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Architect layoffs force city to make 'tough decision'

City Administrator Brad Swenson announced during Tuesday's city council meeting that Steve Miller and Mike Brandt, two of the main architects behind the new Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School and the planned wellness center, have been laid off by their firm.

"What that means is we've just lost the two people who have worked with us for the last two-and-a-half years on the wellness center project and know the most about it," Swenson said.

Miller, who is forming his own architectural firm, has offered to take the place of his old company, Perkins + Will, on the city payroll, leaving city officials with a difficult decision to make.

Swenson said Brandt had informed him about a month ago of Perkins + Will's plans to eliminate the department in which Miller and Brandt were employed, adding that Perkins + Will informed him of the restructuring two weeks prior to the city council meeting.

Swenson said although Perkins + Will is "more than willing" to continue the contract, he found their delayed notification disappointing.

"What's disappointing is Perkins + Will didn't even tell us about this happening until about two weeks ago," Swenson said. "Perkins + Will didn't have the courtesy to come to us and say 'by the way, these guys are gone, and we're going to be assigning new people to you...'"

Mayor Wayne Wolden said he had expressed a similar sense of disappointment to Perkins + Will, but they had taken responsibility for not informing the city earlier.

"They understood, and they owned up to that," Wolden said.

Swenson said there were also several advantages to staying with Perkins + Will.

"They're already in existence, they have a support staff that's already in existence," Swenson said. "Mainly, what we'd be losing from them is the history that Steve and Mike had."

Discussion during the meeting revolved around which firm Mike Brandt would actually be working with, Perkins + Will or Miller's new firm, Steve Miller Architecture. While looking at proposals submitted by the two competing firms, Council Member Gillette Kempf said it seemed like Brandt was spoken for by both sides.

"It looks to me like Steve Miller and Perkins + Will are both trying to claim Mike Brandt," Kempf said.

Although Wolden responded by saying Brandt's last day at Perkins + Will would be Friday, he later clarified that an excerpt from the Perkins + Will proposal stated Brandt would "work with Perkins + Will contractually on an 'on call as needed' contract to ensure continuity for the remainder of the project."

City Attorney Jeff Pederson said the city would incur some extra fees if it decided to terminate its existing contract with Perkins + Will, but the reduced price offered by Miller would most likely compensate for those costs.

"It would seem like the transition would be relatively smooth," Pederson said. "I don't anticipate any big difficulties or any huge costs."

However, Pederson said he was concerned over differing estimates on how much of the project work had been done already; a difference he said merited further research by the city.

"It looks like there's a difference of opinion as to how much of the schematic designs are completed," he said.

On Tuesday, the council voted to arrange a special meeting later in the week to choose a firm.

"We were put into a situation that we didn't ask for, and it's kind of a tough decision now to know which way to go," Swenson said. "We have to try to pick between one of these two firms and figure out which one is going to keep us moving the speed we want to move and get the project done."