The decadelong debate over what to do with the huge, castle-like former asylum in Fergus Falls could end Monday night with a City Council decision framed by the tensions of an election just eight days away and a developer scrambling to prove he can pull off a massive renovation.
The Regional Treatment Center, built in 1890 and closed in 2005, has been one of the most difficult properties in the state to redevelop because of its size and location in a small city in west-central Minnesota, three hours from the Twin Cities and an hour from Fargo.
But it holds emotional significance and commercial potential for the town of 13,000, and its fate has been a central point of contention since its demolition was first threatened in 2004.
Now, the council has reached a junction forced by a 2016 deadline to use state money for remodeling the site or tearing it down and shaped by years of rejecting development plans and the rise of a community of local artists, preservationists and others who want a private investor to restore the building.
“We are kind of down to the end of the road,” said City Administrator Mark Sievert.
The site is known by locals as “the Kirkbride,” a reference to the architecture of Thomas Kirkbride, a 19th-century physician who influenced the shape of mental institutions around the country. The four-story, 500,000-square-foot main building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, and is on Minnesota’s top 10 list of endangered properties. The RTC was the town’s largest employer for more than 100 years, until 2001. More than 800 people worked at the facility at its peak.
“From a historical standpoint and an economic standpoint, the significance of this property cannot be underestimated,” said Harold Stanislawski, former executive director of the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission.
The state of Minnesota sold the site to Fergus Falls in 2007 for $1 and set aside $4 million for the city to use toward renovating or disposing of the behemoth building. The grant, after several extensions, will expire next year if unused.
“I think the state was just trying to be as helpful as it could when it sold the Kirkbride because they didn’t want it to become a drain on the community,” said Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls. “It’s one of those issues that has been going on for a long time and people are starting to get very nervous.”
But over the years, proposals from local or outside developers failed to gain traction or receive the council’s approval. Last year, developer Ray Willey and his Georgia company, Historic Properties, laid out a plan for a two-phase, $42 million rehab.
In the first phase, one wing of the main building would be turned into 80 apartments and the center hall would get space for four or five restaurants. In phase two, the other wing would be transformed into a boutique hotel and a “makers center” for local artists.
After a year and a half of discussions, council members earlier this month put the brakes on the project, criticizing Willey for not producing enough information.
“We’ve asked for those for a long time, and he keeps avoiding it. We want a person to do what he says he is going to do,” said Stan Synstelien, a council member. “But there comes a time where you have to come up with some facts to document your enthusiasm.”
The council set a deadline for last Thursday to receive the requested information. By Friday evening, Willey had not provided it. He told council members to expect documents by Monday’s meeting, said Anthony Hicks, another council member.
Willey said in an interview that he has secured all but $700,000 of the $21 million needed for the first phase. His company has completed 50 projects and is currently renovating six buildings in Indiana that match the Kirkbride’s square footage.
Willey ran into financial trouble on one project in 2000 when he couldn’t complete a bookstore in Modesto, Calif., forcing him to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “I already disclosed that to all the City Council members. That was the only project that didn’t fly,” he said.
For 10 years, Friends of the Kirkbride, a citizen group, has been fighting to preserve it. In that time, Fergus Falls has developed a reputation as a hub for the arts, with a thriving theater and gallery, as well as a community college.
“Everybody has been touched by this building,” said Laurie Mullen, chair of the Friends of the Kirkbride. ”It is really the heart and soul of this community.”
Community members who have organized around the Kirkbride say the council’s resistance to various developers’ plans has led to distrust of the city government. They also question, if Willey’s plan is rejected, whether the city can afford demolition. With four members up for re-election on Nov. 4, the decision Monday has taken a greater significance.
“This topic has really built a lot of momentum and energy for civic engagement. And it’s something the younger generation in Fergus Falls has really gotten involved in,” said Michele Anderson, rural program director for Springboard for the Arts in Fergus Falls. “People are showing up for City Council meetings. And, the elections are really heating up. There’s a whole cohort of people who are trying to replace the council.”