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Brainerd: Council to contribute funds to water tower restoration efforts

The Brainerd City Council agreed to contribute funds to further efforts by the city's water tower committee to secure restoration grants for historic downtown water tower. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

In one opinion, restoring Brainerd's historical water tower isn't worth the costly price tag, but the city council will contribute funds nonetheless.

Brainerd Industrial Center owner Mike Higgins advocated for a new replica tower in place of the 100-year-old structure Monday, April 15, after the Brainerd City Council agreed to contribute $12,500 to the community effort to save the tower.

First, council member Dave Badeaux, liaison to the citizen's water tower committee, told the council engineering and architectural designs for the tower's restoration are imperative to getting funds to save the tower. After approaching the Minnesota Historical Society about grants to help fund the much needed but costly restorations to the tower, Badeaux said he learned large grants likely won't come without a physical plan in place.

The historical society, however, would be willing to help fund two-thirds of these designs, Badeaux said, if the committee could secure local matching funds for one-third of the cost. LHB, the engineering firm that worked on the drawings in the tower's historic structure report, estimated a price tag of $37,400 for preparing construction grade plans and specifications.

"Basically what we were told was by doing this, we have a fairly good chance of moving into that larger pool (of grants), but without this there's no way to move forward," Badeaux said.

Council members agreed to contribute $12,500—roughly one-third of the design costs—using money from a fund they previously agreed to set up should the tower have to be demolished. This fund, established in August, receives $100,000 each year over three years to cover the cost of demolition if enough funds aren't raised to save the tower by the 2020 sunset date.

Higgins, however, doesn't think the council should spend money to save the tower. But he also doesn't want to see a Brainerd without it.

"I have a little experience in the city of Brainerd buying old things and restoring them," Higgins said during the open forum portion of Monday's meeting. "I feel that one of my things that I seem to be really good at in life is putting lipstick on a pig, and I'm deathly afraid of your guys' attempts to save that water tower."

That was Higgins' tune until April 1, when the Save the Historic Brainerd Water Tower Facebook page posted edited pictures showing what the city would look like without the tower.

"There's no doubt in my mind that that water tower is an iconic site for the city of Brainerd," Higgins said. "And those pictures of the trains going by with no water tower or looking south out of my new property and thinking about not seeing that when the sun's hitting it definitely changed the way I looked at it."

But because the structure hasn't been in use in decades and requires up to $3 million worth of restorations, Higgins thinks it should be torn down and replaced with an identical steel replica the city could actually use. With the understanding that tax dollars would likely be needed, in part, to save the tower, Higgins said he would rather see his money go toward something functioning.

"If we're going to spend $3 million on it," he said, "why not have something we can use for the next 100 years instead of something that just sits there for 100 years?"

The new Brainerd Public Utilities south zone water tower being built near the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds costs about $1.74 million.

Water tower background

Stucco falling last year from the historic water tower on the corner of Washington and South Sixth streets in downtown Brainerd prompted city officials to explore repair options for the iconic structure.

With similar issues in the past, the 100-year-old tower faces the possibility of demolition if the funds needed to repair it are not raised by October 2020.

The water tower committee's goal is to raise at least $1.6 million in the time allotted, as that, Badeaux said, would give the city a base to start and the opportunity to explore other options—like a referendum—to raise the rest of the funds.

Theresa Bourke

I started at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and the Brainerd School District. I follow city and school board officials as they make important decisions for residents and students and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I look for feature story ideas among those I meet and enjoy, more than anything, helping individuals tell their stories and show what makes them unique.

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