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School board's Strand no stranger to controversy when it comes to preserving aging landmarks

FARGO - John Strand, the Fargo School Board's point man for its long-range facilities planning, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to preserving aging, landmark buildings or building anew.

John Strand
Fargo School Board member John Strand discusses long-range facilities plans to residents of the Clara Barton and Hawthorne neighborhoods Tuesday at the Hawthorne Elementary School campus. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - John Strand, the Fargo School Board's point man for its long-range facilities planning, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to preserving aging, landmark buildings or building anew.

The self-professed "building hugger" has a resume of fighting for preserving old buildings that stretches back to his days working in Grafton. In more recent years, it cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees in Fargo.

Now Strand's in a new position.

As chairman of the district's ad hoc long-range facilities planning committee, he could find himself opposed by fellow building huggers if the district's next facilities plan calls for closing or repurposing old, undersized or outdated elementary schools.

He got a taste of that Tuesday night at Hawthorne Elementary School in south Fargo.


Defenders of Hawthorne and nearby Clara Barton Elementary peppered Strand and fellow school board member Kris Wallman with questions laced with a healthy dose of skepticism - even outright suspicion - on whether district officials have made up their minds to close, sell or repurpose certain schools.

"I can't say as I truly visualized what exactly would unfold," Strand said Wednesday.

"I do know this: People are very, very passionate about their schools and their kids. I also know that as human beings that we are sometimes uncomfortable with prospects of even potential change. I'm respecting the engagement of people, and that they care so much."

Building a resume

Strand's bona fides as a buddy to old buildings start with the first of his two stints as editor of the Grafton Record.

While there, he heard about plans to level some buildings on the campus of the Developmental Center in Grafton.

Strand helped start a movement that saved two of three buildings slated for destruction. Hancock Place and Villa DeRemer were turned into 49 apartments, while retaining their historic integrity, he said.

"They were spectacular old buildings. One had marble columns two or three stories tall," he said. "They're real assets to the community to this day. Beautiful, beautiful old buildings."


He moved to Fargo in 1980 and continued his affair with architecture.

In the 1980s, Strand owned what he describes as a historic English cottage-style house on Ninth Street South across from St. Anthony's School.

His biggest moments in the spotlight came between 2002 and 2005 in a fight to save the old Cass County Jail and sheriff's residence, which were on land where the new Cass County Annex now stands.

Eventually, the "Save The Jail" group decided to focus on saving the sheriff's residence, Strand said.

But in March 2003, the County Commission voted to demolish the jail. And in April, the State Historical Board signed off on razing the sheriff's residence, and demolition began.

The Save The Jail group got a temporary restraining order to halt the work, but dropped it two weeks later because too much damage had been done to the sheriff's residence.

The county fought back, seeking $39,000 in legal fees for the delay. By the time the battle was over in 2005, Strand estimated it cost him and the Save The Jail group about $150,000 for legal work.

"The Cass County thing didn't quite unfold the same (as Grafton), that's for sure," Strand mused.


Back into the fray

Strand returned to the preservation fight in 2008, making a bid for the old Fargo Head Start building at 11th Avenue North and Elm Street.

The building, once dubbed "the pest house," was the former Fargo Detention Center for people with contagious diseases.

At least one bidder wanted to buy it and raze the building to put up townhomes.

Strand put in a $1 bid with the Cass County Commission, with a goal of turning the building into the Artist Collective Co-op and Gallery. The project also had support from the area's alpha dog of bricks and mortar revival, Doug Burgum and his Kilbourne Group.

The project was eventually won by high bidder Lloyd Sampson, who wanted to turn the building into apartments.

"I remember one time I was visiting with Doug Burgum. And he commented that historic old buildings don't have a voice. That resonated with me," Strand said. "We need to advocate for them."

In recent years, Strand moved the arts weekly newspaper he co-owns, the High Plains Reader, and his home into 124 8th St. N. near the Sons of Norway. He said it's probably the only brownstone left in the city.

And when the school board decided to sell the old Woodrow Wilson School, he wanted it to go to a buyer who would preserve and rehabilitate the building, rather than demolish it for another structure.

The district got the right buyer in biotechnology firm Aldevron, Strand said. Now the building will be retrofitted.

"If anyone had wanted to demolish the building, I would have felt I wasn't living up to my values," he said.

Not a political pick

Strand asked to be on the facilities committee, but he didn't ask to be the chairman. That call was made by School Board President Jim Johnson, who said he didn't choose Strand for the job because he was a politically good choice - after all, who better than a preservationist to call for change?

Strand was chosen because he hadn't served as a committee chairman yet and he needed to take on his share of the board's workload, Johnson said.

"I'm an old building hugger. There's no doubt about that," Strand said. "I respect history, and I respect historic buildings. I respect their place in the community, a lot. I've also shared that with my committee, that that's my bias."

Other school board members on the facilities committee are Dinah Goldenberg, Rick Steen, Robin Nelson and Wallman.

Johnson said if wanted to load the ad hoc committee with an eye toward politics, he might have put himself, a Hawthorne area parent, or Nelson, a Horace Mann Elementary alumna, in charge.

After all, Johnson said, it was a meeting 12 years ago at Hawthorne that got him to run for the school board.

Now the work goes to the residents, Strand said.

The Community Long Range Facility Task Force meets from 6 to 7:30 tonight in the cafeteria at Agassiz School, 1305 9th Ave. S. It will be a working session open to the public, but no public input will be taken during the meeting, Strand said.

"I like the idea that the citizens are driving the boat at this moment," he said. "We can't operate in a vacuum absent their voice."

The task force has scheduled four meetings, but that could change depending on how fast its work progresses. There will also be two communitywide public meetings, probably in May, Strand said.

He said the process will require balancing the needs of the district.

With enrollment growing on the district's far south side, that will probably mean building an elementary school there in the near future, he said.

The district's patrons will also have to weigh the costs of repairing and rehabbing old schools versus building new schools, Strand said.

"If the people embrace the notion that we'll keep the neighborhood schools, the taxpayers would have to own that," he said.

In the meantime, Strand said he is "an eternal optimist. ... I just have an unending faith that we'll all get through this together."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

If you go

The first meeting of the Fargo School District's 27-member Community Long Range Facility Task Force will be from 6 to 7:30 tonight at Agassiz School, 1305 9th Ave. S. The meeting will be in the cafeteria in the school's lower level.

The meeting is open to the public to observe. No public comment will be taken during the meeting, which is a working session for the group, a district spokeswoman said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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