The clock is ticking on whether Brainerd's landmark water tower can be saved.

A citizen committee has about two years to cobble together enough donations and grants to fix the crumbling concrete tower, or city officials may consider taking it down.

The 141-foot-tall structure, which was the first municipal concrete water tower in the United States when it was built in 1920, was decommissioned and replaced by a newer and larger tower in 1958. But the old tower with its ornate turret and parapet has long served as a landmark for the town of about 13,000 and nearby lake cabin owners.

"It's part of the community's ambience," said Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk.

Some refer to it as Paul Bunyan's flashlight; others say it reminds them of a medieval castle, he said. "It's a neat symbol … and quite an iconic look on our logo."

Age, however, has taken its toll on the tower, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Moisture has seeped between the tower's stucco finish and its concrete base, causing some stucco to flake off.

A chain-link fence erected around the base of the tower keeps people at a safe distance, and a walkway with a canopy was built to protect the entrance of the Breen & Person law office building adjacent to the concrete structure.

"The water tower isn't about to … tip over," Menk said. "It's just the outer shell that's coming off in pieces. There hasn't been anything [big] coming off of it. But with freeze-and-thaw cycles, you never know what may happen."

After hearing from those adamantly in favor of saving the landmark, city officials hope private donations or grants can be found to help fund repairs. The tower may be a beloved part of Brainerd's history, but raising taxes to foot the bill could be a tough sell, Menk said.

"We have enough other pressing needs than that," he added. "But we haven't crossed that [bridge] yet."

Rehabbing the tower to meet historic status guidelines would cost nearly $3 million, Menk said. Repairing it to a level that doesn't meet historic status would cost more than $1 million, he said.

Razing it, meanwhile, could cost $150,000 to $300,000, Menk said.

"But those are just estimates," he said. "The last resort is taking it down and we're not talking about that until we have to."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788