The fate of a new city hall under construction in the east metro suburb of Lakeland is unclear after a suspicious fire destroyed the building just days after the town's incumbent mayor, who was in favor of the building, was defeated by a challenger who opposed it.
Investigators with Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office and the Washington County Sheriff's Office sifted through the charred remains Monday to learn what sparked the blaze that was reported by a neighbor around 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
"We do believe it was suspicious," said Sgt. Sara Halverson of the sheriff's office, who declined to say more.
The sheriff's office put out a Code Red around 11 a.m. Monday to neighbors within two miles of the fire site, asking them to call the sheriff's department if they saw anything Sunday night.
Many in the St. Croix River town of about 1,800 residents were in "tremendous shock," said Lakeland City Attorney David Snyder. The building was a total loss and some materials and construction equipment was damaged in the fire, he said.
Construction on the 2,400-square-foot building that was to hold city offices along with space for community meetings and gatherings started in October after more than a year of debates, a dozen public hearings, council discussions and resident input. The City Council in February voted to proceed with the project and awarded a $512,700 contract to Parkos Construction to replace the current City Hall on Quinnell Avenue that has been beset by mold, asbestos and poor plumbing.
Work was well underway on the new structure at 1190 S. St. Croix Trail. The building's frame was up and work on installing the roof and utilities was to have started Monday, said contractor Jack Parkos.
"There was no electrical or gas in the building; there is now way that fire started by itself," he said. "It burned pretty hot. We still don't know what started it."
The building's concrete slab was also severely damaged. The contractor also lost some building materials and at least one boom lift sustained damage.
On Monday, the city was to make a $69,000 payment to Parkos for work completed through October, but it's unclear what will happen going forward. The topic will be on the agenda during a 6 p.m. City Council meeting, Snyder said.
"A loss of a structure at this time of the year complicates efforts," Snyder said. "People will be looking to the council for leadership and guidance on which path to take, and they will get it. The City Council ultimately will make the decision."
Parkos said the building was on schedule to be completed by January or February. Now he's in a wait-and-see situation. "We have a contract to build a building," Parkos said.
The debate about a new city hall was a focal point of this November's mayoral election. Detractors claimed the old City Hall could be restored and remodeled for less than the cost of a new building.
"I have been a strong voice on the Council against the building a new City Hall, along with making sure we preserve our Historic City Hall," mayor-elect Richard Glasgow wrote in an October city newsletter. He defeated incumbent Amy Williams, who championed the new city hall.
Crews from the Lower St. Croix Valley Fire Department and two neighboring agencies responded to the fire and found the structure "fully involved," a dispatcher with the sheriff's office said.
Firefighters were able to put out the blaze in about 30 minutes. No one was hurt, the dispatcher said.
The fire has not impacted city operations as offices are housed in the nearby water and public works building, which was unaffected.
Snyder said the city and the contractor will file claims with their insurance companies.
Anybody with information can call the sheriff's office at 651-439-9381.