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Transforming Jefferson

During a news conference Wednesday, Brent Smith (left), who signed a purchase agreement for the Jefferson High School property with this wife, Sally, addressed local media about the proposed plans for future use of the school site. Smith was joined by fellow Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission board members Tom Wacholz, Dr. Kevin Kopischke, Jeff Patience, Mark Grandgenett and Deena Steffl during the news conference. (Amy Chaffins/Echo Press)1 / 2
Alexandria’s Jefferson High School property could become a 44-acre, campus-like setting for future medical and manufacturing business, education and training opportunities. The grey-shaded area is Alexandria Technical and Community College property and the pink area is marked “student housing,” but there are no plans for that included in the current redevelopment proposal. (Concept provided by Widseth, Smith Nolting) 2 / 2

No one knows exactly what it will look like, but there’s definitely potential there for future use.

The proposed redevelopment of the Jefferson High School (JHS) property in Alexandria was presented by the Alexandria Area Economic Commission (AAEDC) Wednesday.

The property is slated to become a 44-acre, campus-like setting for future medical and manufacturing business, education and training opportunities.

The property is located one block east of Broadway and neighbors Knute Nelson senior care, Douglas County Hospital and Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC).

Alexandria Area High School, newly built on the south side of town, will open this fall, leaving the aging JHS property vacant.

A feasibility study compared the costs of renovating and reusing the JHS structure versus razing it and moving ahead with new construction.

“Arguably not surprising, the cost difference was less than 10 percent,” according to Tom Wacholz, AAEDC board member. “Part of it had to do with the age and condition of the structure there, the hazardous materials that have to be removed and, I think, probably the most important thing is that if you go with new construction on the manufacturing technology center, you can put it in a location you want it in.”

A large manufacturing technology center is proposed to be located east of ATCC (see conceptual drawing accompanying this article).

Wacholz said the AAEDC estimates an $84 million potential economic impact if the property is developed.

AAEDC board member Jeff Patience said, “It is a blank canvas for us to entertain offers from several different entities and implement what we want it to be. I foresee it to – five to 10 years down the road – develop into a campus of some sort to include small businesses for sure. The growth opportunity is fantastic.”


Since June of 2011, Brent and Sally Smith have had a purchase agreement with Alexandria School District 206 to buy the JHS property for $2 million.

The Smiths have since agreed to transfer the property to the AAEDC and Lakes Area Economic Development Authority (LAEDA) for their original $2 million purchase price.

Brent Smith told local media Wednesday, “This is a solid investment with exciting potential that we are happy to have. However, equally as exciting as personally owning the property is the prospect that our community might own and control the property and strategically use it to empower our collective future. We see a future for Alexandria as a world class health care, educational and technology center empowered and enabled by this property. To that end, we are pleased to serve as a conduit.”


The JHS redevelopment proposal hinges on the outcome of a state Legislature bonding request.

The LAEDA is asking for $2.9 million - $2 million for the property acquisition and $900,000 for building demolition and abatement.

The funding request was included in Senate File 2457 introduced by State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) and House File 2641 by State Representative Mary Franson (R-Alexandria).

Sen. Ingebrigtsen noted, “This regional property would lead to growth in the medical, education industries and training opportunities due to the enhanced services that would be available.”

Rep. Franson said, “Because of this project, Minnesotans from across the state will look at our community as a world-class destination for technical education, workforce training, manufacturing and economic development.”

AAEDC Executive Director Jason Murray said they expect to hear about bonding approval toward the end of the legislative session.

What if funding is not approved?

“At this point there is no Plan B,” Murray said.

If funding is approved, the LAEDA, which is a public entity of the AAEDC, would formally acquire the JHS property.


Mark Grandgenett, president of AAEDC board of directors, said, “We’ve got an opportunity here that you don’t always get. You don’t get 44 acres in the middle of town surrounded by a regional medical center, a great college and the support of the manufacturing community.”

Dr. Kevin Kopischke is an AAEDC board member and president of AATC, and when asked about the college’s future role in the redevelopment project, he told reporters, “We’re certainly interested in looking ahead and when you have a plan like this on the table, you don’t expect it to happen in six months. We did not start this project with the end in sight, but when you start to think about what could happen… could something in the next, five, 10, 15 or 20 years be developed here that we’re not even thinking about today? The answer is yes and that’s why the college is so interested in jumping in.”

Brent Smith is also a member of the AAEDC board and said, “The EDC’s purpose is around jobs and I’ve heard it said and I believe it’s true: Jobs are the new currency in the global economy and the cities that have jobs are the ones that will be rising and if you don’t have jobs, you’re dying. That’s what this property gives us – that future for jobs.”

Smith was also asked if there was a conflict of interest with his role in owning the JHS property and serving on the AAEDC board.

He said, “I have been less involved in some of the discussions with respect to this, like when [the board] met with the legislators. Sally and I did acquire the purchase agreement before I was a board member. In some of the discussions it can be a little bit awkward at times to have the person who holds the purchase agreement to be involved, so I have intentionally stayed out of some of those [discussions].”

Fellow AAEDC board member Deena Steffl added she has seen Brent step away when the board made decisions on the project and she said, “As a board member I’ve been impressed with Brent, impressed with the Smith family.”

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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