How do we protect Afton Lakeland School?
For the last two decades, we have seen population declines in Lakeland and the surrounding communities that make up the attendance boundaries for Afton Lakeland School. Of the over 700 households in our city, many are comprised of one or two people. In addition, the City of Lakeland is aging and most of our families with kids are at a stage where they are not having additional children. As a result, attendance is down at Afton Lakeland School, a trend that leaves our school vulnerable to eventual closure.
To protect our school, we need to encourage families with children to move into the attendance area. The solution will need to be comprehensive. We will need to create more housing in Lakeland, an issue which I address in the next section. We also need to make people aware of this amazing community by working with area ambassadors such as Realtors, local businesses and social media outlets like NextDoor. With these efforts, we will continue to build our community and attract new neighbors to our city.
How to do we create new housing options in Lakeland?
During my term as Mayor, several developers and land owners have approached me about housing opportunities in Lakeland. I have had discussions with them about senior housing, single family residential homes, apartments and condominiums. Among these options, I believe that condominiums can best address one of the city’s most important needs: expanded housing options for first-time home buyers and retired people who wish to downsize and still remain in Lakeland. We could accomplish this by working with developers and landowners to bring between 50-80 units of single level housing to Lakeland, especially if these units are eligible for FHA financing (i.e. priced under $326,000).
Imagine if you could downsize into maintenance-free living and still remain in Lakeland. Imagine what bringing 25 to 40 new families with young children to Lakeland could do for our school. My experience as a Realtor will help me accomplish both these visions. I understand the potential pitfalls and know what needs to be done to avoid them. I am well prepared to facilitate new housing options that support Lakeland’s oldest and newest generations, bringing vibrancy to our community for years to come!
Why a new City Hall building?
A survey was conducted by Hamline University graduate students in the summer of 2015 in which residents indicate a strong interest in a new city hall. Based on this feedback and significant maintenance issues at the old building, the Lakeland City Council unanimously (5-0) voted to move from the old building on Quinnell to a new location in late 2015. On November 17th, 2015, the Lakeland City Council unanimously (5-0) decided to focus our consideration solely on the City Water Building and the Plaza Shopping Center as potential sites. We unanimously decided not to include the old building because it needed substantial repairs to make it safe again, and we saw the wisdom of investing in something new that would improve our operational efficiency.
Following this decision, Richard Glasgow strongly argued for moving City Hall into the Plaza Shopping Center. (Click here to see his argument in favor of the Plaza http://www.twincities.com/2016/02/17/lakeland-build-city-hall-skipping-mall-space/ ).
I explained that, although the Plaza was the least expensive location in the short term, it would be our most expensive option over time. Purchasing 20% of the Plaza would result in a loss of over $17,000 annually in property taxes, making it costlier than the water building in twelve years, and even more costly every year thereafter.
Despite having explained this, Councilmember Glasgow still made a motion at the January city council meeting to locate the new city hall in the Plaza. His motion, seconded by Councilmember Paiement, failed by a 2-3 vote. The following month Glasgow brought petitions to the council meeting in favor of going into the Plaza (not in favor of saving city hall). Some of the petitions did indicated that some residents had no wish for us to move out of our current location. In February 2016 the council passed (3-2) a resolution to move forward with expanding at the water building. Among the council, the controversy over the new city hall has always been over where to put it. My opponent still wants it in the Plaza. Click on this link to see him say as much at our September 2016 city council meeting (https://vimeo.com/183721696).
The new building will be more visible and accessible for all Lakeland residents. It will allow us to obtain all city services in one location rather than having to go to one part of Lakeland for a variance and another part of Lakeland for a building permit. Consolidating city staff will help to eliminate operational inefficiencies and encourage cross functional support. The building itself will be completely handicap accessible so that all residents of Lakeland can have equal access to their city government. The new building will be available for residents to use for Girl Scout meetings, Boy Scout meetings, gatherings by the Lion’s and other non-profit groups. It can be reserved for community education events and social gatherings. It is an exciting space for our residents to use and benefit from!
Can the old city hall building still be saved?
Absolutely!! If Lakeland residents want to preserve the old building, then we will preserve the old building. The new building is under construction and will be ready for us to move in by February of 2017, but completion of that building does not mean the inevitable destruction of the old building.
In the fall of 2015, the city had two prominent and local real estate agents provide price opinions of the property. One agent said that the property would be most valuable as a buildable lot. The other agent said that it could be marketed effectively as a single family home. Both agreed that the value was well under $100,000. At the time, I believed that it would cost about $200,000 to make the building safe to work in again – thus, I did not see the wisdom of making that kind of investment in a property with such a low market value. I spoke with Council and suggested that we get in touch with Washington County HRA to find out what kind of options might be available for us.
Councilmember Loenser met with Habitat for Humanity and found that they were very interested in building two single-family homes on the lot. That idea excited me. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization and they do a lot to help people realize their dreams of home ownership. I also liked the idea because it would create two new property tax parcels in a place that does not already create revenues. Those parcels would likely be assessed around $250,000 a piece, resulting in approximately $5,000 in new property taxes a year, thereby easing the tax burden for Lakeland’s current residents. For all these reasons, the Habitat for Humanity option was very appealing to me.
As Councilmember Glasgow tried to gain support for moving into the Plaza, it became clear to me that a number of Lakeland residents felt strongly about preserving the old city hall building. Many of these residents stated that they did not care where city offices would be located; they were mainly interested in preserving the old city hall building. It was for this reason, I suspended further planning with Habitat for Humanity, and I proposed to the Council that we conduct a survey of Lakeland residents to determine what they would like us to do with the old building. I also had the city’s architecture firm provide an estimate for the cost of making the old building safe again. The firm estimated that it would cost about $300,000.
