The city of Anoka will move ahead on negotiations to lease the historic Woodbury House to an established business in the city.
The city-owned building at 1632 S. Ferry St. is currently vacant as staff and the Anoka City Council evaluate the next steps for the property.
The Mad Hatter Tea Room owners Liz and Tim Koch want to relocate their popular tea room from Main Street to the historic home, giving them room to grow the business.
That expansion would include dinner service, Sunday brunch as well as the ability to host special events on the riverfront property, said Liz Koch. The tea room already serves lunch.
“This would be a great destination for our local people and for people from out of town,” she said.
Ideally, the couple would like to close the tea room for the month of January and then reopen in the Woodbury House sometime in February.
“We’d like to get going and get relocated as soon as possible after the holidays,” Koch said.
The Kochs are planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign with the hope of raising almost $60,000 in capital for the venture.
These online fundraisers allow the public to pledge toward a project, receiving certain rewards determined by the business depending on the financial contribution.
The donations are only cashed if the business meets its overall fundraising goal.
Koch said the campaign is ready to go, but they would still like to shoot a video that would include footage of the Woodbury House.
Already they are hearing support from loyal customers.
“They want to be involved and they want to help,” Koch said.
Tim Koch said they have also had offers from private investors, but the couple would prefer to retain full ownership of the business.
Early estimates show $350,000 in upgrades will need to be done by the city to the Woodbury House before it can be used by the public, according to analysis led by Planning Director Carolyn Braun.
Easements are in place to protect the exterior of the house from changes as well as the view of the river.
“That doesn’t mean restoring it to pristine condition,” Braun said. “Frankly part of the charm of the house is that it is historic.”
Those numbers are only early estimates based on quotes from contractors without detailed plans in place, she said.
Public parking would be located on the current Carpenter’s Hall site, also owned by the city. The building on that property is slated for demolition this fall.
While plans are going ahead to pursue a lease agreement, Mayor Phil Rice said he does have some concerns about the city’s role in owning the Woodbury House.
“This does give me some heartburn,” Rice said. “We said we didn’t want to be a landlord again and we didn’t want to use this property as competition to other businesses in our city. We are doing both those things here.”
The city bought the home, which had been vacant and in foreclosure, from the Housing and Redevelopment Authority for $330,000. Since then it has replatted the property to preserve green space at the north end and put easements in place for river access.
“Anoka bought a historical property at a really good price and now we’re trying to make something palatable out of it,” said Councilmember Mark Freeburg. “I think the city is the best keeper of that property.”
Councilmember Steve Schmidt agreed. “This is an opportunity for the city to maintain this priceless piece of our history… and to keep our finger on it,” he said.
The council hopes a change at the Woodbury House would be a catalyst to revitalizing the South Ferry Street district.
Councilmember Carl Anderson said it has long been one of the city’s goals to get a more upscale restaurant in town.
“Here’s an opportunity to do that, that’s why I like this project,” Anderson said. “And it doesn’t compete with what we have going on downtown.”
Rice raised his concerns during a work session meeting Monday to challenge the council on its vision and its values.
He said the city has bought property when it knows it won’t make money on the deal, but instead takes care of a problem the private market can’t or won’t.
“We leave money on the table sometimes, because it is the right thing to do in some cases,” Rice said.
The majority of the council looks at the Woodbury House as that kind of a deal.
It would likely require a 10-year lease for the city to at the minimum break even on the property, according to Braun.
But the city will be crafting a potential five-year lease where the property could be sold at the end of that term, with some very specific restrictions that would protect the future use of the Woodbury House.
Councilmember Jeff Weaver said he is concerned about the city letting go of control of the property too soon.
“I don’t want the city to divest its interest too early in the game,” Weaver said. “There is room for some serious change in that corridor. I think it could go backwards pretty quickly if we don’t have some control over its destiny.”
Weaver has abstained from votes concerning the Woodbury House. His parents are former owners of the property and his company, Weaver Bros. owns the neighboring lot to the south.
Last month Weaver donated property to allow for permanent access to the Woodbury House. For years there had been an easement in place to allow use of the driveway, which had been located on Weaver’s property.
Plans are to have a first reading of the lease with The Mad Hatter Tea Room at the council’s Oct. 21 meeting.
That agreement could be finalized as soon as Nov. 4.
Mandy Moran Froemming is at firstname.lastname@example.org