City seeks to preserve historic;br; Lutheran church in flood plain

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 20, 1999

"Save the -" the sign reads in front of what once was St.

Saturday, November 20, 1999

"Save the -" the sign reads in front of what once was St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

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Save the what? The sign doesn’t say.

The city of Austin, however, is saying "Save the church.’

"It would be a real showcase," Mayor Bonnie Rietz said at the Nov. 5 Austin Housing and Redevelopment Board meeting. Rietz was, in part, referring to the city’s plan to make the floodplain area below Skinner’s Hill a central park complete with bike trail connections. The former church would provide picnic or gathering space for the park. "People don’t want to lose that building … it’s a landmark in our community."

The idea of salvaging the sprawling stone structure is not a new one. Past explorations have already determined that moving the big gray stone building out of the floodplain block by block is impractical. Leaving it "as is" isn’t an option. And the idea of constructing an earthen wall around the building was vetoed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency more than a year ago. Opening the former church building up into a "flow through structure," filling the basement up with sand, and converting the building into a three-season picnic pavilion is the most favored option now. It’s also an option that HRA director Kermit Mahan thinks will gain greater governmental support. To be specific, Mahan thinks the state Department of Natural Resources might be persuaded to fund three-fourths of the cost of renovating the building – estimated at $400,000 maximum – provided the city first commits $100,000 to the project.

The funding is not a sure thing, but Mahan explained to city officials at the HRA meeting that he needs a commitment from the city of $100,000 in order to apply for a grant from the DNR. He thought the city’s chances of getting the funding were very good, with such a commitment.

Why, when the city has already had so much funding for flood projects?

"First, the DNR likes to help outstate communities," Mahan said. "Second, the area will be part of the regional bike trail system – that’s what they’re encouraging. Plus, the building has been thoroughly examined and found to be in excellent condition."

He continued, "Yes, it means the city putting in $100,000, but Austin has gotten more than $3 million from the state and federal government toward help with the flood problem."

Support from others at the HRA board meeting was strong, not only from board members but also from the mayor and council member Gloria Nordin, who was there with Park and Rec director Denny Maschka on behalf of the Park and Rec board. City director of administrative services Tom Dankert said the city could provide $100,000 – either from its contingency fund this year or as a part of the budgeted expenditures for next year.

"I think we were pretty much agreed that we want to save the building," HRA board member and council member at-large Dick Chaffee said. "We just didn’t know where the money was going to come from. Kermit’s given us a big boost with this news."

The next step takes the St. Paul’s plan to the council finance committee and then to the council itself for a vote. Once the council has officially made a financial commitment to the project, the HRA may proceed with the grant application to the DNR.