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After years of discussion, Smiley will come down

Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald City officials voted unanimously to get bids for the demolition of the Grand Forks Smiley water tower, which was granted to LeadCon.

It's probably the most recognizable of Grand Forks' water towers -- and certainly the most contentious in recent years -- but if the weather cooperates, Smiley will meet his demise beginning Thursday morning.

Smiley's structure has been standing near DeMers Avenue and Washington Street for 77 years, but he wasn't truly created until workers painted the well-known smiley faces, one with a wink, during an economic recession in the 1970s.

Public Works director Todd Feland said the question of what to do with Smiley has been around since the nearby Purpur water tower came online in 2000.

Even if he was refurbished, Smiley wouldn't be used to hold water and had become obsolete in the city's water system. The thick layers of lead-based paint were starting to flake off, and full repairs to extend his life by 15 to 20 years were estimated to cost $396,000.

After several meetings and pleas from local supporters to save what they saw as a historical landmark, the City Council unanimously voted Feb. 17 to get bids for demolition, and the work was eventually granted to LeadCon for $62,642.

Feland said he realizes there is a strong sentiment for Smiley in the community, but still thinks it is probably the time for it to go down. "I think Grand Forks is much more than that water tower. We have many other great symbols of the city."

Connecting to the past

Jack Weinstein, UND associate professor of philosophy, said every community has a history and needs symbols to connect residents to the people that were there before them. The debate over what to do with Smiley can be seen as focusing on one part of that discussion, he said.

"The question one has to ask, I suppose, is: Is the symbol appropriate?" he said. "Does the symbol communicate what people want to remember and what people need to remember about their past?"

Weinstein offered a Smiley version of that same question: "Does it look trashy or does it look quaint?"

This philosophical question is important for Grand Forks, he said, because the 1997 flood represented a radical moment of division from the city's past. Simply put, much of the town was changed or lost after the flood, and residents still need a celebratory and meaningful symbol to connect themselves to the pre-flood community.

"Smiley might not be that thing, but it might be," he said.

Regardless of the answer to this, creating a new Smiley on the Purpur water tower is missing the point, Weinstein said. It isn't important that Grand Forks has a tower with smiley faces -- instead, Smiley is meaningful because he has meant things to residents who have been around for a long time, and has now taken on a historical role.

He said he has noticed the debate over Smiley has become somewhat of a metaphor for generational divisions in the community. The most passionate supporters tend to be younger people who look at the tower as a symbol of what the city used to be before they were alive, "not a 70-year-old who used to climb on it when he was 12," Weinstein said.

His 4-year-old daughter, Adina, has taken the news of Smiley's upcoming demise to heart. Weinstein said she has a photograph of the tower on her dresser, and has become quite preoccupied with the fact that he won't be greeting her outside the car windows anymore.

"Every day of her life, once she was old enough to look outside of the car and recognize things, she saw a smiling face winking at her," he said.

Cost vs. value

City Council President Hal Gershman said while Smiley is historical and "a neat-looking thing," city leaders just couldn't justify spending nearly $400,000 of taxpayer money on preserving him.

"As a City Council, we did everything we could to try to save it," he said. "You could never justify the cost to save it. That's unfortunate, but sometimes that's life."

Gershman successfully proposed painting smiley faces on the Purpur tower as a nod to supporters, which happened this summer, and said people have generally been pleased with the compromise.

He said Smiley might be seen by some as a central piece of the city's identity, but Grand Forks has more structures than just the water tower. "I think now people think of the Engelstad Arena and they think of the Alerus Center and the Greenway," he said. "We have other landmarks that are quite impressive."

Jerry Waletzko, a local real estate agent and Smiley supporter, said Grand Forks doesn't have many truly unique landmarks, and he saw the tower as a symbol that was gaining value.

"I was just disappointed to see that they don't see the intrinsic value as a landmark that's been growing in our consciousness," he said about the City Council's vote to demolish the tower.

"They just saw it as a water tower, unfortunately," he added.

Waletzko said the cost of refurbishing Smiley was a small amount for another 15 to 20 years of keeping a landmark in town. Similar towers are being torn down all over the country, he said, and when Grand Forks follows suit, the city will miss "a goldmine opportunity to capitalize on an asset that we have."

On a personal level, he admitted Smiley's absence from the city landscape won't mean the end of the world or anything. But he said he will be disappointed when Smiley does come down, and wished more residents would have fought to save the piece of history.

"They just did not come out in droves to support it," he said. "I just did think it was worth saving."

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