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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

For sale: Ely landmark

Ely Community Center could be available soon

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/25/16

ELY – The city of Ely is moving forward with efforts to sell the landmark Community Center after a year of unfruitful negotiations to develop a job-creating data center quietly expired last …

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For sale: Ely landmark

Ely Community Center could be available soon


ELY – The city of Ely is moving forward with efforts to sell the landmark Community Center after a year of unfruitful negotiations to develop a job-creating data center quietly expired last week.

City Council members and the mayor reluctantly accepted the fact that their highly-publicized plan, details of which were mostly kept secret, would never pan out, and directed Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski to meet with the Community Center Foundation to try to forge a plan to sell the building.

Minnesota Data Centers LLC convinced the council that they needed a year to come up with a business plan and to renovate the building to suit their vision to develop a high-tech data storage center. The council granted an exclusive rights agreement. Many closed-sessions were held to discuss negotiations strategies, but ultimately no plan ever materialized.

The Chicago-based investors group submitted a mere $100 offer to purchase the building. The city of Ely was looking for something in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars that was closer to the assessed value of the building by the St. Louis County assessor. Council members pressed for more specifics on the group’s intentions. No plan was ever put on the table.

Putting his best spin on the situation at last week’s council meeting, Mayor Chuck Novak said, “I hate to see this go away, but maybe this will open the door for better things for the Community Center.”

Meanwhile, the architectural jewel, built in 1938 during the Depression with funding from the F.D. Roosevelt Administration’s Public Works Administration, continues down a path which could end in a slow and undignified death. After a couple of years of life-support, the city of Ely plans to turn the heat off in the building this winter because of the cost of maintaining the antiquated steam-heating system. Officials promised to “keep the lights on” until the end of 2017.

Langowski and members of the CC Foundation met last Thursday to look to the future. To begin with, Langowski gave a stark assessment of the condition of the interior of the building. “Last winter we had some steam line failures and those failures caused a lot of water damage in some areas of the building. To continue to heat it will continue to cause more damage. Heating the building isn’t going to help.”

He said the heating system valves and fixtures have been removed and the water has been drained out of the pipes. “The boiler is drained and the water line has been shut off,” he said.

The city does not have an appraisal on the building. The assessed value of the building, $492,000, was used to establish the value of the building to leverage other funding sources, according to Langowski.

“I think the next step is to have an appraisal done on the building,” Langowski said. “That is the only way we are really going to set a value on it to put it on the market and list it with a realtor.” He suggested soliciting proposals from area realtors to list it to sell it.

Community Center Foundation member Celia Domich said she would like to talk with developers about marketing the building before turning the process over to a third party. “We could tap those people, like John Ott and some of the real estate people in town and find out what they would do to market this kind of building,” she said.

Langowski stressed that an appraisal on the building is needed before any steps are taken. “They look at market, comparables and similar sales in the area,” he said.

Council member Al Forsman asked to have the Community Center Foundation’s agreement and “blessing” that the heat will be turned off in the building a full year before promised. Domich agreed.

“We’re not taking these steps to save money or go back on our agreement, but we are doing this in the best interests of the building,” Forsman said.

Langowski said the city spent about $30,000 last year, not including labor, to heat and maintain the building. He said the building condition has not changed much. “We had one library window blown out last spring on one of the last really cold days, but that’s about it.”

Domich stressed the importance of maintain the building in the best condition possible. “We can still sell it or find another use for it, so we need to be keeping it the best condition possible,” she said.

Langowski and the group agreed that City Council members will be asked to authorize the completion of an appraisal on the building and to call for proposals from realtors to list the building for sale.

A reuse study was completed last year by Maxfield Research and Consulting.

The Ely Community Center is a city asset, the study states, and the abandonment of the property would reduce its value and the value of surrounding properties.

This study indicates that the cost of operating the building with public ownership could be offset by income, thereby reducing the ongoing expense and eliminating the one-time expenses of mothballing and ultimately demolition.

“Although the needed upgrades present a significant challenge, it appears over time, using renewable contracts, fundraising and grant-writing, it is possible to meet that challenge,” the study concluded.

In responding to the recommendations of the reuse study last year, Novak said, “This council has no appetite to increase property taxes” to pay for a renovation. In addition to the heating system, the building’s electrical system needs up-grading as well. “There will be a lot of costs involved. It’s a gorilla to wrestle and I hope we’re strong enough to do it,” he said.

The Community Center building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places last summer.

The National Register is the official list of the nation’s properties worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a program to support public and private efforts to identify and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.

The Community Center joins six other area sites with this designation: Burntside Lodge, a 1911, rustic, log resort; Listening Point, Sigurd F. Olson’s wilderness retreat; the 1889 Pioneer Mine buildings and head frame; the 1901 Tanner Hospital building on Camp Street; the 1893 Bull of the Woods Logging Scow in Burntside Lake; and the Ely State Theater.

“There are many advantages to listing a building on the National Register. Probably the most well known is access to state and federal grants and tax credits for planning and rehabilitation,” Domich said.

The Community Center was closed about two years ago with the construction of the new Public Library located across the street from City Hall. It once served as a community hub, serving as the home of many celebrations, dinners, dances and meetings.

The building’s distinctive architectural style is ‘Streamline’ or ‘Art Moderne.’ The elegant and functional design allows for expansion and contraction of interior spaces.

The materials are striking, with a central lobby decorated with Montana travertine marble, a gold leaf ceiling, and multiple display cases. Oak, walnut and local woods are used for the doors and library paneling. The second floor is a 5,000 square foot, multi-purpose auditorium and the lower level includes a full-service kitchen.


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