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Water tower restoration could cost Grand Forks hundreds of thousands of dollars

In this Grand Forks Herald file photo, Jim Grijalva, a UND law professor, rappels down the Grand Forks smiling water tower after placing a peregrine falcon nesting box on the catwalk of the tower. ( Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Smiley, the cheerful water tower that greets thousands of motorists in Grand Forks, may be too expensive to save.

Cost estimates for restoring the old fellow, whose coat of paint is falling off in large chunks, show that long-term restoration would cost four times as much as demolition, which doesn't come cheap either.

According to the city, restorations meant to extend the life of the water tower by 15 to 20 years would cost about $396,000. Extending its life by eight to 10 years would cost about $204,000. Demolishing it would cost $99,000.

City leaders have wanted to get rid of the water tower since 2006 because it doesn't have any water in it, hasn't had any since 2000 and would be too expensive to repaint. The tower, like many aged pieces of infrastructure, is covered with toxic lead-based paint that costs a lot of money to remove in an environmentally friendly manner.

Born by the railroad tracks in 1931, Smiley didn't get its two smiling faces, one winking, one not, until the late 1970s. The economic crisis of the times prompted a City Council member to ask city staff to paint the smiles on to lift spirits.

Smiley stands just north of the DeMers Avenue and Washington Street intersection, the busiest in the state according to traffic counts. That high profile has made it a de facto symbol of the city.

So, when City Council members said they wanted to tear the tower down, the public backlash was intense and immediate, prompting them to put their plans on hold for a time.

"You get close to Smiley, and it's like talking about somebody's cousin," one council member remarked.

But last year, with scrap metal prices high, city leaders agreed to seek new cost estimates to see if they could save on demolition costs. Acknowledging public sentiment, they also wanted to see what it would cost to save Smiley.

The cost estimates from city staff shows that costs have gone up significantly since the city first considered getting rid of Smiley. In 2006, the cost of demolition was estimated to be $50,000 and the cost of renovation $190,000.

Council members are scheduled to discuss the new estimates Monday.