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Mill Ave. Park future uncertain, pending new lease agreement

A skater practices his hockey skills on one of the ice rinks at Mill Avenue Park in northeast Brainerd Wednesday, Jan. 9. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

A pending lease agreement between the city of Brainerd and Brainerd Industrial Center owner Mike Higgins creates uncertainty for the public uses of ice skating, hockey and baseball/softball facilities at Mill Avenue Park in northeast Brainerd.

Higgins owns the Mill Avenue Park property, as well as the parking lot at nearby Memorial Park often used for summer baseball and softball games. Easements and lease agreements between the city and the owner of the Brainerd Industrial Center property—previously Potlatch Corp., Missota Paper Co. and Wausau Paper mills—for the two parcels date back to 1989, with the most recent five-year agreement entered into with Wausau Paper signed in January 2014. That agreement, which is set to end Jan. 20, was transferred to Higgins when he bought the property in August of 2014.

Discussions on renewing the lease agreement came up during Brainerd's personnel and finance committee meeting Dec. 17, during which time an agreement was not reached. When the city offered to pay the cost of property taxes for both the Mill Avenue Park facilities and the parking lot at Memorial Park—$750 total per year—Higgins said he wanted up to $20,000 per year for the facilities. According to Crow Wing County records, he paid $37,700 in property taxes to the city in 2018 for his nearly 79 acres of property at and around the Brainerd Industrial Center. Mill Avenue Park takes up 8 acres of that land.

As city staff and committee members did not agree with that high of a cost, an agreement was not reached at that time.

With the lease's expiration date looming, city staff has been in negotiations with Higgins and scheduled a special council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15, to discuss the matter, during which time the city council may vote on an agreement.

"If there is no new lease to be agreed to between the two parties, then all of our programming that would be taking place, including pond hockey, would have to stop at that location," city administrator Cassandra Torstenson said during a phone interview Thursday, Jan. 10. "Then we would be relocating pond hockey down to Bane Park, and then we would have to figure out what we're going to do next summer."

If needed, Torstenson said the city does have room to build new ice hockey and baseball/softball facilities, along with a new parking lot, at Memorial Park, all of which the city owns except for the existing parking lot.

Higgins was reached by phone Thursday afternoon but declined to comment on the issue.

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