Lakes International scraps plan to build campus in Headwaters

Forest Lake charter school seeking location at which to open second campus in 2014

Clint Riese
News Editor

Plans for Lakes International Language Academy to build a second campus in Forest Lake’s Headwaters development have fallen through.

A confluence of factors led the public charter school’s board Tuesday, July 9, to halt the planning process for building next to the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association Sports Center. The school board’s decision came via an 8-0 vote with one member absent.

FR_LILAlogoLILA Director Cam Hedlund on Monday said the search is on for a new location. If one is found in short order, he said, the plan will remain to have a second campus open for the 2014-15 school year.

“So long as we get a new site and get the permits required to at least do some land work this fall, we will still be right on target,” Hedlund said.

Not square one

The nonprofit LILA Building Company and developer Len Pratt in January worked out a purchase agreement for a 10-acre parcel. Tentatively, site preparation would have commenced this fall and construction next spring on a building that would have housed fourth through sixth grades starting next fall.

LILA officials in recent months worked to secure conduit financing through the city of Forest Lake. Approved by the City Council last month, the deal taps into the city’s bonding authority and provides up to $19 million in capital. LILA Building Company would lease the facility to the school, which would fund its lease payments through state-provided charter school lease aid.

This financing agreement is unaffected by the change in location and will not need to be renegotiated, Hedlund said.

Part of the capital would also go to refinancing the outstanding principal from bonds issued in 2006 for the purchase of LILA’s current building on Southeast 11th Avenue. Some would also fund the pending acquisition of a nearby office building that will be outfitted to house by this fall the school’s sixth-grade and preschool classes.

The expansion into the building across the street is needed due to soaring enrollment, which is expected to reach 725 students next school year. It will be the third school year for the school’s Mandarin Chinese immersion track. LILA has offered Spanish immersion since opening in 2004.

Sacrificing too much

The area in Headwaters seemed ideal due to its proximity to the sports arena, Fenway Athletic Park and the Hardwood Creek Library.

As concerns emerged this spring, though, cost estimates rose. The original conduit financing contemplated a not-to-exceed amount of $16 million; that increased by $3 million for the final public hearing and vote June 24.

No one complication is to blame, Hedlund said, but wetland mitigation appears to have played a large role.

In working with the Rice Creek Watershed District to delineate the parcel’s wetland, LILA officials discovered higher mitigation costs and less usable space than expected.

In turn, architects had to scale back the building’s design, both in size and features.

Also, officials learned they would have to cut out further space to allow for a street to the backside of the property.

Sufficient funding for the project was secured, Hedlund said, but it became a matter of how much of the design administrators and school board members were willing to sacrifice.

“All those kinds of factors came together in a kind of perfect storm of this just isn’t going to be enough land,” Hedlund said.

A significant aspect of the project is the creation of a campus big enough to eventually house all of the current grades through an expansion to the planned building. Even a third phase is contemplated through which LILA could add more grades or another language immersion program.

The school board’s vote showed an emphasis on preserving those future opportunities.

“That really becomes the bottom line: not enough land to accommodate all the things we wanted it to do eventually,” Hedlund said.

LILA pulled its application with Rice Creek Watershed District just in time to get it off the agenda for this month’s board meeting regarding permits, said Nick Tomczik, the district’s permit coordinator.

Searching again

The search for another location will need to progress quickly, but officials are confident the original timeline can still be met.

“We started this process allowing for some bumps in the road, so we don’t think this has delayed us yet,” Hedlund said.

The building’s design is such that it can work on any sufficiently sized open space. Ideally, features removed as site preparation costs ate into the budget can be restored.

“We have a list of things that we would like to add back as we find money for them,” Hedlund said.

One location considered before plans in Headwaters developed remains available, and several worth looking into came on the market this spring, Hedlund said. The new campus will need to be in or very near Forest Lake due to busing concerns, he added. Any location will also need to have at least 10 acres.

LILA will also have to work through the ramifications of rescinding the purchase agreement with Pratt.

“We have a very friendly relationship, so we’re looking to see what that entails,” Hedlund said.