Mar 25, 2013 at 8:26 pm
SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. (KNSI) - A motion to consider a day care and education center in a Sauk Rapids Industrial Park has been shot down for the second time in a month.
After much discussion and public input, the Sauk Rapids City Council moved to deny a conditional-use permit for the Hashiro Academy, a proposed pre-school, day care and youth program center geared toward serving a growing Somali Community.
The decision was made on a three to two vote. Mayor Brad Gunderson and council member Paul Weber voted against denying the permit, but were outnumbered by council members Steve Heinen, Nick Sauer and Kurt Hunstiger, who voted in favor of the denial.
The council denied the request for the permit earlier this month on a 6-1 vote, citing worries that the location at 1007 Industrial Drive is not a suitable location for a childcare center, given its designation as an I-1 zone, meant for light-industrial purposes.
However, building owner and proprietor of Northstar Properties LLC Jim Knoblach, who had been preparing to lease the space to Hashiro Academy for 5 years, asked that the city revisit the request through a public hearing at tonight's meeting.
During the public hearing, 10 people addressed the council.
Knoblach explained, despite the industrial classification, the property has in fact been developed and used for educational purposes in the past. Knoblach says the Hashiro Academy would be next door to North Crest Gymnastics and Dance, which caters to children as young as 18 months.
Hashiro Academy was slated to be developed in the former space of the Sister Rosalind School of Massage, a educational training facility.
The permit also includes plans to develop a fenced-in play area behind the academy, a feature offered by neighboring North Crest.
Members of the Somali community, including Hashiro Academy founder, Ismail Ali, say the center is an essential service for area parents, many of whom have had their children placed on waiting lists for preschool services.
Ali, who has been an educational advocate in the St. Cloud Public Schools for three years, says there are around 50 members of the Somali Community living and working in the Sauk Rapids area. He argues the center would foster a sense of community for those residents.
Another speaker, local business owner and advocate Mohamed Mohamed, cited an area Somali population near 10,000 as another reason for the academy. Mohamed says the average Somali family includes 6 children, and is headed by a single parent due to civil war.
"It's vital for the area to offer strong childcare services for those parents who are working hard to provide for their families," Mohamed says. "The parents need to be working hard. They don't need to be worrying about their children. They need to know they're close, and they're safe."
Several other speakers warned the council that, if the permit is denied while other educational programs are allowed to exist in the park, it could translate into a discriminatory message.
Retired CPA and former DFL candidate for the State House Jerry McCarter stood to address the council, sharing that he's had extensive experience working within the Somali Community. "If you deny this request, it could send a message to the Somali Community you don't want to send," McCarter says. "It reads, 'you're not welcomed here.'"
When asked, Knoblach's attorney declined to give KNSI comment on that issue.
After the public hearing closed, council member Paul Weber said he resented discriminatory implications . He says he and the other council members support the concept of the academy, and the decision would be based strictly on zoning issues and not "the heritage of the users."
Weber also conceded that decisions to grant permission to develop other educational businesses in the building could have been "mistakes" made by previous councils.
The council reminded meeting-goers that this is not the first denial for educational organizations in the industrial park. In 2004, a preschool adjacent to North Crest was denied a permit, and was subsequently shut down in 2009 for operating without the necessary zoning variance.
Knoblach's attorney, Tom Jovanovich, says he wasn't surprised by the decision. He says he knew it would be a close call. During the public hearing, Jovanovich cited his 7 page legal memo provided to the council, outlining why the Hashiro Academy proposal is in line with other organizations who have set up shop in the industrial park.
"Essentially, the building was built as a school. When the property was split off from Northcrest, it was split off as a commercial building, which is not industrial. North Crest has been operating exactly as the Hashiro Academy aims to; it caters to young children, who are dropped off and go to classes. From a public safety perspective, there really is no difference."
Jovanovich says they'll continue to weigh their options, including re-zoning the space.
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