Wilder Foundation plans to proceed with sale of Stillwater area land to Catholic youth organization

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			Wilder Foundation plans to proceed with sale of Stillwater area land to Catholic youth organization
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Even after learning that the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation planned to sell 600 acres of land it owns in northern Washington County to a Catholic youth organization, River Grove elementary school officials held out hope last week that a deal could be reached to allow the school to stay on site.

But a letter to school officials sent Friday by Judy Kishel, chairwoman of the Wilder board, made it clear that sale of the land to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership will proceed.

“We arrived at our decision after careful consideration of all factors — including the significant impact it would have on the River Grove community,” Kishel wrote. “We had hoped that after several years of partnership and open communication Wilder and River Grove could have come to an arrangement that would provide for the school’s permanent location while meeting the obligations of our board. We are disappointed this is not the case, yet we remain resolute in our decision.”

The board is “not in a position to amend the sale terms now that we have received a good faith offer,” Kishel wrote.

Kishel’s letter was sent in response to a letter sent Monday by the River Grove board of directors. In the letter, the board expressed its “surprise” and “extreme disappointment” in learning that Wilder planned to sell the land to “an outside buyer.”

“We feel blind-sided by this announcement, which seems capricious and not in keeping with Wilder’s vision of a ‘vibrant community where all individuals, families and neighborhoods can prosper, with opportunities to work, to be engaged in their communities, to live in decent housing, to attend good schools and to receive support during times of need,’ ” Board Chairwoman Jessica Hansen wrote. “If the proposed sale of Wilder Forest goes forward, it will be devastating to our school and the larger community, especially in the wake of a two-year COVID pandemic.”

Kishel took issue with River Grove’s portrayal and said the foundation’s decision to proceed with a sale to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership was in keeping with the intentions Wilder had communicated to River Grove and the community for more than a decade.

“We can appreciate a level of surprise to know that a buyer came forward with an offer that met Wilder’s criteria for a sale of the property, but we do not accept your characterization of our actions as ‘capricious’ or outside our organization’s mission or vision,” Kishel wrote. “We feel strongly that we have acted as a good faith partner at every turn, and we will continue to do so.”

FUTURE SUMMER CAMP

Plans call for the land, the former Wilder Forest, to be used as a summer camp for up to 200 Catholic middle-school campers a week starting in 2024. During the winter, retreats serving a mix of high-school and middle-school students are planned, said Tim Healy, president of the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership, which is partnering with Damascus, an Ohio-based Catholic organization, to expand programming for parishes and schools in and around the metro area.

The organization spent more than 2 ½ years looking at possible sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Healy said. The former Wilder Forest site is a perfect fit because of its pristine natural beauty and its proximity to the metro area, he said.

“The more (kids) experience nature, it’s just such a natural progression to experience faith and God,” he said. “God is in nature; God is nature. It’s His creation. When you’re out in nature, you can really focus on His creation, and take out all of the noise, with the cell phones and social media. When you’re staring at nature, you really are staring right at God. That’s what we want to promote.”

Partnership officials hope to receive the necessary approvals from May Township officials to begin working on the land as soon as the River Grove lease expires at the end of June 2023, he said.

The River Grove school, known officially as Marine Area Community School, is housed in several cottages that used to be leased by Concordia Language Villages.

“We’re taking it back to what it was built for,” Healy said. “It was built as a nature-retreat center.”

River Grove officials on Friday said they disputed many of the assertions in the letter sent by Wilder.

“Our board remains highly concerned about Wilder’s lack of transparency and collaboration with the school on this transaction — a decision that will ultimately cause extreme hardship to our school community and the students we serve,” said Drew Goodson, the school’s director. “Wilder’s continued lack of willingness to find an amicable solution that does not displace our students, families and staff from a campus they love continues to be disturbing, especially considering the history of this community and Wilder’s stated mission of being ‘Here for Good.’ ”

SALE TIMING QUESTIONED

River Grove parent and school board member Angie Hong expressed dismay about “closing a public school that is free and open to all, and replacing it with a private religious institution.”

Hong also questioned the timing of the announcement of the sale — just months before the K-6 charter school would be legally allowed to make a purchase offer on the land. The school, which will complete its sixth year of operation in June, could purchase property through the formation of “an affiliated building company” following the completion of their sixth year, school officials said.

“At minimum, we ask that the Wilder Foundation reserve the portion of the Wilder Forest where our school campus is located until we are able to form an affiliated building company to purchase the land and buildings next year,” school officials wrote in the letter to Wilder.

Hong, whose son is a fifth grader at the school, said River Grove officials will continue to work with officials from the Manitou Fund, which owns the adjacent former Warner Nature Center land, also in May Township, on a possible solution. Manitou Fund and Wilder officials in 2017 entered into a purchase agreement for the Wilder Forest property, but Manitou officials decided not to move forward with the agreement.

In June, Wilder informed officials from the Manitou Fund, Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership and River Grove that there were two parties interested in purchasing the property, and Wilder shared the appraised value of the property with Manitou Fund and Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership.

Partnership officials presented Wilder with a letter of intent to purchase the property; Manitou Fund officials provided their verbal opinion on the value of the property, which was significantly less than the appraised value, Wilder officials said.

On Friday, Goodson said officials from the Manitou Fund have given school officials “every indication that they are still interested in the property and are actively trying to find a way to further the conversation with Wilder.”

In a letter sent to the Wilder Foundation on Saturday, River Grove’s chairwoman Jessica Hansen wrote that Manitou officials were never given the opportunity to respond to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership’s proposal and never presented “a formal offer” for the land.

“The first written communication River Grove received related to this decision is dated September 1, 2022, when we were cc’d on a letter sent to May Township staff which stated that you were ‘finalizing the terms of the sale’ with an ‘interested party,’ ” Hansen said. “In fact, the letter we received on this Friday, Sept. 23rd, is the first direct written communication River Grove’s board or administration has received from the Wilder Foundation about this sale. We are hopeful that the Wilder Foundation would not wish to finalize such a far-reaching and impactful decision based on the current informal and exclusive process.”

River Grove officials have requested a meeting with Wilder officials to discuss the sale.

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