Possible Hormel Institute expansion might be fueling acquisitions in Austin

Hormel Institute Associate Director Dr. Ann Bode leads U.S. Sen. Al Franken on a tour of the institute Wednesday. The Hormel Foundation is said to be buying homes near the institute to accommodate an expansion.

Take a drive down 16th Avenue Northeast in Austin, and take note of what you see.

Empty houses — 12 of them, at last count — are the norm.

They are among the 22 properties sold in about an eight-block area since Jan. 1, 2010, and they all have one thing in common: the buyer.

The Mower County Assessor's office shows that Leaning Tree LLC has been purchasing the homes.

So what — or who — is Leaning Tree, and what is going on?


The land

The properties lie immediately east of the Hormel Institute, from Eighth Street Northeast to the railroad tracks about three blocks east and from 15th to 17th avenues northeast.

The purchase prices have ranged from $22,000 to $141,000; more than two-thirds were less than $60,000.

The sales amounts have all been above the assessed value, according to records — some as much as 239 percent of the value. Others have sold for less than 5 percent more.

There's no obvious pattern to the pricing.

The consensus is that the property will become part of future expansion plans for the Hormel Institute, a world-renowned medical research facility that's been in the neighborhood since the 1940s.

The Hormel Institute

The site tripled its size and doubled its number of faculty and staff in 2008; there are no hard and fast plans for future expansion, officials there say.


While the popular theory is that the land to the east would be used for parking and housing for the many scientists who travel to Austin to conduct research, it remains just that: a theory.

So what do the people there think about the property purchases?

"That's the (Hormel) Foundation's project," said Gail Dennison, director of development and public relations at the Hormel Institute.

She deferred all questions to Steve Rizzi, the secretary of the foundation. The address of record for the Leaning Tree LLC is that of Adams, Rizzi and Sween, an Austin law firm where Rizzi is an attorney. Rizzi — or anyone else associated with Leaning Tree — didn't return a call seeking comment Friday.

The city

No mention of any activity in that eight-block area has been made in minutes of the Austin Planning and Zoning Committee, dating back through 2010.

"The city has no financial involvement in (the purchases)," said Craig Hoium, community development director for Austin. "We've talked preliminarily about possible upgrades or changes to public infrastructure in that area, but we're not involved in the acquisitions or demolition or any of that."

The city has helped Leaning Tree "in the aspect of guidance," Hoium admitted. "When Leaning Tree is going to ...  say if the structures are going to be demolished, (we advise) what process they should take, or (share) the city's outline for bidding requirements for demolishing."


Paperwork obtained by the Austin Post-Bulletin shows asbestos abatement work scheduled to begin April 11 on nine of the sold properties. Bids were let, but the work has not begun.

The real estate agent

Many of the homeowners named Joe Fuhrman as the agent in charge of the deals.

Owner of Fuhrman Real Estate, he has consistently been the face of Leaning Tree's offers.

Fuhrman did not return phone calls seeking comment on Friday.

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