Former college in Mendota Heights to house Minnehaha Academy students.

The former Brown College on Mendota Heights Road will house the upper school of Minnehaha Academy while work is done at the Minneapolis location of the school that was destroyed by an Aug. 2 natural gas explosion. The school is renovating the interior of the building to help it better fit its needs, with work slated to be complete by Sept. 5, the start of school. Hannah Burlingame/Review

With school just around the corner, now is the time when students start getting anxious for classes and teachers start making the final touches to the classroom and lesson plans. 

However, for Minnehaha Academy, there was a bigger worry: Where would the upper school students have class?

On Aug. 2, a natural gas explosion caused a building collapse at the Minneapolis school, killing two employees and injuring nine others. The blast destroyed the space used by the upper school.

As of Aug. 23, the question of where class will be held is no longer a worry. The Mendota Heights City Council unanimously approved an interim use permit for the school to use a building that, up until a couple months ago, housed Brown College. 

The space, located in the 1300 block of Mendota Heights Road, will be used for Minnehaha Academy grades nine though 12, housing 350 students and 50 staff members. 

Community Development Director Tim Benetti said in an Aug. 21 interview that the permit allows for a use that would normally not be allowed at a site, pending certain things like planning commission review and city council approval. 

“A K-12 school of any size is normally not permitted in the industrial zone. This is just an allowance for a short period of time to occupy this space that was used as Brown College,” Benetti said.

He said the application for the permit, while straightforward, isn’t something the city processes very often. However, it is an effective tool to use in a situation such as this.

The special Aug. 23 joint meeting of the planning commission and city council was held so the permit could be done in time for the former Brown College space to be ready for the first day of school on Sept. 5.


Things moved fast

Benetti said a representative from Minnehaha Academy and a representative of the ownership of the building called almost at the same time.

“I got a phone call from the owner’s rep, and then right after someone from the school called and said ‘Hey, we’re looking for a place and we heard about Brown College,’” he said.

Benetti said he met the school representative, as well as the fire marshal, to walk through the site. He added that the school asked if there was a way to get the permit expedited. Benetti said the mayor and council said yes.

While the process has been expedited, Benetti said everything has been done by the book and all requirements for the process were met. 

“A few of the council members made it very clear that if we could help Minnehaha Academy out, we’re going to do whatever we can,” Benetti said.

There were concerns about traffic from the additional drivers and busses in the area. Upper academy Principal Jason Wenschlag, who was at the Aug. 23 meeting, said there would be busses from Minneapolis-St. Paul routes that would drop students off. There will also be a shuttle that will pick-up and drop-off students from the Minneapolis campus. 

Wenschlag said staff is going to take the time to train parents and students on traffic flow.

“We’ll be out with signage, have good signage for kids,” Wenschlag said. “We’re hoping to put some arrows on the pavement itself and kind of direct people on where to go around the building.”


Keeping the community together

The location was formerly a Brown College, which was still occupying the building until June of this year. The college was going through a teach-out: students currently enrolled could finish but no new students would start. 

“Brown College did a great job moving all their stuff out,” Benetti said. “They were doing that anyway.”

After the explosion at Minnehaha Academy, the school looked at the Brown site and a few others. Benetti said the school came back to the Brown College site because it is already set up as a classroom-style setting.

Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris was at the Aug. 23 meeting and said the school had heard from the community a desire to keep the upper-level students together. She said there were other options that would have split up the grades, but since it was important to keep the students together, the Brown College site was perfect.

The interim use permit became effective Aug. 24 and runs through June 30, 2019.

Council member Liz Petschel said she was pleased to help the school move forward after the explosion.

“I’m experiencing such joy tonight,” she said. “You’ve been through such a terrible tragedy as a community, but the fact that there is going to be a way to keep your community together, which is so important ... I’m so glad this building was available to make this happen for you.”


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or


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