Building Community in Fergus Falls

Earlier this week, I revisited Fergus Falls to participate in a panel discussion about the fate of the former Regional Treatment Center, which is one of this year’s 10 Most Endangered sites. The turnout for this event was amazing. Despite the beautiful evening (one of the first we’ve had this spring), about 100 people chose to spend close to three hours of their prime, mid-week free time indoors, learning about preservation and considering the future of some of the historic places in their city. I was inspired, once again, to consider how preservation builds community. After all, what other activities would gather that many people on a lovely Tuesday evening in May? Maybe a church function, or a school sporting event, or a movie. But few of those events would give citizens a chance to voice their opinions, express their support, or build on their collective knowledge and enthusiasm for shaping the place they call home.

Thankfully, the discussion did not disappoint. Michael Koop, from the State Historic Preservation Office, talked about other successful rehabilitation projects in Minnesota and urged patience in pursuing rehab developments. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Ray Minervini, Jr., the developer of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, was present via video link. Ray inspired us all with the details of how he was able to turn the abandoned Kirkbride building in Traverse City, Michigan, into a thriving mixed-use community. A little closer to home, Joanna Schrupp and Steve Salzer from the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar talked about their success in repurposing another former state hospital campus (in this case, the Willmar Hospital Farm for Inebriates—who knew?) as a bio-tech business incubator.

I left feeling energized and motivated—in a word, pumped!—and I know others did, too. The next morning, Mike and I (along with one of our summer interns, Marais, who was along for the ride) got a tour of the building from the Friends of the Kirkbride. Seeing the building up-close and personal was total icing on the cake for me (admittedly, the icing is my favorite part). One of the founders of the Friends group, Maxine Schmidt, said that when she first heard of the RTC’s closing, she thought, “Somebody ought to do something about that.” After a short while, she realized that she was that “somebody.” Over the past several years, she and her husband Gene have led over 3,000 people on summer tours of the RTC buildings, with support from the city (which allows access and turns on the lights), the Otter Tail Power Company (which donates printing of the Friends brochures), and the local school bus company, which provides both a vehicle and a volunteer driver to transport visitors from the administration tower to the far ends of the building.

On the way back (a quick 2-1/2 hour drive up I-94 from the Twin Cities—you should go!), I asked Marais what was her favorite part. She said she loved seeing the people involved, and witnessing the level of volunteer commitment and support. I wonder if this social aspect is what will make preservation relevant to today’s young adults. Maybe we’ll see more preservation successes as this next generation uses their skills, passion, interest, and connections to bring people together to make things happen—building community.

Erin Hanafin Berg, Field Representative

Enjoy a little cake (and icing) on me….

The view of the west wing from one of the resident doctor's apartments in the Administration Building.

Three floors futher up, looking towards the west wing from the Administration Building tower.

Looking up to where I took the previous pictures.

A view of the grounds from a third-floor screened porch (with original metal mesh screens).

Interior of a nursing ward, at the far end of the east wing (aka East Detached).

Lilacs on the grounds were visible through the glass-block windows (which were added in the 1950s).

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