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Pequot Lakes: Residents learn more about fire tower's future

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede updates a small group on the current state of plans for the fire tower outside Pequot Lakes. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

The future of the Pequot Lakes fire tower hinges on a Friday, Sept. 14, meeting of the Governor's Executive Council, residents learned at an informational meeting at the Cole Memorial Building.

"They must give their approval before the DNR can sell it to the county," Paul Thiede, Crow Wing County commissioner who represents the area where the fire tower is located, said at the Wednesday, Sept. 5, meeting. "That transaction is $1. Then we would own that 40 acres and the fire tower."

If the sale is approved, the county would be at the mercy of the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust to determine the shape of the tower that's just off County Road 11 and surrounding park in the hands of the county. MCIT will determine the cost of insurance for the county, which will be important in determining the structure's future.

Just before the meeting, however, Thiede said MCIT informed him they would give the county temporary insurance for a fairly low cost so the county could move forward with removal of the cement building at the base of the tower and repair the perimeter fence.

"Once the council has acted and insurance questions are resolved, authorization by the county board will be needed to expend dollars on what needs to be done," Thiede said. "A temporary lease has been signed so that once the council acts, the county can begin the removal of the cement building that has to be torn down, restoration of the fence and potentially we could upgrade the trails. Only minimum things would be done."

The county is looking at two insurance types, first being liability in case of injury, which Thiede said could possibly fit within the county's current insurance, and insurance to pay for removal of the structure in case of catastrophic damage like fire or winds that bring the tower down.

"Reconstruction would be too costly," Thiede said. "That does not preclude the effort of a third party to rebuild, but the funds would have to come from a source other than insurance."

Rebuilding in case of destruction would also have to come from funds other than park funds.

Thiede was unable to comment on whether new trails would be installed, whether additional uses (such as disc golf) would be considered or any other plans. He said insurance and other costs would shape how the county would use the 40 acres, which would essentially become park land.

"This is not something that will happen overnight," Thiede said. "The county isn't eager to jump into the park business. We don't manage parks in terms of putting a park staff on. This is just an opportunity that is probably not going to hang around and there aren't many of these left."

Insurance would also determine the repairs needed for the tower, operating hours and whether the cab at the top would be open to visitors with or without a volunteer present.

The 12 people present had questions and suggestions for Thiede.

One resident asked whether the park could eventually be excavated for gravel or other resources. Thiede said the property would be conveyed to the county with the condition that it be used for public use only. The property would revert back to the state if not used that way.

A group of students at the meeting had suggestions for prevention of vandalism at the tower, one of the problems that caused the closure in the first place. One student suggested installation of surveillance cameras or game cameras to deter vandals, while convincing students to volunteer or use the park and tower to instill in students a sense of ownership that would prevent vandalism.

Many possibilities were addressed at the meeting, with Pequot Lakes Mayor Nancy Adams, Breezy Point Mayor Tom Lillehei and Jenkins Mayor Jon Lubke suggesting a visitor or park center building surrounding the base of the tower that would simultaneously act as a fire protection museum and a method to prevent unauthorized access and vandalism.

Thiede, who has advocated for a museum at that site in the past, said big plans would have to wait, but the tower's future could depend on availability of donors and volunteers.

One attendee recommended crowdfunding for the project. The Pequot Lakes Historical Society is not only prepared to act as the fiscal agent for accepting donations under its 501c3 designation, there is an existing bank account for fire tower donations that was started within the past five years.