At 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, Randy Quam and his work crew get an earsplitting reminder that his Eagan business is in an old fire station.
“We all kind of hear it coming and cover our ears,” says Quam of the test blast that emanates from the tornado siren in back of his building. “It’s pretty darn loud.”
But Quam says he doesn’t regret moving to the old station last year. The garagelike structure is perfect for Competition Engines, which rebuilds and tests high-performance car engines. And it doesn’t hurt that the deal came with a financial advantage: Quam got $880,000 for his old building, while he paid just $450,000 for the fire station.
Old fire stations in Minneapolis and St. Paul may have found new lives as funky restaurants, theaters and condos, but the market for them in the suburbs is hardly red hot. If not torn down, they often wind up as garages or storage facilities, not the destination venues seen in the cities.
Shakopee last month sold its old fire station for less than its asking price and market value to a vintage car hobbyist, who will use it for storage. Eagan is about to test the market again with a former fire administration building it has put up for sale.
The stripped-down appearance of decades-old suburban stations is part of the problem; most bear little resemblance to the well-crafted brick stations in the urban core.
The old suburban station “is kind of like a dairy barn,” said Randy Kubes, the broker who sold the Shakopee property. “Once you don’t need to milk the cows anymore, it may look sturdy but doesn’t have much use.”
Like the one in Shakopee, the fire station that Savage demolished about two years ago was a concrete block structure. “That’s what was built years ago when towns like Savage had 2,000 or 3,000 people,” said city administrator Barry Stock.
Stock says Savage didn’t consider trying to sell it after the city built a new station near its city hall. “We knew the cost of retrofitting it wouldn’t be worth it,” he said.
The city expects to begin marketing the former station site and an adjacent land parcel next year.
Built in town centers when communities were young, some suburban stations now are too far from heavily populated areas, which is a main reason new ones are being built in the first place. But that also means they’re too far from newer commercial centers to draw interest from retailers or office users.
The new breed of suburban fire stations is better looking because they’re designed to fit in with their new surroundings, said Brian Gjerde, a Faribault architect. “Fitting them in with a residential community so they don’t stick out like a sore thumb means changing the form of the building,” said Gjerde, who designed Prior Lake’s station.
Blaine has been using an old fire station for storing equipment like voting machines but would like to find a user to put it on the tax rolls, according to Bryan Schafer, the city’s community development director.
“The problem is, it’s on a tiny little lot where the only thing people would want to do would be something we wouldn’t want to see, like car repair,” he said. The city was able to sell the site of a different old station to a neighboring church, which may use it for expansion, he said.
Roseville firefighters have worked out of just one of the city’s three stations in recent years, according to Patrick Trudgeon, interim city manager. It’s using one for storage but may explore options with community organizations to use it. It will vacate another when a new one — built on the site of one that was torn down — opens in the fall. Trudgeon said the city hopes the vacated site can be redeveloped along with an adjacent parcel.
In Eagan, the sale to Quam was connected to a redevelopment project. Competition Engines was one of several businesses the city sought to relocate to make way for new commercial and residential properties in its Cedar Grove area. Quam said he initially resisted moving his business until the city offered the deal to swap properties.
Quam said the old station required only a modest renovation. In addition to the siren, there are other signs of the building’s past, such as a flagpole out front and a tall tower on top of the building once used to dry fire hoses.
Quam uses the former chief’s office, and the dispatcher’s old office now houses engine-testing operations.
“With no place else to go, this turned out to be a good option,” Quam said.
Built in 1998, the fire administration building Eagan hopes to sell has a limestone facade and doesn’t look boxy like early suburban fire stations. Even so, a market analysis by commercial broker Cassidy Turley points out challenges, such as the building’s lack of a traditional office layout and its location in a residential area.
Mark Stevens, a Cassidy Turley associate vice president, said buyers could include business owners who live in the area and would like a small, free-standing building — something not easy to find.
Shakopee’s quest for buyers began last summer. It rejected a proposal from a local arts group and began negotiating with another group that wanted to put a microbrewery and taproom in the old station. That deal fell apart because the $100,000 offering price was too far below the city’s $399,900 asking price and $580,000 market appraisal.
This year the city reached a deal with Edina vintage car hobbyist Peter Lund for $320,000.
During the negotiations, Mayor Brad Tabke said he didn’t favor cutting the price for a buyer planning a use like vehicle storage, preferring something that would draw people to Shakopee’s downtown.
With the deal now done, Tabke says he’s satisfied because it brought in sales proceeds and puts the building on the tax rolls.
He said it also may reflect the challenge of trying to market this type of building. “It was a difficult property,” he said.