Rochester’s Park Board approved using the former Silver Lake Fire Station as a winter warming center for homeless residents, but that doesn’t mean other locations aren’t in play.
“There may be another, perhaps more suitable, option out there,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said.
City and Olmsted County officials have been discussing at least two alternative locations to operate a five-month warming center, which would likely be open nightly from November to the end of March.
The Rochester City Council voted 4-2 last week to approve spending an estimated $457,000 to renovate the ground floor of the building now known as Silver Lake Station.
The costs would cover creating four restrooms with shower facilities, installing a heating and air-conditioning system and meeting building code requirements for providing sleeping space on a nightly basis.
On Tuesday, several Silver Lake area residents voiced opposition to the plan, citing concerns that a proposed temporary solution could become permanent.
“They are looking for a permanent solution, and they have none,” Rochester resident Robert Mark said, citing concerns about safety in the neighborhood.
Brian Hodge, owner of nearby Kruse Lumber, also voiced concerns about using Silver Lake Station as a warming center.
“I think having a shelter in a park is counter intuitive, and the opening of a Pandora’s box,” he told the Park Board, citing concerns about potential conflicts between park users and homeless residents.
The Salvation Army plans to continue operating its emergency warming center six blocks away on the coldest days of winter, according to Rebecca Snapp, the organization’s director of community engagement. However, Norton said another option is needed, especially as the city considers new regulations that could ban sleeping in the city’s skyways.
Other residents agreed, encouraging the Park Board to approve the option.
“It’s an underused facility that can get funding for an upgrade,” Rochester resident Jean Murray said. “I thought there is some good to this. It’s a short period of time to assess; it’s not a final decision.”
The City Council plans to review the site in April if it's used as a warming center during the winter.
Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman also encouraged approval of the potential use, noting homelessness is already a park issue.
“We see it as an advantage to provide a needed service in the community, but also bring the facility up to a standard that would be better suited for the adaptive program during the months it’s not being used for shelter,” he said, referring to the city’s adaptive recreation program that uses Silver Lake Station for summer day camps for people with special needs.
With Park Board approval, Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said city staff can work toward planned renovations but won’t start construction until an operating plan is in place.
Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner said the county is working on a proposal for operations, which will likely be run by a private nonprofit agency. Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota has been mentioned as a potential service provider.
Until an operations agreement and funding plan is in place, the City Council is holding off on changes to the former fire station.
The delay could open room for other options.
The council’s decision last week sparked renewed conversations at the county level, with Olmsted County commissioners and others expressing a desire to look at county-owned options.
Any alternative will likely come with added renovation costs, said Dave Dunn, the county’s housing director.
“We know we need to address life, health and safety issues to keep people safe,” he said.
Last week, Olmsted County Commissioner Stephanie Podulke also raised the option of working with Mayo Clinic to use the former Lourdes High School as a warming center, echoing questions frequently raised in some social media circles.
“It seems like the fire station is too far,” she said.
Silver Lake Station is a tenth of a mile closer to the Rochester Public Library than the former Lourdes High School, but the Mayo Clinic-owned building is closer to skyway and subway access to downtown locations.
Doug Holtan, chairman of Mayo Clinic’s facilities and support services, and Erin Sexton, the clinic’s director of community engagement, said the building would need extensive work before it could house people.
Switching repair funding between Silver Lake Station and the former high school would be tricky, since it would be using public funds to improve private property, which Holton and Sexton said “is always under consideration for growth and expansion” of the clinic campus.
Norton said a variety of other privately owned buildings in the city have been discussed, but owners either had other plans for them or were unwilling to address needed renovations.
With summer winding down, she and others noted options are becoming limited and timing is critical.
“Anything we do will have to be expedited,” Dunn said, noting it took several weeks to produce an estimate for renovating Silver Creek Station. “We don’t have that kind of time.”