News Column

Mankato's historic post office seeks new life as downtown's crown jewel

July 19, 2014

By Tim Krohn, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.

July 19--MANKATO -- With one of Mankato's most historic landmarks slated to be put up for sale, ideas abound on its possible future as private developers consider a commercial reuse and nonprofits dream of everything from a performing arts center to a shared nonprofit space.

The big unknown is just how much money it will take to purchase and do a major renovation of the 1896 Kasota stone post office building in the 400 block of South Second Street.

"I'm eager to see what creative people come up with. It could be a complete unknown coming in at the end and saying, 'Hey, I have an idea for this,' " said Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson.

Eric Harriman, director of the City Center Partnership, said the group is starting to take ideas on possible reuses for the building.

"We know one possible avenue that's come up repeatedly is arts focused," Harriman said.

He said the partnership, a public/private group of civic and business leaders that focuses on improving the downtown, plans to get broad public input on possible reuses for the building.

"Performing arts could be an opportunity, a gallery space could be an opportunity. An innovation we've seen in a lot of communities is live/work arts space where artists can live in it and produce art," Harriman said.

Developer Kyle Smith, whose Tailwind Group has been transforming the downtown with the construction of three office towers, said the post office property offers a unique opportunity for big change.

"I think there are a handful of, hopefully local, developers who will take a run at it. It's a great opportunity for maybe a public and private partnership."

Anderson said the large chunk of property -- which takes up about three-quarters of a full block -- offers an opportunity to redevelop a part of the downtown that hasn't seen much change.

Across Second Street from the post office is The Free Press and Earl Johnson Furniture buildings -- both of which have filled the block for many decades. Next to the post office is the former Greyhound bus station that is now part of Earl Johnson's.

"There has been a preclusion to anyone doing anything in that area before," Anderson said. "It's such an integral part of our downtown."

Developer Tony Frentz, who has done several downtown projects, including the Graif buiilding renovation, and who is on the City Center Partnership, said he hopes there can be a community-focused project at the site.

"There are different groups thinking it could be broken into use for arts, maybe a performing arts center," Frentz said.

"I think the best use would be some kind of community use. I don't know if it will work. It's a huge building."

He said the fact the Kasota stone exterior is in great condition helps. "The outside is really good looking. They cleaned that stone, tuckpointed it. It's a cool building. I don't think anyone would mess with the outside."

Frentz said that if some type of nonprofit or private-public partnership doesn't happen, there will be developers who would buy the property to redevelop. Possible private reuse might include apartments, offices, shops or restaurant space -- and even space that could be leased to the USPS for a post office.

"Apartments might be good. That would seem an obvious use," Frentz said. "But I'm getting the feeling that's not what people want."

Any kind of nonprofit reuse of the building would require a major funding source.

"It's one thing to acquire it, it's something else to update it and operate it," Anderson said. "It will need some funding mechanism if a community group is using it."

Harriman said the City Center Partnership won't be the group coming up with any financing.

"We're not going to be spearheading redevelopment of a building, but rather setting a platform of what the best uses would be."

The U.S. Postal Service announced last month it would put the building up for sale as part of its efforts to improve its financial difficulties. USPS said it plans to have a smaller office in the downtown with letter carriers moved to the mail processing center on Summit Avenue.

The sale of the post office will end a unique designation as it is one of the oldest post offices in the country still in operation.

Greater Mankato Growth, Envision 20/20 and the City Center Partnership have all sent letters to the USPS asking that they give "full consideration" to any proposals ultimately made by local groups.

Value hard to determine

Keith Siefkes, a real estate appraiser who owns Robinson Appraisals in Mankato, said putting a value on the post office property would be difficult.

"You would look at a replacement cost (for the building) and establish a land value. With a historical building like that it's a tough chore. How do you replace a structure like that?"

Siefkes said that appraisers typically look for similar properties in the area that have sold in recent years to help set a value.

"Ideally you'd find some comparable sale, but it's real tough to find one for a property like that. And there haven't been any downtown land sales without an existing structure on it, so it's difficult to even come up with the land price."

Blue Earth County Assessor Mike Stalberger said the county places a value of $1.46 million on the property. The county sets values on properties even when they are, like the post office, tax exempt.

The value on the land is set at $356,400 with the building at around $1.1 million.

Stalberg admits it's difficult to set a definitive value on a property such as the post office.

"We based it on a cost approach -- what would it cost to construct it (now) and then take age and things into account," Stalberger said.

Would USPS take less?

When a USPS official attended a recent Mankato City Council meeting to discuss the sale of the building, Mayor Anderson tried to pin her down on whether the Postal Service might take less for the building if it was going to a nonprofit reuse.

"I wanted to know if they'd be interested in taking less than fair market, and I don't think so. I don't get that impression," Anderson said

"She made it fairly clear that she needs to get fair market value.

"They will come back in six months or more and say they're selling it, and I'm expecting there will be some bidding process."

No historical protection

The post office is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the designation puts virtually no restraints on how it is reused.

"There is no protection under the registry unless federal funds are involved," said Tom Hagen of North Mankato, a local architectural preservationist.

"You can buy it and tear it down, paint it pink or whatever if there's no federal funds involved."

Howard Vetter, of Vetter Stone, has a personal interest in seeing that the exterior of the post office remains true to its origins. His grandfather, his father and he all oversaw various phases of the construction and provided all of the limestone for the building. (See related story.)

"I hope they can make good use of it and that it doesn't get butchered up on the outside. It would be nice to see that monumental building stay as it is," Vetter said.

One thing he would like to see any future owner tear down and redo with Kasota stone is a smaller northern addition, on Jackson Street, that was built to add a wheelchair ramp. "I'd like to find the guy who did that. They enclosed it in brick. It irks me to no end," Vetter said.

Mankato has a Heritage Preservation Commission that seeks to designate certain buildings as historically significant and tries to influence any changes made to them.

But commission member Ron Goodrich said buildings with the local designation don't have any legal protection.

"We can't dictate anything, we just make suggestions," Goodrich said.

The post office is not on the local preservation list and being on the local list requires the property owner to apply for it.

"Our local commission wrote a letter requesting the post office consider local designation. That would just be our community recognizing of the historical significance of it and ask that the owners take things for a review to the commission for any changes, particularly on the exterior," Goodrich said.

Hagen said he hopes the future owner of the property will respect its historical significance, particularly on the exterior.

"But we don't have a good history, so that's what scares you. Mankato has lost more of its architectural heritage than any city in the state," Hagen said.

Hagen's comment about Mankato losing more of its historic buildings than any other city is not just his own view but one that has been expressed by Dennis Gimmensted, who served with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Hagen said that while many historic buildings have been razed or marred in Mankato, he believes the public would no longer stand for any radical changes to a building as significant as the post office.

"There would be an uproar in the community today."

Hagen said there was one ideal use for the building that could have been pursued years ago. "The perfect solution is City Hall should have been there. But they moved (to Mankato Place) and brought the school district in with them. The post office is set up perfectly for a City Hall."

Monday: Fairmont history buff Steve Pierce tells a cautionary tale for anyone who is interested in buying old post offices.

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(c)2014 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.)

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