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City shelves Silver Lake plan; supports new warming center site closer to downtown

City shelves Silver Lake plan; supports new warming center site closer to downtown

A new, more affordable option has emerged for a warming shelter.

On Monday, the Rochester City Council approved a joint effort to house the shelter in a county-owned property near the government center.

As part of that same motion, the council put an end to plans to renovate an old firehouse at Silver Lake Park. The council, along with the park board, had previously authorized using the vacant building as a shelter. The move was a safety measure in case county plans did not proceed.

Under the new plan, the city will cover one-third of the cost, or up to $100,000, to fund the warming shelter through the upcoming winter. The remaining funding will come from the county, along with support from Mayo Clinic and other private partners.

Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, which already serves as the provider for the warming center in Winona, will oversee day-to-day operations of the Rochester facility, county officials said.

Speaking from the dais, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton acknowledged the process to get to this point has been long. Ultimately, though, she described the collaborative effort as “a solution everyone can feel good about.”

Since taking office in January, Norton has made homelessness a central issue — a point not lost on many of those who spoke Monday night.

“Mayor Norton’s leadership on this, I think it’s fair to say, has made many of us uncomfortable over the last few months,” said Trent Fluegel, the county’s housing resource coordinator. “There have been times when we have had to look at things we probably would not have done otherwise. But it’s brought us to a point where we’re having these discussions we haven’t had before, and we’re looking at systems in a broader view.”

County leaders said the space should be good for at least a year or two while they continue to work with the city on a long-term solution.

In the meantime, a consultant has been brought in to assist local officials in developing strategies for addressing homelessness — an issue that has gained a lot of attention over the past year as people experiencing homelessness continue to seek shelter in the city’s skyway system.

Council Member Nick Campion described the temporary shelter as a first step. “We have to really look at this as a different starting point,” he said.

In advocating for the new site, Dave Dunn, director of the county’s housing authority, noted the site’s proximity to downtown. The space is located in a strip mall at 204 Fourth Street Southeast, directly across the street from the government center (which also houses local law enforcement).

As it has been drawn up, the space will have capacity for about 30 people. Additional room in the building could be used for other services or overflow, if needed, the county said in an announcement Monday.

Last winter, a total of 151 individuals used a local shelter operated by the Salvation Army. The range of individuals seeking refuge during a cold weather emergency ranged from 8 to 47 people a night.

Of those who used the the shelter, about half of them used the facility for five nights or fewer, said Deputy County Administrator Paul Fleissner.

“A lot of folks who become homeless need help only for a short period of time,” Fleissner told the council. “Many people are able to resolve their homelessness issues with just minor assistance.”

The county estimates the shelter will cost around $260,000-$280,000 to operate from November through March. About a third of the cost will go toward renovations. Catholic Charities will also employ two staff.

A final vote from the county board is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Prior to Monday’s council meeting, County Commissioner Mark Thein was optimistic about the prospects of the joint city/county plan.

“We are fortunate in that it appears that all of both the City Council and County Board want the same basic thing — to make sure no person suffers due to lack of shelter this winter and that they’re treated with the dignity they deserve,” Thein said in an email.

In other council news:

  • The council approved a five-year agreement with Exhibits Development Group to operate the Chateau Theatre. The group will hold a press conference with local officials on Tuesday morning at the theater. Separately, the council approved a $886,500 contract with Kraus Anderson to be the construction manager for phase one of Destination Medical Center’s Heart of the City project.

  • The developer behind a Second Street hotel project was awarded $1.8 million in tax increment financing. The level of assistance, according to city administration, represents the estimated costs for site preparation, demolition and utility relocation work. The motion passed 5-2, with Council Members Patrick Keane and Michael Wojcik voting against the assistance agreement. The city estimates that once the TIF obligation is paid off, the project will provide approximately $770,000 annually to the local taxing jurisdictions.

  • The Rochester Police Department is getting a new Humvee. The council, without comment, gave the OK for the department to acquire the vehicle through a program from the federal government. Police say the Humvee will be used to “provide protection of the community from critical events such as active shooters, barricaded suspects, response and rescue and high risk warrants.” The vehicle comes at no cost to the city, minus the expense to drive it here from Wisconsin.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

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