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Boy Scouts give historic outpost a new mission

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Main administration building
The Upper Post main administration building is also called the clock tower building because it once had an operating clock and bell.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

A huge piece of centrally-located Twin Cities property is available for development.  But there's a big catch: The 141-acre Upper Post land is owned and controlled by the government, protected by a tangle of red tape.

Even so, one group discovered the prime location is worth the effort required to develop.

Bordered by Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Mississippi river and the airport, the historic Upper Post is part of a sprawling military outpost with barracks, hospitals, and horse barns. It was the gathering point for thousands of soldiers headed off to World Wars I and II.

Now it's a collection of 26 vacant and boarded brick buildings dating back more than a century.

The Upper Post is part of the complex that includes historic Fort Snelling. The administration building was the first built on the Upper Post land and is still the most imposing because of the classic clock tower perched on top.

Dust, cobwebs and a few bullet holes from gun toting vandals don't obscure the adventure of a climb to the top.

"You can see the old clock faces, they're all boarded up now," said Larry Peterson, who helps manage the Upper Post for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Petersen leads the way up the creaky steps to the a huge bronze bell and the antique time piece that controlled it.   "That was wound manually on a daily or semi-daily basis and served as the time keeping for the entire fort," Petersen said.

When it was working, the clock set off a hammer that struck a huge bronze bell still hanging in the very top level of the clock tower that sounded the time around the Post.

Some of the buildings are crumbling. The effort to save them includes using Hennepin County Sentence to Serve crews.

The jail inmates have learned tuck pointing and carpentry to repair brick walls and replace new roofs. The crews are back at another round of repair work financed by $1.2 million in state bonding.

Minneapolis architect Chuck Liddy, a consultant on reusing the Upper Post, said the rescue didn't come in time for the quartermaster building during a snowstorm five years ago.

"So we said, 'Fine, we'll get going on it', and we showed up the next morning, and we'd gotten a foot of snow overnight and the roof had collapsed."

Visitors imagine all sorts of ideas for reusing the land and buildings, including charter schools, a conference center or a museum — along with less likely suggestions, Liddy said.

"Somebody wanted to turn it into a motocross and drag strip facility."

But there are major obstacles to anyone wanting to use the Upper Post property.

Firstly, it can't be owned, it can only be leased from the current owners and operators: state and federal government.

Secondly, and perhaps more daunting, the buildings are protected by a National Historic Landmark designation and can't be bulldozed. Developers must preserve their architectural features.

Another big challenge is getting the more than half-dozen government entities who own or control the property to sign off on a development deal, a process that's a bit of an enigma, said Patrick Connoy, Hennepin County development manager.

"It's unknown exactly as to who has to approve or what level that organization has to approve something," Connoy said. "So we need to straighten that out and we're working on that right now."

Officials predict the various government entities will approve a joint powers agreement this fall that attempts to streamline the process that developers can follow to propose ideas for reusing this historic site.

The Boy Scouts successfully navigated the bureaucratic thicket, opening their new North Star Council Base Camp in October.

The Boy Scouts and other groups use the former Upper Post cavalry building for indoor and outdoor climbing courses and meeting rooms.

It required some imagination to see the vacant horse barn's potential, Base Camp manager Kathryn Wyatt said.

"There were animals living in the building, trash — you could tell people had been living in the building and it was just a mess," Wyatt said. "And we'd bring donors and volunteers and other staff in for tours and and we'd tell them our plan, and they'd say, 'You're crazy!"

It would have been less expensive to build elsewhere, Wyatt said.

Reconstructing the roof, windows and walls in ways that retain the structure's old world look, along with adding modern upgrades of heating, air conditioning and other amenities cost $9 million, Wyatt said.

The location's proximity near Minneapolis and St. Paul and its easy access to roads is the attraction, she said.

The groups involved, the National Park Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Veterans Administration, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Hennepin County, the Minnesota Historical Society and others either own property at the Upper Post or have some control of what happens there.

Talks about reusing the property have also included from time to time American Indian representatives, mostly the Dakota, who lived in the area before the Upper Post existed.