-exempt, Thoreen said. The school could possibly open up the adjoining restaurant to the public, Williamson said, which would mean the restaurant portion of the property would be taxable.
If the Exodus Boys Academy proposal falls through, ordinance 1463 will remain in place for any other boarding schools to try to locate in the city of Brainerd.