Harmony EDA recommends council reject
purchase offer for Harmony Visitor Center
Wednesday, March 26, 2014 4:12 AM
Members of the Harmony Economic Development Authority (EDA) gathered for a special meeting last Thursday morning to review a purchase offer from The Overland Group, a development firm that leases properties to Dollar General stores.
The offer of $25,000 for the Harmony Visitor Center was presented to the EDA for it to review and make a recommendation to the city council. After a brief discussion, with input from members of the community, the EDA opted to recommend that the city "respectfully" refuse the offer, with the statement that no further offers on that particular property would be considered.
"I think we all agree this is not the right location for it (Dollar General store)," added EDA Chair Chris Skaalen.
Before that decision was made, Chris Giesen, who serves as the city's economic development director, explained The Overland Group has been talking to the city about developing a Dollar General store in the community since last fall. During the past few months, the developers have been looking at various locations throughout Harmony.
He also noted that Dollar General carries a variety of products including household goods, health and beauty products, apparel, pet supplies, toys, office supplies and a few light grocery items.
"The developers have been nothing but good to work with," Giesen added. "They have stores in Cresco, Spring Valley and Caledonia. They feel southeastern Minnesota is a good market for them."
He also told the EDA members and those from the community that the Visitor Center property met many of the developers' criteria, including good access, visibility from the highway and the desired size of lot for the store.
The developers have also considered lots in the industrial park, however, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has determined that the current access from Highway 52 into the park does not meet its safety standards.
"I do not agree with the MnDot position," Skaalen interjected. He noted they signed off on the plan when Highway 52 was redone several years ago.
It was noted that the speed limit does not reduce to 40 miles per hour until one is past half of the Harmony Enterprises complex. Ideas to help improve the safety concerns included slowing traffic down much sooner, which many agreed was a good idea regardless of the industrial park access.
"If nothing else, this could open up the discussion with MnDot," Skaalen added.
Craig Bloomer from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was present, as well as several from the community who were concerned about the loss of the property as a welcome center and trailhead facility, providing access to public restrooms, water and community information.
Bloomer reminded the EDA that the DNR had secured $212,000 in funds for the city of Harmony to renovate the visitor's center, which included providing accessible restrooms and water fountains for the bike trail.
He said that even though there was no "out clause," if the city chose to sell the property for other development, the DNR would want some sort of replacement plan.
"This facility is a perfect fit for the trail," Bloomer added. "It's a great amenity for the city."
Emily Ellis, director of the Harmony Chamber of Commerce, supported the need to keep the building and continue to use it in the current manner. "There are local children all over there in the summer," she said. "They are riding bikes, getting water, using the bathrooms. All that would stop."
The members of the EDA were all in agreement they wanted the visitor's center to remain as a visitor center and expressed their own support of the current trail and future trail expansion opportunities.
"The bottom line is that we went with the Village Green concept," said Skaalen. "We developed an attractive area where the trail could come into town and exit to other trail systems. This (the purchase offer) goes against everything we've worked for."
Giesen admitted that many area communities would love to have a welcome center, trailhead building as nice as the one in Harmony. He agreed that if that was lost, the city would have a difficult time replacing it.
EDA member Kerry Kingsley asked, "How did they (the developers) even think this was for sale?"
Giesen explained that a lot of the properties the developers have considered have not been for sale, but have met their criteria. While he noted they have talked to several individuals about properties along the Highway 52 corridor, Giesen did not feel comfortable making those names public.
"It's not even a serious bid," Kingsley added. "Why get all these people wound up and call a special meeting?"
Roxanne Johnson, a real estate agent and developer, also felt the $25,000 was an "insulting" offer. "I'd buy it today for $25,000," she added.
"It has to go through the proper course of action, when city property is concerned," explained Skaalen. "No one person can make a decision on whether an offer is acceptable or not."
Johnson continued voicing a few of her concerns, wondering if a community the size of Harmony can support a store like this, especially since Dollar Generals do carry a few grocery items, hardware and beauty and health products that might threaten the current businesses.
"I certainly do not want to discourage new businesses coming into Harmony," added resident Ralph Beastrom. "We have some good, core businesses that are vital to our town - the pharmacy, grocery, hardware store - which is why some of us moved here. How do you balance the impact this could have on the core businesses?"
Mayor Steve Donney supports the idea of Dollar General coming to town, saying it will provide jobs and be a new taxpayer, but he also agreed that this was not the location for it to be built.
Once the EDA formed its recommendation for the city to deny the purchase offer, Giesen said he would go back to the developers and convey the information to them. He will continue to work with The Overland Group to find another acceptable lot on which to build.