"There are intangible benefits that come with people being connected to these places," said Erin Hanafin Berg of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Often historical buildings are a community's most distinctive feature. They can help define a small city as unique. Restored, they can be tourist attractions or draws when newcomers are considering where to live.
In Sandstone, a city of 2,800 people, approximately half of whom reside at the nearby federal prison, most people you ask would like to save the school. But it's been hard to come up with a viable, sustainable use. If the building were in a larger city, it would be full of boutiques by now or apartments or a spa. But it's here, in the woods next to the rushing Kettle River, and the decade-long saga around its reuse has tested people's pocketbooks as well as their nerves.
The city sits about an hour and half north of the Twin Cities among beautiful pine and rock-filled countryside. It has a median household income that's lower than the state average, along with its share of underused buildings. The main employers are the prison, the nearby Grand Casino Hinckley and the city's hospital, run by Essentia Health.
The difficulty in resolving what to do with "the rock" stems in part from Sandstone's sense of identity. There is a feeling among some who live here that the community is fractured, that locals have divested and don't act out of a shared vision. That's partly because those with solid incomes tend to live outside the town proper, said Sandstone city administrator Sam Griffith. "When you have income, you have more choice in where to live. You get your piece of heaven. In the '50s and '60s, everybody who owned a business lived in town. They did a lot of things together as a community. Now, the people who work at the hospital and casino are people who drive 20 miles a day to work."