A new option for a temporary, five-month warming center has emerged.
On Monday, the Rochester City Council approved spending up to $100,000 to help Olmsted County develop a winter warming center in an empty bay in a county-owned strip mall immediately south of the city-county Government Center, on Fourth Street Southeast.
“I’m really excited to see something come out of what has really been a tireless effort between the Olmsted County Board and the mayor’s office,” Council Member Nick Campion said.
The plan cuts the city’s cost from the $457,000 the City Council approved two weeks ago to renovate the ground floor of the former Silver Lake Fire Station for a warming center.
The entire cost for renovating and operating the county site is expected to be between $260,000 and $280,000, compared to the estimated $637,000 for the former fire station, once operating expenses are added.
Monday’s action officially ends the move to create a warming center near Silver Lake.
Dave Dunn, the county’s housing director, said the new location, at 204 Fourth Street SE, is a better fit for many reasons.
“It’s located just one block from downtown; it’s near the skyways,” he said. “Overall, it’s a collaborative solution that will meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents this upcoming winter.”
The city and county have been working with Mayo Clinic, the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and other community groups to develop a plan to provide safe winter shelter for homeless residents.
The county property has capacity for about 30 people. It’s about half the capacity planned for the Silver Lake location, but Dunn said additional bays within the strip mall may become available as the need arises.
Additionally, the Salvation Army has said it plans to continue operating an emergency warming shelter on days temperatures dip below a defined threshold.
Last winter, 151 different people used the warming center, with a nightly count ranging from eight to 47, according to Trent Fluegel, Olmsted County’s housing resource coordinator. Monthly averages were less than 30 throughout the winter.
The City Council plans to discuss proposals next month for limiting skyway hours, and members wanted to ensure homeless residents have a place to go if they are forced to move on cold nights.
The county bought the Fourth Street office building for $970,000 a year ago with potential plans to use the space to expand the government facility. Recent discussions have suggested the property, along with the recently acquired former Subway restaurant, could address courthouse space needs.
Potential development isn’t expected for one or two years, however.
Dunn said that makes it available for a temporary location to shelter homeless residents nightly during the coldest months of the year.
“This allows us time to further our community discussions on homelessness and enables city, county and private partners to continue partnering to develop longer-term solutions,” he said.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who has been working for months to develop a warming center option, said the proposal fits the temporary need as the community continues to look for a long-term solution.
"This is a community issue, and it's going to take the whole community to solve it," she said ahead of Monday's vote.
Olmsted County commissioners are slated to discuss the warming center location during their meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday in board chambers of the Government Center.
In addition to announcing a potential new site, Dunn said Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, which already operates Winona’s warming center, would oversee day-to-day operations at the Rochester site, which is expected to open in November and run through March.