Buyer emerges for Ely’s Community Center

City council agrees to enter into a six-month negotiating window to sell building to private party

by Tom Coombe
The city of Ely will give a potential buyer up to six months to come up with a plan for the Community Center building.
An agreement approved by city council members on Tuesday could clear the way for the landmark to be purchased by Matt Stupnik of Dellwood, Minn.
A sale price is subject to future negotiations between Stupnik and city officials, and the deal currently in place essentially creates a six-month window for plans to be developed.
“This option before you really allows him six months time and the council six months time to come to a fair market value,” said city attorney Kelly Klun. “At this point, we’re locking in to one potential buyer for the next six months.”
During the six-month period, the city must complete a hazardous material assessment, while Stupnik must show city officials architectural plans for the long-vacant building as well as cost assessments for potential improvements.
Mayor Roger Skraba questioned some of the terms of the deal, including Stupnik’s exclusive option to buy the Community Center.
But Klun indicated the city could still show the building to other would-be buyers, and the city will retain control of the facility.
Council member Al Forsman endorsed the agreement.
“The potential buyer needs time to make sure he can get it all together and know we won’t sell it out from under him,” said Forsman. “I would love to see what he’s proposing. I think six months is quite quick when you’re talking of something of this nature.”
There was no indication Tuesday what Stupnik envisions for a building that returned to city ownership last year after it was owned briefly by the K America Foundation.
Plans to repurpose the building into a venue for Korean culture camps never gained traction and ownership reverted back to the city.
Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk treasurer and operations director, said the hazardous material assessment sought by Stupnik “is something we probably need to do anyway” to sell the building.
Council member Paul Kess also spoke in support of the plan.
“We’ve been locked up for a year before,” said Kess. “As Kelly has described, he needs us to do an environmental assessment so he can do his numbers, and he needs to work with professional architects.”
Kess joined Klun, Langowski and council member Heidi Omerza in meeting with Stupnik.
According to minutes of the city’s historic preservation commission, which recommended the plan go to the council for review, as many as four potential developers have recently showed interest in the three-story, nearly 30,000 square foot structure.
City officials and area history buffs have wrestled with the fate and future of the Community Center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for nearly a decade.
It has been vacant since 2014, when the city closed the building after moving the library to a new facility across the street from City Hall.
The one-time community hub seemed to have new life in 2018, when the K America Foundation bought the building for $30,000, outlined plans for up to $3 million in renovations and hoped to make Ely a destination for Korean adoptees and their families.
But after those plans fell through, the city regained ownership and the building was put back on the market for $79,000.
During the winter city officials reported numerous calls of interest, after the building was featured on a popular website and on Facebook.
Klun said any sale price remains subject to negotiation and that the city would seek “fair market value,” although the price could be “reduced or amended depending on the economic value (the plan) has for the city.”
About 85 years old, the Community Center once served as an Ely hotspot, housing not only the library and offices but a kitchen, cafeteria and auditorium that were used for numerous community events - including dances, weddings and dinners.
Efforts to repurpose the building have stalled and the building needs extensive renovations and repairs, estimated at $2.75 million in a 2014 study.
The city commissioned a reuse study that can be found on the city’s website, and ideas have run the gamut, from using the building for its original purposes to perhaps turning it into rental housing, a hotel or community garden
The proposal to enter into the agreement with Stupnik passed with six council votes although member Angela Campbell, who has previously shown interest in buying the building, abstained.
“I see a better use for the Community Center, so I abstain,” Campbell told the rest of the council.