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Decision on fate of historic building in Fergus Falls delayed

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The Fergus Falls City Council voted Monday to delay its decision whether to preserve or demolish a building that defined the city for generations – but has been sitting vacant for nearly a decade.

The old Regional Treatment Center, a huge structure that looks sort of a like a castle, housed patients with mental illness from the 1890s until it was closed in 2005 (read a history of the building here). Ever since then local leaders have been trying to find other uses for the complex.

They've been hampered by the facility's enormous size – the main building is 500,000 square feet – and its location in a small city in the western part of the state, not very close to the Twin Cities or other larger population centers, according to the Star Tribune.

After a series of proposals came and went, a developer that specializes in historic buildings presented to the city a $41 million plan to renovate the complex into apartments, a boutique hotel, restaurants and other offerings.

The city agreed to pursue the plan with developer Ray Willey and his Georgia company, Historic Properties, Inc. in June 2013.

But city officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Willey over the past year and a half as little progress has been made toward finalizing the deal, the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reports.

Willey had not provided financial information and documentation by the date the city had requested, but finally did so at Monday's City Council meeting. The City Council voted unanimously to delay its decision on the building until its next meeting on Nov. 3 so council members could review the new information, according to reports.

“I think it turned out extremely well,” Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland said about the meeting, according to the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. “I’m far more optimistic than I have been for a long time and I’m hopeful that the information that our developer brought to us will be sufficient for us to go ahead and OK the project.”

There are some issues that still need to be negotiated, including Willey's $700,000 funding gap which he says would need to be given to him by the city before he could begin working on the project, the newspaper notes.

The city has said it's unsure it can take a risk in funding the building and during a public comment period one resident accused the city of hypocrisy, noting it spent unwisely on a golf course and hockey arena in the past, InForum reports.

Up against a deadline

The city is up against a deadline to decide what to do with the building. It purchased the facility from the state of Minnesota for $1 in 2007, and was granted $4 million in state money to help pay for the cost of renovation or demolition. That state grant expires in 2016, so time is running out on a decision.

The Regional Treatment Center, also known as “the Kirkbride,” is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride, who revolutionized the design of facilities for treating the mentally ill in the late 1800s, MPR News reported.

Unlike earlier asylums, which resembled prisons, Kirkbride designed buildings that were long and narrow, so every room had windows.

At one point the facility housed nearly 2,000 patients, and hundreds of area residents worked there over the years.

A vocal group of community residents called Friends of the Kirkbride has been fighting for years to keep the building safe from the wrecking ball.

“Everybody has been touched by this building,” Laurie Mullen, chair of the Friends of the Kirkbride, told the Star Tribune.

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