AUSTIN, MINN. – The old power plant that stands on the edge of the Cedar River here no longer cranks out electricity. The turbines were taken out years ago, the boilers broken down.
Yet the Austin Municipal Power Plant is being lauded as the future of this southern Minnesota city by two groups with very different plans: One wants to see the building saved, perhaps redeveloped into hip housing. The other wants to tear much of it down, making way for a new community recreation center.
The 7-acre property is the best, most central location for the recreation center, said Matt Cano, co-chairman of the volunteer committee planning the project. “We look at it as really being part of the revitalization of the downtown.”
A purchase agreement between Austin Utilities, which owns the site, and the Development Corporation of Austin is in the works. But in recent weeks, some residents have pushed to stop the sale of the old plant, its cornerstone dated 1900. They envision shops or events in the grand room that housed the turbines, condos or office space in the cavernous boiler room.
“Before you knock it down, make sure you’ve explored every possibility,” said Janet Anderson, a City Council member, standing in the so-called “turbine room,” where midday light streamed in from a towering wall of glass-block windows.
Anderson, who decades ago fought for the restoration of the nearby Paramount Theater, recently joined forces with Quin Brunner, an 18-year-old resident who believes that “Austin has a poor history of tearing down its significant structures.” The pair started a Facebook page, which has more than 260 “likes,” and a petition, which has nabbed about 160 signatures.
They are asking the city to hold off on demolition plans. But city leaders backing the recreation center believe the community is ready to build.
The recreation center is “really the flagship project” of Vision 2020, a city improvement effort funded largely by the Hormel Foundation, said Mayor Tom Stiehm. Under a draft plan, the city would own the building and the YMCA would run it, leasing 70 to 80 percent of the space. Austin would pay $200,000 a year for operating costs.
The Hormel Foundation would provide most of the funding to build the rec center — $25 million toward the $35 million price tag. Its leaders have made clear that the rec center should be located on the power plant property, Stiehm said.
“The foundation has told me if the rec center doesn’t go in there, they’re washing their hands of it,” he said.
Like some residents, Stiehm prefers another site for the center: near the post office. “I like it because it stretches downtown, it redevelops a whole area that needs redeveloping,” he said. “And who cares if it’s centrally located? It’s for the citizens of Austin, not for tourists coming in.”
But the foundation won’t pay the $3.5 million cost of that site, which would involve acquiring several properties through eminent domain.
“That’s not something they want to spend their money on — taking people out of their homes and businesses,” said Greg Siems, director of Vision 2020.
So Stiehm is being realistic, he said, and supporting the proposal for the rec center at the power plant site. “I’m not going to feel good if 10 years from now, that place is sitting there and falling down and we don’t have a rec center,” Stiehm said. “I’m not going to enjoy saying ‘I told you so.’
“I’d rather get something done.”
Respecting the character
The Vision 2020 rec center committee members appreciate the historic character of the plant, Siems said, and are “very open” to discussing saving pieces of the building, including its turbine room, smoke stacks and red sign, which is lit at night. “We feel like we can create something new while respecting the character of what’s come before.”
Created in 2011, Vision 2020 guides volunteer committees working toward a host of goals. At one time, revitalizing the power plant was one of them.
A committee much like the one leading the recreation center project brainstormed potential tenants for a redeveloped plant, including a brewery, a children’s museum and the Spam Museum. (Hormel Foods later picked another downtown location for its new museum, which will open this summer.)
That process showed that a redeveloped plant was “not an economically sustainable project,” Siems said. The foundation wants its money going toward “projects that are going to be able to sustain themselves and have a continuing positive impact.”
But the Iowa-based developer hired to study the power plant site believes it could be sustainable. Gronen Properties, out of Dubuque, examined whether enough character-defining features could be saved to make the project eligible for historic tax credits, said John Gronen, president of the company. It found that the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Then the city suddenly became focused on the recreation center, Gronen said, ending discussions about redeveloping the power plant. “They cut the process short,” he said.
Gronen Properties wouldn’t be able to lead Austin’s project today, Gronen said, so he’s not speaking out to get work. But he believes demolishing the building would be “a mistake.”
Some cities have many iconic downtown buildings, but Austin has “very few,” he said. “So this is one you don’t want to lose.”
The folks trying to save the power plant want to restart the process that they, too, believe was cut short. Anderson, the council member, was on the Vision 2020 committee and believes it ought to be reconvened. Brunner got involved after acting as interim director of Vision 2020 for two months.
Wearing a red backpack heavy with papers, reports and letters for residents to sign, Brunner stepped inside the power plant’s doorway one day last week, picked up the telephone and, as he has several times recently, asked to enter.
The plant might not look like much from the outside, much of it hidden by additions and metal paneling, he acknowledged. “It’s hard for some people to see past that.” So he’s been bringing people inside.
Some residents know the “turbine room,” as it hosts the Austin Artworks Festival. Green tiles run the length of it, except in spots where the turbines once stood. Large dials remain on the walls.
“A space that’s been frozen in time,” Brunner said, raising his arms. While the recreation center committee has talked about building around this room, Brunner is skeptical of how it would work inside a recreation center.
“It’s a thoughtful gesture,” he said, “but if you tear down the rest of the building, you might as well tear down this too.”