Robbins demands answers

Published 10:51 am Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Donna Robbins has waited long enough.

“My son is the patient one. I’m not,” she said at Tuesday’s Mower County Board meeting.

It’s been seven years since Mower County officials and staff first mentioned acquiring the “Robbins block,” a square block of property across First Street Northeast from the Mower County Courthouse.

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When the city of Austin gave Mower County $1.5 million to help induce the county commissioners to locate a new jail and justice center downtown, the expressed purpose for the money was to acquire the Robbins block.

Now, the county is still attempting to acquire it. Three weeks ago the county acquired Thoroughbred Carpet and George’s Pizza in the square block, leaving only a northeast corner owned by the Arley Sherman family and Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery to purchase.

The pace at which the county appears to be moving prompted Robbins to attend Tuesday morning’s meeting of the county commissioners.

She was not happy with the progress the commissioners imagine they are making.

Negotiations are stalling

“You’ve been talking about our building for seven years,” Robbins said. “I think we have been extremely patient and all I can say today is that frustration reigns supreme.”

According to Robbins, the owners — Robbins and her son, Michael — have had one meeting with attorney Paul Sween, who is conducting the negotiations with the county.

“That was a month ago,” she said. “We gave our final offer to sell at that meeting.”

In an apparent attempt to appease Robbins, county coordinator Craig Oscarson told her the county board’s building committee (Ray Tucker, 2nd District, and Dave Tollefson, 5th District) will meet this week to discuss making a final offer for the Robbins property.

Two weeks ago, Michael Robbins described the sides as “far apart” in the negotiations.

The county has coveted the Robbins block as a possible geothermal site and/or parking lot.

Recent well tests on the property have revealed it will not be the “best” site for geothermal. That news caused the county to seek the city’s permission to drill a test well near the Austin Municipal Swimming Pool in Horace Austin Park.

Also, the county (commissioner Tollefson and the county coordinator) have inspected the Austin Daily Herald (former Marigold dairy plant) building across Second Street Northeast from the site of the proposed new 128-bed jail and justice center (Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue Northeast and First to Second Street Northeast).

Meanwhile, the city continues to negotiate with private property owners in the two-block area in preparation for the Dec. 31 deadline to have the site cleared and ready for construction of the new jail and justice center.

Robbins: ‘Not fair’

Robbins told the commissioners, the Robbins family has done business for 75 years at the site and the owners deserve to be treated better. “This just isn’t fair,” she said.

Dave Hillier, 3rd District county commissioner, said the county decided on a downtown location in December 2007 and two months later approved a development agreement with the city of Austin for the downtown site.

“The reality is negotiations have only been going on for the last five months,” Hillier told Robbins before adding, “You do deserve an answer.”

In that same period of time, Michael Robbins has decorated display windows in the Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery with “Jail Sale” advertisements.

He said the advertisements were a “marketing tool” he used and not a signal the business was being closed to make way for the county’s purchase.

Adding to the mix is the wishes of the Austin Main Street Project to preserve the Robbins block for redevelopment.

Presently, the city and the county are deciding which one has the authority to request an Environmental Assessment Worksheet as recommended by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.

Robbins last words were if the county decides it doesn’t want the building and the Robbins family sells it, “When you do decide to acquire it — and you will — it won’t come any cheaper than today.”

The commissioners promised Robbins a decision within a week.

Test well to be dug

A week ago, the county board approved conducting a test for the conductivity for geothermal at a site at the Austin Municipal Swimming Pool.

The Austin City Council then approved allowing the test well to be dug, but attached a detailed agreement to its permission for the county to sign.

The county coordinator recommended the county board approve the agreement, but with the contingency the city’s requests can be fulfilled.

“For instance,” Oscarson said, “we could need more time than 60 days for the testing.”

At that point, commissioner Hillier observed, “This whole thing is beginning to get more complicated all the time.”

And 1st District commissioner Richard P. Cummings wanted to know, “Are we really going to be able to use the Robbins site for geothermal?”

Ray Tucker, 2nd District, said KKE Architects, Inc. said the well tests revealed concerns about the conductivity and water movement in the Robbins property.

In the end, when the discussion concluded, a motion to approve the agreement with the city “as is” passed by a 3-2 margin.

Hillier and Cummings voted against the agreement.

The pair also cast dissenting votes against locating the jail and justice center in the downtown area in December 2007.