Owning a building on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) can be a challenge. Case in point: the Houston County Jail, ca. 1875, which has been vacant since the county occupied the new Justice Center next door.

On May 7, Houston County commissioners listened to an initial cultural resources management study presented pro bono by Robert Vogel of Pathfinder CRM, Spring Grove.

The board is looking at options, which will either involve demolition or re-using the massive stone building.

Vogel said that his research uncovered an "almost impossible" circumstance regarding the structure.

"You've never tripped across any of the other governmental environmental review requirements," he stated. "You've apparently never used any federal money on the jail, at least since 1966, so there was no paper trail."

"There's no statutory requirement for you to actually keep the old jail and preserve it," Vogel reported. "We assembled a team that included an architect and the state's only licensed historical resource engineer."

So far there are no plans for the future of the building. Regardless of what commissioners decide to do, "There's a process you need to navigate," Vogel cautioned. "Any plan is better than no plan."

The State of Minnesota requires an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for projects involving NRHP structures.

In addition, local governments are sometimes sued under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act when a public building is slated for demolition or not being properly maintained, Vogel said.

"Whatever you decide to do, the jail is going to cost you some money. It's going to cost you more or less. And you're going to get more or less from the investment.

"In our professional opinion, the building is an excellent candidate for preservation and adaptive re-use. It has all of the things that we look for in those kinds of properties. It's big and it's extremely durable. And it's 'cool' for lack of a better term.

"It's an interesting, unique building. It has a lot of good physical attributes and compared to a lot of the buildings we're hired to save, it's a much better place.

"We've dealt with things as diverse as the Queen of Sheba's Temple of the Moon in Yemen... and the Chatfield Center for the Arts."

Vogel said that in spite of reports to the contrary, the removal of jail cells would not pose a structural problem.

"The walls hold the building up, and it's what we call a traditionally-designed building. Most builders (at the time) just built things bigger so they wouldn't fall down.

"It's over-engineered from a modern perspective. It could stand for 500-600 more years. It's not even a fourth of the way into its design life.

"The worst thing that can happen to old buildings isn't that they're torn down, it's that they're left vacant."

Vogel urged commissioners not to stop heating the building. "The more systems you shut down, the more you contribute to the potential for disaster," he said.

"What's going on now is a very high level of 'stand in place' maintenance.

"What you're looking for is not a private developer, necessarily. You're looking for maybe a public/private partnership. Your best bet would be to find some other governmental entity that needed that space."

Handicapped-accessibility could be added. A middle of town location is a plus.

"We recommend that you do some kind of adaptive re-use study," Vogel said. A full re-use study could run from $20,000 to $50,000, he added.

Prior to such a major expense, a much smaller Historic Preservation Plan should be researched to help the county decide if demolition is the best option.

Money for such a study could be sought from the Minnesota Legacy Fund, he added.

If the building is torn down, an exhaustive process of documentation must accompany the effort.

Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked what the next step should be.

Vogel said that his company could develop what he called "a plan to give decision-makers some choices."

Doing nothing is the worst option, Vogel said, since it could result in a lawsuit.

"We don't have the money to get it all re-vamped and then sit on it and wait for somebody to come along," Chairman Justin Zmyewski noted.

Vogel said that state bonding money might help with capital investment. Those grants can range for $10,000 up to $100,000.

Commissioners asked Vogel to bring a proposal for further research. He agreed, stating that he should be able to appear next week.