Emotions run high as divided council approves land for Freedom Park project
By a 4-3 vote, New Richmond City Council Monday night, approved the "transfer" of 5.11 acres in Freedom Park to VFW Post 10818 New Richmond/St. Croix County for the tentative construction of the Freedom Park Center.
In what has clearly been a struggle for council members since the Park Board's affirmative recommendation in May, reaching consensus on the land transfer remained elusive down to the final vote.
"Tie vote. I support the VFW. I support our veterans. My vote is yes," said Mayor Fred Horne as he cast the deciding vote.
Nearly 40 minutes earlier, City Administrator Mike Darrow summarized the meaning of the impending vote for council members which ignited an emotional debate.
"There's been a lot of conversation about the building. A lot of effort has gone into this process to date. What we've seen is a lot of the details, as far as the use of the building, the hours of the building, who's going to run the building, who's going to use the building. All of those questions, while important, are a bit premature. Our recommendation to the council tonight comes down to: Do you see a use in Freedom Park for a building? If you vote yes, granting the VFW the use of that land, then they (VFW) can go out and fund raise. As Mayor Fred has said in the past, let the community decide if there is an interest in the project. If the community supports this building financially, that's your answer," Darrow said.
Darrow went on to assure council members that even if the project gains public support, it will still be subjected to the same rigorous review process any other building project has to undergo. Numerous departments including the airport commission, utility commission, plan commission, park board, public safety, public works, and the council itself will have an opportunity to review every step of the project.
Alderman Mike Montello did not question the VFW's good intentions. He did question with what information could citizens decide whether to support the project, support the grant of valuable land and the substantial investment of taxpayer dollars.
"Mr. Mayor, your comment about, let the public vote with their dollars, very fair statement. In all fairness, what are they voting for? They don't necessarily know what they are voting for. They can see, there's a picture, OK this is what the building's going to look like, here's a breakdown of the space inside. What's not known is what it represents for the city going forward 5 years from now or 10 years from now. The challenge here is, all that is unknown as of this moment in time," Montello said.
Alderman Jim Zajkowski argued in favor of taking a risk on the VFW.
"I don't think we can be afraid of the future. We're giving an organization an opportunity. They basically have all the risk. They've put in two years of work already. They're going to have to raise a significant amount of money. Let's work with them," said Zajkowski.
Darrow reminded council members this would not be the first time they have taken a chance on a project under less than ideal circumstances.
"Just like there was an assumption with the Centre that there would be great programing for the community, we're assuming there's going to be a building that's going to benefit the city. It is a leap of faith tonight to say, 'OK, we're trusting you to deliver, go ahead and raise a million or two million dollars.' As a council member by saying yes tonight you are not saying yes to the project, you're saying yes to go ahead and raise money, then come back to us," said Darrow.
"We are asking the taxpayers of New Richmond to go along with this as well and not informing them as to what the future costs will be. That's the point. When someone comes in for a building permit or if we're looking at a building ourselves, we're looking at a complete plan. We have the ability to assess what future costs may be because we have a blueprint. We don't have that with this option. And a leap of faith, on a project of this size and scope, that's just not wise management whatsoever," said Alderperson Scottie Ard.
Montello raised two additional concerns pertaining to the location and the 10-year timetable to raise funds. Although he did not offer alternative locations, Montello made it clear he is not convinced Freedom Park is the location best suited to this project.
"I think a partnership is awesome," he said. "I think there are some other partnership projects that the VFW and the city can do together relative to building space for the VFW that could benefit both parties better."
Darrow offered to model the agreement with the VFW on one signed a year ago with the school district regarding the new library. The agreement would include benchmarks that would have to be met to continue the agreement, otherwise the city could opt to pursue other opportunities for the property.
When Montello raised the possibility of delaying any decision again until staff had time to propose those benchmarks, it prompted a terse response from VFW Project Chairman Ken House.
"We will not allow this to be benched one more time," House said.
The boiling point had been reached.
In front of a audience packed with veterans and their supporters, House delivered his ultimatum.
"We've done a lot of work for this. Bottom line, if we can't produce this for you, I think we have the integrity to give the land back to you. If we say, 'Hey we failed, we're done,' we'll give it back. All we're asking for is to put the 5.11 acres on the line. Let us go to work with the military and bring some tax money back into this community. If we use the National Guard, that's your state taxes. If we use a reserve unit, that's your federal taxes. We're going after money to bring it back to this community. I'm a Vietnam vet. I'm used to having people kick me in the teeth. When I came home that's what they did. It's starting to feel like that's what's happening here folks. It may not be your intent, but that's the way it feels on my side. Since we've become a county post, we've had other communities come to us and say, 'My god, we've heard what you want to do for the City of New Richmond. If they turn you down, please come to our community.' Now I would hate to do that because I've got three years into this project, but by god, if you're going to say, 'No, we're not going to take that much risk,' we'll go to another community who's willing to take a risk on us," said House as applause filled the room.
Council members approved the land grant to Post 10818. Authoring what appears to be a tricky agreement still lies ahead for both the Post and the Council.
The prolonged debate over the Freedom Park Center building project over shadowed a presentation by House and Post members Ron Ramos and Dave Green to the New Richmond Police and Fire Departments of checks to reimburse the City for overtime expense incurred by both departments due to their support at the State Loyalty Day Parade and Celebration last April. The event was the largest Loyalty Day celebration by any VFW post in the nation.
"Because we make every effort to be responsible in our partnerships for these projects, we went to additional lengths to make sure that the excess expenditures will not fall to the taxpayers of the city of New Richmond. Our co-chairs for the events, Ron Ramos and Mr. Green, went to the State VFW and to our Post to request retrospective support for this event. Tonight we have a check for $700 for the police chief and a check for $200 for the Fire Department," said House.
• The New Richmond Public Works Department will be sponsoring a Pre Construction Open House 5:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 12, at the Civic Center to answer questions and bring residents up to date on the 125th and East Fourth streets projects scheduled to begin this summer.
• Work at the new kayak and canoe landing at the New Richmond Nature Center has been completed. A ribbon cutting ceremony is tentatively planned for Wednesday, July 25, in the early evening. More details will be posted to the City's Facebook page (facebook.com/CityofNewRichmond/) as they become available.
• The League of Women Voters will be registering voters at the New Richmond Public Library 2-4 p.m. every Friday July 13-Aug. 10.
• The Police Department will be closing roads surrounding the Fun Fest Parade route Sunday, July 15, starting at noon.
• Special Alert, Police Chief Craig Yehlik will be making a special appearance in the Dunk Tank at Fun Fest from 4 pm - 5 pm Saturday, July 14. Limber up those arms.
• Great North AutoGyro is bringing their personal helicopter (gyroplane) business to the New Richmond Regional Airport. The new business will be building a hanger and staffing the new location with 10 employees.
• Council members approved the City's new Comprehensive Plan in the form of Ordinance #520. The complete plan is now available at newrichmondwi.gov.
• Council members approved the mayor's appointment of Ben Kurth to the Historic Preservation Commission.
• New Richmond was the recipient of two national awards presented by the International City Managers Association. The city earned a community partnership award and a community health and safety award for the Police Department's Active Shooter Training Program. New Richmond was the only municipality in either Wisconsin or Minnesota to receive one of these awards and the only municipality in the entire country to receive two awards.
• The Wisconsin Historical Society recognized last year's John Doar History Trail Community Celebration as the best public program of the year.