Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Nov-Dec 2019 issue

Focus on Small Cities: Clarks Grove Builds a Better Fire Station

By Renee McGivern

When a tornado blew out the doors and damaged the roof of their only fire station, Clarks Grove Mayor Bruce Hansen and City Clerk Kathy Jensen had no idea how dramatically the storm would impact their lives.

The EF-1 tornado struck this city of nearly 700 residents on March 6, 2017, doing damage to many businesses and houses, as well as the fire station.

The new fire station — which also houses the City Council chambers — was finally move-in ready on Feb. 2, 2019. Through all the months in between, Hansen and Jensen managed a deluge of paperwork, meetings, and phone calls.

New territory

“I’m more or less a farmer and, while our city clerk does an excellent job, neither of us had any expertise in knowing what was involved,” says Hansen. “We’re a small town and not used to this size of a problem, so everything we did was new to us.”

City officials didn’t know, for instance, that their fire station plans would have to be approved by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was considering a loan application from the city.

The city, which is covered by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT), also needed to gather information to determine the cost to repair the building to its previous condition, says LMCIT Claims Manager Darin Richardson.

“We asked the city to get competitive bids to repair the building,” says Richardson, adding that LMCIT covered the repair bid-related costs. “After receiving the bids, LMCIT and the city agreed to a repair figure of $531,000.”

“[we] didn’t realize the full scope of all the approvals we’d need,” Hansen says. “This took much more time than we could ever have imagined.”

Ultimately, city officials decided to completely replace the station rather than just repair it, and that led to another uncertainty — how the city would pay for the new $1.7 million building.

Helpful guidance came through

Fortunately, they received considerable guidance from Freeborn County Emergency Management Director Rich Hall and Chris Nordeng, the public assistance engineer for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“Talking with them helped us think about building a safety hub for neighboring towns that will last for years,” says City Clerk Jensen. “We now have a building with unlimited water and electrical power that can withstand a severe [EF-3] tornado.”

The 2017 tornado received a state disaster declaration from Gov. Mark Dayton, says Nordeng. “This meant that the city could apply for disaster aid.”

Rainy day savings

In the end, the building project’s $1.7 million price tag was covered by:

  • LMCIT funds of $531,000.
  • State disaster aid of $430,240.
  • More than $700,000 from the city’s savings and other city funds.

Additionally, LMCIT issued nearly $86,000 for water tower, office, and park repairs.

“I give the mayor of 21 years before me and Kathy a lot of credit because the city has always lived within a budget, saved money, and paid for what we need with cash,” Hansen says.

Because Clarks Grove has so many older residents living on fixed incomes, Hansen and the City Council wanted to put up a new building without bonding or raising residents’ taxes. They also decided not to take on the debt of the USDA loan.

“Our accountant told me, ‘You’ve done all this saving year after year for a rainy day. So, take that money, pay the building off, and start putting money away again,’” Hansen says.

Positive results

The new fire station has been open only a few months, and they already tested out the new safety hub when earlier this year, some residents without power gathered in the building to wait out an ice storm.

Jensen acknowledges that she and the mayor are finally starting to relax.

“It was just a matter of trying to do the best we could in the time frame we had,” says Jensen. “And now we’ve got this nice building and we’re proud of what we accomplished as a city.”

“Truly, everybody helped — including the City Council, Fire Department, residents, Freeborn County, and the state,” Hansen adds, “and we really appreciate all of them.”

Renee McGivern is a freelance writer.

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