During an emotional, and at times confrontational public meeting Tuesday night, Clarkfield residents came together to discuss the future of the old high school. The meeting was brought together by the School Task Force, which was created to assess potential ways to use the old building and gauge public support for the project. Yellow Medicine County Administrator Peg Heglund, Clarkfield City Administrator Amanda Luepke, and Clarkfield Councilmember Sue Fritz gave a short presentation at the start of the meeting before opening up the floor to public questions or comments.
The State of Minnesota assumed ownership of the building several years ago, and the county assumed responsibility for the building in 2015 after agreeing to help Clarkfield find a solution.
As of yet there is no fixed deadline for either demolition or renovation. Over the course of two previous public meetings, the task force assembled different possible scenarios for what to do. All include demolition a large portion of the existing building, which the city said was beyond repair. The focus of the conversation now comes down to the West Gym, and whether to convert that space into a community center.
One option is to restore the gym and locker room area, and convert the wrestling room into a mini exhibit featuring historical memorabilia. Another is to salvage other portions of the building to convert into community space. The task force is looking at similar projects in other towns for inspiration, but are hoping for more input from the community before moving ahead with a final decision.
Although the task force has yet to solicit bids, Luepke estimated that it might cost between $500,000-$700,000 for demolition alone. This is not including the cost of asbestos removal (there has not yet been a full asbestos evaluation), and there are a number of factors which might impact the final cost. Heglund commented that when Yellow Medicine received bids for the demolition of the old courthouse, prices ranged from $100,000 to $1 million.
The same held true for the cost of the renovations, which city officials put at around $600,000. Again, Luepke said the actual number could vary considerably depending on the full extent of the renovations.
The final price tag became a major sticking point. About four or five attendees quickly dominated the conversation, and aggressively questioned the wisdom of using money for the renovation when it could be spent elsewhere. They also expressed frustration at having to share demolition costs with the county, and demanded greater citizen input.
Several other attendees, some of whom were visibly emotional, immediately pushed back, arguing that the school was an important part of the community. Holding back tears, one woman told the audience about growing up in Clarkfield and raising a family. “I want good things in this town,” she said, “I want my children to come back to something when they’re older.” Another attendee asked, “if other towns can do it [renovate historic buildings for community use], why can’t we?”
After the meeting, Luepke said “It was unfortunate that less than 10% of the room negatively dominated the conversation in last night's public meeting,” adding, “there was a disregard for Clarkfield' s history, council and taskforce decisions and recommendations, and city-county resources used for this project. She hoped that the city could “focus on he growth of Clarkfield's economy and revitalization of our bedroom community. There are some very positive things happening in Clarkfield that are and will contribute to being fiscally responsible and future growth. I feel it is important and the right thing to do by preserving part of Clarkfield's history by saving a portion of the school.”
Ultimately, the task force agreed to issue a city-wide survey to better gauge interest among residents. While the exact date has yet to be determined, Luepke said she could potentially get something in the mail by next Monday. Residents would have about two weeks to return the survey, after which the task force would take the information into consideration as they begin to plot their next steps.