GILBERT — The future of Gilbert's school buildings, which will no longer be used as the new Rock Ridge School District moves forward, was at the forefront Tuesday when the City Council and several interested citizens learned about Rethos Policy Institute, a St. Paul firm promoting historic preservation and building reuse.
Erin Hanafin Berg, director for Rethos Policy Institute, presented ideas at the City Council's working session. Mayor Karl Oberstar Jr. said the day after the meeting, "We, the City Council, don't want to see demolition of good buildings. We would like to see them put to good use, good service for the community and a favorable addition to our tax base. But Gilbert cannot afford to hold onto these buildings.
"I was disappointed that Rethos was not in the loop this whole last year looking for a developer," he said. "When and if the city acquires the land, we will then work on finding a developer for the grounds and find grants to help... start from the ground up." He added, "I have asked Rethos to perhaps help the city find some grant funds to restore the historic buildings in Hopkins Park" constructed during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, the Great Depression.
At the meeting Berg said Rethos deals in "places reimagined, historic places, civic pride, revitalized non-profits."
Northern Minnesota has several historic buildings more than 100 years old that have been renovated and some are on the National Register of Historic Places. Among them are: Hibbing High School, the Alango School, the Lincoln School in Virginia which houses the Trenti Law Firm, the old Duluth Central High School now the administration building, a former Grand Rapids school now home of a historical society and in International Falls a school turned into the first multi-unit apartment development in 40 years.
"People really like the apartment-size classrooms and the woodwork," Berg said. "Tax credits are a way to reimagine" buildings being used for other purposes. "Historic tax credits are only available to private developers. Preservation grants are available through the federal government."
As for demolition of buildings, that often costs "a million dollars plus," she said.
During the meeting Gilbert citizen Leo Skrbec said two community surveys indicated 80 percent of those who responded said the city should not be involved.
"I would like to see the buildings preserved, but the cost is far beyond the capacity of the taxpayer. The city would be the fall guy," Skrbec said.
Oberstar said the day after the meeting, "The School Board wanted our answer in a year's time... that is approaching the January 25 meeting. During our budget talks for this year and review of the two city surveys on what the people of Gilbert want to do, the result was (to) not acquire any of the buildings but ask for the property and develop the area from the ground up. The city has no funds to take ownership and maintain these buildings while waiting for a bonafide, viable developer for them.
"My understanding is the school cannot demolish for two years after closure. So there is still a window to find a developer, but it is the school's decision on the next move. The city will pass a resolution asking for the property only... it is the school's decision on the next move,” Oberstar continued. “It is the school's responsibility to demolish the buildings as long as they retain ownership. So Rethos can still be involved with the school to find a developer that fits long-term."