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Moving on from the old school site

Unless school board defines specific conditions, site is off the table

City council aldermen last week expressed disappointment and were “mystified” by the New Richmond School Board’s decision not to sign off on a master plan for the potential construction of a new library complex at the site of the Commons — a site currently owned by the school district.

For months the school board and city council have attempted to find common ground on a master plan that both say will be for the benefit of city and area township residents.

However, when the school board issued a statement following their meeting held in closed session last week rejecting the most recent draft of the master plan, it appeared the site has been taken off the table, forcing the council to consider other options.

The school board’s statement is as follows:

“The master plan presented to the Board of Education by the City of New Richmond in its current form does not meet the intent to serve all city and township residents of the district. The school district’s vision for this property remains focused on a library and community space with appropriate parking to support this project. The district continues to raze the structure as planned.”

In calling for the meeting, City Administrator Mike Darrow said the city council could consider utilizing impact fees in the amount of about $24,000 to consider searching for alternate sites for a new library facility within the city.

But it’s the old school site that has been the focus of the city body for years.

And to say city aldermen were upset by the school board’s statement read at the special meeting held Thursday, Dec. 22, is an understatement.

Scottie ArdAldermen Scottie Ard and Jim Zajkowski were the most vocal and the most upset by the school board’s latest denial of the master plan.

“We’ve got three years invested in this site,” Ard said. “It is unbelievable the statements the school board has come with, such as adequate parking. They have no concept of city planning and this is extraordinarily disappointing. The site … of the Commons would be the perfect site for a library and additional business opportunities which could help fund the library. I cannot understand why this is escaping the school board. But I am in full support of looking at additional sites that can be identified within the City of New Richmond for placement of this project. If the school board can come back and say ‘we’re willing to work with this,’ and to step away and let the city do what the city does best, then I would be more than happy to give greater consideration to that site. But at this point, having the school board overseeing community development is not going to work and they have proven this by the statements they have released. Their unwillingness to meet with city staff … we have spent enough time on this. It is time to move forward and start scouting a new location.”

Zajkowski was pointed in his comments.

Jim Zajkowski“I wished [the school board] would have been more specific,” Zajkowski said. “I think they have been hiding behind a closed session when they say this isn’t for the school district … what is the library for then? The thing is, I haven’t heard any of the townships or the school district saying they are going to help pay for this library. We’re going to pay for the community library that serves the city and all the area townships residents. Right now it’s basically 50/50 — 50 percent city usage and 50 percent usage from outside the city. So to say that isn’t going to benefit the people in the school district? It’s like, what? They are worrying about things that are coming down the line. We just want to get an OK to build on that site and then we’ll get into more specifics on what’s going to happen there. If this isn’t going to benefit the city and area residents, then why are we building a library? I’m sort of lost on that. It mystifies me …”

It was Alderman Mike Montello who offered a motion to allow the city staff to move ahead with contacting potential architectural firms to come up with preliminary ideas on potential new sites for the construction of a new library.

But a small crack was left open for the school board — if that body can come back to the city with specific conditions they need met, then the city could consider the options.

However, that crack in time is slim. The city is giving the school board until Jan. 9 [the date of the city’s next meeting] to offer those conditions, otherwise the council will move ahead with plans to spend the impact fees on finding an alternative site.

“Our intention — once a master plan was approved — was to use the [impact fees] for part of the architectural design phase or the site plan phase or the capital fundraising phase of this,” Darrow said. “Since we don’t have a site, we can utilize those funds as the council wishes to look at alternative sites,” he added.

Mayor Fred Horne added to Darrow’s statement: “I think the school site is off the table unless the school board comes back saying these are the conditions of the contract. I don’t think we’re going to spend much more time on this. We went down and talked with them. I offered to go to the school board meeting to answer any questions they had … like Jim said — we’re at the one yard line and we wanted to keep this project moving forward. [The school board] did it in closed session and I was basically told not to show up. We would love to see it [at the site of the Commons) but we’re not going to continue to go back, go back and go back … unless they tell us ‘you need to do this, this and this.’ If they tell us what they are looking for, we would be happy to have that conversation.”

But without that two-way conversation, the city council decided it is time to move forward with the project.

Mike DarrowAccording to Darrow, if the school board does not reopen the dialogue within the next couple of weeks, the plan would be to look at other potential sites and to hire an architectural firm to come back to the council with preliminary answers on how best to proceed.

“Whether the school board has an epiphany over the Christmas holiday I don’t know,” Ard said. “I’m not holding out a great deal of hope, but … we have an ideal location if the school board could step back from trying to be in an area of expertise that is not theirs and allow the staff that has the expertise to present a master plan, which has been presented, and does create a beautiful transition from the downtown corridor to a residential neighborhood … and if they would open their eyes to the idea that ongoing funding for the library and that specific parcel … is required to keep up the level of services that the library is currently offering or would offer in the future. If the school board could step back from that and look at the big picture rather than this tunnel vision that they are currently displaying, we may get something done. But they would have to do it in short order in order for this body to give full consideration …”

Prior to the vote to allow staff to move ahead in working with an architectural firm to seek other sites, Horne said, “I’ll take the school board at their word. If they say they want a library at that site ... they will come back with conditions and say you can have the property with these conditions.”

The council then voted unanimously to approve the motion to move ahead with seeking alternate sites.

“If the school district chooses to do something it will be considered,” Mike Montello said before the vote.

“But it’s important that we move ahead and look at alternate sites.”

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