DILWORTH, Minn. — The city of Dilworth, backed by area lawmakers, is making a pitch to replace its 40-year-old fire station in the name of improved safety for the city’s volunteer firefighters and better public service.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz visited the fire station on Thursday, Dec. 2, as part of his statewide tour to learn about projects he's considering including in his bonding proposal for the 2022 legislative session.
Walz said he told Dilworth Mayor Chad Olson and Fire Chief Mark Empting they can be certain the request will be part of the proposal.
“These are exactly the type of projects we look for. This community has made use of this facility. Its life expectancy is over,” Walz told local leaders and community members who turned out.
Olson said his small town provides fire protection for greater Clay County and has a mutual aid agreement with its sister city of Moorhead. For many years, the fire department has simply “made do” with what it has.
“We owe it to everyone to do better,” Olson said.
The metal structure, built in 1982 at 709 First Ave. N.W., exposes the city’s 30 volunteer firefighters to known carcinogens due to its layout and cramped quarters, said Empting, who also serves as the Clay County sheriff.
There is no locker space for firefighters' gear, which sits out in the open in the garage, or place for them to clean up after being out on a fire call. Having their personal clothing exposed to both soot from a fire and exhaust from the fire trucks could be harmful to them, he said.
The aging system used to fill oxygen cylinders that fire crews wear is also kept right next to the trucks. “It’s worn out. If it leaked, exhaust could get into the oxygen tanks,” Empting said.
The oxygen system should be in its own, separate room with positive pressure, he said, so that contaminants are kept out.
Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the project is long overdue.
“We're not talking about wants here, we're talking about necessities, and public safety has got to be the top priority when it comes to our bonding priorities,” Eken said.
The fire station’s small meeting room also houses exercise equipment and its kitchen. Cabinets from homes that were flooded in 1997 were salvaged and installed in the station by fire crews, Empting said.
Also taking up space, temporarily, are stacks of household goods and other items that firefighters will donate to families over the holidays.
Walz described the community as among the “thriftiest” people around. “But there comes a point of diminishing returns if you start to let your assets deteriorate too much,” the governor said.
Rep. Paul Marquart said the total estimated cost of the new fire station is $6.5 million.
The bonding "ask" would be $3.2 million of that amount, said the DFL representative, who is also a resident of Dilworth.
Empting said the city has also received $975,000 from the federal government for the project.
The current fire station would likely be torn down and a new one built in its place by 2024 or 2025, he said.
The future of the city’s adjacent community center, on the south side of the building, is unknown at this time.
Empting said the city administrator and investors will discuss whether the center will be rebuilt elsewhere and remain city-owned or be run by a private entity.
Walz and Marquart said this is a good time to undertake such a building project because of historically low interest rates, and a sales tax exemption passed by Minnesota legislators last year on construction materials for public projects.
That exemption alone could mean a $200,000 to $300,000 cost savings alone, Marquart said.
Walz said he intends to have his bonding bill list released by mid-January 2022.
He called the bonding process the “most bipartisan” thing the state does.
“It takes super majorities in the House and Senate. If we can't get both sides of the aisle to agree, it doesn't happen,” Walz said.