by Dennis Dalman
You just can’t please everybody.
That seemed to be the underlying theme at the Sartell City Council meeting Aug. 10 when council members voted 3-2 to choose a site for a city community center. The site selected is known as the “Ferche South” parcel, located just southeast of the Pine Cone Marketplace mall where the Coborn Super Store is and near the Chateau Waters residential complex now under construction. Council members Steven Hennes, Pat Lynch and Mayor Sarah Jane Nicoll all voted in favor of that location in south Sartell not far from the St. Cloud borderline. It is private land, but there is an agreement that its owner will swap it in exchange for city-owned land on Heritage Drive (another parcel of land considered for a community-center site).
Council members Amy Braig-Lindstrom and David Peterson strongly opposed that site, both favoring a more central location for a community center that will house a branch library, a senior center, recreational facilities and other community spaces.
Before the meeting began, during the Open Forum session, four people voiced their opinions on the community center. Former Sartell Mayor Joe Perske, as he has before, urged the council to choose a central location for easy accessibility. Central Park, he said should be reconsidered. Perske has asserted that special interests, such as businesses in south Sartell, are influencing the choice of a Ferche South site. The center, he said, should be for the use of all residents, not necessarily for businesses. But council member Lynch, himself a businessman in that area of south Sartell, challenged Perske, saying he is unaware of any business pressure applied to council members.
A Sartell resident, Henry Smorynski, who has criticized the community-center process before at a council meeting and in letters to editor said he believes the council did not have a transparent process in planning for a center, that public input was not fully sought. A center, he said, should be central, highly accessible by pedestrians, motorists, people riding bikes or on buses.
“Do the right thing and do what residents want,” he said.
Kim Petman, a community volunteer speaking on behalf of physically challenged people, urged the council to make sure the building will be designed so it is accessible for all people.
Jan Sorell, a member of the Sartell Senior Connection, said that senior organization favors a central location, such as the Heritage Drive site or – even better – the Ferche North site, which is just north of the Pine Cone Marketplace.
Murry Mack, who was hired by the council as a consultant architect, gave an overview of each of four sites considered by the council.
The so-called Vilcheck site adjacent on the north side of Pinecone Central Park is a 38-acre parcel with some wetlands on it and rather wet soils – thus, development would have to be mostly on the eastern portion. Water and sewer would have to be extended from quite a ways from the west, and a road would have to be extended. Challenges include lack of public visibility, an industrial site nearby and traffic-access concerns. A center would fit on the site, however. The city owns the Vilcheck site.
The city-owned Heritage Drive site is 71 acres. There would be good public visibility, a storm-water pond would be needed, and there are plans for an extension of 4th Avenue to be extended to that area. It’s also a good place for trails and residential developments possibly near the center. A drawback is concern about increased traffic on Heritage due to the presence of a center.
The privately-owned Ferche North site is 12 acres just to the east of Pinecone Road and just south of Pine Cone Marketplace. It is the most publicly visible of all the sites. However, it’s a prime spot for possible commercial development and subsequent taxes for the city.
The Ferche South site, also privately-owned, is a very large area with the potential for three possible configurations for a center: to the south on the shore of Lake Francis (a large pond), to the west or to the north. There could be trails, maybe a beach and possibly an amphitheater.
Those in favor
Council member Hennes said he’s strongly in support of the Ferche South site for the following reasons: a center would be good for commercial development in that area, it’s in an area long planned as a “downtown Sartell” center, there is room to expand the center there if need be some day, summer and winter activities could be initiated there.
Lake Francis, a large pond like Lake George in St. Cloud, is actually about one-third bigger than Lake George, Hennes noted.
Hennes said people are over-rating the importance of building a center in a central city location. The St. Cloud Whitney Senior Center, of which Hennes was a long-time director, was built with strong opposition because it was on a far end of St. Cloud. But, in fact, its location did not at all affect the many people who used the center, he added.
Council member Lynch said he thinks it would not be wise for the city to build a center at the Ferche North site because there would be a loss of tax revenue from future commercial development there. Ferche South is a “legitimate” place to build a center, adding it’s foolish to minimize south Sartell as a site just because it’s close to St. Cloud. Businesses and the medical campus in that area generate huge amounts of taxes that generate sales-tax revenue that will be used to build a community center, Lynch noted. He also maintained Sartell residents are used to motoring far distances, often because of commuting, and that therefore south Sartell would not be such an out-of-the-way destination, as some have claimed.
Not in favor
Council member David Peterson said he cannot recall any Sartell residents speaking in favor of the Ferche South site. He said he’s strongly in favor of extending a site search to other areas, including another look at Pinecone Central Park. Peterson said there seems to be a rush to select a site.
“It seems like we’re trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole,” he said. “Let’s not just pick something to get on with the project.”
Peterson said he wants to consider other sites and the possibility of splitting the center into two locations.
Council member Braig-Linstrom agreed and moved to table the topic for a future meeting. Peterson seconded her motion, but it failed to pass.
Braig-Lindstrom said she has favored the Ferche North site and still does. She also said, along with Peterson, that there are more possible sites that haven’t even been explored yet. During the last three months, Braig-Lindstrom said she was frequently frustrated when spread sheets about the planning process for a community center were delivered to her and other council members on the night of a council meeting, giving them no time at all to study and digest the information contained in them.
Hennes countered that with his opinion that city staff did a good job, they hired good consultants who did a good job, that Ferche South is a good site and that it’s time to move forward and build a center.
Sartell Administrator Mary Degiovanni also said the city process for site evaluation has been open and fair and there was no undue pressure for this or that site from anybody.
Putting a center at the furthest south end of Sartell would defeat the purpose of a “community center,” she maintained. She said she and other council members received many emails from people in favor of a centralized location.
In response, Lynch said he is convinced once the center is built, people will use it no matter where it’s located.
Nicoll was the last to weigh in with her opinion. The Ferche South site, she said, would be an excellent scenic site with Lake Francis there, with trails and green spaces where people could have a picnic.
Choosing a site is not an easy decision, and there will be differences of opinion no matter which site is chosen, she said.
After an hour-long discussion, the council voted 3-2 for the Ferche South site. The consultants can now fine-tune a site plan based on that decision, factoring in cost estimates and amenities the center should contain, based on public input.
Construction on a center is expected to begin next year. The cost could be as high as $10 million, which would be secured mainly from regional half-cent sales-tax revenue.