Politics and Government

Walz family could move into U president’s house instead of suburb

A view of Eastcliff, the University of Minnesota president's home, photographed from the backyard in 2011. It could soon become temporary housing for Gov. Tim Walz and his family.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2011

In a sudden shift, the state is negotiating an agreement to have Gov. Tim Walz and his family move into the University of Minnesota’s soon-to-be-vacant presidential residence while the governor’s mansion undergoes repairs.

It would mean breaking a $17,000 a month rental deal for a suburban home that was due to house the first family for more than a year beginning this summer. The deal with the university, which still needs signoff from the Board of Regents during a special meeting on Monday, is a fraction of the price – $4,400 per month plus utilities.

University Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations Myron Frans said state officials contacted the school about the possibility after President Joan Gabel announced her upcoming departure.

“It was one of those situations where the opportunity for the governor to take residence here and the fact that the residence was going to be open came at the same time and it worked out really well,” said Frans, a former agency commissioner under Walz.

He added, “We put together this offer to make sure that the university covered its costs, but we were not looking to make any money on it. We simply wanted to provide the residence at a reasonable cost and where the university didn't have to incur any additional costs.”

The state previously signed a lease with business executive and former Republican candidate Mike McFadden to lease his Sunfish Lake home, which had been for sale. The steep, taxpayer-funded rent for the house, on a secluded lakefront property, became a political punching bag for Republicans and a headache for legislative Democrats who had to turn back attempts to withhold money for it.

"Governor Walz would like to see a creative solution to save taxpayer money while meeting security requirements. He appreciates the university considering this request in light of President Gabel's departure," said Walz spokesperson Claire Lancaster.

Breaking the lease early will cost the state three months of rent, so about $51,000. Even with that hit, the state is expected to come out ahead because of the big differential in rent.

One of the biggest critics of the original rental plan expressed support for the Eastcliff option.

“I was pleased that House GOP and I were able to bring attention to the issue of the temporary Governors residence being $17K a month,” said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said on Twitter. “I’m glad that this new arrangement will save the taxpayers $12,500 a month and still provide the Governor a safe and useful residence.”

Under the terms that still need to be finalized, the Walz family could move in by July 1. Gabel is expected to vacate the property when she leaves for a post at the University of Pittsburgh early this summer.

The lease would run through September of 2024 with the option of extending that until the end of that year. Eastcliff is a 20-room, 10,000 square foot estate overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The home with the white picket fence and a carriage house also has a ceremonial event space and a swimming pool. It has security features, which the state considered essential for any rental home.

Donated to the university in 1958, Eastcliff has been home to eight school presidents since 1961.

The renovation schedule at the Summit Avenue governor’s residence will remain on schedule, a Department of Administration spokesperson said. That project includes exterior fixes, mechanical repairs and other maintenance that had long been deferred; contractors indicated it would be too disruptive to keep it occupied during the project.

Frans said the Walz family would be permitted to remain in place even if the school brings in a new president before the lease expires.

“We're committed to that time for the governor because the governor and first lady needs to be out of the residence that long, so we are committed to that timeline,” he said. 

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