Despite opposition from neighborhood residents, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners – in a 4-1 vote – approved the purchase of First Lutheran Church’s downtown property for $425,000 at its regular meeting Tuesday morning.

Although the county board has not specified what it intends to do with the property, the packet of materials for the meeting included proposals to move either the Social Services offices or the Douglas County Library to the former church building. The library and Social Services currently have the largest space needs, according to a feasibility study.

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Board Chairman Charlie Meyer, along with commissioners Jerry Rapp, Keith Englund and Tim Kalina, voted in favor of the purchase, while commissioner Heather Larson voted against it.

After hearing from several residents who live near the church, Larson said she didn’t feel like she had enough information to move forward with the purchase. She wants the commissioners to first look at more long-range planning and the county’s comprehensive plan. Larson said the county “keeps doing Band-Aids on things” and because there are so many unknowns at this point, she felt it better to hold off.

Englund said the county should move forward with the purchase, but then maybe put the brakes on moving ahead with any additional plans.

“We don’t want it to end up in the hands no one wants,” said Englund, in reference to an earlier comment he made about the church being bought and turned into a homeless shelter.

According to Rapp, not purchasing the church would be a disservice to taxpayers. He said the county couldn’t pass up the opportunity and that the purchase would help solve the county’s space needs.

Residents speak out

Eileen Eiser, who has lived next to the church for 40 years, said it would be a crime for the county to purchase the church and renovate it into office space. She said it’s not a good fit and has heard many others around the neighborhood say it’s not appropriate.

Eiser, along with several others who spoke at the meeting, said they felt as if they were thrown under the bus by not only First Lutheran Church but the City of Alexandria, for not knowing the intentions of the church and that it was going to be sold to the county.

The residents said they never dreamed the church would be sold, especially to the county. They asked for the county to slow down and look at what would be lost because the church sits in a historical neighborhood.

“See it for its historical value,” said Annie Clark. “Value the neighborhood, value the history. The church is part of the community.”

She asked the commissioners if they thought something like this would happen in the metro area. “No, it wouldn’t,” she said. “So why is it happening here?”

Clark also told the commissioners she felt her voice really didn’t matter.

“Jay and I will move. We took this personally and want that on record,” she said.

Eiser, who was also upset, told the board that the courthouse isn’t surrounded by houses like the church is. She said with the church turned into office space and her house right next door, within 60-feet, everyone will be able to look in her windows. She asked how many commissioners would like that if it was their house.

As far as parking was concerned, Eiser said so many people want a spot right at the front door, but that it doesn’t hurt for people to walk and get some exercise.

“This is a true, true neighborhood,” she said.

Not easy to sell

Pastor Greg Billberg from First Lutheran Church said the church did a lot of studying and that the decision to sell was not an easy one.

“We never intended to throw anyone under the bus,” he said.

Billberg said he feels the county is part of the neighborhood and that it has done a fine job of taking care of its buildings and grounds. If people would take conjecture out of the equation, he said, there is no real basis that anything would change.

“We have lived together as a community and have lived together really well,” the pastor said. “We are functioning well and we need to look at the whole picture. They (the county) have to do what they have to do.”

Plans and estimated cost

The county’s plans for the property were not stated at the meeting. However, a space needs study was conducted for the county by JLG Architects in collaboration with county commissioners, department heads and other lead staff members, and consultants from Contegrity Group and Design Tree Engineering.

The feasibility study looked at the county’s space needs and other issues, including parking and future growth.

Based on anticipated space needs, the study determined that the church could be renovated to house either the library or Social Services offices. If Social Services were moved, it could also include space for the University of Minnesota Extension offices.

Moving the Social Services department into the church building was the most logical fit, according to the feasibility study. The existing church building can support Social Services’ immediate space needs as well as support future growth for 10 and potentially 15 years.

JLG Architects provided a rough estimate of between $4.3 million and $5.2 million to renovate the church into space for the Social Services department.