New Richmond council weighs Freedom Center purchase
Ahead of having to make a consequential decision on whether or not to purchase Freedom Park Center, the new nearly 18.000-square-foot multi-use facility being built by VFW Post 10818 at Freedom Park, New Richmond City Council members had an opportunity to review the history of the project and ask questions of project managers, Ken House and Dave Green and Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Fall at their work session Monday night, Feb. 27.
An idea nine years in the making, the Freedom Park Center project became more than just an idea when the city conveyed a 4.39 acre parcel of property in Freedom Park to the Post in Sept. 2019.
That was followed by an initial memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city and the Post which was amended in 2021. The MOU gives the city an option, but not obligation, to purchase the building if a certificate of occupancy has been issued (signifying substantial completion of construction) from the VFW for the price of $200,000.
The MOU stipulates that if there is no appreciable progress on the building by Sept. 13, 2024, the city has the option to repurchase the property for $1. The same option applies if there is no certificate of occupancy issued by Sept. 13, 2029.
The facility floor plan identifies three primary spaces, a veterans center, senior center and community center along with a commercial kitchen/cafe, restrooms, concessions area, two classrooms, several offices and storage space.
The project has garnered substantial attention because of its unique employment of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program. Contingents of soldiers have been deploying to Freedom Park over summers to prepare the site and construct Freedom Park Center in exchange for receiving hands-on training in construction skills donated by construction professionals.
The training program is intended to increase the troops deployment readiness while providing services that benefit a community, in this case, the construction of Freedom Park Center, thought to be the largest IRT project of its kind in the country.
The estimated cost of the project is upwards of $5 million of which the IRT program accounts for the labor, a significant portion of the cost.
The Post has raised a significant amount of funds for the project to date including a $500,000 donation from RCU and $50,000 donation from T-Mobile. The Post needs to raise roughly $1.6 million dollars more to complete the project. Post 10818 is seeking to obtain either a construction loan or line of credit from a financial institution in the spring of 2023 while a number of grant applications are still pending and additional fundraising initiatives are planned for 2023.
More than 1,000 troops are expected to participate in the final phase of the project starting in May with utility work, pouring of concrete floor, rough carpentry framing and above grade block masonry. The building is on schedule to be substantially finished by Sept. 2023 and open in the spring of 2024.
Alderman Craig Kittel, while appreciating that there is no physical building yet, questioned whether there were organizations lined up to lease space from the Post, given the need to pay for ongoing maintenance of the building should the city decide to make the purchase.
“I wonder how the process is going as far as other entities that aren’t there now, that don’t have solid commitments, but that are interested in being out there. I know there were quite a few, but I don’t know how solid they are … because the decision making process for the council could depend on where that process is at when we get the keys, if we get the keys,” Kittel said.
House explained that besides the Post and Club 55+ (a program that plans social events and programs for seniors) there are no additional commitments at this time. However without the physical space to visit, it is early to expect additional renters to commit.
House also told council members the Post has engaged several organizations to help put together a business plan for the project that should help identify suitable renters.
“The SCORE Program and Aaron Sundeen (Derrick Construction, banking background) are our resources. We expect to have that plan done shortly,” House said.
Alderman Pete Vrieze expressed his concerns about the financial viability of the project when he requested a financial statement from the Post detailing where the project stands financially including outstanding costs and outlook for potential revenues.
“Any time the city’s going to be involved in something, I want to see some sort of a financial statement whether that’s how much money have you taken in, how much money have you spent on this project, how much do you have left, what are you earmarking, to see where this project can lead ,,, I’d like to know, what’s the total cost of the project against the military labor given that it’s a $5 million dollar project,” Vrieze said.
Vrieze also questioned what the expected costs would be to maintain the facility if the city did decide to purchase the building.
Freedom Park Center volunteer Scott Counter previously provided an estimate of $70,000 per year based on a comparable local professional building; however, the figure is two years old and the building uses are different.