Lake quality called key to Farmland site

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Leaders of Greater Jobs, Inc. and the chamber of commerce say that unless someone can shore up the water quality in Albert Lea’s lakes, efforts to encourage waterfront development could come up dry.

Representatives of both organizations met with the Albert Lea City Council Monday and pitched the idea of an independent consultant, who could assess what needs to be done to the lakes and to help the city refine a lake-improvement plan that was part of its request for a half-cent sales tax last year.

But city leaders weren’t sure about the city’s role in lake cleanup, especially because of the county’s ongoing efforts to finalize a management plan for Albert Lea Lake.

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Greater Jobs leaders are among those hoping the old Farmland site can become some kind of waterfront-based attraction that would capitalize on the site’s location in the center of town and right on Albert Lea Lake. But they told the city that may only be possible if the lake is suitable for a variety of recreational uses, and that means improving the water quality.

&uot;Without a usable lake, (the site) will not realize its potential,&uot; said Brad Arends, president of the Greater Jobs board of directors.

Expressing support for the city’s effort to get state approval for a half-cent local sales tax, partly to pay for lake efforts, Arends and Greater Jobs Executive Vice President Pam Bishop said hiring a consultant to examine the water quality issues could help come up with a more specific plan, which they hope would be easier to sell to legislators in St. Paul. Any sales tax would also have to be approved by the voters of Albert Lea.

An effort to get state approval for the sales tax last year failed, and many backers say the opposition of House Tax Committee Chairman Ron Abrams, who opposes most local sales taxes, was to blame.

Others think a more detailed plan would stand a better chance; last year’s bill proposed a list of lake improvement possibilities, but without hard numbers on the cost or how long the effort would take.

&uot;We got hurt in those (legislative) hearings because we didn’t have definitive answers,&uot; said Albert Lea City Manager Paul Sparks. &uot;We had concepts, but we didn’t have definitive answers.&uot;

The city and county have talked about dredging part of Albert Lea Lake, but nobody seems to have a handle on how much it will cost, what kind of dredging is legal under new regulations, and what to do with the &uot;spoil&uot; &045; the material scooped up off the bottom of the lake. Many low-lying areas around Fountain Lake were already filled in by dredge spoil when the city had a regular dredging program, up until the 1970s, Sparks said.

The need for answers is a compelling argument in favor of hiring a consultant, chamber and Greater Jobs representatives said. While they didn’t have a specific request, they encouraged the city to consider the idea.

&uot;We think the city is ready to be part of the entire watershed project,&uot; said Randy Kehr, chairman of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

At least one council member had reservations; Ron Sorensen said that lake efforts can only proceed if there is widespread agreement on what needs to be done.

&uot;I think it’s all well and good, and I really like the idea if we do in fact have a consensus,&uot; he said. &uot;As a politician, I don’t see a consensus.&uot;

&uot;Better lakes is something that everybody is supportive of,&uot; responded Kehr.

Redevelopment of the old Farmland site may also be complicated because the city does not own the site, and under a land-swap plan proposed after the fire last year, the city will not get it unless Farmland builds a new plant in Albert Lea. With the company fighting through bankruptcy, that prospect is uncertain. The city plans to continue pursuing ways to make sure the Farmland site winds up under its control.

In the meantime, the chamber and Greater Jobs will be meeting in the next few months to discuss the idea of a lake-quality facilitator and to decide if they can offer financial support.

&uot;We need a body to go out and at least do some research,&uot; Arends said.