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Shakopee could lose downtown city hall

  • Article by: David Peterson
  • Star Tribune
  • May 13, 2014 - 1:38 PM

Shakopee seems willing to ditch its downtown city hall.

In an era when lots of sprawling suburbs seek to create walkable town centers that include civic functions, Shakopee would be just the latest of those heading the other way. They have historic downtowns but still scatter key civic functions out and away from there.

Mayor Brad Tabke seemed a bit startled to find himself, as he put it, “completely in the minority on this one. I’d have a hard time voting to move out of this building. It’s important that Shakopee City Hall is downtown. It’s a big part of who we are.”

But the city’s senior staff are making clear that they have had it with the former bank building and are eager to have better, safer and more capacious digs as part of a civic campus about a mile east of downtown, near a key artery, on Marschall Road.

“What impression do we give to people coming here?” asked Kris Wilson, assistant city administrator, as she reviewed the options with council members in an informal workshop. “What does this say about our city?”

People coming to the building for meetings either find themselves in a glass “fishbowl” of the council chambers with strangers peering in, she said, or being led through a maze past cubicles and boxes to an actual conference room in the bowels of the building.

And that was just one of a litany of complaints, notably including security concerns: With two entrances, the receptionist at one of them really can’t monitor who’s wandering in.

Wilson also conceded, though, that voters just got done rejecting a school referendum for a second high school after repeatedly rejecting requests to improve the city’s community center. So there are other needs, along with a distaste for that sort of spending.

These days there’s no need for a vote on a building like a city hall, though, she added. And four of the five council members — including spending curmudgeon Matt Lehman — were more than willing to explore options for a new facility.

“I have supported a ‘one campus’ vision,” Lehman said, uniting police and public works with other functions, on land the city already owns. That way, a citizen who turns up at city hall who really needs to end up at another place, doesn’t have to drive there. “It’s more efficient. I actually thought we’d be there by now. The economy didn’t help us in that.”

Tech-savvy Tabke countered that the days of people having to come in physically for things, vs. simply logging on online, are numbered. Indeed the city is adding new online functions practically by the day.

Still, the council chambers themselves are dingy and sad compared to the much more impressive counterparts in Savage and Prior Lake, not to mention just about any other suburb of any size in the area.

The whole facility doesn’t do anything for the city’s image, Council Member Jay Whiting said.

“I’m glad we sent the mayor to California to talk to Shutterfly [a firm the city succeeded in luring] vs. them coming here,” he said. “It looks unprofessional. We’ve done a great job saving money by using this building, but it’s not fit for downtown. [With its 1950s look] it’s not the downtown character we want to have. I’d suggest it become a parking lot.”

Among the bigger Scott County suburbs, only Prior Lake has sought to keep civic functions like the library and city hall in its historic downtown. Jordan, despite a struggling historic downtown, recently opted to move its library out of downtown.

A new city hall in Shakopee could cost around $8 million to $10 million. A time frame might be somewhere in the next five to 10 years.

In the short term, senior staff were asking how much money ought to be invested in the existing building, if the council wants in the reasonably near future to abandon the building anyway.

Much like the abandoned downtown fire station, a debate would then ensue over whether to sell the old city hall, re-use it for a senior center or other civic function, or blast it to smithereens.

The building was initially acquired at a time when Shakopee had only one-third the population it has now, Wilson said. Now city staff are scattered in several locations, with only a fraction still using the original building, which started life as a bank in 1957 and still has vaults in active use for records.

With firm direction to check out at least the specifics of building new, Wilson pledged: “I will do some numbers gathering and I will be back.”

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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