Anoka ready, willing to take on historic cottages

Managing Editor
Mandy has been with ABC Newspapers since 2007, when she joined the staff as the editor of the Anoka County Union. She has been the managing editor of the UnionHerald and Blaine Spring Lake Park Life since 2014.

The city of Anoka wants to give three vacant cottages and the unused auditorium on the Rum River Human Services campus owned by Anoka County a new lease on life.

Cottage No. 2 is in the best shape of the three vacant cottages on the county’s property along the Rum River. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming
Cottage No. 2 is in the best shape of the three vacant cottages on the county’s property along the Rum River. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming

With the goal of using the properties to provide housing for homeless veterans, the Anoka City Council is ready to ink an agreement to take on the historic buildings and is in talks with the county to make it happen.

The Anoka Asylum, as it was first known, opened in 1900 and over nearly a century housed and treated thousands of mentally ill patients.

The hospital was closed in 1999 when treatment transitioned to community care as well as the nearby Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center. At that point, the state gave the historic campus to Anoka County.

The county uses several buildings on the riverfront property for its human services division. It is also the site of the Anoka County Jail’s workhouse and Stepping Stone Emergency Housing.

The fate of the three cottages in question, along with the auditorium, has been uncertain for years.

Sitting vacant and deteriorating, the county doesn’t have a use for these buildings, said Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte. Nor does it have the budget for the fixes required to make them usable again.

While the county does have space needs, the cottages and the campus are not the right fit, he said.

Discussions on what to do with the historic buildings have included the prospect of demolition, although that’s not the preferred option according to Schulte.

He wants to exhaust all opportunities before it comes to that.

“We don’t want to take those buildings down and then find out there could have been a use for them,” Schulte said.

The Anoka City Council swiftly opposed demolition and volunteered its staff to help broker a solution.

In 2015 the city worked with CommonBond, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing, on plans for a veterans housing project estimated to cost $11.3 million.

But CommonBond was not able to secure the necessary funding.

A new plan

While the plan is still to use the cottages for veterans housing, this time the city is taking a different approach. Instead of fully rehabbing the buildings into condominiums, the emphasis would be on getting them livable, said City Manager Greg Lee. This would speed up the process and drastically reduce the price tag.

And the city has already identified its preferred end-user.

Members of a city-led Cottage Committee have had discussions with Melony Butler, founder and director of Eagle’s Healing Nest. The nonprofit operates veterans housing on a former institutional property near Sauk Centre.

City staff and advocates for the project have high hopes for a partnership with Eagle’s Healing Nest to replicate its operations in Anoka.

While a deal is a long way from done, local officials are calling this scenario an ideal option to repurpose the cottages.

If that doesn’t work out, the city would go back to its original plan of leasing the cottages directly from the county, making some improvements and looking for a user, Lee said.

He estimated it would likely cost $10,000 to $20,000 for initial repairs of the buildings.

The city does not have any money appropriated in its budget for the cottage project, making a partnership with a self-sustaining nonprofit attractive.

The entire council is keen on the veterans housing concept.

Council Member Brian Wesp said the cottages are part of what define Anoka.

“Taking something historic and using it for exactly what it was built for, that would be a great thing,” Wesp said about the prospect of the buildings once again be used for therapy and rehabilitation.

“I’m very encouraged by what I’m hearing,” said Council Member Carl Anderson Monday when the council heard a progress report from the Cottage Committee. “It’s a beautiful piece of our legacy and we cannot let that property go to ruin.”

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, is a strong proponent of the project and has been involved in discussions between the city and Eagle’s Healing Nest.

“You can’t make this any better – I think it’s an amazing location,” he said.

Eagle’s Healing Nest operates through donations of money, materials and labor.

Abeler said that model is ideal for Anoka’s situation.

“The city is in no position to take on financial liability of these buildings,” Abeler said, favoring a route where neither the city nor the county is on hook for the fixes required.

He said local donors as well as community service and veterans support organizations, “are going to fall in love with this project.”

Members of the Cottage Committee, including Planning Director Carolyn Braun, Public Works Director Mark Anderson, Heritage Preservation Commission Chairman Bart Ward, along with Abeler, visited Eagle’s Healing Nest earlier this month.

“The magnitude of what they do up there … you cannot do it justice without seeing it,” Anderson said. “It’s a lifesaving effort.”

Eagle’s Healing Nest

Eagle’s Healing Nest was established in 2012 and according to Butler, the Nest went from housing 20 veterans to more than 70 in five years. It continues to grow. One by one the veterans who live at Eagle’s Healing Nest, along with volunteers, have been renovating institutional buildings on the Sauk Centre property.

She said there is a need for more “nests” around the state and across the country.

Butler is impressed by Anoka’s enthusiasm for her mission to provide hope, home and healing to veterans who need it.

“We have so many homeless vets and vets who are struggling to reintegrate,” she said.

She noted that Sen. Jerry Newton, D-Coon Rapids, was one of Eagle’s Healing Nest’s earliest and strongest supporters.

Anoka County Veterans have already been living at the facility, Butler said.

She sees promise in the Anoka buildings and has experience rehabbing historic, institutional buildings that have been left vacant.

Butler would like to see one cottage used for men, another for women and the third for homeless military families.

While there’s no specific time line, both she and Abeler believe that once an agreement is in place, the first cottage could be up and running in a matter of months.

A long time ago Butler made a promise to her stepfather, a Vietnam vet, that she would take care of veterans.

“At that time, I didn’t know what that would mean,” she said.

He died by suicide 23 years ago, Butler said, and so did all of the men he served with.

Butler is a military wife and three of her four sons have served. Two are combat veterans. Her family weathered four deployments in five years, and she has long been involved in the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon and family readiness campaigns.

When one son came home suicidal, she struggled through bureaucracy and red tape to get him help.

In her frustration, she instigated change and founded Eagle’s Healing Nest.

“Veterans are the solution,” Butler said. “If they can create their own place to heal, they won’t leave anyone behind. Just like they wouldn’t leave a soldier behind on the battlefield.”

She said the veterans who live at Eagle’s Healing Nest are strong, resilient and depend on each other. It costs $35 a day to stay at the Nest, which includes meals. The goal is to help veterans heal from the invisible wounds of war through support and connecting them with resources.

While there is much work to be done to get agreements in place between the city and the county, and possibly Eagle’s Healing Nest, local advocates are excited at the prospects.

“The possibility of converting the three unused cottages and auditorium at the old State Hospital facility through an agreement between Anoka County, the city of Anoka and Eagle’s Healing Nest would be one of the largest projects in Anoka in decades,” Ward said.

He thinks Butler has done a fabulous job in Sauk Centre.

“She has partnered with many organizations, businesses and institutions to do a yeoman’s work to provide a residential veterans campus,” Ward said. “It’s all about saving veterans’ lives and history. It doesn’t get any better.”

mandy.froemming@ecm-inc.com