By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — After 26 years as roommates, Mankato's senior citizens center and the Blue Earth County Historical Society are breaking up on July 1.
VINE Faith in Action, which operates the senior center, is moving out of the building at Cherry and Fifth Streets to the newly renovated Nichols Office Building down the street, leaving the Historical Society looking forward to a lot more elbow room but also a lot of new financial obligations.
Historical Society leaders announced Tuesday that they want to buy VINE's 50 percent ownership of the current building — part of an ambitious long-term plan to expand its exhibit space, provide desperately needed storage room for its large collection of artifacts and improve accessibility to the facility. Their first stop was the Blue Earth County Board, where they asked for a $57,500 donation to cover the down payment the society will have to make on July 1 if it is going to exercise its option to take full ownership of the building.
If the board agrees, that will be only the first step. An appraisal done after VINE gave notice of its plans to leave the building puts the building's value at $575,000, meaning that the society will ultimately have to come up with $287,500 to purchase the half of the facility it doesn't already own.
"So we're planning to launch a capital campaign," said Jessica Potter, executive director of the society.
The purchase is the initial phase of a multi-year plan that could also involve an expansion of the building eastward.
"That's something that's phase two, down the road," Potter said.
Sole ownership — while seen as an exciting opportunity for the long-cramped museum, research center, archive and artifact storage site — will also bring 100 percent responsibility for the building's operational expenses such as utilities and repairs. Potter and Historical Society President Randy Zellmer told the board that additional operating expenses means they will be seeking additional annual donations from the county as well.
The hard costs will likely total about $2,500 more each month, Zellmer said. But to build a reserve fund for major repairs such as a new roof or heating system, the society is looking to budget $4,000 a month in additional operating expenses. The society's current budget is less than $20,000 a month.
"What's your idea of what that increase in the annual allotment (from the county) should be?" Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg asked.
Zellmer said the society didn't have a specific request at this point but, if pressed, $1,500 a month would be greatly appreciated. The county currently gives the society $94,800 a year.
Stuehrenberg said a $57,500 taxpayer contribution for the down payment plus nearly $20,000 a year more in on-going allocations to a private nonprofit organization might not receive universal support among county residents.
"There may be a taxpayer or two who would have a question about that," he said.
The board was meeting in a workshop setting, so a formal vote wasn't taken, but Chairman Will Purvis said he would be inclined to support the society's plans.
"I think you folks do a wonderful job, and you've always been good stewards of the financial support we give you," Purvis said. "So I'd be supportive."
Potter said after the meeting that the society will be seeking support from other public institutions in coming weeks, including cities and townships in Blue Earth County, before expanding its fundraising to the business community and the general public.
The need for the expansion is obvious once people look at how the society is using its existing space, she said. The society's broad collection of everything from clothing to tools to architectural drawings to local artwork — while obsessively organized and cataloged — is stacked from floor to ceiling in storage areas, spilling into offices and conference rooms and on display in hallways. The collection of three-dimensional items (not including historic papers) totals more than 20,000 objects.
Walking through the main storage room, Potter passed by antique chairs and boxes of children's snow suits and samples of clothing from the 1980s. She lifted a blanket and pointed: "Bill Carlson's first printing press. So this is how Carlson Craft got started, right here."
Some larger items, such as antique fire trucks and recently donated century-old cars, are being stores in various buildings around Mankato and in the countryside.
"Think about your closet at home," Potter said. "We've had the county's closet since 1901 and it's getting full. ... What it comes down to is we really need the space."