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City plans to meet with Riley Bros. Properties before making a decision on school property

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City plans to meet with Riley Bros. Properties before making a decision on school property
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

MORRIS, Minn. -- The fate of the old elementary school property remains in limbo, after the Morris City Council tabled making a decision on the property and scheduled a meeting with a second developer.


On Tuesday, the council, acting as the city's Economic Development Authority, also entertained a long discussion about using some of the property for a public swimming pool after a group of citizens urged them to consider the idea again.

In a memo to the council dated Aug. 23, City Manager Blaine Hill suggested three options for moving forward: do nothing with the property, vote to negotiate exclusively with Prairieland Partners, or sell the property outright. In the memo, Hill recommended negotiating with Prairieland Partners on the property.

On Tuesday, Hill said that after a discussion with John Riley of Riley Bros. Properties, he had revised his recommendation and suggested that the EDA meet with representatives from Riley Bros. Properties to learn more about their plans before making a decision.

Riley Bros. Properties original response to the city's request for proposals on the property included an offer to buy all 17 acres outright for $135,000 without using taxpayer money, but offered few other specifics of their vision for the property. Hill said he thought that the price being offered was low, but that Riley Bros. might be interested in negotiating.

"I think it would be worthwhile for the EDA to let him (John Riley) come talk," said Hill. "He does have specific thoughts about it (the property) especially with regards to the types of things that may be built on it."

The EDA met with representatives from Prairieland Partners, a developer out of Minnetonka, Minn., on Aug. 13.

Steve Schwanke, managing partner with the company, said that they are looking for an agreement to negotiate exclusively with the city on the property so the company has time to do research into what specifically would fit on that site. Their proposal called for a mix of student housing, senior housing and market-rate or affordable housing.

Council member Brian Solvie said that he has been approached by several individuals who were interested in the property going Riley Bros. Properties. Solvie said that he thought Riley Bros. would do a good job, but were offering significantly less than other companies.

Council member Kevin Wohlers noted that the development is very important for the city and that the council owes Riley Bros. Properties a chance to share what they want to do with the property because of their previous contributions to the city.

Solvie asked whether a negotiation meeting would be a closed meeting. Hill said that it could be, but council members Wohlers and Jeff Miller said they wanted the meeting to remain open.

"I don't think a private meeting, at this time, is what we want," said Miller. "I think we want to keep it public and keep everyone informed and involved. If we get close to doing some negotiating, that may be the time for us to sit down in private with whoever it is."

Revisiting the push for a public pool

A group of about 20 Morris residents attended Tuesday's meeting, many pushing for the council to revisit building a public swimming pool.

"We believe that it's time again to approach an outdoor swimming pool for this community," said Robi Bowman, speaking on behalf of the attendees. Bowman, who works at Stevens Community Medical Center, said she gathered 46 signatures in support of a pool in just two days.

"I think if we had more time I think the council would come to find out that there are more citizens that are willing to see this go forward again," Bowman said.

Pilar Eble, a mother of four children, told the council that her family has purchased a summer membership to the Benson pool because of the recreational opportunities it provides.

"I don't take my children out to dinner in Morris because I have four kids and it's too expensive, but when we're there (in Benson) we go to Mi Mexico, we go to Dairy Queen, we go to the golf course," said Eble. "We end up spending a lot of our disposable income there when I'd much rather spend it here."

Although discussion was prompted by the fact that the old elementary school property is close to being sold, Mayor Sheldon Giese noted that the issues don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. There are other sites in the city for a pool, he said.

Giese also said that forward-thinking businesses should be in favor of a municipal pool, given that residents like Eble leave town for an amenity and spend money elsewhere.

"There are a lot of indirect benefits, whether it's a pool or a park or green space," said Giese.

"A pool, I think, would be a nice fit in that location -- you've got people of all ages ... a pool would be a gathering place for everyone in Morris," said Council member Kevin Wohlers.

If you're getting into it or thinking about a pool, let's not to try satisfy everyone. Let's meet a basic need," said Council member Brian Solvie. "I like the idea. I've got small children too. Keeping the young involved in our community is important to me."

According to Morris' city code, residents need to approve any general obligation bond that is not backed by revenues from a utility or special assessments.

During the discussion, City Manager Blaine Hill offered some statistics about the cost of maintaining a municipal pool:

• The city of Benson spends about $120,000 per year in tax money to operate a pool. This includes a $42,000 operational deficit and the cost of paying back the bonds used to retrofit the pool.

• The city of Breckenridge has a yearly deficit of about $63,000 for pool operations, with a total pool budget of about $121,000 per year.

The total tax levy for the city of Morris is about $1.2 million, Hill estimated a municipal pool could increase taxes by as much as 10 percent.

Although audience members said they were looking to the council for guidance for how to proceed, Hill said that the best thing to do was "tell all of your neighbors" why they want to build a pool. Hill also encouraged residents to organize a survey of residents and businesses to see if there is interest in an outdoor pool.

Any future vote on the issue will need to come because of a push from citizens, not initiated by the city council or the city of Morris.

"I think there's a lot of leg work to do on a pool if we're getting started here," said Council member Jeff Miller. "I agree that if we have a chance to develop this property there may be other options for a pool in town. I think we definitely need to raise some private funds before it's going to go. If that's what the people want, great. But we need to come up with a financial plan to build it and keep it on operation."

Voters rejected a pool twice, is it time to visit it again?

In the last 11 years, voters in Morris have had the chance to vote on a municipal swimming pool twice. A perusal through the archives of the Morris Sun Tribune offers the following details about these two efforts.

In 1992, Morris voters were asked to vote for up to $1 million in bonds for a municipal swimming pool and up to $200,000 for a hockey arena. That September, voters rejected both measures. The pool failed on a vote of 986 to 486. The hockey arena was eventually paid for with private Ten years later, the city of Morris formed a pool task force to explore options for an outdoor pool. A feasibility study was conducted that concluded an area at the old elementary school was the best place for a water recreation part. The committee worked with a pool company to design a facility, but it was not brought before voters.

In an April 2003 survey, Morris residents said they supported construction of a new outdoor swimming pool at a cost of $1.5 to $2.5 million.

The last time a swimming pool came up for a vote in Morris was 2005. At that time, Morris residents had the chance to vote on a referendum to approve the sale of up to $2.2 million in bonds to build an aquatic park on about five acres of land at the elementary school site (pictured above).

At the vote in August, the referendum for a pool failed 876 votes to 543 votes. Pool supporters said the short timeline between approving the referendum and the election didn't offer enough time to educate voters on the issue and a looming vote on a school operating levy hurt support.

At the time, Mayor Carol Wilcox said the pool would come up again.

"It's not a dead issue," she said. "It will come back. And sooner than later."

Kim Ukura
Kim Ukura has served as the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune since August 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism. She earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010. Prior to returning to Morris to work at the Sun Tribune, she worked in trade publishing. She has been recognized by the Minnesota Newspaper Association for both business and public affairs reporting.