CITY OF ELY
Ely studies future of public buildings
At hearing, citizens weigh in on options to renovate, consolidate or relocate
Keith Vandervort

ELY- Over 100 community residents packed the Ely Senior Center Monday night to air their concerns about the future of Ely’s City Hall and the Community Center.

City officials hosted the first of three such hearings to talk about the past, present and future of the historic buildings. Mayor Ross Petersen pushed for the sessions to inform the public and take input before the city council takes action.

City officials, including City Attorney Kelly Klun and Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski, outlined the issue that has been debated by the community for years: whether to update existing locations or abandon the buildings in favor of consolidating city services into one facility.

Federal compliance

City Attorney Kelly Klun gave a brief description of the American with Disabilities Act and how it applies to a small city such as Ely.

Because the city has fewer than 50 employees, the threshold for compliance is much more lenient than for larger cities, she said.

For instance, if a disabled person wants to attend a city council meeting, because the council chambers are located on the second floor a reassignment plan is in place to relocate the meeting to the Joint Facility Building, which is ADA accessible, Klun said.

“With renovation of existing buildings or construction of a new facility, new requirements come into play,” she said. “Any renovations must comply with access rules.”

St. Louis County Property Manager Director Tony Mancuso described the three-year process and $1 million cost to meet the federal requirements in upgrading county buildings. “What we found out was absolutely eye-opening,” he said.

“The number of parking places, spaces in between parking places, sidewalk slope and smoothness, height of door handles and pull pressure on those doors were all examined,” he said. “And we weren’t even in the building yet.”

He brought up other issues such as drinking fountain design, toilet-flushing operation and Braille signage as expensive considerations that must meet compliance.

“They were hardest on us with new construction and seemed to be more lenient with older buildings,” he said. He stated new rules introduced in 2010 contained 279 pages of compliance issues to be met by 2012.

Bill Scalzo, an architect from Duluth explained that all public buildings and public facilities are also covered under the Architectural Barriers Act in addition to ADA. “When remodeling starts, the Barriers Act kicks in,” he said. “It has a greater impact.”

Mayor Petersen compared the Ely buildings situation to “an anvil hanging over the city’s head. We don’t want to get into a situation where a judge tells us we have to do something,” he said.

Current usage

City Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski presented facts and figures on current usage and operational costs of City Hall and the Community Center.

The 2011 budget included approximately $240,000 for operations and maintenance for both buildings, not including a new roof on the Community Center and a new boiler for City Hall, Langowski said.

“On the coldest days in the past two months we used 100 gallons of fuel oil per day in the Community Center and 150 gallons of propane in City Hall. That comes out to about $522 per day to heat these two building, on the coldest days.”

He said the Community Center uses about one-third of the space available. The main floor houses the library and offices. The auditorium on the third floor and the cafeteria in the basement “get very little use,” he said.

Langowski said about a quarter of the usable space at the City Hall is currently unutilized.

Langowski said a 2008 study estimated that the city needs about 37,000 square feet of space to provide current services. “At the time it would have cost over $7.4 million for a new facility of that size which was more than we could afford,” he said.

Under state rules, Ely is permitted a debt load of about $5 million. “We have a $1 million bond debt so we have about a $4 million limit at this time,” Langowski said.

“Major ADA issues could show up at any time,” Petersen said. “We have mechanical costs and operating costs for buildings that are not being used enough. My giant fear is that the federal money we have been getting will be tightening up soon. All this indicates we need to take some action now.”

Save our history

Those in attendance listened politely to the case presented by city officials. Then one by one they, in essence, told the City to keep the buildings as they are regardless of the cost of upkeep and operation or federal compliance issues.

“As a historian, I would be dreadfully sad if those building were lost,” said Pam Brunfelt. She said if an elevator were installed in the Community Center, the top and bottom floor would be used. “Rather than spend $4 million on some new, ugly space, let’s renovate our existing buildings. Don’t abandon them. They are much too valuable,” she said.

Matt Favet also opposed abandoning the buildings.

Barb Schultz said abandoning the buildings downtown would be bad for the business community.

Todd DeNio, who was just named to fill an open seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission, said he thought the ADA issues “could be overcome” and suggested the city consider a flea market option in the Community Center “at $40 per day for 40 or 50 vendors” to pay for operations and maintenance.

“These buildings can be utilized if the city pursues it,” he said. DeNio also suggested erecting a boiler house on the empty lot across from City Hall to heat both that building and the Community Center and selling heat to the Post Office. “This can be done affordably. Please give it a chance,” he said.

Angela Campbell, who waged a write-in campaign for the mayor’s seat last fall, agreed, saying: “The hard cry of the residents of this city is that we want to save these buildings.”

Celia Domich expressed her appreciation for the hard work city officials do in working within a tight budget. “To me, nothing is more critical than what our buildings look like for economic development,” she said. “These buildings give our city structure and permanence and value. These buildings need upgrades but they are functional.” She reminded city officials that matching federal ADA funds are available.

But not everyone agreed with the majority. Kayla Tedrick, an Ely resident with a mobility disability, implored those people who want to save the historic structures to “put people ahead of the buildings. I can’t go to the library. I can’t go to City Council. I’m in a wheelchair. I own my own home and pay taxes here. I can’t use these buildings. I have to fill permits out in my van.”

What’s next

Mayor Petersen said the next meeting, scheduled for March 25, will center around discussion of options. “Anyone with ideas and options should get them to me before the next meeting so we can look at them and consider them,” he said.

Council member Paul Kess, said the city’s projects committee is looking at several options “which all include taking the library out of the Community Center. City officials will present those options at the next meeting.”

The third and final public hearing is scheduled for Monday, April 29. All meetings start at 6 p.m. and are held in the Senior Center.

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Ely residents, do whatever you must to preserve your historic buildings. Where ever you look or whoever you talk to, the decision to preserve and retrofit/upgrade historic buildings proves to be the correct decision in the long run. You cannot re-create your history, we have already torn too much of it down around here, and the building you get in return won't be anything like what you already have. I'm hoping for you.

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