Robbins block tests complete

Published 10:27 am Monday, July 14, 2008

Tests suggest the Robbins block could supply geothermal needs to heat and cool the proposed new Mower County Jail and Justice Center.

The block could also supply geothermal needs for the expansion portion of the project when or if additional jail beds are needed.

The county coordinator Craig Oscarson concluded they need to take a closer look after hearing the results Thursday.

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“We are going to ask the city for permission to drill a test well on the geothermal site they originally proposed near the Austin Municipal Swimming Pool parking lot in Horace Austin Park,” Oscarson said.

The Robbins block, at First Street between Second and First Avenues Northeast, is coveted by Mower County as a site for geothermal heating and cooling needs in the proposed new building consuming two blocks, Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue and First to Second Streets Northeast.

At the meeting, four of five commissioners in attendance (Dave Hillier, 3rd District, was absent) agreed by consensus to instruct KKE Architects, Inc. to design a 128-bed jail and justice center for geothermal heating and cooling “on the assumption,” Oscarson emphasized, doing that would be a “break even” proposition for the county.

The city of Austin gave Mower County a $1.5 million grant to acquire the Robbins block and develop it to the county’s determination.

Despite opposition, mainly from the Austin Main Street Project, the county commissioners have not wavered from their plans to acquire the Robbins block real estate, demolish the three-story, 27,000 square-foot building and convert it to a geothermal area.

The commissioners also agreed by consensus to have Oscarson contact the city immediately for permission to have a test well drilled at the Mill Pond site.

“Right now, the test results indicate the county wouldn’t need the HRA area in the Robbins block for geothermal,” Oscarson said.

The “HRA area” is a parking lot constructed by the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority for Twin Towers’ tenants’ use.

Unless the new tests of the Mill Pond site reveal something different, it is clear the Robbins block is the preferred site for geothermal, because it has the capacity to take care of all geothermal needs — not electricity — in the new jail and justice center.

Using anticipated utility rates from Austin Utilities and the new building’s square footage and energy needs, Oscarson’s computations suggest the county could reach a break even point on the expense of installing a geothermal heating and cooling system within 18 years.

For that reason, Oscarson said, “We need to take a closer look.”

One other possible option for geothermal space is the south parking lot of the Austin Daily Herald building.

If the county would need more turf for geothermal cables, the Herald parking lot, across Second Street Northeast from the site of the new jail and justice center, would be considerably closer than the Mill Pond site for burying the geothermal cables.

Also, Oscarson confirmed the county’s special counsel, Paul Sween, is “close” to reaching an agreement with owners of two of the three Robbins block property owners.

He expects to have more information for the county commissioners’ consideration by July 22.

The county’s plans to acquire the Robbins block property were feared momentarily stalled a week ago, when it was announced an unidentified citizen had petitioned the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to have an environmental assessment worksheet review done on the property before proceeding.

Gregg Downing, the EQB’s director of environmental review, confirmed Friday for the Austin Daily Herald the petition has been returned and no action will be taken on the request.

According to the EQB, the petition failed to supply sufficient evidence that a significant environmental impact would occur if the county’s plans for the Robbins block were to proceed.