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Pequot Lakes: Fire tower added to National Register, future up in air

The cab of the Pequot Lakes fire tower was once used by the Department of Natural Resources forestry to watch for wildfire. Today, the tower sits empty due to budgetary issues and constant vandalism. Travis Grimler/Echo Journal

The Pequot Lakes fire tower off County State Aid Highway 11 was added to the National Register of Historic Places as of July 10.

"I am absolutely thrilled about the fire tower being put on the historic register," said Pequot Lakes Mayor Nancy Adams. "I think it buys us some time. I think it gives us an opportunity for the many groups anxious for it to remain to do something about it."

The tower was added to the register in recognition of local efforts to preserve and plan for the future of the historic structure.

Keith Simar, who was once in charge of spotting fires from the tower, said: "I am pleased so see the historic Pequot Lakes fire tower receive recognition by being listed on the National Register of Historic Places."

The tower has faced difficulties because of vandals. Maintenance and constant repairs due to broken windows, graffiti and damage to instruments at the tower forced the 100-foot structure to be completely closed to the public this year. The aging structure requires high maintenance costs without adding the burden of vandalism. Since that point, the structure's future has been in limbo. It's not out of danger yet.

"The National Register isn't as protective as I would like," Simar said. "Listing does not interfere with an owner's right to alter, or dispose of their property if they use their own money. No covenant is put on the deed when the property is listed in the National Registry. So I think our community should continue to investigate ways that the tower can safely be accessible by the public."

When the Department of Natural Resources, owners of the tower, decided not to reopen the tower, a discussion started with representatives from the city and local historical groups. Steve Bartz, DNR assistant area supervisor in the forestry office in Backus, said at the time that the DNR had no plans to move or demolish the property. The goal at the time was to identify options for the property.

Later, at an April 4 Pequot Lakes City Council meeting, city officials announced that the tower had been nominated for the national register. The city, on behalf of the Pequot Lakes Area Historical Society, sent a letter of support for the nomination. Since that time, members of the historical society, Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association and city representatives have indicated interest in the tower and identifying options to maintain the structure. To that end, a committee has been formed from these groups to find the most viable options.

"We've been entertaining ideas on what is best to do," said Karen Bye, of the Pequot Lakes Historical Society.

So far discussions have included finding some way to monetize the site as an attraction, which could make it self-sustaining. There have been mentions of relocating the structure to the Crow Wing County fairgrounds in Brainerd or other locations, though Bye said she would prefer that it remain in Pequot Lakes.

Another favorite suggestion was the development of an official walking trail from downtown Pequot Lakes to the foot of the tower. All of these ideas, however, require funds. So regardless of what is chosen, the committee is also seeking ideas for raising funds for maintenance, insurance, improvement and possibly vandalism prevention.

"People donate to causes that appeal to them," Bye said.

"Funding needs to be identified for maintenance of the tower and for security and safety improvements," Simar said. "Maybe another entity needs to be given responsibility for management of the site. I think the fire tower, along with the bobber (water) tower, are two unique icons symbolizing Pequot pride in protecting and enjoying our natural resources."

The committee in charge of brainstorming will meet Friday, Aug. 25, to find options for the tower, which Bye said is the most asked about location at the local chamber of commerce.

"As I drive into town from the south every day it stands out," Adams said. "It is something - if we can get it pulled together - it is something that will draw people to our community."

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