Ed Menk thinks the water tower resembles an old castle with its ornate turret and parapet. Dave Borash abides by local legend and says it’s supposed to be Paul Bunyan’s golf tee. Dave Pritschet claims it looks more like an old-fashioned flashlight standing upright.
All three say they can’t imagine Brainerd without the white concrete column that’s dominated the city’s skyline since 1920.
But the water tower’s days may be numbered.
A debate over whether to repair or raze it has surfaced in recent weeks as the aging city symbol slowly deteriorates. Locals first noticed pieces of stucco flaking off the structure’s upper bowl in 2014. Since then, it’s only gotten worse, as evidenced by the more sizable chunk of debris found near the law offices at the tower’s base two weeks ago.
“It’s now a public safety issue,” said Pritschet, Brainerd’s City Council president.
And potentially an expensive one. Brainerd can either renovate the water tower, which is no longer in use, for an estimated cost of about $2.5 million. Or it can tear it down for closer to $300,000, losing a beloved symbol of the city along the way.
“It’s not an easy choice,” said Menk, Brainerd’s mayor. “Over a period of 100 years, it’s become a landmark.”
The city has started the process of stabilizing the tower to buy it some time. Crowds came out to last week’s council meeting to discuss the issue and many lobbied to save it, Pritschet said.
The 141-foot-tall structure was the first municipal concrete water tower in the United States, holding about 300,000 gallons of water until it was decommissioned and replaced by a newer and larger tower in 1958.
Today’s problems are largely a result of a decision made in the 1970s to remove the tower’s roof, city engineer Paul Sandy said. “That opened it up to more water intrusion,” he said, which allowed more moisture to seep between the tower’s stucco finish and its concrete base.
This is not the first time the tower has faced possible demolition. A “save the tower” campaign was launched in 1968 to preserve the dilapidated landmark, which was restored around the same time it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Should the city decide to renovate the tower, work would include a new roof for the basin, removal of deteriorating concrete, fill-ins for cracks and a fresh coat of paint.
Menk said the council is exploring ways to finance that work, emphasizing options that would minimize the cost to taxpayers. To pay for the pricey repair using city funds alone would result in an almost 6 percent increase in local property taxes for the next 10 years, he added.
“You could build a brand-new state-of-the-art water tower with that much money,” he said, “which is what some people are arguing.”
The city is considering raising money through grants or donations to fix the tower. But Pritschet said he thinks it could be difficult to bankroll the entire project that way.
The council may also leave the issue up to citizens to decide — through a referendum. The deadline to add a question to this year’s ballot is Aug. 24.
Ultimately, Pritschet said, it’s no easy decision.
People near and far associate the tower with Brainerd, he said. There’s an image of it on the city’s unofficial logo and on the lapel pin he wears to council meetings.
“If anybody knows anything about Brainerd, they know the water tower,” Pritschet said.
Borash, a social studies teacher at Brainerd High School, said he’d hate to see it torn down and has faith that the community won’t let that happen. “I was born and raised in Brainerd,” he said. “It would be really strange not to see that thing.”