When Randy Lenth walks down the dark hallway of the Kasson Public School, it's with a sigh.
"Every time I come in, there's a new window broken," he says. "There's new access gained. We just quit taking care of it."
The city of Kasson, where Lenth is administrator, wants to knock the old building down and put up a new library. The building has been vacant since 2006. Graffiti mars on the walls, shattered glass and broken tiles litter the floor, and there's a rampant smell of mold in the air. The windows have been boarded since thieves stole $5,000 worth of copper pipes.
But to some residents, the building represents part of the town's identity that should be preserved. So, for now, all plans are on hold.
The debate is a common one in Minnesota.
The Kasson Public School is one of hundreds of iconic old buildings that stand empty around the state. Some places like Fergus Falls and New York Mills have refurbished buildings. And others are in the midst of deciding what to do.
“I've talked to small town officials who have argued what you really need to do is have some sort of a wake, sort of a funeral, where everybody's emotions can spill out and they can express what this school meant to them and then bury it.”Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota - Morris.
"There is a sort of existential fear that if you lose your school your town is dead," said Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota - Morris.
"It's tied up both in people's sense of the past, what the small town life that they grew up with was," he said. "But also with this sense of whether that town has a viable path forward. So you can see that it connects with all sort of emotional issues for people."
But sometimes, Kildegaard says debates about historic preservation are more about psychology and human emotion than the actual demolition.
"I've talked to small town officials who have argued what you really need to do is have some sort of a wake, sort of a funeral, where everybody's emotions can spill out and they can express what this school meant to them and then bury it," he said with a laugh.
Residents in Kasson had to decide what to do with their old school building when they built a new one on the edge of town. Since then, there's been a prolonged battle between city officals, who say they've exhausted their options to save the old building, and a local preservation group called the Kasson Alliance for Restoration.
The fight started in 2006 when voters in the city of 6,000 rejected a referendum to spend $3.9 million to renovate the building. The city then moved to demolish it. Around the same time, the restoration group placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places, against the will of city officials. The group later sued the city under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which protects historic resources.
The city and the group eventually settled the lawsuit. They agreed to share the cost of a study that looked into alternative uses for the building. The city put the demolition on hold but officials say in eight years, only one developer has come forward with a proposal to build a senior housing complex in the building. Funding for that project fell through last year.
At a recent Alliance meeting, Virginia Giese said the city is not working hard enough to attract new developers. She said the building represents a part of the city's identity.
“You can't get a sense of what the past was like... but if they can't see any of this anymore, how are they going to learn from us?”Virginia Giese, Kasson resident
"You can't get a sense of what the past was like... and that's what we've been trying to pass on to our children, but if they can't see any of this anymore, how are they going to learn from us?"
Sitting nearby, Mantorville resident Janice Borgstrom-Durst summed up the group's concerns.
"We want the building to sell. We want the building to be put into service. We want the building to be used. We want the building and the lot to pay real estate taxes. We don't want the city to spend money on demolition."
But others worry about the potential cost.
"There's a lot of people that have a lot of ties to that old school and it's been around for a long time and my own kids went to school in that school and they're adults now," said Dena Houston, a cashier in the city's supermarket a block away from the building.
"Mom was the pre-school teacher over there for years. I think it's a building worth saving, but it would cost a lot of money. "
Damages inside the school are mounting and city officials estimate renovations would cost as much as $8 million to $10 million. Earlier this year, they revived their plan to demolish the structure and build a new library. But in June, the city was sued again, by two residents. They aren't affiliated with the Alliance but they're getting help from the group's members.
“Know what you can change. And if you can't change it for the good, sometimes you got to let it go.”Randy Lenth, Kasson city administrator
City Administrator Lenth said the lawsuits have cost the city about $75,000 in attorney fees and staff time. And as long as there's litigation going on, there's nothing the city can do to the building.
"The problem is that we've got a difference of opinion about what's better for the community," Lenth said. "You know, know what you can change. And if you can't change it for the good, sometimes you got to let it go."