The city of Fergus Falls is moving forward with demolition plans for most of its historic former mental asylum, frustrated that more than a decade of efforts to find a developer for the sprawling site appear to have failed.

It wasn't for a lack of trying.

Since 2007, the city has pursued multiple redevelopment proposals, but none has been able to handle the size or scope of the campus, which includes 600,000 square feet of buildings.

The City Council voted last week to keep the site's historic tower but begin demolishing other buildings and tunnels on the campus, which sits on a hill that overlooks the town and maintains an almost mythical presence in the city's history.

"The key is the city is showing that we're serious about continuing this process and working toward a solution on the campus and not just waiting around for something to happen," said Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer. "For 12 years, it's been an issue that's been incredibly difficult for the entire community."

The council is asking the state for $8.9 million to pay for the next part of demolition. The phasing of the work will allow the city to take down nonessential and less historically significant structures first, leaving time for a developer to come forward with new plans for the site.

The first phase of the demolition is likely to begin this spring.

"While we begin that deconstruction phase, we're going to be open to the other portions of the campus being looked at for redevelopment," Schierer said. "Once we detach some of these components to the campus, they'd be more attractive to potential developers."

When the Fergus Falls State Hospital opened its doors on July 29, 1890, it became the first state institution in northern Minnesota for patients then considered insane. The hospital had a sprawling campus and large stately buildings, built according to an influential plan developed by Philadelphia physician Thomas Kirkbride in the 1850s.

It became known to many residents of the city, about 185 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, as the "Castle on the Hill."

The state hospital was long the city's largest employer. Save for a few isolated incidents, patients and residents coexisted with a surprising sense of normalcy. The campus wasn't fenced. Townsfolk often invited patients to dinner or went up to the facility to participate in holiday parties. Farmers would hire patients to work in the fields during harvest, too.

The hospital was built to house 3,500 patients with mental illness. By 2001, only 100 clients per day were served in the facility.

The City Council agreed to take over the property after the state designated the site as surplus and got no takers from other state agencies. The city has been wrestling with what to do with the asylum ever since, and it has often been a key issue in local politics and city elections.

Last week's council decision was the latest blow to a group of community preservationists who hoped to save the buildings. Gene and Maxine Schmidt are leaders of a group called Friends of the Kirkbride and have given tours of the complex to encourage support.

"We've tried to educate people about how important this whole thing has been to the community of Fergus Falls from the beginning. It certainly can be again," Maxine Schmidt said.

"In our eyes, it's valuable in its uniqueness. We have something in our city that very few other places have. Why wouldn't you work to preserve that, take advantage of it?"

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434