by CHRIS ROGERS
The steel braces holding up the former Mason Jar bar in downtown Winona will be removed by December 27, and a roof will be built by January 3, 2018. The rest of the work to rehabilitate the fire-damaged building will wrap up by August 21, 2018. Those are the terms of an order signed by Winona County District Court Judge Nancy Buytendorp last Wednesday. The deal, agreed to by city leaders and property owner Chase Hoffmann, essentially gives Hoffmann another chance to complete the belated rehab project and signs away many of his legal rights to oppose forced demolition if he fails to follow the schedule.
Earlier this year, Winona City Council members stated that they were willing to condemn the building and tear it down rather than allow it to sit roofless through a third winter’s freeze and thaw. The council met in closed session last Monday to discuss legal strategy before the proposed deal was submitted to Buytendorp on last Tuesday. “It is good enough,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said of the January 3 deadline for roof completion. “The thing is, if it’s January 4, and the roof isn’t on, then what happens — and it’s pretty clear — [is] that we would have the right to go to the judge and say, ‘It’s not being done, and let’s move on.’”
Moving on could mean demolishing the building and sending Hoffmann the bill. If the schedule isn’t followed, the deal gives the city the right to do that. Hoffmann gave up his right to a trial on the issue. However, Sarvi and Hoffmann’s attorney, Joseph Winandy, said that the city would still have to ask a judge for permission before swinging any wrecking balls. If it comes to that, how long would it take for the city to get permission? Sarvi stated that, “Since the order has been agreed to by all parties, that should move forward in days or hours.”
A February 2015 fire nearly destroyed the over 130-year-old building at 151 East Third Street, and it has sat, a roofless burnt-out shell, since then. Some Winonans have urged the city to help save that piece of the city’s historic downtown, while others have been eager to get rid of what they see as an eyesore and a hazard. Shortly after the fire, Hoffmann announced his intentions to save the building and restore it according to state and federal historic preservation guidelines, but it has taken over two-and-a-half years for him to get the point where he could successfully apply for a building permit. One was issued this month. City officials have described the rehabilitation project as essentially building a completely new structure inside the shell of the historic brick facade and then bolting the old facade onto the new structure. From an engineering standpoint, it is an unusually challenging project. “It was a little outside the everyday design process,” Hoffmann said in an interview last week.
The city filed a lawsuit threatening Hoffmann with condemnation after he missed multiple deadlines for starting rehabilitation work and after a city inspection this winter found that, even with extensive bracing, the building was buckling. "We don’t feel it’s appropriate to wait,” Winona Building Official Greg Karow told the City Council in April during a presentation on the building’s reportedly unstable condition. “If Mr. Hoffmann can’t come through in the next 30 to 45 days, we feel it’s appropriate to raze the building.” At the same meeting Hoffmann told the council, “I can work with [getting] a building permit by May 18.”
The city did wait, at least for a few more months. Flaherty filed the suit formally seeking permission to demolish the building on September 1. Hoffman did not come through with a complete building permit application until early this month, over 120 days after Karow’s presentation.
The city gave Hoffmann more time for a few reasons. First, many city leaders really wanted to see the building saved. “This is a key building for downtown,” Mayor Mark Peterson said in April. Second, while he kept missing deadlines, it also seemed that Hoffmann was serious about saving the building. “Nobody can argue that he hasn’t been trying because he has,” Sarvi said. “He’s been trying for a long time. Now if someone who was a general contractor had owned it, it probably would have moved along a little faster, but still.” Third, condemnation is not a great option for the city. While state law empowers the city to charge Hoffmann for demolition costs and add the tab to the property’s taxes if it is not paid, Sarvi stated that it is unlikely that the city would ever recoup those costs and uncertain how long the resulting vacant lot might sit empty. “It’s not like you wave a magic wand and they either start building or there’s nice grass growing there,” Sarvi stated.
Buytendorp had one main question for the city: “Does this agreement sufficiently deal with any current public safety issues?” It does, Flaherty responded, adding that the construction timeline sets deadlines for constructing a new interior structure and securely fastening the facade to that before removing the shoring and steel braces. “If the timeline is followed, there shouldn’t be a problem?” the judge asked. “Correct,” the city attorney responded.
“I understand the city’s position,” Hoffmann said in an interview after Wednesday’s court hearing. “I’m glad we have an agreement in place that appears to satisfy everyone. We’re ready to go forward.”
Hoffmann was slated to finalize a more than $1-million mortgage from Altra Federal Credit Union to finance the project late last week. That loan will give the credit union some legal rights over the property, including, as Flaherty explained in court, the right to ask a judge to order things other than what Hoffmann might want. “The bank is now going to be very interested in [Hoffmann and his contractors] meeting the requirement that was agreed to,” Sarvi said.