Eagan officials are trying to determine if there's a future for the Sperry Water Tower, which no longer holds water but does hold something valuable — cellphone antennae that companies pay the city to keep on top.
Built in 1967, it was the city's first water tower. The 500,000-gallon reservoir hasn't been used as part of Eagan's water system for several years, but has served a useful role as a wireless antenna tower for companies like T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint/Nextel. Cellular phone antenna revenue for the Sperry Tower is expected to reach almost $147,000 this year and nearly $156,000 in 2014.
Like many cities, Eagan has discovered that water towers and other tall structures are lucrative sources of revenue from wireless providers that lease them as places to park their equipment. The Sperry Tower is one of eight such city-owned sites which together are expected to generate almost $900,000 this year.
The question now is whether Eagan should proceed with a costly but necessary rehab of the Sperry Tower, tear it down and replace it with a cellphone antenna tower, or demolish the water tower and sell the land.
Council members decided there's time to gauge residents' views about the tower's fate. The work to fix it up wouldn't have to be done for three to five years.
"I think you'd be surprised at what some people take as landmarks," said Mayor Mike Maguire at a recent City Council work session.
In an interview after the meeting, Maguire said he has used photos of the Sperry Tower in his campaign literature and that some people regard it as a symbol of Eagan.
"There's almost a small town culture aspect to that. You see that when you're out driving .... You approach a town and you see the water tower," Maguire said.
"I understand that we're in the suburbs here, and Eagan's not a small town. But sometimes I think we're quick to give up those things that are community identifiers."
Council member Paul Bakken suggested the city look into other uses for the tower, including housing. "It would be a shame not to take a month or two to shake the tree and see what falls out," he said
"There are crazy people who would pay a lot of money to live in a converted water tower."
Public Works Director Russ Matthys told the council that painting and fixing the existing tower would cost as much as $610,000. That doesn't include the cost to the cellphone companies to take down their equipment, put it someplace else temporarily and reinstall it after work on the tower is done.
Demolishing the water tower would cost $40,000 to $60,000. A new cellphone tower would cost $100,000 to $300,000, depending on how much the city would spend to make it visually appealing.
Matthys showed council members photos of other metro area cell towers, prompting Cyndee Fields to point at one in Plymouth and say, "That's ugly. I go by that a lot."
Fields said there are financial advantages to replacing the water tower.
"We can build a structure that is the next landmark. It doesn't have to look like that Plymouth one," she said.
Other council members agreed they're reluctant to give up the revenue from wireless providers.
Bakken wondered if the tower could remain as a structure for cellphone antennas but also be used as hydro-battery — a system that would use cheap or excess electricity during nonpeak hours to pump water up into the tower and recapture energy later by reversing the flow and sending the water down through hydro turbines.
Maguire wondered if there would be community interest in maintaining the tower as a structure for public art while retaining it as a revenue-producing site for wireless equipment.
The council asked Matthys to research the options and get input from the public. He said he will likely seek feedback through the city's website and Facebook page.