A proposed property swap to build a new Longfellow Elementary School is slated for additional study.
The Rochester Park Board on Tuesday voted to hire an architect to assist with space planning needed to determine whether the existing school will fit the city's needs for parks and forestry operations.
“We’re coming to a time where we need to decide what we want to do,” Mike Nigbur, Rochester’s park and forestry division head, said of a proposal that could turn the school over to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
If the school property meets the city’s needs, it would be swapped for a portion of the nearby Kepp Fields, which would be used to build a 720-student elementary school.
Nigbur said the district is looking for a response early next year, since plans call for moving forward with school construction next spring.
If the swap takes place, construction could be done while the existing school is open. If not, new construction in the same location would likely require earlier demolition of the current school, according to a letter sent to the Park Board by John Carlson, Rochester Public Schools’s executive director of finance.
Park Board Member Linnea Archer, a teacher with Rochester Public Schools, questioned whether the move would fit park needs.
“It just doesn’t seem like a big enough space,” she said.
Nigbur said the existing school would likely need to be expanded for indoor equipment storage, but it could offer more space for the department and help consolidate personnel and equipment into a single location, since storage is currently found in several locations in the city.
If the move is made, the 40 permanent employees and 50 seasonal staff members would likely move from the department’s facilities near Mayo Field, which Nigbur noted would provide the potential for new use of the property along the Zumbro River.
Park Board Member Dick Dale questioned the reasoning behind accepting a building that isn’t ideal.
“I don’t know why we would try to retrofit a school into an operations center,” he said, noting similar city purchases of the Chateau Theatre and former Think Bank at 4001 West River Parkway have come with steep renovation cost estimates.
Nigbur said that’s the reason for the consultant, which is expected to cost $18,000 to $40,000, depending on the scope of work, which would include looking at current needs and the anticipated costs for renovating the school building.
Nigbur said building a new operations center would likely cost $8 million, if built on land the city already owns.
Asked why an outside consultant is needed, Nigbur said the city doesn’t have staff with the specific architectural expertise needed for the study, and hiring a new staff member with the skills wouldn’t be prudent.
“If you are going to keep staff lean and trim and not expand, that’s what you are going to have to do,” he said of hiring specialists when the need arises.
The Park Board agreed with a unanimous vote to hire an architect, which could be funded using park reserves or remaining funds in the 2019 budget.
The findings are expected to be presented to the Park Board in January or February, with plans for a decision on the proposed land swap at that point.
If the Park Board agrees to make the swap, a finalized agreement will need to be approved by the Rochester City Council.