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Friends of Animals to close

The Friends of Animals' new facility of a little over a year. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
The outside kennel area of the Friends of Animals shelter. FOA agreed to build a retaining wall to hide the view from the neighbor, who does not like dogs. The wall was not built according to the agreement and still needs to be completed. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

It started with a difficult contractor and the hits kept coming all year in 2017. The Friends of Animals Humane Society made the difficult decision to close its doors by Aug. 5, according to interim director Mary Nelson. It is no longer accepting strays effective immediately.

"I came on board eight months ago as interim director to see if we were sustainable and could become a viable business," Nelson said.

In the end, there were just too many hurdles to overcome.

The culmination of the perfect storm contributed to the heartbreaking decision to close. There is hope that the closing will be temporary.

"We want to focus on paying the bills first, then paying the mortgage off and finish off the work that was not completed," Nelson said. She would like to see at least $50,000 in savings for the organization before it attempts to reopen.

The board's hope is that by closing voluntarily, they may be able to keep the facility and reopen at a later date. Several costs are eliminated by the closing including payroll at about $83,449 for six months, animal care at $43,260, veterinary bills at $21,200, animal supplies at $15,821 and utilities at $7,128, according to the statement of revenue and expenses for July to December 2017. The total saved in a six-month time frame would be about $170,859.

The FOA Board was optimistic at the end of 2016 when they thought they had a buyer and they began looking at properties.

After a few false starts to sell their old, outdated shelter, they finally settled for a lower price than the original $700,000 they had asked for.

Since the 1980s, FOA dreamed of having a building to house Carlton County strays.

One of the 20 cats needing a new home when Friends of Animals closes during the first week of August. Jamie Lund/Pine JournalOriginal founders Margaret Mell and Diane Parkhurst began quietly taking homeless animals into their own homes about 35 years ago. Mell took the cats and Parkhurst cared for the dogs. As happens with volunteering, friends and families began getting involved. The small grassroots movement slowly grew as more strays made their way to temporary foster homes and Mell and Parkhurst worked tirelessly to find them all permanent homes.

Over the years, volunteers came and went. The permanent facility for FOA finally came to fruition after many years of fundraising and hard work.

It purchased the former Pine Knot newspaper office about 18 years ago. It outgrew the building and it had many issues in the following years.

After the sale of the old newspaper office in 2016, the FOA walked away from the building with $379,102 after Realtor's fees were subtracted. It paid $123,077 for the current building and the remodeling cost a total of $591,000 — substantially higher than the original verbal quotes. Of the total, $530,000 was from Boldt contractors and $61,000 was from other contractors hired by FOA. The purchase of extra lots and other miscellaneous fees came to $10,860.

The total cost to FOA for the new facility was $725,000, leaving it with a $100,000 debt load. It currently owes $90,000.

According to Nelson, who was not involved with the new building project, they originally projected a $200,000 profit from the sale of the old building to go into a savings account after the updates and changes were made to the building.

"It looks like there were a lot of verbal agreements and handshakes," Nelson said. The majority of the contractors honored their agreements and came in at or close to their original estimates.

One contractor originally brought in by FOA did not.

When the contractor put the estimate in writing, it was double what FOA expected. When asked to come in at the original amount, the contractor said he would look it over and see what he could do, according to Nelson, who declined to name the contractor.

It took two months for the contractor to get back to FOA, which forced other contractors to wait and put the entire project behind. When the contractor did get back to FOA, it was still double the amount of the original estimate. The contractor also said they would provide apprentices to volunteer with the project. Nelson said that did not come to fruition. Other groups and organizations had also originally volunteered to help, but those pledges also fell through and caused project costs to rise.

Nelson has nothing but high praises for Boldt.

"Boldt worked hard for us," Nelson said. "They planned and organized the project. They got signed contracts from the contractors and took care of the billing."

"The project went really well and was a great community project to be involved in," project manager Jeff Kalm said. "Bob Atkins (FOA president at the time) approached us to work with them. We pushed to get the numbers where we could and help out the community. We had some good team members donate materials and time. A lot of good community effort went into this and it went very well when it got rolling."

When the problem contractor refused to honor the original estimate, Kalm tried to reason with him, but to no avail.

"All of the other contractors donated time and supplies," Nelson noted.

This poster of the FOA greets visitors as they come in the door. Jamie Lund/Pine JournalDedicated volunteers plugged along. They continued to paint the rooms, in spite of not having electricity or water yet.

They showed up to help move the animals when the sale went through and the new owners wanted them out immediately.

As with most remodel projects, unexpected costs arose. The ventilation system needed some expensive additions due to the animals being housed in the shelter per building code. Kalm explained animals in a shelter have different ventilation needs than people to help prevent airborne issues.

"We have not had a problem with upper respiratory issues with the changes," Nelson said.

Other issues kept popping up. Parvovirus became a constant problem with the dogs because the cement floors and kennels were not sealed. Ringworm worked its way through a large portion of the cat population. These issues require isolation and kept the animals from being adopted for up to five months, causing costs to rise. Besides taking up space at the shelter, they also spent over $400,000 on treating and caring for the animals.

The building has a leaky roof and windows and the furnace had issues several times over the winter.

"When I called the contractor and asked him what additions he put on the old furnace, he said he would have to come out and look," Nelson said. She asked him again to just check his paperwork and tell her what parts he had used on the old furnace because the organization could not afford to pay someone to fix it. He refused to tell her and said he would have to charge for a service call if he came to the facility.

A volunteer helped Nelson find a solution to the furnace problem instead.

Other problems that still need fixing include a forgotten drain in the floor of the quarantine room and a new laundry room. A residential system was installed instead of the necessary commercial system. A water pipe burst, sending several inches of water flooding the inside dog kennels.

"Nobody was safe," Nelson said with a laugh. She called on friends and family to help try to keep the organization going.

Her mother's husband is a contractor, and Nelson called for his assistance several times.

On her 13th wedding anniversary, she asked her husband if she could choose where they should go. He agreed. They ended up eating pizza while working at the shelter.

And the impound was also costing the shelter money.

One idea board members are looking into is possibly renting the upstairs office space in the building. The money would go toward the mortgage and enable FOA to keep the building for a possible future.

The shelter is working to find homes in the next 30 days for approximately 20 cats and a dozen dogs. Some of the cats are not altered, so they can't be adopted out. They will be sent to other "no-kill" shelters.

They are trying to keep the traditional fall garage sale going, but do not have a location yet. According to Nelson, the garage sale usually nets about $5,000 for the organization.

FOA will be taking down its website as part of its cost-saving efforts, but will keep its Facebook page to keep the community informed about its progress.

Any donations that come in will go toward paying the FOA's bills, including its mortgage.

For more information or questions about adopting, call 218-879-1655 until Aug. 5. For problems with strays, call 911.

After Aug. 5, the FOA can be contacted at a new email, foaupdatesP.O. Box 706, Cloquet, MN 55720.