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City wants public use, utility wants payoff at former Moorhead power plant site

MOORHEAD - A prime piece of real estate here where a power plant stood for more than a century has put the city and its publicly owned utility company on opposite sides of a common struggle: public use or private development?...

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MOORHEAD – A prime piece of real estate here where a power plant stood for more than a century has put the city and its publicly owned utility company on opposite sides of a common struggle: public use or private development?

The City Council seems to support a plan to build a Japanese garden on the site of the recently demolished plant, which was operated by Moorhead Public Service.

Officials from the utility want MPS to be at least partially reimbursed for the cost of knocking down the plant and cleaning up the property. The utility has paid about $2.3 million to decommission the site, said MPS Director Bill Schwandt, who added that the city chipped in $500,000.

So MPS would prefer a more lucrative use for the land, which sits between Fifth and Sixth avenues south, west of Woodlawn Park. Some high-end condominiums, perhaps.

It would be an area that could attract development-a high spot on the riverfront, with views of downtown Fargo-which Mayor Del Rae Williams called "one of the most beautiful areas of Moorhead."

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But according to city officials, MPS has no rights over the land, and nothing to bargain with.

"Really it just boils down to, 'Give us money,'" Williams said, describing the utility's position.

The City Council in June was receptive to a proposal by the Northern Plains Botanic Garden Society, which wants to build a Japanese garden-complete with cultural center, tea house and gazebo-at the site of the former power plant. The garden group, however, doesn't want to start raising money without an agreement with the city to get the land for free if it meets certain fundraising goals, a deal that isn't ironed out.

While Schwandt noted that a Japanese garden at the site would be lovely, he said the utility's ratepayers are his top priority.

As such, he wants a for-profit enterprise, like a real estate developer, to take over the site. That way, MPS could make some money and offset the costs of destroying the power plant.

"Over the past 10 years, you know, we've spent close to $3 million to raze and remediate the environmental issues at that site," Schwandt said. "Some, or all, of those costs could be reimbursed through some kind of tax incentive to a future developer, or an outright sale."

The land is fit for any kind of development, Schwandt said. An engineering firm in 2012 found that part of the power plant was on a fault line and basically sliding into the river, but MPS Electrical Engineering Manager Travis Schmidt said Wednesday that "with all the foundations basically removed and the new soils placed in there ... that situation has been fixed."

MPS has also suggested that, in exchange for handing over the power plant site, it would accept another piece of land from the city.

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Williams said the site of the former power plant should remain, at least in part, for public use. The site was home to a power plant from the late 1800s until 2011, and city officials formed a committee to gauge what sort of use Moorhead residents would like on the property.

"Citizens have said that they want a public component," said Williams. "It can't be somebody's backyard of their condo units, 'cause you're not gonna go and have a picnic in somebody's backyard."

Ken Norman, president of the utility board, agreed that the site would be great for garden. But he added that it would also "be a great site for condominiums."

The utility has invested a lot of money in the plant, Norman said, adding that over the years MPS bought surrounding parcels, at the cost of $500,000, to create a buffer zone for neighbors.

"It's cost us an awful lot of money to demolish the site and to clean up various types of contamination that were discovered," he said. "We would like to recoup some of that."

But Councilwoman Heidi Durand, who serves as a liaison between the City Council and MPS, said it made sense for the utility to pay for the environmental fixes.

"If you make a mess, you're responsible for cleaning it up," she said.

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