In the meantime, my opponent told people that the cost to save the old building would be only $7,000. Understandably, people were upset. I would also be upset if I thought an old building could be saved for $7,000 and no one was interested in pursuing that option. Why build something new if we could repair for so little? Please see my opponent’s remarks in the following pioneer press article (http://www.twincities.com/2016/07/27/plan-for-new-lakeland-city-hall-promises-to-be-hot-button-election-issue/ ). Councilmember Glasgow finally provided an estimate at September’s City Council Meeting from a contractor of his choosing. That estimate was for $171,000 and did not include major items such as roof replacement, foundation work, grading or parking. Additionally, the estimate did not include standard contingency funds. The estimate was incomplete.
It will be expensive for the city to save the old building. That said, I will support spending the money if that is how our residents want their tax dollars spent. That said, I believe we could better preserve the building by gifting or selling it to the Washington County Historical Society. That would relieve the city of the financial burden of renovating the old building while ensuring its preservation. There are many things that the building can be used for, and there are many residents that have expressed interest in saving it. Whatever we decide to do, there is plenty of time for us to discuss this issue and ensure that all voices are heard before any decision is made.
How can we help our local business and attract new ones?
I am very proud of the work that this Council has done to make it easier to open and operate a business in Lakeland. It used to be that if you wanted to open a coffee shop in the Plaza then you would need to apply for a conditional use permit (CUP). The old permit process involved appearing before Lakeland’s planning commission to discuss things such as hours, days, number of employees, service and scope of the proposed business. The Planning Commission would then either recommend to the City Council that a CUP be issued or not. After that, the business owner would have to go to another meeting and make the same presentation to the City Council. The business owner would answer questions they had already answered for the planning commission. The Council would then decide to either grant the CUP or not. The whole process was time-consuming, bureaucratic, and completely unnecessary. It was not in the best interest of our city or the business owner.
In order to make the process more streamlined, the Council and I decided that the responsibilities and function of the planning commission would be carried out by the city council alone. This saved the city money because we no longer needed to pay a separate commission and it saved business owners time. Additionally, we removed the need for a CUP if the activity (such as a coffee shop) was a permitted use (allowed) and the business was going into Lakeland’s business district. Ask business owners if this is a big improvement, and they will probably give you an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Now, when someone wants to open a permitted business, they can go down to City Hall and pay for a business license. They no longer need to attend meetings to get the license. They simply complete a short application and pay a small fee. Furthermore the Council and I updated, re-wrote and removed many of the ordinances that made it difficult or confusing to operate a business in Lakeland. We have worked hard to create a business friendly environment in our city.
In the fall of 2016 I met with the county regarding economic development. The county’s Director of Economic Development told me that there had been some interest from a boutique hotel about opening a location in or around Lakeland. I’m not sure what the residents of Lakeland would think of a small hotel on St Croix Trail, but something of this kind might give this city the number of car counts it needs to help make a coffee shop or bike store in the Plaza successful. The development community is watching us. They appreciate predictable yet innovative city planning; stability and transparency are important when trying to attract business. I intend to continue to make Lakeland as friendly to small business as we can through supportive zoning practices and predictable enforcement of the city’s code.
What is going on with Cully Park?
Over the last four years, the City of Lakeland has made investments in Humphries Park, Crocker Park and at the beach. But in the meantime, Cully Park has been neglected. This Council has worked with staff to create a maintenance and improvement plan for the parks we have invested in, but we have not identified what to do with Cully Park. Cully and Humphries are incorporated into the city’s storm water management plan. They both have holding areas for water runoff. The parks are necessary components of the city’s stormwater management plan and so neither parcel can be sold. The city must keep them both.
Two years ago, I began work with Professor Craig Waldron at Hamline University to develop a program in which his graduate students would take parts of Lakeland’s Comprehensive Plan and suggest revisions that could improve the city. At the September workshop, one of these students submitted an incredibly ambitious plan to update Cully Park. His plan included a picnic shelter, pickle ball courts, a new playground and upgraded parking. It was amazing… and expensive. I suggested that we present these ideas to residents to get their input. There are grants available to assist in building parks and to encourage outdoor healthy living, so I am confident that we could implement some of the suggestions at a very low cost to taxpayers. Additionally, if residents want a picnic shelter or a skate park, those improvements can be budgeted for and installed on a schedule so as to not increase taxes.
My main concern is in ensuring that residents want these kinds of amenities. As I knock on doors, I hear that many people are in favor of a picnic shelter, but others are concerned about a skate park. Some residents love the idea of a splash pad, but worry about cleanliness. The good news is that there is a lot of time to make these decisions, and many people have already raised their hands to serve on the Cully Improvement Citizen Taskforce. I encourage people to get involved and voice their suggestions and concerns early! We will end up with the park that people tell the Council they want, so please make sure your voice is heard.
How are we doing on our Comprehensive Plan update?
I am very excited about the progress we have made in updating our comprehensive plan. We have been working on it with Hamline graduate students for the last two years and have made great progress. We applied for and received a planning grant from the metropolitan council so the required update should cost the city almost nothing to complete. The city council will need to begin public hearings on the proposed changes within the next 12 months so watch your newsletter for those opportunities to provide input. Unlike previous years, we are right on track to have our update ready by the deadline in 2018.