Farmland complex demolition given the go-ahead

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 10, 2002

The eyesore's end is finally near.

More than 15 months after the plant was shut down by fire, the city of Albert Lea finally has the go-ahead to demolish the damaged Farmland complex, and the city will get the deed to the prime real estate where the plant stands, thanks to a bankruptcy court ruling Tuesday in Kansas City.

"The judge did grant the motion for Farmland to go ahead and begin demolition of the property up there in Albert Lea in accordance with the deal we have with the city," said Sheryln Manson, public relations director for Farmland.

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The deal, which the city and cooperative reached last month, will give the city $3 million from Farmland's insurance companies to pay for the demolition. The cost of the project is estimated at $2.4 million, and city officials expect extra costs, if any, will be covered by the insurance money.

The news comes after weeks of deliberations with creditor committees and their lawyers. The decision had been expected in mid-September and the bid from the demolition contractor was based on demolition starting before Oct. 1 to ensure warm weather.

Because it filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, Farmland needed to clear the deal with the bankruptcy court, which has the power to veto any decisions that affect the cooperative's financial standing. Farmland argued that although it will lose title to the land, it also will be released from responsibility for the costly clean-up. At least five places on the site have been identified as heavily polluted.

City manager Paul Sparks said he hopes the demolition can get going very soon, within the next few weeks. "I don't know how long it will take," Sparks said.

"I'm really excited that we're going to get it done, finally," Sparks said. "It's been 15 months, which was too long. I'm just glad that the deal works and I'm looking forward to the next phase of this project."

After demolition, the city will clean up the soil and the sub-terrain of the site. The city has begun to pursue claims against insurance policies held by Wilson and Co., which operated the plant for years. That money can be used for pollution cleanup under federal law. The city expects to use money gained from that effort, as well as state and federal grants, to pay for the pollution clean-up.

The land can then be used for whatever the city wants, with the exception of residential properties, which have been ruled out because of the ongoing effect of the pollution, according to Sparks.

"This is a very positive step on the city's part," said Jean Eaton, a candidate for mayor. "(The site) is a real opportunity for progress. The time is right for our community to move forward, get people excited, and get this project moving."

Mark Anderson, the candidate for mayor, said, "I think it is a great thing for Albert Lea to get that eyesore out. I'm sure it will do a lot to lift the spirits of our town. Now we must start thinking about what can be done to make use of that property."

Many ideas have surfaced for a future use for the property, including park land, a water park, a recreational center, hotels, a conference center, and even a casino. Ideas for the site will not be implemented without public input, leaders said.

"We've had lots of suggestions and I'm sure in the future we will have open discussions to see what the people want to do with the land," said

Mayor Bob Haukoos. "I think its a tremendous thing for the city of Albert Lea."

City councilor George Marin said that the decision comes as a great relief. He said, "That is great news to me both as a private citizen and a city councilor. It can only mean good for our city."

The July 8, 2001 fire put around 500 out of work, and the city has been negotiating with Farmland to get a new plant built ever since. Farmland's bankruptcy and the long delay have cast doubts on that possibility, and the city is considering an industrial park, once reserved for a new plant, for other potential development, including a regional Ford Motor Company

distribution center.