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‘Sisters’ owner fires back

By Staff | Sep 23, 2012

The owner of four buildings near the corner of Seventh and Main streets in Blue Earth told the City Council on Monday that he feels he has been harassed by the city.

Robert Johnson, president of the non-profit South Dakota corporation called Hot Springs Citizens for Progress, spoke to the council during the public address portion of the meeting.

“We are not absentee owners and we are not uninterested owners,” Johnson told the council. “I am here. Our buildings are not empty, they are not abandoned.”

Johnson says the buildings are in good repair and house a museum.

“When things are wrong with the building, I have it fixed,” he says. “When the windows were broken, I had them fixed right away.”

Johnson says the reason nothing has happened with the buildings is because he was told by the City Administrator three years ago that Main Street would be torn up and repaired by 2012.

“I was told that we either had to not open, or we had to have a handicap accessible entrance from the back of our building,” he says. “Our board decided we would not open until 2012.”

Johnson says he honored this agreement with the city.

The city, however, has been harassing him about the buildings and their condition, he contends.

“I have been told I have to make repairs, but we have made all repairs, and we have someone who periodically inspects the building for us,” he says. “We have someone hired to plow the snow off the sidewalk when needed.”

Johnson says his group was not going to heat the building and says the city refused to shut off the water when they requested it.

Plus, Johnson says the city has been charging him $500 per building per year because they are vacant. But, he says, they are not vacant.

“We have over 40 pianos, an organ from the Presbyterian church and many other items as part of our museum,” he says. “I am asking you to rescind the $500 vacant building charge.”

The council questioned Johnson as to his plans for the buildings, which are known as the “Three Sisters.”

“Actually there are four buildings,” Johnson says. “The Three Sisters and their ignored step-brother.”

He says the building along the back is a separate structure.

“Our plans now are to find someone willing to manage the properties for us,” he says. “We want someone who will help us maintain them, restore them and rent them out for businesses.”

Johnson indicated he was already involved in talks with at least one local person interested in managing them. He also mentioned having a caretaker live on the property.

“Would you be willing to sell the buildings? Councilman John Huisman asked.

Johnson responded that was a possibility, but he expected the sale price would be around $85,000 per building, and reminded the council that there are four of them.

He said they had been assessed at that amount when his group purchased them in 2008.

Councilman Russ Erichsrud pointed out that his research indicated the buildings had market values listed at the county of $10,000, $11,000 and $34,000.

Johnson says he has had real estate people estimate the value, based on the amount of rent the units could produce.

“We don’t deserve this treatment,” Johnson says. “We are trying to preserve and restore these buildings. Because we are a non-profit, all of the expense money comes out of our own pockets.”

Mayor Rob Hammond contested some of Johnson’s claims and said the city was concerned with the property appearing to be vacant and whether they were deteriorating.

Hammond also says he doesn’t recall Johnson making any agreement with the city council in the past.

“I think you have some serious issues with these buildings,” Hammond told Johnson. “People in this town are not happy with the way they look. Are you proud of these buildings?”

He added that no progress on the buildings had been made in three years.

Johnson says he feels that his group has done everything the city has asked of them.