By Dan Nienaber
---- — MANKATO — A plan to turn McGowan's Farm into an 1800s river village, heading off a dispute with the federal government that could have ended the annual Historyfest, is quickly moving forward.
Earth-moving equipment was at Jack McGowan's property Thursday preparing a site about the size of a football field for excavation, said Joe Holtmeier of Holtmeier Construction. The real work will start Monday when tons of fill are brought in to level out a spot where several buildings will be moved to create the village setting.
McGowan said he isn't thrilled with the new plan but appreciates that so many people are willing to help him meet the government order to clear the flood plain. It proves the farm and Historyfest are community assets that people want to keep, he said.
"Win, lose or draw, we're moving the buildings and that's the end of it," McGowan said. "Then I'm going to ask them why I'm the only person on the river who is being required to move buildings. I seriously thought about giving the stuff up to the county and letting them deal with it. This is better, I guess."
McGowan received notice from Blue Earth County officials this summer that eight buildings — including a general store, lodge, saloon, sauna and hobbit hut — had to be moved because they were in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers a 500-year floodplain. The buildings had been built to be used during Historyfest events. McGowan also allows a variety of groups to use the property for business, family and youth organization events.
A letter from the county said the buildings, which were built without permits, didn't meet Department of Natural Resources and FEMA requirements. If the buildings weren't moved, all property owners in the county were at risk of losing federally backed flood insurance. McGowan said he didn't understand why the buildings were a concern now when county officials were fully aware he had been building them for more than a decade.
Initially McGowan thought he would be able to make some adjustments to the buildings that would allow them to stay where they are on a scenic peninsula at the convergence of the Blue Earth and Le Sueur rivers. He found out those plans were denied when he received a letter in October setting deadlines for all of the buildings to be moved before the end of the year.
That's when McGowan's pro-bono attorney, Chris Sandquist, and others put the new plan in motion. That plan has garnered the support of a wide variety of business owners and citizens who, like Sandquist and Holtmeier, are volunteering their time and equipment to move the buildings to higher ground. The support started when Southern Minnesota Construction, which used to own the property used for Historyfest, donated the land to McGowan's nonprofit organization called Little People Inc.
Sandquist said the county has issued all necessary permits. Crews from the county's Sentence to Serve program, which are manned by people who have been sentenced for low-level crimes, also have been sent to the farm to help move things out of the buildings. Most of the equipment that will be needed has been found, so plans are in place to have everything moved before Thanksgiving.
A push by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz to have FEMA take another look at McGowan's property and possibly change the flood lines won't be necessary, Sandquist said. It was unlikely anything could have been done before the deadlines passed.
"I think by next weekend we should have the buildings moved and that will be 90 percent of the work," Sandquist said. "Mankato is moving faster than the federal government and everybody is doing it for free."
Once the excavating is done, Holtmeier will leave equipment on the farm that can be used to move the buildings up the hill. Some of the buildings are already being lifted off their foundations and prepared for being moved.
"Our company is donating the work because we think Jack is a good guy and does a lot of great things for the community," Holtmeier said.