When Douglas County commissioners approved purchasing the former First Lutheran Church, they did so because of space issues. A feasibility study the county had done indicated two county departments needed more space – the library and Social Services.

The building and land were purchased in June for $425,000.

Now, the county is facing another issue. It will be gaining space in its Services Center due to the dissolution of Lakes Area Recreation. With Alexandria School District taking over Lakes Area Recreation, it likely will not be housed in the county’s building anymore.

At the Tuesday, Dec. 3, regular county board meeting, despite opposition from residents who attended the meeting, the commissioners approved advertising for bids to demolish the former church building.

However, the commissioners made it clear that just because they were advertising for bids, it didn’t necessarily mean that they would tear down the former church. They wanted to advertise for bids just to see what the actual costs would be.

In addition, the commissioners approved a lease agreement for the space used by Lakes Area Recreation. The agreement, at a cost of $15,000, is for the next six months. If the space is still needed after that, the agreement can be extended on a month-to-month basis.

Neighbors upset

Although it was not a public hearing, Board Chairman Charlie Meyer let those in attendance share their thoughts about the church property and the board’s decision to go out for bids for demolition.

Jay Clark, who lives across the street from the church property, was upset that the county doesn’t have a plan in place for the property and questioned why they spent taxpayer dollars to purchase it in the first place.

“You have yet to develop a plan for this,” he told the commissioners. “When can we expect a plan? We thought it would be done by now. You’ve done nothing but spend money.”

Meyer explained that the commissioners saw an opportunity to purchase the property, which would have helped with the space issues the county was facing. However, things changed because of LAR. Meyer said the county has looked at renovation costs, which could be up to $6 million, and now the county wants to see what it would cost for demolition.

Clark asked the commissioners to “just stop” and develop a plan first.

Commissioner Jerry Rapp told Clark it would also cost money to develop a plan. Rapp also talked about the parking lot at the property and the county’s need for more parking, to which Clark said the parking issue was “ludicrous” and a “mute point.” Clark said the parking lot at the former church property is covered in snow and the only car in the lot looked like it had been abandoned because it, too, was covered in snow.

Another neighbor, Eileen Eiser, asked the commissioners to do some long-range planning because she felt they haven’t done so.

Eiser shared an idea for what the county could do with the property. She said they could sell it and then the lot could maybe be used for senior homes.

“I wish you would just slow down and get some community input,” she told the commissioners.

Moving forward

Commissioner Keith Englund said the county had a plan moving forward and that was to put either Social Services or the library in the former church space. Again, he pointed out that things have changed and the county is looking at options.

Meyer said, “We are trying to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, believe it or not.”

When Commissioner Heather Larson made a motion to go out for bids for demolition costs, she added as part of her motion that the commissioners hold a community meeting to get input on the property.

Her motion was approved by a 5-0 vote, but a date was not set for the meeting.