Morin Park eliminated as site for fire station

Published 11:40 pm Monday, July 10, 2017

Council considering Blazing Star Landing, another E. Main Site

A new fire station for the Albert Lea Fire Department will not be in Morin Park.

The Albert Lea City Council on Monday unanimously approved moving forward with possible locations for the proposed $7 million to $10 million project, including East Main Street and Blazing Star Landing.

The council’s decision was made at a meeting attended by approximately 70 people who discussed the possible fire station and Mayo Clinic’s planned transitioning of most inpatient services from its Albert Lea campus to Austin. About 10 people spoke during a public forum on the fire station that lasted for nearly an hour, before the council voted.

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Albert Lea resident George Marin called having the fire station at Morin Park a “travesty” for the community, saying it would take away recreation opportunities from low-income children.

“It’s all about money, and it’s all about doing a pretty good job of serving fiscal numbers and reports, but not people and the community,” he said.

Marin helped launched a Facebook page, “Save Morin Park,” shortly after the council discussed the park as a possible spot for the proposed new fire station during a study session last month. He said more than 200 signatures were gathered in less than 24 hours, and there were 300 signatures as of Monday.

He said he did not encounter one person during door-to-door visits he conducted this weekend who supported having the fire station near their front yard, and he questioned whether Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr.’s neighbors would support the fire station being placed near their homes.

Marin disputed accounts that the fire station would take up only the western edge of the park, saying it would take up 73 percent of the site, and he said the park plays an important role in the lives of disenfranchised youth.

“If you gut that out of the heart of our community, you are gutting the future of those children,” he said.

Rasmussen said he did think Morin Park was a viable location for the fire station, but he acknowledged there were concerns about the spot.

“That’s the way we make decisions,” he said. “We bring things out, we talk about them. I’m happy for everybody here tonight  — they came forward and spoke to us here. I think they gave some good information for all of us to listen.”

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams presented an overview of the locations. He has said the city would not have had to pay to purchase the Morin Lake property, and the site has the desired acreage and presents the fastest way to complete the project. Ballfields at the park would have had to be relocated.

He said drawbacks of the site included public concerns about not being able to use the park, frequent flooding in the area and the spot being on the western edge of the Fire Department’s desired response area.

Marin’s wife, Jill Marin, said the proposal was against the city’s designation as a Blue Zones Community.

“This flies in the face of all health initiatives the city promotes,” she said, saying the council needed to use common sense and be equitable.

Greg Gudal, executive director of Youth for Christ, said group leaders take youth to Morin Park, where they use ball diamonds, play kickball and participate in other recreation activities. He said placing the fire station at the park would affect children, and he asked if the decision on where the fire station will be, will be based on money or on Blue Zones philosophy.

“What we do shows us how much we believe in something,” he said.

Albert Lea resident Paul Overgaard disputed that there would be no cost to building the fire station at Morin Park, saying children in the center of the city need the park.

“The kids who probably need those parks most of all might not go to those churches, but they do go to Youth for Christ,” he said.

Members of the public requested the councilors place their No. 1 focus on keeping a full-service hospital in the community, as well as expressing concerns about the cost of the project.

“To me, Morin Park is part of our history in Albert Lea,” said local resident Dottie Honsey.

Albert Lea city councilors also discussed apprehension of placing the fire station at Morin Park.

Fourth Ward Councilor Reid Olson called having Morin Park be the location for the new fire station a “distant third” option for him, while 5th Ward Councilor Robert Rasmussen said he used parks growing up and his children use parks across the community.

“I am glad that we are taking it off the table,” he said.

Sixth Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks said the Fire Department was in favor of any of the three spots, and he spoke in support of placing the fire station at Blazing Star Landing, saying businesses and the possible fire station could co-exist on the same property.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murray asked if the process for a new fire station needed to be slowed down because of the looming transitioning of services by Mayo Clinic, saying councilors needed to think about funding concerns in lieu of recent hospital developments.

“The hospital’s gotta be job one,” he said.

A public meeting for the potential site of the fire station will be from 4 to 8 p.m. July 31 at City Hall.

Adams has said the East Main Street location would provide a centralized spot, allow for redevelopment of the area that includes a Subway building and a building that formerly housed Domino’s Pizza, as well as provide training space. Drawbacks of the site include needed soil remediation, it being slightly smaller than the amount of acreage the city desires and the cost of purchasing the two buildings.

Adams said if the fire station was at Blazing Star Landing, it could be next to planned development on the site. Minimal to no site development expense is needed at Blazing Star Landing, and the location would allow for a reasonable construction timeline, he said.

Possible drawbacks to the location are infrastructure readiness, the location being on the east edge of the ideal response time area and the site’s possible impact on taxable value.

The site of the possible new fire station is expected to be announced this summer. Bidding and construction is expected in 2018, and the site is expected to be ready for occupancy in 2019.

The project is expected to be paid for either with city general fund reserves, bonding or through other funding.

An article on the public forum on Mayo Clinic’s transitioning of most inpatient services from its Albert Lea campus to Austin — as well as feedback on the transition from today’s Freeborn County Board of Commissioners meeting — will be in Wednesday’s newspaper.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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