Despite her share of setbacks, one local woman and her team of contractors remain determined to preserve a near 100-year-old fixture on the city’s west side.
During a meeting on July 8 of last year, the Merrill Common Council unanimously approved the salvation of the former vocational school and armory located at 419 W. Main St., hence saving the building from a razing date set for early June of 2014.
The building’s savior is Merrill native and businesswoman Stephanie Springborn.
The approval came as a Redevelopment Authority (RDA) recommendation to allow Springborn to move forward with phased redevelopment of the building. During that meeting, city attorney Tom Hayden advised the development is dependent upon exterior improvements to the building such as a new roof, new doors and weather tight windows, to be completed by the end of 2014.
As part of the move, the city requested a surety bond or cash in the amount of $50,000 in the event the building’s rehabilitation does not proceed, and demolition is required in the future.
“Growing up here, I have many memories of the building,” Springborn stated during an interview following the council meeting. “There is so much history in it, and I want to preserve that historical value. It was once an armory and then a vocational school. I am considering several options and ideas for the future.
“On the Main Street level I am considering a retail store or a themed café based on the building’s history, or maybe both,” Springborn continued. “I have a sincere passion for art, so I am also considering a possible art gallery attached to the store. I may also look into online marketing of the space.
“I must admit one pleasant surprise was the 7,000 square foot basement. The rest of the building is in need of development, but the basement is in amazing condition. It is a huge space and stays dry, which is especially important. As for the second level, I may consider office space or apartments. The options are endless!”
Springborn and her company Winds & Paradox Inc. paid the $50,000 surety bond as requested and officially took ownership of the building in August of last year.
Springborn immediately set about having the building inspected by engineers and soon learned the condition of the roof and support structures were in much worse condition than anticipated.
As Springborn explains, the city granted an extension for repair of the roof from the fall of last year, to the spring of this year.
As of this summer, the roof was completed by Kimmons Roofing of Merrill and structural supports were placed by AGRA of Merrill.
As work continued on the building, Springborn and contractors discovered other unexpected structural issues, but as she explains, progress was not a matter of choice, but rather a necessity.
“This handsome building has stood the test of time,” she said. “It was built in 1922 and hadn’t been used on a regular basis since the vocational school closed in the 1960s. Granted we found some things that we weren’t expecting, but that is to be expected with a project like this. There was no way we were giving up! This building means so much to me, and my contractors stood by me every step of the way.”
During a Personnel and Finance Committee meeting last month, Springborn endured another setback when she was denied a refund of the $50,000 surety bond she had deposited.
As part of letter to the city, Springborn stated:
“As the roof construction proceeded, more engineering problems were discovered, then handled. Altogether I have invested more than $400,000 into the project. My subcontractors overcame each obstacle. The renovation itself has tremendous (more than I ever dreamed of) community support.
I have never asked for any financial aid from the city, in fact persevered even when held to a standard not required by any other project, especially one like this.
“I was required to deposit $50,000. I did so.
“My original plan to stretch out the renovation has been shortened from three years (March 2017) to two years (October 2016). Rather than install the windows before the brickwork, was determined by my trades, to not be a wise decision.”
For three reasons the order was switched: 1) New windows could have been damaged 2) the roof was ongoing and 3) the masons were on-site.
Springborn goes on to list a timeline of various issues and meetings regarding the project and closes her letter by stating:
“Please return my $50,000 deposit. The goal of the deposit was the assurance I would keep working on the project, transforming it from a building soon-to-be razed into one of the staple, landmark properties of Merrill’s west side.”
The committee ultimately voted to reject Springborn’s request.
City Administrator Dave Johnson stated if the project falls through, city taxpayers would bear the cost of demolishing the building. To protect the interests of the taxpayers, Johnson recommended rejecting the request.
When asked of her request being denied, Springborn smiled.
“I don’t see this as a ‘me versus them’ issue. We all want the same thing, we all want this handsome building to be re-developed and I am determined to make that happen. As a business owner, it was my due diligence to make the request.”
Springborn’s vision for the building remains intact to this day.
“We have had some setbacks but I still have the same ideas in mind. I am still considering a restaurant or café on the ground floor or maybe a retail store. An art studio is still a possibility on the second floor. I have had so many people express interest, it’s hard to say at this point!” she adds with a chuckle. “This building bears so much history for Merrill, I want to keep it open for Merrill to enjoy!”
Despite the unexpected surprises in terms of roofing, Springborn proudly states the agreement of engineers on the structural integrity of the building as a whole, especially the nine feet of concrete between the first and second levels.
“It was great to hear an engineer tell me the second level is structurally sound enough to support vehicular traffic,” she said. “After 93 years, to hear this building is structurally sound enough to support vehicles driving on the upper level is just amazing!”
Springborn would like to express her appreciation for the help of various contractors who continue to make her dream come true including Krueger Plumbing of Merrill and their work in installing roof drains as well as Ray Krall and Denmark Construction for their dauntless assistance in structural work.
Although the project is a work in progress, Springborn hopes to have the building available for use by October of 2017.
“This all started as a dream for me, literally,” Springborn adds. “At first I thought ‘c’mon Steph, really?’ but here I am a year later. I will see this through.”