Historic building getting eyeballed

Houston County Jail
Houston County Jail

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus


The Houston County Board is keenly aware of the opportunity and the obstacles the old jail presents. The stone structure is listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places and sits unoccupied in the courthouse square.

Both demolition and reuse discussions have transpired, and most recently Bruce Schwartzman visited from BKV Group, an architectural firm out of Minneapolis, to shed light on the various options that lay before the board.

Straight out of the gate Schwartzman addressed the big questions. He said, “There’s a lot of opportunity there and space. The question is, is it something that gets utilized by the county or a private individual?”

The board’s rapid response was that it makes more sense to keep all structures in courthouse square under county control. In that light, discussion proceeded in the direction of the county somehow finding a way to reuse the space.

The good news is Schwartzman believes the building is structurally sound. “On the interior you’ve got two very viable floors that could be anything, perhaps office space,” he said.

The back section of the building contains the old jail cells, and  Schwartzman thinks the steel structure might be supporting part of the roof. If that is true it would be pricey to take the cells out and create a new support structure.

Commissioner Jack Miller said reusing the jail for offices would be a great option if the county hadn’t purchased the building at 611 Vista Drive for public health and veterans services.

“I know it was crowded, but if we could have waited one more year until the justice center was complete we could have put those offices in the jail. We’ve stuck so much in that building out there… With the real estate market in Caledonia I don’t think we can ever get that money recouped,” Miller said.

Despite the obstacles, state grants up to $5,000 are available to help counties pay for reuse studies. Schwartzman said he can put together a cost proposal to address four areas, including structural issues, remodeling costs, demolition costs and information on any grants or red tape.

With the board’s nod Schwartzman is going to put together a proposal while Jordan Wilms, economic development coordinator, prepares a grant application to pay for a study.


Golf carts

The ability, or lack thereof, to drive golf carts on county highways was put to rest at the Dec. 11 board meeting after commissioners voted against a proposal that would have allowed carts on County Highway 26 in Money Creek Township.

The issue first came before the county in September when residents of Money Creek Haven Campground asked if they could drive a quarter-mile portion of the highway to get to town. “It’s just a leisurely little drive,” Bud Fitting told the board.

But Township residents voiced their opposition – often loudly – saying campground guests were a nuisance and simply snooping around.

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski was asked to weigh-in with his professional opinion, which didn’t favor golf cart drivers.

“I did some checking, took pictures and looked at adjacent township roads,” Pogodzinski said. “I would recommend not allowing the use of golf carts on Hwy. 26.”

His determination emphasized the safety hazard slow moving vehicles create on the hilly, curvy  highway with traffic traveling at 55 miles per hour.

Commissioner Tom Bjerke echoed Pogodzinski’s sentiments, saying, “You have to look at the safety of residents in Houston County. I don’t think there’s any good reason to allow it.”


Other business

• After opening up 22 acres of land the county owns for bids, it was discovered that breaking the lease/contract the county has with a farmer on the land makes it an undesirable sell for the time being. The board decided to revisit the issue when the contract expires.

• Environmental Services Director Rick Frank shared some bad news when he told the board Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. – a consultant hired in November to do an independent, third party review of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet on a proposed frac sand mine – has rescinded its interest, siting a potential conflict.

Frank has contacted several firms and set up interviews to replace the consultant. “It did set us back a couple weeks,” Frank said.

• The Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry sent a letter to the county asking for cooperation in an investigation of the highway department building. The letter addresses alleged hazards, including structural defects, mold, air quality deficiencies and employees repairing equipment outside during the winter due, in part, to lack of sufficient room inside the building.

Human Resources Director Tess  Arrick-Kruger said she formally addressed the complaint and expects that a roof replacement on the building will close the case.

• The Houston County Courthouse will be closed Tuesday, Dec. 25, as well as Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.