Minnesota officials are pushing ahead with a publicly financed $2.6 million renovation of the 100-year-old Governor's Residence, making what they say are overdue fixes to a historically significant property worth about as much as the restoration will cost.
The planned upgrades -- mostly to the building exterior -- are the first of three phases of anticipated work on the Summit Avenue mansion just a few miles from the state Capitol. A 2011 facility assessment identified $6.3 million in possible needs, but there have been no commitments made beyond the first phase.
The Department of Administration advertised Monday for a general contractor to oversee the project, which should begin by summer.
"If all goes as planned, they hope to have shovels in the ground in June,'' said Curtis Yoakum, the agency's legislative and communications director.
The work entails adding security features, replacing storm windows and insulation, repairing drainage and improving the elevator and kitchen.
Other states are in the midst of renovating their aging executive mansions. High costs have caused consternation in a few places, especially where the governor rarely uses it. Vermont, Arizona and California lack a formal residence, with California turning its former mansion into a state park. In a few states, they are opting to cover repair costs with private fundraising instead.
That the Minnesota project has come this far is noteworthy. Previous attempts for large-scale renovations have caused political turmoil fueled by reservations about spending taxpayer money on a mansion while other parts of the budget get squeezed.
Former Gov. Jesse Ventura temporarily shuttered the mansion and vetoed a $4.3 million fix-up in 2002 during a feud with legislators. In 2010, then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed legislation to spend $75,000 to determine what work the building needed, but he never sought money for major repairs.
Under current Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, there was no direct request for residence renovation. Instead, the Administration Department will dip into a pot of money earmarked for asset preservation, arguing that the mansion is eligible because the agency is the custodial owner.
The 20-room English Tudor-style mansion was donated to the state in 1965 by the daughter of the lumber baron who built it. The property's estimated market value is $2.7 million, according to Ramsey County property tax records.
But few places in Minnesota can match its roster of big-name tenants or visitors: Former Vice President Al Gore slept there during a 2000 presidential campaign visit; Mikhail Gorbechav of the Soviet Union and Vicente Fox of Mexico have been by. So have actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sophia Loren and Jack Nicholson. Nine governors and their families have moved in at least part-time; Dayton uses it as his primary residence and isn't expected to have to relocate during construction.
Some have affectionately described it as the state's living room. It was the venue for 175 events in 2011.
In a memo to the Governor's Residence Council this fall, Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk described the building as "grossly neglected over the past three decades" and in desperate need of repair.
Rep. Kurt Daudt, the new Republican House minority leader, sits on the Governor's Residence Council and agrees that some renovations are in order. He didn't say how far he is willing to go beyond the first phase.
"What they're doing is stuff that needs to be done so I haven't objected to it,'' Daudt said.
Democratic Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Committee, learned from a reporter that the administration found money for mansion repairs that she thinks have been put off for too long.
"Asset preservation shouldn't be controversial,'' Hausman said. "This is a gift the state got and we ought to take care of it. It's certainly better to take care of what we have before it goes bad.''
Yoakum said there have been preliminary discussions about a private fundraising campaign for the future construction phases.
Texas lawmakers spent $21.5 million to restore that state's 156-year-old mansion after a devastating fire while also leveraging $3.5 million from private donors.
In December, a proposal to borrow $478,000 to upgrade the kitchen and make other repairs at Wisconsin's executive mansion was withdrawn. Officials decided they would try to raise private donations instead.
In neighboring Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad launched a $1.6 million campaign in 2011 for renovations to the governor's mansion in Des Moines; the mansion was closed for months recently after the discovery of toxic mold that was making the first lady ill.
Associated Press writers Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Tex.; Ryan Foley in Iowa City, Iowa and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.