Olmsted County commissioners split 5-2 Tuesday on the decision to purchase the former Seneca Foods canning facility in Rochester for $5.6 million.
The planned purchase did not come with final plans for the nearly 11 acres at 1217 Third Ave. SE.
"There’s a lot of chatter out there — what is happening, what’s going to happen," County Board Chairman Jim Bier said. "Let me just say right now, all we are doing is buying the property."
While a specific use for the property wasn’t defined by county commissioners, two options emerged in discussions — either an expansion of Graham Park or development of a transit hub to fit Destination Medical Center plans.
Commissioner Mark Thein opposed the purchase, noting it was either spending tax money to do the work of other entities or conducting land speculation, both of which he opposed.
"I feel this was an emotionally and personality-driven discussion," he said, stating it puts tax dollars at risk.
Commissioner Ken Brown said he disagreed with Thein’s assessment, noting the planned purchase has already drawn the interest of developers wanting to work with the county.
"I have absolutely no doubt that we will get all, or more than all, of our money back," he said, calling the purchase a "very strategic investment."
How the county will initially pay for the property and related demolition of the former canning plant has yet to be determined, but the board’s administrative committee scheduled a March 19 public hearing on plans to borrow up to $20 million.
Half of the potential borrowing is already earmarked for capital improvement projects planned for this year, but the remaining $10 million could cover early estimates for the Seneca purchase, demolition of the plant and preparation of the site, which could include efforts to preserve the iconic ear of corn water tower.
County Administrator Heidi Welsch said the ability to borrow that amount doesn’t mean the county must cover the purchase through borrowing. She said it merely leaves the option open as discussions continue.
Matt Miller, the county’s director of facilities and building operations, said cost estimates will be better defined with closer study of the property after the purchase agreement is finalized.
"We’re hoping by May 31 to have the contingencies figured out," he said.
The sale is expected to close June 30.
While he joined Thein in voting against the purchase, Commissioner Gregg Wright said he plans to work with his fellow elected officials on making sure the best possible results are achieved.
"I will work with the rest of the board very hard and diligently to make certain that we can, if possible, recoup some of the cost for the taxpayers of Rochester and Olmsted County," he said.
Others, however, said they hold no doubts about successful results, comparing it to other county projects, such as the Waste-to-Energy plant, the purchase of land for the Federal Medical Center and efforts to create the circle drives in Rochester.
"I think this decision is one we are making for the future," Commissioner Stephanie Podulke said.