WORTHINGTON — On a 17-1 vote Tuesday night, the Worthington City Council, ISD 518 Board of Education and Nobles County Board of Commissioners chose LHB, a Minneapolis-based architectural firm, to begin the design phase of a collaborative W.E.L.L. (Welcome, Education, Library and Livability) facility on the former Campbell Soup site in Worthington.

The vote included unanimous support from both the ISD 518 board and the Worthington City Council. The county’s vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Justin Ahlers in opposition. He did not voice reasons for his vote Tuesday night, but has consistently been opposed to a library building project.

LHB was one of two architectural firms to respond to a request for proposals for the project. The second was Wold Architects, a firm often used by ISD 518 in its building projects. Both presented to the Nobles County Library Board and representatives of the city, county and school leadership last week.

“There was a very strong consensus to recommend LHB to this group,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson.

Agreeing to hire the architectural firm was the 15th step on an 18-step agenda the three entities worked through during the hour-and-a-half-long meeting.

It followed action taken by each entity to formally commit to the project. Since ISD 518 board members had previously authorized $12.5 million toward the W.E.L.L. project, no further action was needed by them.

The city of Worthington had also acted on a financial contribution — in 2017 — when they agreed to commit $2 million to the project.

“Since nothing happened — since things fell apart or ceased — we did take $500,000 and committed it to the Nobles County Historical Society Armory project,” said Councilman Chad Cummings. “There’s still $1.5 million voted on and committed to the Nobles County Library. We did that. It’s done. It’s there.”

City Administrator Steve Robinson, however, noted that the city’s action of two years ago had a sunset date. Therefore, the city would need to take new action to commit funds to the project.

A motion by the Worthington City Council to commit $1.5 million to the project passed with a unanimous vote Tuesday, as did a vote to commit the city-owned land at no charge for construction of a W.E.L.L. facility.

While there was some discussion about soil remediation and who would be responsible for those costs, those details will be worked out once the entities have more information.

“The hot area is midway between the blue building and the fire hall,” said Councilman Alan Oberloh. “That area I don’t think will ever be built on.”

Without architectural drawings, however, where the building fits on the site has yet to be determined.

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said if more suitable land is needed for the project, there is the potential to purchase adjacent property closer to the lake “to make this whole project go.”

“We’re nowhere near a final OK,” Kuhle cautioned. “There’s a lot of questions, a lot of engineering, a lot of architect work that needs to be done.”

Commissioner Gene Metz agreed, saying that if the project came in at $100 million, there wouldn’t be a commitment to move forward.

That said, there is work progressing on the site, specific to the blue Morton-type building that is being renovated into a field house by the city of Worthington. It was one of the projects identified by city leaders to be funded with the half-cent sales tax approved earlier this year by the state legislature.

“We are engaged with architectural design on the interior portion of the building,” Robinson shared. “Our optimistic hope is to have it open sometime this winter.”

At the same time, Nobles County has already submitted an application to the state to be considered in the next bonding bill.

Johnson reported that he’s met with both Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) about the need for state bonding to do the project. The hope is the city will be included on the legislative bonding committee tour, he added.

The county’s application, because a funding request needed to be made, noted $41 million in construction costs, with a request for state bonding of $18 million. That was an estimate Johnson said he made factoring a 60,000-square-foot building.

“If we come out of here tonight with an agreement, I’ve got to believe that bodes well with your bonding request,” Oberloh said.

ISD 518 Board member Linden Olson questioned whether bonding could set the project back, and that is an unknown at this point.

Johnson said he would anticipate learning about the bond funding in late March 2020. That falls in line with the six- to eight-month process required by the architects to design the project.

Additional action taken Tuesday night included directing the city, county and school administrators to work together on a collaborative agreement and guiding documents for the project. They are also tasked with developing a recommendation on hiring an owner’s representative to work with the architect. That recommendation will then need to be acted upon by all three entities.

Other collaborations possible

The W.E.L.L. project originally was proposed as a collaborative facility to include a new Nobles County Library, classrooms for the school district’s Adult Basic Education, Community Education and Early Childhood programming, a welcome center and some office space for the city of Worthington.

Over the past two years, various other entities have entered the discussion.

The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce is looking for a new home, and expressed an interest in being included in the W.E.L.L. project if it's financially feasible for it to do so. Because the Chamber provides support to the Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation and the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., those two entities would also be looking to relocate with the Chamber.

“We need to make sure it is the right fit for the Chamber in terms of our budget,” said Chamber President Ryan McGaughey. “We remain fully interested in this site and the collaboration it represents.”

Commissioner Matt Widboom said that while a new library is the county’s priority in the W.E.L.L. project, the county has identified the potential to also locate a WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office in the facility, as well as some other health and human services programs.

“There’s all sorts of possibilities, if they fit into the puzzle,” Widboom said.

The Nobles County Art Center has also expressed interest in moving with the library.

The Nobles County Library Board took action Monday to support participation in the W.E.L.L. project. A 3-2 vote was cast by the library board, with those in opposition voicing concerns over the location and its proximity to the railroad.

Nobles County Commissioner Donald Linssen said he shared those concerns about safety, but ultimately said he supports the project. He urged the collaborative group to write the rules on how the collaboration will work moving forward, particularly in regard to shared spaces.

“We’re on the edge of a collaborative project that really hasn’t been done in the state before,” noted Widboom. “We have an opportunity to do a project to serve the residents of the city and the county. We have to be willing to work together.”