City to purchase Lea Center

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 22, 2002

The City of Albert Lea may be getting close to a deal that could revive one of downtown’s largest buildings.

A Twin Cities redevelopment company is interested in turning four floors of the Lea Center building into apartments and using the other two floors for commercial development, said City Manager Paul Sparks.

The city would need to invest money to make it happen. Likely, the city would buy the building first &045; at a price around $325,000 &045; and then sell it to the developer for $1, Sparks said. The increased tax base in the new building would, over time, help the city recoup its investment.

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Sparks said the redevelopment of Lea Center, along with the city’s efforts across William Street on the old Freeborn Bank building and the Hanson building, could provide a cornerstone for a downtown renaissance. The city is close to acquiring the Hanson building and already owns Freeborn Bank, also known as the Vault.

&uot;You get a chance like this maybe every 25 to 30 years, so you have to take the opportunity while you can,&uot; Sparks said. Now is a good time for a developer and the city to buy into Lea Center because its value is low. The building is largely vacant.

If the city finds a developer for the vacant Freeborn Bank, it can pitch in to make the block more inviting by adding parking and new decorative features down the road, Sparks said.

The prospect of Lea Center becoming a residential building made sense to city officials.

&uot;I don’t think it will ever be six floors of commercial again,&uot; said Sparks. &uot;There isn’t enough demand for it.&uot;

&uot;A lot of people want to live downtown,&uot; added council member Mary Kron.

The development company has been successful with projects all over the Midwest, including in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Nebraska, Sparks said.

Members of the city council discussed the matter at a meeting Thursday and gave Sparks the go-ahead to continue pursuing the deal.