... Critics chastised the Ripon Common Council for voting 5 to 3 to allocate the funds toward a new pavilion at Murray Park. Some argued a majority of the council disrespected the city’s seniors; a few claimed the city irresponsibly turned its back on the tourism, educational and cultural benefits an interactive museum would accrue.

     The scorn was misdirected.  

     While it’s true that of the three options — pavilion, senior center, museum — the senior center is most desirable, the Parks and Recreation Committee was not charged last January with identifying the city’s greatest need. The council simply asked its members to “give their input” on how to spend the grant the city had accepted from the Lloyd Mitchell estate a month earlier.

     Park & Rec members beginning in February dutifully entertained appeals for possible uses. After several meetings, they asked advocates to commit plans to paper by drafting blueprints, budgets and timetables. With a looming deadline, specificity pointing toward achievability became paramount.
Some proponents faded away. Two persisted: the pavilion and senior center.

     Pavilion backers fulfilled the request. Senior center advocates did their best to provide location ideas, cost estimates and fund-raising goals, but were unable to furnish the firm details the Park & Rec panel required.

     In April, Ripon native Aaron “A.J.” Olson introduced a plan for a museum displaying aboriginal tools and other prehistoric finds, however his 34-page PowerPoint presentation makes no reference to any artifacts his consortium possesses. Still, a 15,000-square-foot, two- to three-floor building with multiple floors on Watson Street was proposed to house five exhibit areas.

     Final pitches were to be made to Park & Rec in July, but Olson missed the meeting and failed to provide the committee with additional information it was seeking due to what he described as “miscommunication.” ...

     By this point Olson’s concept had downsized to be a 3,400-square-foot, two-story, Amish-built log cabin on Blossom Street that would serve as a cultural center that he said would serve “greater than 95% of the Ripon community.” Olson explained it annually would raise $1.6 million initially through, in addition to the one-time Mitchell gift, 48-weeks of twice-weekly “Culture After Dark programs [attracting average attendance of 32 people per session], CyberDome, and HoloLabs, to general admissions, special exhibits, classes, facility rental, traveling exhibit rentals, memberships and merchandising, just to name a few.”  (By comparison, Ripon’s Little White Schoolhouse May 1 to Aug. 31 this year averaged 10.2 visitors per day.)

     Four days later, Ripon Senior Activity Center Director Noreen Johnson announced her group would join with the cultural center, noting the 3,400-square-foot facility would have “ample space” for a senior center, despite its current occupation of 1,800-square-feet in City Hall’s lower level. The two would share a 1,900-square-foot activity room, Olson said.  

     Senior center backers estimated a new center would cost $245 per square foot to build, however Olson told the council his cabin could be constructed for $50 per square feet.

     Skittish council members, still bearing scars of the city being burned by Boca, preferred the sure-thing pavilion to the argument that should the museum fail, the city would at least own a two-story log cabin — directly above the moldy, uninhabitable Boca building it acquired in an ugly lawsuit and now plans to raze, perhaps with the help of revolving-loan-fund dollars the city generated but the state now administers.

     Last week Friday, Ripon Mayor Gary Will vetoed the council’s decision ...

     A clean, eight-month vetting process — established in January and conducted honestly, transparently and thoroughly — has been upended at the 11th hour.

     While City Attorney Lud Wurtz last month changed his original opinion, rendered in January, that the money must be committed within 365 days of the city accepting the gift, should his new interpretation of the estate’s terms be challenged by the next beneficiary in line — the Minnesota Shriners Hospital —  the city can’t afford the legal expenses to fend off such a claim.

     And no, Mitchell money can’t be spent on lawsuits. ...                             

— Tim Lyke

     To read the entire editorial, see the Sept. 19, 2019 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.