How to save the water tower: Committee talks marketing, backup plans

Marketing, grants and backup plans are the top issues right now for Brainerd's Water Tower Committee, the citizen group formed to raise funds to save the historic downtown water tower.

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 file photo

Marketing, grants and backup plans are the top issues right now for Brainerd's Water Tower Committee, the citizen group formed to raise funds to save the historic downtown water tower.

Newly appointed chair Mary Koep got straight to the point during the group's second meeting Wednesday, Nov. 21.

"We need to develop a sense of direction here and not just spin our wheels," she said.

After doling out other duties of treasurer, secretary and marketing manager Wednesday, the group agreed on information and ideas each member needs to gather before next month's meeting so the true work can begin.

About $1.6 million is the bare minimum amount of money committee members need to raise in the next two years to keep the tower standing. Though the total cost to refurbish the tower is estimated closer to $3 million, Dave Badeaux-city council liaison to the committee-said raising $1.6 million would at least give the group options, including asking the city council for a referendum down the road, a suggestion by Koep. She noted a lot of work would need to be done as far as planning and laying out more exact costs but said she thinks a referendum to save the water tower could be successful.


The city council agreed to allow two years to raise the estimated $3 million needed to save the tower. Previously set for Aug. 6, 2020, that "sunset date" was moved to Oct. 24, 2020-two years from the water tower committee's first meeting.

Large pieces of falling stucco originally prompted the discussion around what to do with the tower-fix it or demolish it. The various options for fixing the structure range in cost from $2.4 to $3 million, and the cost of demolition is estimated between $150,000 to $300,000.


Marketing strategies will be on the agenda for the committee's next meeting. Carissa Meyer, committee member who agreed to spearhead marketing efforts, said she was approached by a local organization that might have money available toward the end of the year to donate to the group's advertising efforts. Badeaux said he is absolutely interested. That way, he said, the committee would not have to put water tower donations toward marketing expenses.

What's next?

Perhaps the very next step the committee needs to take is deciding what will happen to donations if the effort ultimately fails. Committee member Ashley Storm noted many residents are hesitant to donate money to save the tower before knowing where it would end up if there's a lack of funding.

Badeaux tasked group members to bring their ideas to the December meeting so they can solidify a plan by the end of the year.

He also asked the committee to reach out to anyone they know with a construction background who might be able to weigh in on costs and anyone with grant-writing experience who could help coach the group on steps to apply for state or federal grants.


Koep suggested going as far as the state Legislature to request bonding dollars. After looking at other projects throughout the state awarded bonding money in the last year, she thinks the water tower would be a viable project as well.

Storm cautioned the group about moving too fast on these undertakings, noting every detail needs to be in place before making leaps to grant applications and communication with legislators.

"We need to have an idea of what we're doing before any of that stuff goes out. It has to be solidified," Storm said. "Otherwise they're just going to laugh at us and throw it right back, and then it gives us a bad name for anything in the future."

The rest of the group agreed, and Badeaux told them to be ready to come back next month with "pie in the sky" ideas for moving forward.

The water tower committee meets at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of the month at city hall. The next meeting is Dec. 19.

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, 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.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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