St. Olaf expansion growing in size, excitement

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The new Mower County Jail and Justice Center isn’t the only multi-million development going on in downtown Austin.

St. Olaf Lutheran Church has one of its own. It comes with a price tag of $6 million, and unlike the other one, it is on track to be completed on schedule and within budget.

It’s economic development of the fire and brimstone kind.

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The Rev. Ron Baarnett, senior pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, offered a pastor’s eye-view of the progress recently.

“There’s a lot of excitement and support from the members,” Barnett said. “They in here looking out the windows to see what is going on.”

“We’ve got sidewalk superintendents — a few — gawking at it,” she said. “There’s a lot of excitement and interest in the project and seeing it to completion.”

The project is beginning to take serious shape on the west side of Austin largest church. Most recently Austin Utilities began some utility work unrelated to the St. Olaf project, a four-story structure with a red steel skeleton that eventually will be encased in a fascia strongly resembling the existing church.

McGough Construction Co. Inc. is the general contractor for the project. The St. Paul-based firm also was general contractor for the Hormel Institute expansion and remodeling project in Austin.

“Doing this remodeling and expansion downtown is a symbol to the community that we are here to stay and Austin is here to stay and we want to help with the downtown revitalization,” he said.

It was impossible to tell if Barnett was only half-joking about the economic impact a seven-figured church project could make on the greater downtown Austin area.

The St. Olaf congregation is eager to see the project move forward and there is at least one important deadline looming ahead.

“Our hope, first of all, is that the addition part of the building being constructed on the west end is that it will be done in August,” Barnett said. “The main reason is that our pre-school program, the Wee Learning Center, will be in there and they need to have it done for a state inspection before they start classes in September.”

“Above that on the main level people will be able to come into the building without taking any steps and there will also be a covered drop-off area,” he said.

“All of the offices will move into the far northwest corner of the new addition and our fellowship — the Rasmussen Refectory now in the lower level — will be brought up to the main level as well,” he said.

According to Barnett, there will be a new main floor commercial kitchen area while the entire lower level will be devoted the children’s ministries, including a mini-amphitheater area for programs.

Barnett and the other church clergy have vacated their old offices west of the main floor information desk area and now share offices at the west street side of the building on the main floor.

“Much of that old office area will become gathering space (a large lobby),” he said. “In other words, the whole central part of this building, where our existing library and reception offices are located, will be opened up to one large gathering space.”

The remodeling is slowly beginning now and is expected to be finished in late-December.

Last week’s rain slowed up the general contractor, but, Barnett said, “They are pretty much on track.”

The fascia will be similar to the existing building: tiny crosses in each of the peaks and brick coordinated with the existing brick exterior.

Himec is the mechanical contractor, Fox Electric is the electrical contractor, Wagner Construction Inc. will do the brick exterior and several other sub-contractors are also involved.

The sanctuary will be untouched and remain the same.

The plan calls for worshippers to enter the new main west entrance, see church offices on one side and fellowship on the other and pass into a large gathering place.

“We will have two sets of doors entering into the sanctuary: one in the northwest and the other in the northeast,” Barnett said.

The front of the church will also be untouched.

“You can always tell when there’s a visitor because they climb those steep steps out front,” Barnett joked.

The $6 million price-tag includes construction of the addition, remodeling of the existing church facilities and furnishings, too.

“We have received probably $1.5 million in gifts,” Baarnett said.

The church is running three pledge drives over nine years and be able to cash-flow the rest of the mortgage through the church’s general fund.

“Personally,” said Barnett grinning, “in about nine years St. Olaf will be celebrating their 150th anniversary.”

“I also plan to retire about that time and my hope is the mortgage will be paid off at that time,” he said.

The plan is at least 10 years in the making going back to the appointment of a building task force. “They know they needed to upgrade and they looked and looked and looked and they discovered more and more and more. Finally, they decided if they wanted to do all those things they needed a plan and about two years ago it all came together with a plan,” Barnett said.

The are other fringe benefits, according to the pastor.

“The funeral homes will be happy because they won’t have to carry caskets up the steps anymore,” he said.

Today, St. Olaf has 3,100 members with an average worship attendance of 600 on Sundays. On Wednesday, attendance averages 150.