By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners are ready to address a question that has nagged previous board members for a quarter of a century – what to do with a crumbling highway headquarters/shop building?

“We go forward a couple steps and back a couple steps, but hopefully we’re moving forward again,” county engineer Brian Pogodzinski said last week. 

Pogodzinski serves on a committee tasked with developing plans to replace the dilapidated highway shop in Caledonia. And with the recent acquisition of approximately three more acres of land (raising the total from six to nine acres), the headquarters campus is now big enough to build what is needed on, he stated. 

The current office/shop facility was built in stages between the 1940‘s – 60‘s. Since then, “some patchwork repairs have been made,” the engineer noted. Those included items such as a new furnace and roof repairs, but included “no major remodels, nothing new.” And the overall condition of the building has grown steadily worse.

After this issue went to press, county commissioners were set to vote on an architect’s contract to draw up preliminary plans for the site near the Houston County Fairgrounds. Those would form the framework for a more complete design later this fall or winter. The Argus will report on that ballot next week.

“Over the last 27 years or so they’ve talked about building a new shop, and pretty much nothing has changed... ” Pogodzinski said. ”The needs haven’t changed, either.

“The three acres were critical... It essentially gets us 50% plus more space to site the new buildings, that will be bigger to house larger vehicles, and to house sand and salt, too. It gives us the space to feasibly stay on that site, along with the space for the stormwater pond that we’re going to need to provide.”

Staying put also addresses other concerns, the engineer added. Those include changes in traffic flow on highways 44 and 76 that moving to another site could have prompted. Plus, “You don’t want to build something without the possibility for future expansion,” he added. “You may need to build on to the heated storage area, for example, or build on to the cold storage buildings.” 

Along with it’s expanded footprint, under the terms of a recent agreement with the Fair Board, the county’s highway department can also use about another acre that borders the nine acre property 50 weeks out of the year, Pogodzinski explained.

Some additional history: In 2009, county commissioners reviewed a $6.9 million plan to build a new highway headquarters/shop facility on 22 acres of land which had been purchased near Caledonia High School, but decided the cost was too great. In 2013, that site and the existing headquarters property were both in the running when the board looked into a “phased” approach to build a smaller building, with a price tag of approximately $4 million (plus some significant site preparation costs). In 2015, architectural firm HSR Associates of La Crosse presented a range of options to commissioners, costing from $3.947 to $4.795 million to build various types of structures. Those plans also included $1.2 million for site preparation at either location. But the site near the school would soon fall out of favor with the City of Caledonia, as officials and residents objected to the county’s plan for developing the 22 acres of farmland, which otherwise might be expected to grow houses near the school at a future date.  

Paying for the project is a major concern for the board, Pogodzinski added, with various options likely to come before commissioners. “There is a pretty sizable fund balance within the Road and Bridge Fund, and some of that money could be used toward the building,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how much that the county could start moving from one fund to another. There’s also the 22 acres out by the high school that the county bought, and if they sell, it could go towards this highway shop... Or you could move toward paying for it partly with fund balance, partly with bonding, and possibly paying off the bonds with the wheelage tax money that’s currently coming in... Ultimately, I don’t know which way the board is going to go.”

Building costs for the project have reportedly risen significantly over the last 5-10 years, Pogodzinski stated, with the least expensive plans put forth during those years (around $4 to $5 million) now likely to average anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more. But the recent acquisition of more land at the current site still offers a solution – albeit a somewhat more pricy one.

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