A new proposal to reuse the existing Cloquet Middle School as a mix of workforce and market-rate apartments with a theater and gym seemed to draw less controversy than a similar proposal in 2016.
Roers Investment LLC, a Minnesota-based commercial and residential real estate development company, held an open house May 1 in the CMS gymnasium, which was attended by only a couple dozen residents.
In fact, in a count taken at 6:30 p.m., there were more elected officials plus school district, city and Roers employees (16) than citizens (11) scattered around the four different displays.
The project proposed by Roers is similar to the downsized one that Sherman Associates - which cancelled its purchase agreement in November after state funding didn't come through - ultimately arrived at after going through citizen meetings as well as the planning commission and city council preliminary review processes.
As outlined in a handout distributed at the open house, the proposed redevelopment incorporates 57 mixed-income studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom residential apartments, complemented by various community rooms and retention of the historic auditorium, the auditorium and the cafeteria space, which would likely be converted into offices.
The differences between the two are few:
• The 2016 project ended up with a proposed 50 apartments and 102 parking stalls; this one proposes 57 units and 115 parking stalls.
• Converting the cafeteria to office space and having tenants is a new idea.
• The 2016 project had filed for but not received historic approval clearance prior to submitting, but in 2017, this project has successfully completed the first step of that process. That is a large part of the reason the plan includes the gymnasium, which was built in 1936. The school has wings built in 1921 and 1938.
"It's one of the historic structures," explained Paul Keenan, vice president of development for Roers, who has worked on both the 2016 and 2017 proposals, as he previously worked for Sherman. "But it also makes sense with the climate here to use the gym."
Keenan said Roers is expecting the rehabilitation of the building to cost close to $12 million; the company will apply for funding programs such as the state's housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits and a mortgage to help pay those costs. They do not intend to request any city funds, he said.
Keenan explained that 80 percent of the apartments will be workforce housing rent levels, while 20 percent will be market rate. For example, rent on a workforce housing two-bedroom apartment would be around $600 a month, versus $900 at market rate, according to estimates.
Roers Investments is working with the Cloquet Housing and Redevelopment Authority seeking some project-based vouchers (PBVs). From a technical perspective for this project, if any Cloquet HRA PBVs are issued for the project, they would be applied to the 50 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) units per payments standards provided by the Cloquet/Scanlon HRA. These are the maximum rents allowed for PBV units where PBV residents pay 30 percent of their income and the HRA fills the gap up to the maximum Payment Standard fulfilling the 50 percent AMI unit. HRA Executive Director Debra Schaff said she is looking favorably at the project, but has to put out a request for proposals for the vouchers so nothing is certain yet. The HRA is breaking ground on its own apartment building project this summer.
Lynn Gentilini pitched her idea for "active senior housing" again, but got no takers. Workforce housing is a higher priority for the federal and state government, explained Jared Ackmann, assistant developer from Roers Investments.
Planning Commission member Kelly Johnson was there, checking out the new project, and suggested Roers consider inviting the Senior Center to relocate to the building to use some of the community spaces.
The negotiated price is the same as last time, $99,500, Cloquet Schools Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said.
If the district fails to sell the school to a buyer, estimated costs for demolition and asbestos and lead abatement are close to $1.4 million. That's money that could be spent on existing schools if it doesn't have to be used to tear down the school.
Former Cloquet High School principal Bob Stevens loved the idea.
"I sure hope it goes through," he said. "It will solve a lot of problems if it does."
Stevens said he might even want to live there someday if he and his wife ever decide to move into town.
Not everyone was in favor of the housing proposal.
Char Foss, a Cloquet resident who's lived near the school on Seventh Street for 45 years, said she wasn't happy with the idea. She wondered about snow storage and removal, asbestos abatement, past promises broken by the school district and more.
Several local landlords attended the meeting and most opposed the proposal.
"Parking and concerns about increased density are the biggest things I'm hearing," Keenan said at the open house. "We did try to look at traffic. Right now you have 640 people here daily, Monday through Friday, plus parents. If we average 3.5 people per unit, and I don't think we'll reach that, that's 200 people. Personally, I think it will be a lot quieter."
Representatives from Roers will be asking the Cloquet City Council and Mayor Dave Hallback for a required resolution of support for the company's funding application at the May 16 Cloquet City Council meeting. If that is approved - they would find out in October - the developer would then have to submit an official site plan and rezone to the city and would go through the process of getting approvals from both the Cloquet Planning Commission and the City Council.
"I was thrilled when I heard there was another potential tenant for this building," said Tom Proulx, a neighbor and Carlton County Commissioner for the area. "I don't want to see a building of this historic value destroyed because once it's gone, it's gone."