Brainerd City Council: Pressing fixes, big changes await water tower

At face value, the resolution seemed run-of-the-mill--a unanimous vote Monday, July 16, by the Brainerd City Council to contact contractors to determine cost estimates for work that addresses the immediate repairs, security and maintenance of the...

Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
A ground-level shot of the Brainerd historic water tower. Gaps in the eroded stucco exterior of the structure can been seen at the top-center portion of the bowl. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

At face value, the resolution seemed run-of-the-mill-a unanimous vote Monday, July 16, by the Brainerd City Council to contact contractors to determine cost estimates for work that addresses the immediate repairs, security and maintenance of the historic water tower.

However, in terms of gravity and long-term ramifications, Monday's resolution is merely a glimpse of the larger ongoing discussion. Prompted by reports of falling stucco and concrete from the exterior of Brainerd's most iconic structure, the council convened to determine how the city intends to address the pressing issue-an aging, potentially dangerous structure with a price tag anywhere between $2.4 million to over $3 million to restore it. Substantially cheaper-but also substantially less popular, judging by the outspoken crowd-would be demolishing the tower for $150,000-$300,000.

In council chambers packed with lakes area residents and others from far afield-some of whom were waiting on the city hall steps more than an hour prior to the evening's meeting-the verdict seems overwhelmingly clear: People want to save the historic water tower and ensure its future for years to come.

---   ---   ---   ---   ---

Let you voice be heard - In our poll!


---   ---   ---   ---   ---

"You should do everything you possibly can to save the tower. I think you need to stop dragging your feet on this," Brainerd resident Ann Nelson told the council. She questioned why the city had assessments of the tower's failing exterior for four years, but spent no more than $12,000 in that time on its maintenance. "Whatever it is, it needs to be done well and it needs to be permanent-as permanent as you can make it. And if it's $2.3 million or $3 million, get it done. And if you have to raise my taxes to do it, raise them."

In her address to the council, Brainerd resident Susan Edwards pointed to the reputation of the historic water tower-an enduring image of Brainerd and the lakes area, among its residents and abroad-as well as lingering dissatisfaction with how the city has dealt with beloved structures in the past, such as the old Paramount Theater or the railway depot.

"It's everywhere-it's part of our culture, it's part of our city, the city emblems have the water tower," Edwards said. "Save the water tower."

The issue then is not the desire to keep the tower standing so much as how to go about restoring it-particularly, how the overhaul will be funded or if the city of Brainerd will be able to accrue the funding to restore the historic water tower with the clock ticking on its impending deconstruction.

"A thing people need to understand about this is there is a very real possibility that that water tower could be removed," council member Dave Badeaux said. "And if we do nothing, it will be removed eventually. I believe we can do it. I believe we can save it. But, it's going to require a lot of effort from a lot of people to do it."

Council President Dave Pritschet said it's neither the will of the people of Brainerd, nor the position of the council to remove the tower, however it's a matter of paying for a now-defunct utility structure that has evolved into a significant-if only symbolic-structure for the community.

"Nobody seems to be eager to destroy the water tower," said Pritschet, who supported making efforts to ensure the safety and integrity of the structure now, which gives the city time to determine how it will address the issue of restoration. "The people of Brainerd are going to have to speak on this and I think a referendum is a clear way of getting a voice of the people of Brainerd."


Mike Higgins, the owner of the Brainerd Industrial Center, touched upon his experience coming to Brainerd in 2014 and buying the former Wausau paper mill. Much like the tower, restoring the former paper mill was a worthwhile venture, he said, but like the old paper mill, the nearly century-old water tower will present a host of unforeseeable hangups and problems. These issues may balloon costs beyond what the city or architectural-engineering firms can anticipate at this point.

Back to the drawing board

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.

By starting restorative chipping projects and installing a net for safety reasons now, council members noted, the city and its residents can then turn their minds and resources to making more substantial, proactive changes.

During Monday's meeting, City Engineer Paul 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 matter of money

During Monday's discussion, council members, city staff and members of the community suggested a number of ways that could primarily, or in conjunction with each other methods, serve to pay for the entirety or a portion of the historic water tower's restoration.

• Tax levy via voter referendum: Finance Director Connie Hillman said it would be difficult to make any assessments on how much a referendum would increase property taxes, whether it was slated at 20 or 30 years of structured debt. If the referendum were to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot, the city has to file the referendum questions by Aug. 24. Council member Gabe Johnson gave a rough estimate that a $2.5 million (or roughly mid-range cost) restoration financed over 10 years would require $320,000 annual payments, entailing a 5.7 percent levy increase, before the council could address the operating needs of the city.

• Local option sales tax: Council member Kelly Bevans speculated whether the city could spread out the burden of the tower's restoration beyond city borders by imposing a local option sales tax on any goods purchased in Brainerd, thereby enabling Brainerd lakes area residents, Crow Wing County residents or others to help restore a structure with regional significance. Hillman noted the city already has and may only have one such tax, at 0.5 percent, in place. The city of Brainerd is funding improvements to its wastewater treatment facility through these means.

• State and federal funds: City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said the city has done some preliminary explorations for requesting state or federal forms of funding and concluded there are limited options beyond a few funding pools capped at $30,000, in particular for a structure without a clear economic benefit to the area as the historic water tower's value is primarily symbolic.

• Historical restoration grants: The Minnesota Historical Society doled out roughly $3.2 million in 2017 to various initiatives to restore or preserve historical landmarks across the state. While it's highly unlikely grants could fund the entirety of the tower's restoration-higher-end cost estimates hover just over $3 million-council members noted these grants could be stacked with other forms of funding or reduce the price tag attached to a future referendum.

• Crowdfunding/donations, or more broadly, leaning on grassroots movements and volunteer work to accrue the necessary funding: Johnson cautioned those in favor of a referendum to "be careful what you wish for," noting he believes people will decline to donate or support any non-city-run initiatives until the referendum passes and they know how much they stand to pay in taxes. He also framed it as a way to spread the costs beyond the relatively small community of Brainerd and enable people from all over the Brainerd lakes area to support an iconic structure that represents the region as a whole.


• Seeking outside assistance from neighboring and affected municipalities: Essentially, recruiting other cities and neighboring counties if they can be convinced of the economic benefit to retaining a symbol of the area known nationwide.

• Seeking outside assistance from a nonprofit: Essentially, attempting to recruit parties interested in restoring the tower to work jointly with the city of Brainerd and ease the burden on its residents.

• Granting temporary ownership to a nonprofit entity or holding group: For example, Brainerd Restoration, Brainerd Community Action, Crow Wing Energized, or similar 501(c)(3) organizations, which can be convinced to aid and oversee restoration efforts. Council members noted the move could potentially cut down on total costs, compared to retaining the project in city hands.

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.

What To Read Next
Get Local