ROCHESTER — Corn is about to become historic as local officials propose recognizing the city's longstanding landmark water tower with a special designation.
Rochester's historic preservation commission on Tuesday cleared the way for the city to designate the Ear of Corn water tower as a historic structure. The commission recommendation was unanimous, though the Rochester City Council will get the final say.
The tower has been a memorable marker in south Rochester. It had a resurgence in popularity last year after a novelty remix of a child's interview about his love for corn went viral.
Reid, Murdoch and Co. built the 151-foot-tall tower in 1931, two years after the company opened a food canning plant near old Hwy. 14, on land that used to be part of Graham Park.
"Right away, they're talking about it as a landmark-type feature even before it was constructed just because of its size," said Molly Patterson-Lundgren, the city's historic preservation coordinator.
Patterson-Lundgren said the water tower's novelty design and recognition as a local waypoint and roadside attraction meets state historic preservation guidelines similar to the fishing bobber tower in Pequot Lakes or the Big Fish in Cass County.
The Ear of Corn tower and nearby property changed hands several times over the years until Olmsted County bought it in 2019 for $5.6 million. The tower was placed on a city list of potential historic landmarks around the same time.
County officials demolished the plant, most recently managed by Seneca Foods, the following year and began restoring the tower.
City officials say the tower's designation as a historic structure won't interfere with county plans to sell off the 11-acre property the tower sits on. Olmsted County has worked on redeveloping the land for the past few years, even entering into negotiations with a local firm in 2022 to sell the property.
Those negotiations hit a snag in a closed meeting last December when county commissioners reached an impasse on whether to move forward with Titan Development's proposal, a mixed-use housing and commercial project that could have included a grocery store and pharmacy.
Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said officials have yet to find another offer for the property, but the county values the tower and plans to maintain it.
The county will take the tower and the Seneca site into consideration as it develops Graham Park over the next few years. The County Board updated its master plan last month to transform part of the park into a community event space.
"Graham Park has been sitting there since it's begun with very few changes," County Board Chair Gregg Wright said. "Of course the community and the way the community views that space has changed, so it's time to transform it into a community space that we can use year-round."
The Legislature allocated $8 million in a bonding bill this year for a new exhibition center at the park, but county officials are seeking another $12.5 million to renovate and expand a former highway department building as another venue for events from farmers markets and community celebrations to athletics and agricultural shows. More mixed-use development could take place once county officials choose what to do with the Seneca site.
The water tower will likely stay where it is regardless, officials said.
"It's sort of Rochester's Eiffel Tower of Corn," said Thomas Meilander, a member of the city's historic preservation commission. "We'd like to see it stay that way."