The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 25, 2013

Council likes children's museum proposal

By Dan Linehan
The Free Press

MANKATO — The prospects for the children's museum to move into the city of Mankato's bus garage brightened Monday, as at least four councilors appeared to support donating the building.

Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota Executive Director Peter Olson made his pitch, telling the council that his organization would draw visitors and spur more redevelopment in the area.

"It's a well spent use of this resource," he told the council.

Councilman Jack Considine agreed, saying it would redevelop an area of town the city has targeted, and in the way the city prefers -- instead of an industrial project, for example.

"It looks perfect to me," he said.

Councilors Mark Frost and Jason Mattick, along with Council President Chris Frederick, said they agreed with Considine.

Though there was no vote taken, the proposal clearly had enough support for city staff to begin more in-depth negotiations for the site.

Councilwoman Karen Foreman brought up two concerns with the proposed donation.

First, she said the city doesn't have a policy for donations of this magnitude. Plenty of nonprofits would want free space, she said. The children's museum made its request after a suggestion from city staff.

Considine replied that no policy can cover every request, and that the council should evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

After the meeting, Frederick said the council would be willing to entertain other nonprofits' proposals for the site.

Second, Foreman said there have been so many cuts to the city budget recently that "I would personally be struggling with this."

City Manager Pat Hentges said the city could sell the land, valued by the county at $328,300, to the highest bidder. But the property owner could develop the site as they please. In other words, the city would have much less control over what ends up there.

He said the city can move out of the bus garage later this year, but it would be an inconvenience, as a new transit facility won't be finished until 2014.

"Ideally, we'd like to sit in it another year," he said, adding that it was not an insurmountable problem.

Hentges also said there's a risk to the city if the museum eventually fails, because it could be sold by a bank at auction (again, to the highest bidder). The first draft of a development agreement states that the property will revert back to city ownership if the children's museum stops using it for its intended purpose.

Frederick asked if there had been any study of the bus garage to determine whether it's safe for children.

He was told that an environmental study will be done, at the city's cost, though this would be a seller's responsibility in other cases as well. The city is looking into a state grant to pay for the study.

The deal is also contingent, according to the draft agreement, on the children's museum raising what it believes to be enough money.