An upcoming mental health treatment facility slated to be built in downtown Savage is leaving some business owners and those who frequent the area with a mix of emotions.
"People are asking what happened to the veteran's park," said Savage American Legion Commander Nile Plapp, who served as a spokesperson for the legion.
The land slated for the 16-bed Intensive Residential Treatment Services/Crisis facility is located at 12390 Ottawa Avenue — immediately next door to the legion. About a decade ago, the legion was in financial trouble and unpaid bills buried it in more than $50,000 worth of debt.
Former Savage City Administrator Barry Stock said the city was positioned to make a deal with the legion and buy a parcel of land to help the legion pay taxes. The parcel would then be marketed for development. It made sense, he said, because the city owned the bowling alley that had previously occupied the space.
"We were interested," Stock said. "Kind of just out of the blue — boom — Big Ed bought it."
Ed Reiners purchased the land, worked to repair the legion's financial situation and took over as manager. Out of his work to revamp the legion came a new dream — a veteran's memorial park to be built on the open lawn Reiners owned. Reiners had renderings and designs created to share his vision with others and spoke with local companies about coming on board with the project. He put his plans into a three-ring binder and shared his ideas with city officials.
Plapp said the main thing Reiners wanted to do was honor Savage's history in the war effort.
"I know a lot of people at the legion were looking forward to working towards this," Plapp said.
Then, Reiners was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. Plapp said that the excitement surrounding the memorial cooled off and the plans for the memorial took a backseat.
"Ed began his treatment and he wasn't the pusher and promoter that he had been all his life," Plapp said.
In 2016, the city purchased the parcel of land from Reiners for $79,000 while Reiners worked to have his affairs in order. He passed away in January. In working to fill the shoes he left behind in operating the legion, the memorial fell by the wayside. Between this property and a neighboring parcel the city purchased in 1997, the city's total investment in the land is around $230,000.
"We just survived not having Ed here," Plapp said.
While continuing to work through their loss, Plapp said the legion has been struck with new concerns about how the mental health facility and the legion can coexist.
When a public hearing was held to approve the city's plans to sell the land for $1 to the Scott County Community Development Agency, no members of the public showed up to give comment.
"I knew nothing about it," Plapp said. "I had no idea there was a public hearing. It was surprising to everyone."
The legion frequently hosts live bands and Plapp's main concern relates to noise restrictions. He worries that the legion's operation and needs of the mental health facility residents will be incompatible.
"Then what is the city going to do?" Plapp wondered.
Stock, who now serves on the CDA Board of Commissioners, said that the permits and agreements necessary to begin construction are not yet in place and the plans should not be considered finalized. He said construction would begin in the spring at the earliest and there's time for these considerations to be apart of the building plans. Stock also said that concerns about downtown noise will be taken into consideration in the building design of the facility. The burden to soundproof, he said, won't fall on surrounding businesses.
Executive Director of Guild Inc. Julie Bluhm said integrating clients into the community is one of the main goals in treatment and an active surrounding area is a benefit. One of the Guild Inc.-operated residential facilities in St. Paul is located across the street from the fire station. While sirens and noise are heard frequently, Bluhm said it hasn't been an issue.
"We are not going to be coming in and expecting that the neighborhood go from lively to quiet because we have clients who are having a hard time," Bluhm said.
Rachel Wagener, the Manager of LaVonne Music in the strip mall across the parking from the legion, said she is certain the facility will be built. She said it brings uncertainty about how it might impact her business.
Wagener said the music shop is somewhat like cheap therapy. Six days a week, she said, customers dealing with mental illness spend hours inside LaVonne Music. Wagener knows the new facility will bring in new customers, but she has concerns over there being nowhere else in the downtown area for them to enjoy.
"It could be awesome... Hey, here are people with nothing but time on their hands who maybe need a skill, something to distract them. These are life skills, these are things that they can do forever. But on the other hand... I'm so incredibly torn. It's terrifying excitement. It's just the unknown," she said.
Wagener is concerned that the downtown area doesn't provide enough options for facility residents and families.
"I have a lot of friends who've had really severe mental health issues and after being hospitalized, you really do need a place to go," she said. "But, I just take issue with the fact that they are putting it in a spot where there's nothing to except, if you want to go drink, wander near the school, wander near the freeway. We really are not near anything."
Stock said that foot traffic in a downtown area is always a positive.
"I don't know that it's going to have a big impact on the downtown area one way or another," he said.
Wagener said she is sad the downtown area will be losing its only green space, where people currently walk their dogs on a daily basis. She said it makes more logical sense to her to have the facility in an area with access to more outdoor spaces.
"It's change," Wagener said. "Change is hard and I'm reluctant to that always."
Another retailer in downtown Savage is Max Guns and Ammo. Owner Max Rommel said he has no concerns about the proposed facility.
"If this hospital or clinic will serve the community, than I am good for it," Rommel said.
Bluhm said the architects are working to create a landscaping buffer, courtyard and fence and the designs aim to make the spaces feel more separate.
"It's very common for people who have mental illness to have sensitivity to the environment and that's why we are working really hard to make the inside environment and our yard space to be therapeutic," she said.
Conversations haven't taken place with the community yet at this point, but Bluhm said she is excited to get to know the neighbors and work through these questions with them.
The CDA will be asked to conduct a neighborhood meeting to hear feedback on the development but a date has not yet been set.
For Wagener, who studied both music and psychology in college, she's trying to balance her passion for helping others through music and the daily demands of operating a business.
"Music is very therapeutic, if somebody is going through a crisis, this is something that can be extremely beneficial," Wagener said. "But I'm not a licensed counselor."
With 35 years of history in downtown Savage, Wagener pulled through many changes.
"We will continue on and we will be fine, but man, I wish it were not right there," she said. "It's a mixed bag, but most things are."