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Year in Review: All talk, no action on armory in 2016

WORTHINGTON -- When Nobles County voted to purchase the Armory Business Center in downtown Worthington in the spring 2015, commissioners did so with the idea of renovating the former National Guard Armory into a new library.

WORTHINGTON - When Nobles County voted to purchase the Armory Business Center in downtown Worthington in the spring 2015, commissioners did so with the idea of renovating the former National Guard Armory into a new library.

Now, more than a year and a half later, the county is at a crossroads with the building. The latest development, arising just a couple of weeks ago, is that the armory renovation doesn’t qualify for capital improvement plan bond financing if it is to be used by a non-profit entity such as the Nobles County Historical Society.

On Wednesday, Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said, “We’ve got to make a decision.”

Options now include selling the armory building or figuring out a different way to finance renovations to create a new home for the historical society. The latter, Johnson said, could include taking out a conventional mortgage for the renovations.

At this point, he is waiting to hear from the Nobles County Historical Society and an ad-hoc group supporting the armory renovation into museum space.

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Following is a timeline of discussions on the armory:

May 6, 2015: Nobles County commissioners vote unanimously to purchase the Armory Business Center for $225,000 plus closing costs. District 518 has a contract with the previous owner to use the building for its gymnastics program through the 2015-2016 school year, with the option to extend the contract through the 2016-2017 school year.

June 25, 2015: Nobles County Historical Society announces its application seeking to get the Armory Business Center, formerly the National Guard Armory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hope is to get it listed as a building of significance to the community. The armory was constructed in 1922 and served as the indoctrination point for soldiers as they were getting shipped out for World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

September, October 2015: Public hearings are conducted to gather input on the future reuse of the Armory Business Center.

March 1, 2016: Jeffrey Nelson, owner of Falls Architecture Studio of Sioux Falls, S.D., presents a series of designs at a public hearing in Worthington showcasing how the Armory Business Center might be renovated. The primary design included museum space, art gallery space, office, work and research space, classrooms, studio space, multi-purpose areas, storage rooms, a catering kitchen, seating area and restroom facilities. Nelson declined to discuss renovation costs.

March 30, 2016: After presenting 15 schematic floor plans, including the latest design for the armory, Nelson announces the first phase of renovation will cost between $2.2 and $2.6 million. He declined to speculate on the total renovation cost or how many phases of construction would be needed to renovate the armory.

April 15, 2016: During a county board work session, commissioners say there is a greater need for library space, although they don’t discount the need for historical space. County Administrator Tom Johnson says, “It’s getting to the point that we have to make a decision pretty soon on what direction we want to go.”

Commissioner Matt Widboom said he voted to purchase the armory because of its potential to house a new library and said an architect can make a design look however he wants. He still embraces the concept of a new library in the space, and said so many opportunities for a library have been passed on since the first library study was conducted in 2009.
“I think there’s been a disservice done in the past, and I don’t want to continue with that,” Widboom said.

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April 19, 2016: Nobles County commissioners meet for more than an hour with representatives of the county’s library, historical society and art center to discuss the next direction for the entities.
Johnson asks who would keep the lights on and the water flowing at the building if the county chose to either sell or give the building to the historical society and art center.
“It’s not a cheap facility to operate or remodel,” Johnson said. “Looking at our budget, we don’t have a lot of (money) set aside for this project. We’ve got two bonds that are still active for the Prairie Justice Center, and taxpayers don’t want to see an increase.”

April 28, 2016: During a work session, Nobles County commissioners decide to give an ad-hoc committee with the Nobles County Historical Society a one-month deadline to come up with a financing plan if it is to take over the armory building. By setting a deadline for the new information, commissioners eye June 7 as the date they may be willing to make a decision about a new library.

May 26, 2016: Nobles County Historical Society members present a proposal to county commissioners during a work session asking the county to own and maintain the armory, and increase its annual allocation to the historical society from $28,000 to $59,000 to help finance the museum’s relocation to the armory. In addition, it asked the county fund building improvement costs, from a new HVAC system to meeting ADA regulations, constructing restrooms and remodeling to adequately equip the facility.

June 8, 2016: Nobles County commissioners had planned to discuss the fate of the Armory Business Center during its meeting Tuesday, but the county’s historical society is asking for more time.

Sept. 29, 2016: After noting the armory wasn’t on the list for direct funding or bonding money in 2017, Widboom says the building can’t be ignored. Little has been said about the armory, other than the county will continue to collect lease payments in the coming year.
The Nobles County Historical Society has yet to voice plans on how it might fund building renovations in advance of a possible move into the facility.
Meanwhile, Johnson has received phone calls from individuals interested in purchasing the building from the county.

Commissioner Gene Metz asked about the potential of giving the Nobles County Historical Society the armory and perhaps some funding to put toward improvements, but that was met with objection from Widboom and Commissioner Marv Zylstra.

Oct. 27, 2016: Representatives from an ad-hoc group supporting the Nobles County Historical Society’s move into the armory present a phased-in approach to renovating and occupying the building. The group’s plan identifies renovation costs of $775,165, an estimate provided them by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership.

The ad hoc committee proposes two phases: Phase 1, from January 2017 through June 2018, the county would retain building ownership, continue to collect rent from tenants to offset the building’s operational costs, identify the building’s annual operational costs and establish a building budget, complete the necessary remodeling (particularly in the garage area), submit grant applications to help fund those costs and identify longer-term building maintenance and improvement costs. Meanwhile, NCHS will work to raise one year’s operational funds.
Phase 2, which would begin in July 2018, includes reconsideration of building ownership options and relocation of the historical museum to the armory. NCHS would then begin to include operational expenses for the building in its annual budget, while asking the county to consider an increase in its annual appropriation.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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