After years of debate, Fergus Falls settles on plan for historic mental hospital

The Kirkbride buildings loom like a castle at the edge of Fergus Falls, about three hours northwest of the Twin Cities. Built more than a century ago, the former state mental hospital has been vacant since 2009. The city saved the buildings from the wrecking ball but has struggled ever since to figure out what to do with the enormous complex, which has more square footage than Fergus Falls’ three block downtown strip.

The difficult task of renovating and repurposing old, once iconic buildings in cities around the state as populations change is a topic Ground Level will explore in detail in the coming weeks. Different proposals had been floated for the Kirkbride in recent years, including for a Chinese language school, a wellness center and a folk school. A local artist even made a chalkboard shaped like the Kirkbride’s distinctive silhouette where people could write their ideas for the campus.

The Kirkbride complex, a former mental hospital, has been vacant since 2009. MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel

“You can’t get the artisanship back,” said Fergus Falls planner and community development director Gordon Hydukovich, who has an affinity for the Kirkbride and would move into one of its towers if he could. “You can’t get that energy back. Every building has this huge reserve of value. We have to take that and make more value.”

Last night, the city finally made an agreement with a development group from Georgia called Historic Properties, which boasts a “reference council” that includes country singer Mickey Gilley and former MASH actor Jamie Farr. The group plans to turn the Kirkbride into a boutique hotel, apartments and restaurants. If all goes as scheduled, renovations are expected to cost $41 million—partially paid for through tax breaks–and be completed by the end of 2015.

For more details about the deal, check out this story from MPR News reporter, Elizabeth Baier.

A stairway inside the Kirkbride. MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel

“They have done (dozens of) projects nationwide,” said Hydukovich. “They come in and core it with housing. The idea is the housing will use some of the commercial and provide some of the labor. They have six restaurant groups that follow them.”

Given Fergus Falls’ population of around 13,000 people, the project will have to draw a large portion of its customers from elsewhere. “The big obstacle is, what is the use in a market like this?,” said Hydukovich. “If this was in Duluth on Lake Superior or even on Mille Lacs, but here we are on the edge of the old Lake Agassiz shore. The trees end here. The prairie starts there.”

Still, he thinks Fergus could be well situated to be a tourist destination, especially with a renovated Kirkbride. “We are 50 miles from Fargo and 50 miles from Alexandria. We are the gateway to the lakes from Nebraska and North Dakota. There are over one thousand lakes in Otter Tail County. The Brainerd bleed off is starting to come here.”