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City, county and school district want to collaborate on building, but need state’s help

This property (shown Friday) that was a former home to Campbell Soup Co. could be the site of a multipurpose facility shared between the city of Worthington, Nobles County and District 518. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Though neither the county, city or school district have made a firm commitment to proceed with a collaborative multi-purpose facility on the former Campbell Soup property along Second Avenue in downtown Worthington, they believe the project’s fate may lie with the Minnesota Legislature when it convenes Feb. 20.

That’s because Nobles County has asked its local representation — District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker (R-Luverne) and District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) — to seek $26 million in a potential state bonding bill for the facility’s construction.

The $26 million is the estimated cost of the building’s construction. It does not include the estimated $2 million needed for soil remediation on the site or for any furniture, fixtures or equipment inside the building.

The proposed facility would house a new Nobles County Library, as well as ISD 518’s adult education, community education and Nobles County Integration Collaborative classrooms and offices. Superintendent John Landgaard said it’s possible some preschool space would be included in the building as well.

Ideas have also been presented on potential city use, such as a welcome center, but Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle is quick to note nothing has been decided.

“The project is really driven by the county with the library and the school with community education,” Kuhle said.

The city’s connection is that it owns the land, and Kuhle said he believes there is support on the council for the land to be the city’s contribution toward the project.

“But again, none of this has been approved by the city council,” he cautioned. “We’re behind the county and the school 100 percent. I believe the members of the city council see this as a great reuse of the (property), and we’re going to be there to work with the county and the school.”

The three entities introduced the request for bonding when then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith visited Worthington last November. With her Senate appointment and subsequent departure to Washington, County Administrator Tom Johnson was tasked with compiling a proposal for bonding.   

He said a collaborative building project just makes sense. An evaluation of space needs shows the entities could construct a roughly 69,000-square-foot collaborative building, or build separate facilities totalling more than 80,800 square feet of space if both the county and the school district did their own projects. The space savings would result from the sharing of meeting rooms, restrooms and common space, and would lead to an estimated $4.6 million in cost savings, noted Johnson.  

“You only need one heating and cooling system, you can share a lot of the meeting rooms and a lot of the support stuff can be shared,” Johnson said.

The very preliminary cost estimate for a collaborative facility is nearly $26.4 million. So why, without committing any funds to the project, is the bonding request for $26 million?

“You have to ask for everything or you get nothing,” Johnson said. “If you ask for $10 million, you maybe get $5 (million).”

He said the local legislators also advised them to ask for full construction costs.

“What goes to the legislature is never what comes out,” Johnson added.

Gov. Mark Dayton last month announced his plans for a $1.5 billion bonding proposal for public works projects, but it’s absent of any local efforts.

“It’s pretty hard to believe that’s what will go through,” Johnson said, yet he admits it’s “pretty safe to say” a multi-purpose facility for Worthington won’t get built without a significant grant. Without a grant, the county library project and the ISD 518 Community Education proposal are back to square one, Johnson speculates.

Grant funding from the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development may be available for the soil remediation, and the Friends of the Nobles County Library can fundraise for any amenities inside the library, but financial assistance is needed for the building’s construction.

Non-committal parties

It seems none of the three entities is willing to commit dollars to a multi-purpose facility at this time, each taking a wait-and-see approach with the outcome of the ISD 518 bond referendum Feb. 13.

“I think that’s why no one really wants to talk about it yet,” said Johnson, admitting the county’s board of commissioners has had no discussion about how much, if any, money it would be willing to contribute toward the collaborative project.

Landgaard said the school board likely wouldn’t discuss financing for the project until after the legislature has announced its bonding bill.

“If the legislature funds it, we would know in June and then the entities would have to decide if they’re in and how much they are going to contribute,” he said. “I don’t think any of the entities expect it all to be paid for. On the other hand, we want to make sure we explore bonding fully before each of the entities determines their piece of the pie.”

Realistically speaking, Landgaard said if the legislature awards bonding for the project — and if the three entities decide to move forward with the facility — it will be at least three years before they could move in.

Though the funding remains in limbo, Johnson, Landgaard and Kuhle each expressed enthusiasm for the potential collaboration.

“I think part of the interest it should have for the legislature is we have a county library, school and the city … working together to build one building instead of each of our own,” said Kuhle. “That’s the beauty in this program — a collaboration with a savings of $3 to $4 million — and another part of it is we get to redevelop that Campbell hill — make it something nice.”

“I’m just excited about the possibilities of this project,” Landgaard added. “Anytime we can share and save those tax dollars and do everything collaboratively, it’s much better for everybody.”

“It’s just such a perfect mix,” Johnson said. “It’s an exciting project.”

Library in waiting

The on-again, off-again, on-again discussions about a new library in Worthington have already cost the county in time, resources and cash, dating back to the first space needs study the county authorized in 2009.

The initial study by George Lawson cost $9,495 in 2009. In 2015, the report was updated by Lawson with a cursory look at the armory, costing the county $6,138.

The evaluation of the armory came after the county purchased the building in May 2015 for more than $225,000. At the time the commissioners voted for the purchase, several had seen the building as a potential new home for the county library.

The idea was quickly quashed, however, when Falls Architecture Studio of Sioux Falls, S.D., evaluated the then-92-year-old building and determined the space wasn’t conducive for a library facility.

The county spent $17,000 with Falls Architecture Studio for the development of a master plan for the armory. Today, the Nobles County Historical Society continues to lead the charge to one day occupy the building, but a multi-million-dollar renovation is needed.

Johnson said in addition to the money, a lot of commissioner time has been spent on the library issue.

“I couldn’t put a guess on how much time I’ve put into it during my time here,” Johnson said.

Nobles County Library Director Clint Wolthuizen has dealt with the library discussions since his first day on the job, and it consumed much of the previous library director’s time as well.

And yet, all are working with the same challenges that have existed for nearly a decade — a lack of space and the inability to grow programming.

“We’re always stretched thin for space,” Wolthuizen said last week. “We had our highest programming ever in 2016, and 2017 showed almost a duplication of those numbers. It’s a challenge all the time trying to figure out how to maintain this level and how we keep growing.”

The library’s collection of materials has been at 0 percent growth for a while now, meaning that for every new book placed on the shelf, one has to be taken out of circulation.

“We purchase and we weed,” Wolthuizen said. “We split our cake pan collection and cut our paperback collection so we could create a teen room — we needed a spot for them. It’s a cobbled-together space; it’s not what it could be with a new building.”

Wolthuizen said the library patrons of Nobles County have functioned with the library they have for so long, they don’t really understand what a library can be. He spoke of workshops, arts, music, programs and events offered at other libraries that can’t be done at the local library because of space constraints.

“I just think Worthington is a community that could really, really use a collaborative facility like this. A facility with a few more resources could really make an impact here,” Wolthuizen said. “I’m excited for that. I welcome people’s feedback. We need to hear from people and what they need, what they expect in a library as well.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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