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Pipestone students complete total makeover of condemned house

The old (left) version of a Fifth Avenue Southwest home in Pipestone is contrasted with a new version transformed through the efforts of Pipestone carpentry students. 1 / 3
Bathroom before renovation.2 / 3
Bathroom after renovation.3 / 3

PIPESTONE — Over the last year, Pipestone carpentry students did what some thought was impossible: transform a blighted and condemned Fifth Avenue Southwest property into a brand new house.

That meant replacing nearly everything, including rotten floors, broken doors, a damaged roof, torn-up walls, a ruined bathroom and ivy-and-dirt-covered siding.

The project is a collaboration between Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Pipestone Area Schools (PAS), the city of Pipestone, the Pipestone Economic Development Authority Board (EDA) and local businesses.

Both Minnesota West students and PSEO students at PAS participate in the hands-on program. It’s taught by Solomon Derby, an alum of the college’s carpentry program, which had been dormant for several years before being revived last year.

“We wanted to find a way to get the college carpentry program back, as there’s a history of house building in this town,” said Kevin Paulsen, EDA President. “We said we’ll buy inventory of houses for the students to work on.”

The collaborative project has several goals: give students an education and useful skills, clean up blighted properties and provide more high-quality housing units.

The city has several blighted properties like the one on Fifth Avenue Southwest, but the cost of rehabbing these properties turned out to be more expensive than expected. In the tongue-in-cheek words of Pipestone Mayor Myron Koets, “we found out how much it cost and we all had heart failure.”

Fortunately, local businesses stepped up in 2017, donating $150,000 — including a $75,000 contribution from Pipestone Veterinary Systems — to establish a blight fund. The city now has options when dealing with a condemned property.

“Now, when we start looking at a house, we can ask, ‘is it blighted, and what is the cost to bring it up to some standard?’” Koets said. “You can start making better decisions. Do we throw our hands up and tear it down, or do we instead try to salvage it?”

The newly repaired house was in bad shape, but the foundation was intact, making it a good first test for Derby and his students. Throughout the calendar year, Derby directed a team of six students working on the house, each of whom had their own subprojects to work on. It's the first home fixed by students since the collaboration began.

As the students started late, the flooring was done by Pipestone Interiors, the plumbing by WM Plumbing & Heating and electrical work by Olsen Electric. Everything else was done by the students.

On Tuesday, Wallace Michels became the first Minnesota West student to graduate from the revived program. The St. Peter native enjoyed working all over the house, especially doing trim work along the walls.

“I had furniture working classes before this and I had always wanted to do building work, so it spiked my interest,” Michels said.

Michels intends on working through the summer, then returning to school to get schooling and business experience. His goal is to become an ag-science shop instructor.

Students have the choice of entering a 19-credit certificate program or 34-credit diploma program. Jordan Kruse, a Pipestone PSEO student, has already gotten a carpentry job in Marshall.

In addition to developing students, the project aims to alleviate Pipestone’s housing shortage. The two-bedroom house has already received three bids from interested buyers, Paulsen said.

“Basically, we just want to recoup our costs and replenish our fund,” Paulsen said. “We don’t intend on making a profit on these projects.”

The EDA has identified 60 homes that could be worked on, and is working on getting another blighted property ready for next year’s carpentry students.