Townships discuss light rail, ;br; arena with county commissioners, engineer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 19, 1999

ELKTON – It began with a reminder from Don Peterson that every township must look after its own roads and bridges.

Sunday, September 19, 1999

ELKTON – It began with a reminder from Don Peterson that every township must look after its own roads and bridges.

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Something perhaps the township officials didn’t need to be reminded of. After all, taking care of the network of gravel roads and bridges connecting them is what township governments do best.

Peterson, of Blooming Prairie, and the district director for townships in southeast Minnesota visited the Thursday meeting of the Mower County Townships Association.

Representatives of all 20 townships assembled at the Elkton Community Center and Peterson updated them on township issues. First and foremost, he reminded them to remind the Mower County Engineer "If you don’t use it, you will lose it."

Peterson was talking about monies designated to counties for roads and bridges and he wants more pressure to be applied on the Minnesota Legislature in 2000 to release more money to maintain the network of transportation routes.

"It’s ridiculous to fund something like light-rail transportation," Peterson said. "If we don’t get those crops to the market, that will affect the whole state’s economy."

Richard P. Cummings, 1st District county commissioner and chairman of the board, was at the meeting with Ray Tucker, 2nd District county commissioner. Tucker’s district includes 11 townships and municipalities in the eastern half of the county and is the largest and most rural of the five commissioner districts. The area was hard hit in July when torrential rains caused flooding and washed out roads and bridges that link rural residents with their neighbors and communities.

Cummings told the townships’ officials the county has 22 high priority bridges to repair or replace on a list of 45 deficient bridges.

Mower County is responsible, by statute, for every bridge in the county, including those in municipalities such as Austin.

"Mike Hanson, the county engineer took the worst ones first to work on," Tucker said of the county highway department’s priority for bridges. "Next year, there will be more effort in road projects, but we still have plenty of bridges to take care of."

No less than five township road bridges were closed in 1998, creating traffic havoc for rural residents.

Cummings and Tucker reminded the township officials, Hanson will be soon announcing an open house at the new $1.4 million garage and shop building now being completed in Austin hear the highway department’s headquarters.

Multipurpose building draws fire again

The commissioners, plus county coordinator Craig Oscarson, also were buttonholed by several township officials about the proposed new multipurpose building being planned for the fairgrounds in Austin.

Before they could ask all their questions, Cummings reminded the officials, "You’re looking at the only two commissioners who voted against the project."

David Hillier, Len Miller and Gary Nemitz, who represent districts which are largely urban (Miller and Nemitz) or which include portions of the city of Austin (Hillier), voted for the proposed two-sheets-of-ce-style multipurpose building and Cummings and Tucker, who represent largely rural areas, voted against it.

Tucker told the officials, "We are in the process of selecting a site for it at the fairgrounds and to my knowledge not all of the funds for the project have fallen into place."

Oscarson took over the discussion and said the county board had hired an architect and engineering firm to both design the new building and "look at the whole fairgrounds and its needs."

Oscarson stressed, "This (the multipurpose building) is not a solution for the whole fairgrounds. It’s only a partial solution and there will still be needs to address."

Oscarson was asked about the future of the venerated grandstands at the fairgrounds.

"It will cost at least $125,000 to fix the structural support timber in the grandstands," Oscarson said. "Also, the seats would have to be replaced, because they don’t meet current building codes."

"Structurally, the grandstands is deficient and it would cost $500,000 to repair the grandstands to make it safe," he said.

Oscarson was also asked, "What happens if these other outfits don’t come through with the money they pledged?"

"That will be a decision the commissioners will have to make," he said.

Oscarson said the county will make a personal request to the city of Austin to contribute an additional $250,000 to the project.

It is still negotiating a cost-plus contract with the Austin Board of Education, while the Austin Youth Hockey Association and Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission Might Ducks grant program funds remain "in question."

The facility is being built, in part, to handle the growing popularity of ice hockey and figure skating, but because the city of Austin’s Riverside Arena operates at an annual deficit of over $113,000 per year, critics have asked how the county expects to realize a profit or to even break-evening financially with a similar facility.

Hillier and Nemitz, as well as Oscarson, have said, repeatedly, cash-flow projections indicate the building can avoid red ink.

As the questions and criticisms of the project grew and some people said they were not fully aware of the project until they "read about it in the local newspaper," the association’s president, Richard Epley, a rural Austin farmer, spoke up.

"That’s where the problems started," Epley said. "When they held those informational meetings about the multipurpose facility, nobody came. That’s when we should have spoken up."

Oscarson defended the three commissioners’ support of the project saying, "They could only make a decision based on the facts they knew at the time."