Good news and bad news on Farmland site

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 30, 2002

More than a year after the fire, the half-burned Farmland plant is on the verge of being demolished and cleaned up &045; but that could remove a major incentive for the company to rebuild in Albert Lea and make it harder for the city to take control of the old site.

Farmland has tentatively hired a contractor to tear down the buildings on the site, and work could begin in September, although the company has not told the city a date, said City Manager Paul Sparks.

But the city’s land-swap deal, which Farmland tentatively accepted, involved the city taking over the old site and handling the demolition, as well as providing land for a new plant. The city’s offer to demolish the old plant was a key part of the offer, and if Farmland pays for the demolition itself, a major part of the incentive to rebuild will be gone.

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The demolition was required to begin by Dec. 1, under a demolition order issued by a court early this year.

But flooding a week ago, which overwhelmed the Farmland site and overloaded one of the city’s sanitary sewer lift stations, caused sewage to flow into the storm water system, so the city asked Farmland to hasten its efforts to demolish the plant, Sparks said.

&uot;The integrity of the roof is gone,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;We put them on notice last week that we wanted the demolition to start as soon as possible.&uot;

The cooperative had been stalled in its efforts to tear down the building by its insurance companies, which protested, claiming they didn’t have an opportunity to research whether the structure could be rebuilt. Farmland and the insurers have disputed the insurance settlement over the fire, with the cooperative claiming it needs a new plant and the insurers insisting it can rebuild the old one with less money.

But the insurers have withdrawn their objection to the demolition, clearing the way for work to begin.

If that happens and the land-swap deal is off, plans by the city and civic groups to rework the Farmland site, focusing on recreational or commercial uses, could be in jeopardy because the city won’t have control over the site, Sparks said.

The city, as well as most others who have discussed uses for the new site, don’t want it to remain industrial, instead preferring to capitalize on the central location and proximity to Albert Lea and Fountain lakes with development that might be a tourist draw.

The site is heavily polluted, especially in four areas: The old shop, cleaning area, ash landfill and slag pile from a coal-fired generator plant. The soil is full of volatile organics, solvents ad other toxic chemicals. All would require extensive cleanup operations that could cost $1.6 to $2 million, on top of the $3 million or more it would cost to tear down the plant.

&uot;God knows what they dumped out there over 90 years,&uot; Sparks said.

The environmental problems could provide the city with new leverage if the land swap falls through. The city could still offer to clean up the site after the plant is demolished, saving Farmland the expense, if the cooperative agrees to yield the land to the city and build new on another site.

And, a zoning change could prohibit any development on the old site until the environmental problems are fixed, buying the city some time, Sparks said.

&uot;We may need to take a look at whatever we need to do in the short term to make sure that site doesn’t become industrial again,&uot; he said.

In the meantime, discussions about what to do with the old site may have to wait.

&uot;You can’t start determining any reuse until you deal with the environmental issues,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;To the best possible extent we’ve got to clan up the areas that are polluted.&uot;

Farmland’s efforts to rebuild in Albert Lea have been further complicated by the cooperative’s bankruptcy filing in May, just months after it announced it planned to rebuild here as long as it resolved its insurance settlement.

The plant burned July 8, 2001 and has been closed since, leaving around 500 out of work.