Downspout on Medical Detatchment Barracks
Downspout on Medical Detatchment Barracks
Photo by Greg Hines

The Issues

Often I get asked why it's so difficult to restore the upper post, why we don't "just do it." For those of you who have insomnia, here are the major issues involved in this large and complex project.
In 1971 Area J of the upper post was turned over to Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with the stipulation that it can only be used for recreational purposes. The DNR's portion of the site is called Area J because it's J shaped when you look at it on a map. Unfortunately, this narrow definition has locked out most forms of development, such as commercial, educational, and the like. We can't put in a hotel, youth hostel, office building, housing--anything that isn't strictly recreational.

At the moment, people are working with the legislature to open up the definition of recreational so more forms of development are allowed. Oft times people joke that it would take an act of Congress to get something done, but in this case it's true.

People ask "So why not pass the ownership to another entity that doesn't have this restriction?" The rules state that the land has to be returned to the Federal government rather than simply be transferred to another state agency. This means the post would go through the Federal surplus land program, which could easily take 5 - 10 years. The buildings would crumble to ruins by then.
In the 1800s treaties were made with the Indians giving the Federal Government use of the land that became the Fort Snelling reservation. At one point the reservation stretched from the Five Corners area of St. Paul down to Shakopee, with additional land on the south side of the Minnesota River for a ferry crossing.

This issue needs to be resolved because developers aren't going to invest millions of dollars if there isn't a clear title to the site. They're very risk adverse and don't want to see a large investment taken suddenly disappear when someone opens up a law suit.

In 2006 it was estimated that it would take $65 million to rehabilitate the site. This is just to fix up the buildings and not to remodel them so a tenant can move in. It also doesn't include landscaping, parking, and any new buildings put on the site. Just as a guesstimate I would say it'll take $150 million+ to make the project fly.

Quite frankly though I'm not too concerned about the funds as I'm confident it can be raised through private, commercial, and tennant funds. Add in tax incentives for preservation, Sentence to Services labor, volunteer labor, and assistance from a preservation school to train future leaders in the preservation movement and you've got a real powerhouse in terms of financing, expertese, and helping hands.

There are quite a few government and non-government organizations (NGOs) who have a stake in the game, each one of which has rules, regulations, and goals they have to follow and work towards. The short list of stakeholders includes
  • Federal government
  • State of Minnesota
  • Hennepin County
  • Prairie Island Indian Community
  • Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community
  • Department of Natural Resources
  • Minnesota Historical Society
  • Metropolitan Airports Commission
  • Preservation Alliance of Minnesota
  • Mississippi National River and Recreation Area National Park Service
  • Fort Snelling Association
  • Veterans Administration
  • United States Army
  • United States Air Force
  • City of Richfield
  • Minneapolis Park Board
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation

I'm sure there are some I've missed. If so, let me send out an apology right now because the people who have worked on this project should be lauded for their outstanding efforts. Normally when people think of the government the first thing that comes to mind is bureaucracy, inefficiency, and politicians involved in scandals. But the people here fit anything but that stereotype. The progress at the site these last couple of years has been largely through efforts of the men and women at these agencies. Far from being obstructionist, they've worked hard to turn this from yet another missed preservation opportunity into a gem for all to enjoy.

In order to make this project fly, we'll have to get tenants for the buildings once they're fixed up. There are plenty of ideas that have come and gone through the years and many more ideas on the table, including a hotel, youth hostel, education facilities, race track, horse riding facilities, and housing. Some are excellent ideas and some, well, not so much. But in all cases the devil is in the details. Once the above issues are solved and the site fixed up, we have to find or create an organization to run the youth hostel or riding stable. The rent has to be cheap enough that the tenants can make a profit, yet high enough that the developer can do the same as well as save money for the inevitable improvements that need to be done. It won't be enough to take the money and run--there has to be enough to pay into a capital fund so the roof can be replaced in another 30 years.
It's a Mess
And then there are the technical details, such as asbestos abatement, sewer, water, and electrical access, recreating missing architectural elements, and the like.

It's a tough nut, but I haven't seen one problem though that can't be overcome with hard work and perseverence. The money is there, the expertese is there, and the political willpower is there. All we need are volunteers to roll up their sleeves, pitch in, and do the work. If you've read this far and I haven't scared the daylights out of you, drop me a note and we'll get you plugged in.

Together we can do it!

There's been a lot of progress, so I thought it was time I updated this page.

As of October 2009 the task force meetings are continuing. A planning meeting open to the public was held last week (October 7, 2009) recapping progress to date and seeking input from people on what kind of development they would or would not like to see on the post. The scope of the project has expanded to include not just the DNR's portion of the post, but also MNHS land, VA land, federal buildings, and a whole lot more. Basically everything within a half mile of the light rail station, exclusive of the active military base. The aim isn't to develop all that property, per se, as that's up to the individual owners. But rather write an overarching transportation and redevelopment that helps to connect all the sites.

March 2013 update:
There has been a lot of progress in the past several years. The Veterans Administration in conjunction with Common Bond are rehabilitating five of their buildings to turn into housing for homeless veterans. That project is slated to be completed summer 2014.

The joint powers agreement was signed late last year, which makes it easier to get projects approved because they donít have to be run through the full bureaucracy of each individual agency. The PPU (program for preservation & utilization) is in progress and should be completed in the next couple of months. This is the process for changing the DNR portion of Fort Snelling from the Parks & Recs program, which only allows recreational use, to the National Monuments program, which allows nonprofit and for profit uses for the site. This is the last roadblock to getting developers onto the site so we can get some serious rehabilitation done.

Which brings me to the next item: the DNR has released an RFP (request for proposals). This is where developers write up their plan for some or all of the post and submit it to the DNR. The DNR then looks them over and, if they like what they see, they give the developer the nod to go ahead. Itís possible that they wonít like any of the proposals and will reject them all.

In February the DNR held an open house and about fifteen development groups came through to check the place out and learn details. From that there are from one to three good proposals that are being written.

August 2014 update:
Progress continues apace at the upper post along with some setbacks too. The PPU (see above) is still in progress, although I haven't haerd any updates on it recently. In the meantime, the VA and CommonBond are working on rehabbing five of their upper post buildings into homes and training centers for veterans. Expect that project to be largely done in 2014 and complete in 2015.

On the downside, the legislature didn't allocate any funds this year to redo Taylor Avenue. This is a critical element as no development can take place on the DNR side of the post until the street and the utilities below it are up to code. Some don't exist, some are undersized, and some just need to be cleaned and inspected. See this report for the condition of the utilities.

In total it will take about $4 million to redo the street. If you have any sway with the legislature or governor, I encourage you to write them a letter and show your support for the post and our history.

Back to the exciting part, in 2020 the 200th anniversary of Fort Snelling will be here. On October 10, 1820, the cornerstone of the round tower was put in place and four years later the fort completed. I hope you'll join us for the commemoration!

Stay tuned for more news!