The National Guard’s presence in Stillwater soon will grow conspicuously larger, thanks to a $17 million federal appropriation to build an armory.

The Stillwater Readiness Center, as it will be named, also will house a new city fire station that will place emergency responders at a more central location. Money for Stillwater’s portion, estimated at $7 million, will come from the sale of bonds.

“The cost was greatly reduced through cooperation between the National Guard and the city,” Mayor Ken Harycki said last week at a public meeting held to announce that the project finally would move ahead. “It ended up being the perfect location.”

The complex will be built on an 18-acre site along Hwy. 12, also known as Myrtle Avenue, toward the west end of Stillwater. The National Guard will occupy nearly 80,000 square feet in the two-story structure. The Guard’s portion will cost $20 million overall, with $3 million in state funds supplementing the federal appropriation.

The new Stillwater Fire Department station, with double the space of current quarters, will be built on the other end of the complex and share classrooms, an assembly hall, kitchen and physical training room with the Guard. Just when construction will start on the fire station hasn’t been determined, said City Administrator Larry Hansen.

Once the National Guard portion of the complex opens in early 2016, troop presence will swell to about 360 soldiers on weekends and 26 full-time employees on weekdays. That’s because the 1st Special Troop Battalion, which includes specialties such as military intelligence and engineers, will move from Bloomington. That unit will join the 34th Military Police Company, which is headquartered in Stillwater’s current 1922 armory.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who came to Stillwater for the meeting last Wednesday, said the National Guard has been “a wise steward of taxpayer dollars.” She commended the Guard and the city for working together to make the project more affordable.

“Public safety is probably the most expensive line item that any city has,” said McCollum, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

Long-discussed subject

The Stillwater City Council has long debated whether to relocate its fire station, which is attached to City Hall near the downtown district. In recent years, however, the city has grown substantially to the west, and the fire station also needed more space.

“It’s going to centralize and make it equal for the whole city,” said Fire Chief Stu Glaser, speaking of the department’s coverage area. The Police Department, now housed in the basement of City Hall, will move into the Fire Department space after the new station opens. Glaser said Fire Department response times would remain an average of about six minutes.

New ownership of the old armory, which once was envisioned as a community arts center, hasn’t been determined.

“It has great spaces, it’s historic, and we don’t want it knocked down,” Harycki said.

Col. Larry Herke of the National Guard said the new armory helps correct a long-standing need for space. “Throughout the state of Minnesota we’re significantly undersized,” he said. The current Stillwater armory lacks parking, doesn’t meet code requirements and is much too small for the Guard’s needs, he said.

The National Guard hopes to start construction in May, with projected completion in November 2015. Design of the complex is being handled by BWBR Architects of St. Paul.