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Climbing facility plan still alive

WORTHINGTON -- A proposal to convert a long-defunct grain elevator into a climbing facility faces a steep path to the top -- but a ladder for it remains.

The Worthington City Council denied on Monday evening a grant request of up to $400,000 from the city to boost the climbing facility project, but approved a motion that allowed the proposal's proponents to keep seeking additional funding sources. The action came after hearing a presentation from Jay Milbrandt, a certified climbing instructor with familial ties to Worthington, and city resident Glenn Kremer.

Rather than put forth any money toward the project, the council opted to require current elevator owner Stuart Carleton of Ruby Development to tear down the original wood portion of the elevator by May 15 and escrow $50,000 toward demolition of the remainder of the facility. It also grants a one-year extension from May 15 for complete demolition should the climbing facility not come to fruition. The motion, made by Alderman Mike Kuhle and seconded by Alderman Scott Nelson, passed 3-1.

"We have worked long and hard to get to that May 15 date to get that elevator to come down," said Alderman Lyle Ten Haken in casting the lone "no" vote. "I would hate to show any weakness that that date's going to get extended."

Ten Haken did state his appreciation of Milbrandt's enthusiasm for developing the project, noting that he wished he "could bottle it around Worthington." Other council members also praised Milbrandt for his vision, though each expressed concerns about funding the project.

Milbrandt, an attorney employed by Pepperdine University as well as general counsel to Bedford Industries Inc. in Worthington, explained in his presentation that cities such as Bloomington, Ill., Oklahoma City, Okla., and Carrollton, Texas, have climbing facilities that have helped those communities flourish. He described Bloomington "as similarly situated to Worthington" and with a facility that brings in 18,000 visitors annually while attracting national attention.

"I see this as a groups-based facility," said Milbrandt, noting that the old elevator -- which would be known as the Worthington Adventure Center -- could be marketed to communities such as Sioux Falls, S.D., Sioux City, Iowa, Minneapolis, Mankato and others closer in distance. He said strategic partnerships would be formed with organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, regional schools and universities, local camps, after-school programs and more.

"I understand the fire chief here is very interested in this," added Milbrandt of the potential for specialized training in the facility. "This is an interesting idea, it's an exciting idea, but is it going to work financially? That's a question on a lot of your minds."

Milbrandt said he believed the adventure center could break even in four years, given a minimum of 3,000 annual visitors and yearly operating expenses of between $60,000 and $95,000. A self-generating demolition fund would receive $10,000 annually, he added.

In addition to requesting up to $400,000 in city money, Milbrandt proposed a three- to five-year stay on demolition of the elevator as well as city control of the building ("to be able to remove it any point in the future ... or maintain it").

"We hope that it can run as a nonprofit and be a community-centered initiative," he said. "I think this is a way to package Worthington and differentiate it from other cities in the region."

Alderman Mike Woll expressed concern about city management of the facility, citing a lack of a rock-climbing specialist and a marketing person. Milbrandt responded by saying he knows people who have expressed interest in running the adventure center.

Ten Haken worried aloud about potential liability issues, and also recalled the failed Prairie Expo project in explaining the need to be careful with taxpayer dollars. Kuhle also said he was hesitant to use city money for the project, but encouraged Milbrandt to explore other grant opportunities that may be available.

"I'm really struggling with tax dollars ... but I'd love to see this succeed," Kuhle said.

In other business Monday, the council:

* Approved an annual funding request of $7,500 for the Southwest Initiative Foundation that was part of the city's current budget. Sherry Ristau, president and CEO of SWIF, took questions about the agency from council members in advance of the motion's unanimous approval.

* Approved the second of three required readings of a proposed ordinance that would amend city code to allow for a permit process to authorize a recreational vehicle to be parked occupied in a zoned residential district. A fee of $50 would be set for the permit.

"I'm concerned we're rushing into this thing without thinking about all the ramifications," said Kuhle, who voted against the second reading.

Nelson moved to cancel the reading of the ordinance -- a motion that died for lack of a second.

"I disagree with the notion of paying $50 to park an RV in your driveway," he said.

Ten Haken, who stated the need to make it more attractive for RVs to be parked in the city's Olson Park campground than in driveways, later said "it's possible we're making a bigger deal out of this" than necessary and approved the reading. He was joined by Woll and Mayor Alan Oberloh, who voted to break the deadlock in the absence of Alderman Ron Wood.

* Approved a memorandum of understanding with Operating Engineers Local 49 for a summer hours work schedule for 2011 that allows for longer work days in exchange for Friday afternoons off.

* Approved a professional services contract with Mead and Hunt, Minneapolis, in the amount of $62,376 in fees for reconstruction of a portion of Apron A at Worthington's airport.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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