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Top 2021 Stories - No. 10: Brainerd's historic water tower seems here to stay

Brainerd’s historic water tower was on the Top 10 list in 2018 for being in jeopardy of being demolished, and is back this year for the efforts that are going into preserving it.

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Lightning illuminates the sky beyond the historic Brainerd water tower Friday, July 17, 2020, as a line of strong thunderstorms moved across the state. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Brainerd’s historic water tower was on the Top 10 list in 2018 for being in jeopardy of being demolished, and is back this year for the efforts that are going into preserving it.

In 2018, with stucco falling from the tower on the corner of Washington and South Sixth streets that year, city officials began looking at options to repair the iconic structure by adding a roof to stop water intrusion or demolishing it. Costs for repair were estimated to be $2.4 million to $3 million while demolition was estimated in the $150,000 to $300,000 range.

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A red sun caused by smoky haze starts to set Friday, July 30, behind the historic Brainerd water tower. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

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An enthusiastic public response to save the water tower followed. The council also earmarked $300,000 for the demolition and gave citizens a two-year window to raise the funds to save it.
A citizens’ Save the Water Tower Committee was established with a date set to raise a minimum of $1.6 million by 2020. But in 2018, nothing like the coronavirus pandemic was expected to be right around the corner. The pandemic hampered fundraising efforts.

Dec. 10, 2020, marked the historic water tower’s 100th anniversary with Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeau handing out cupcakes near the structure to mark the occasion. By the fall of 2020, the committee requested and received an extension of the deadline.

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Melissa Yeager (left) and Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux take a selfie Thursday, Dec. 10, 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the Brainerd City Council finalizing the completion of construction of the historic water tower. To commemorate the event, Badeaux handed out 100 free cupcakes to people in downtown Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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The committee’s first step in repairing the tower was securing a roof. Engineering reports over the last few years have shown no structural damage to the tower, but the bowl is likely to crack eventually without a roof.
By the summer of 2021, getting that roof became much more likely.

With a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society and matching funds from the city, the nonprofit committee worked to get design plans with the architectural and engineering firm LHB for a new roof. The grant covered the cost of designs and knowing designs for repair and an actual cost were considered key to getting more funding.

LHB included in the designs a preliminary cost estimate of $400,000, a far cry from the $1.6-$3 million price tag originally estimated.

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Water tower outlines served as blank canvases for visitors to Gregory Park Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

MORE STORIES ON THE WATER TOWER

  • Additional water tower grant possible: Brainerd council kicks in more funds for project
  • Brainerd historic water tower represents city
  • Water tower in running for grant: Funding planned to pay for new synthetic roof
  • Addition of Brainerd water tower roof moves ahead with grant secured
  • By late summer of 2021, the committee had more than $44,000 in the bank from various fundraisers and donations, along with pledges for about another $40,000 in the near future.

    Assuming the new roof becomes reality, a second phase of construction later on would remove and repair the stucco on the outside of the tower. City Engineer Paul Sandy said that cost is estimated around or just about $600,000, plus routine maintenance going forward.

    In December, the Minnesota Historical Society gave its final approval for a $162,043 grant to the water tower preservation committee. The city council agreed to kick in matching funds from the money it set aside in 2018 for the tower’s demolition.

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    Limited edition water tower Lego sets are available at The Shoppes in the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd. The sets are $215 each, with 10% of the proceeds going toward restoring the water tower. Contributed

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    The first phase of restoration is expected to include a synthetic rubber roof and catch basin for drainage, restoration of the windows and steel staircase, tuckpointing the brick around the windows and relocating the flagpoles. Although with higher costs for materials, it wasn’t clear if $324,086 from the grant and city matching funds would be enough. One option is to wait to work on the stairs and windows.

    The idea for the water tower, Badeaux said in a report to the council in 2020, came after a series of about 14 major fires in the city between 1914-17. Problems with the city’s water pressure and supply prompted the need for something new. The tower was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974.

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    Blank cards featuring Brainerd's historic water tower, courtesy of Lakes Printing, are for sale at Visit Brainerd. If the limited supply sells out, more will likely be made. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

    Check donations of $250 or more will be eligible for refunds in the event the tower cannot be saved. The rest of the donations would go to Brainerd Restoration.

    Water tower paraphernalia — like buttons, Christmas ornaments, keychains, T-shirts and cribbage boards — are available for purchase at Visit Brainerd on Laurel Street. The committee meets at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at city hall.

    Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.

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    Related Topics: BRAINERDHISTORYCENTERPIECE
    Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
    Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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