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Rancor over roundhouse demolition

The roundhouse has fallen into a state of disrepair since it was last occupied decades ago, but John Ilse says the building is structurally sound. The City wants to demolish the building to make way for new construction on the 22 acre site. Photo by John Ilse1 / 4
The roundhouse, portions of which were built in 1888, was originally a repair station for locomotives. Photo: Todd Lindahl2 / 4
John Ilse envisions a manufacturing facility in the roundhouse located in Two Harbors, but the City voted earlier this month to move forward with demolition. Photo by John Ilse3 / 4
John Ilse envisions a restored roundhouse, like this one in San Francisco that is now a ferry terminal. Photo: John Ilse4 / 4

On Monday, March 11, the Two Harbors City Council voted to move forward with the demolition of "the roundhouse" in Two Harbors--a 125-year-old building located along the waterfront on 22 acres of prime city-owned real estate.

Originally the building was a shop for repairing trains; its oldest section dates to 1888. It has been vacant since J.J. Castings, a foundry, closed in the 1970s. The building is in need of repair, and the City has been trying to demolish it for years, but has run into funding problems. Of late, there's a renewed push to raze the building and market the acreage.

"It's an underutilized asset of the city, and (we want) to bring it to its full potential," Mayor Randy Bolen said.

The plan, as defined in the City's Comprehensive Plan passed March 2011, is to level the structure and market the empty lot to various businesses. Bolen said it's a prime location because of its proximity to rail and water. He hinted that there has already been some interest in the land.

John Ilse, an environmental engineer based in Finland, has a different vision for the site. He wants to buy and renovate the roundhouse and move a manufacturing facility into the space.

"It's a beautiful, historic building," Ilse said.

Ilse said he's outgrowing his current facility in Finland and after assessing the roundhouse, he's decided it's a perfect candidate for renovation. While he concedes the outside of the building is in rough shape, he claims the building is structurally sound and it would make good financial sense to renovate the space rather than build a new facility from scratch. He said his facility would bring about 15 jobs to Two Harbors.

As the recent vote indicates, however, saving the roundhouse isn't in the City's plans.

"The City...isn't interested in going down that path," Bolen said.

Bolen said they've had many developers tour the building, and they've all come to the same conclusion: it needs to be taken down.

Ilse isn't accustomed to being on the side of preservation in a demolition debate. In fact, much of his work as an engineer has been on tear-down projects. He's knocked down water towers, grain silos and bridges. The roundhouse, he said, is different.

"Maybe I have a guilty conscience because of all the things I've destroyed," he quipped.

Ilse said he does have a Plan B: he's looking at property in Itasca County where he would build an entirely new facility. He said he'd prefer to stay in Two Harbors where renovation will cost him an estimated one-fourth of the cost of new construction. If he were allowed access to the roundhouse, he said he plans to ask for a loan or grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and, if that fails, he will privately fund the facility.

The IRRRB is already in the mix--they've granted the City $250,000 to help pay for the demolition of the roundhouse. Bolen said that the funds won't cover the entire cost, but the City still hopes to begin demolition as soon as possible.

"The City will work creatively to come up with those additional funds with little or no impact on the taxpayers if possible," Bolen said.

Meanwhile, Ilse claims he has something better to offer the city's taxpayers-- over a dozen new jobs in a newly renovated facility by this time next year, with no City money being spent.

"We have considered (his proposal)...and we're moving forward (with the demolition)," Bolen said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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