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Cottage Grove council picks city hall builder; groundbreaking Thursday

After almost 18 months of contentious debate, city officials in Cottage Grove on Thursday will celebrate the groundbreaking of a long-awaited new city hall and public safety complex.

City Council members last week chose a builder for the $15.7 million facility -- Cottage Grove's largest-ever construction project - following years of planning for a building that city officials assert is badly needed but has drawn fierce criticism from some residents.

"This project has been a long time coming," Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said before council members voted 4-1 to award the project bid to Graham Construction Services. He praised the five-person council for having "taken tough votes" on a project "that even in the best of times would have been controversial."

The $15.7 million price tag comes in lower than the $17 million budget council members set last year and the $16.2 million cost estimated by project designers, Wold Architects. Officials last week said rebates and grant dollars would likely drop the price tag to $15.5 million. Construction is expected to be complete by October 2012.

Bailey and city officials made construction of a new city hall and public safety headquarters a priority early last year, saying a favorable bidding environment and ability to finance the project without raising property taxes made this the right time to build despite a struggling economy. The city had included construction of a new city hall in its long-term plans since 2001.

'Room for growth'

Cottage Grove's 24,000 square-foot City Hall on 80th Street was built in 1968 for a city of 12,000 residents and 20 employees. Today, the city is home to more than 35,000 people.

Officials say a new facility -- with markedly more space for police officers to work, interview victims and suspects, and store evidence -- will significantly aid Cottage Grove Public Safety. Roughly three-quarters of the 67,000 square-foot building to be constructed near Ravine Parkway and Highway 19 will be dedicated to public safety, according to the city.

"This is a facility that allows room for growth; it's flexible," said Craig Woolery, the city's public safety director. "It will be able to be used by the public and public safety employees today, tomorrow and the next 40 years. It's a one-time investment for a facility that's really going to serve the public well."

But a vocal group has loudly opposed the project, saying the city should either scrap the building plans or scale them back. Ill-tempered exchanges during public hearings on the project and small-scale protests before meetings have been common.

Council member Derrick Lehrke helped lead opposition to the project during his successful campaign last fall - efforts that included a petition drive seeking to force financing for the project onto a public referendum.

The city will use a combination of existing funds and private bank loans to pay for the building and have said the project will not increase city property taxes.

After he cast the lone vote against awarding the project bid to Graham last week, Lehrke called the planning process "frustrating," saying each council member had been "so entrenched in their position there was almost no chance" of compromise.

Last week's vote, however, was a quiet affair, with only one speaker commending the city and project planners for using a number of Twin Cities-based construction sub-contractors as part of the project.

"With the financing, the economy, [question of] whether it's the right time to build or not, those were all issues that were discussed," Woolery said. "But at the end of the day, nobody disagreed that a new facility [for Cottage Grove Public Safety] was needed."

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for 8:15 a.m. Thursday morning at 12800 Ravine Parkway, next to the Washington County Service Center.