Plans for a new warming center near the city-county Government Center are being hailed as the result of negotiations that occasionally saw bumps on the road to compromise.
“Mayor Norton’s leadership on this, I think it’s fair to say, has made many of us uncomfortable in the last few months,” said Trent Fluegel, Olmsted County’s housing resource coordinator. “There have been times when we had to look at things we might not have done otherwise.”
The result is a plan to open a five-month warming center in a section of the county-owned mini-mall on Fourth Street across from the Government Center.
With an estimated $260,000 to $280,000 price tag for renovations and operations, the city and county are expected to each pay one-third of the cost, with the rest provided by community partners, including Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.
Paul Fleissner, Olmsted County deputy administrator, said the cooperative efforts are key to making the proposal work.
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“There are new partnerships that have formed and are forming as a result of this,” he said, noting he expects the cooperation on the issue to continue as the city, county and others work to find long-term solutions.
“It’s a tough environment, and it’s going to take a unique and committed partnership to do this,” he added.
The county property has capacity for about 30 people. It’s about half the capacity the city had previously planned at another site, the former Silver Lake Fire Station, but Olmsted County Housing Director David 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, Fluegel said. Monthly averages were under 30 throughout the winter.
The search for an alternate warming center site emerged within days of Norton’s request that the Rochester City Council approve $457,000 to renovate the former fire station as a place for homeless residents to turn nightly after outdoor temperatures begin to cool.
The City Council approved the request, and members suggested the county and other partners would need to fund operations. The move also called for using funds typically earmarked for the city’s housing rehabilitation program, which is operated by the county.
County commissioners voiced concerns the next day, citing the overall expense and the reduction of housing rehab funding.
“That was part of their concern,” said Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch, noting the price helped provide motivation to look for other options.
City Council President Randy Staver also questioned the transfer of housing rehab funds, which help low-income homeowners maintain their properties. He noted Monday that a key to helping prevent homelessness is helping people stay in their homes.
PAYING FOR THE PLAN
With the latest proposal, the city plans to use $50,000 from the federal Community Development Block Grant it receives each year, which funds the rehab program.
Rochester City Administrator Steve Rymer said enough of the federal grant should be available to fully fund housing rehabilitation efforts next year.
Up to another $50,000 for the warming center could come from the city’s remaining contingency fund, which has $680,000 available.
Olmsted County hasn’t determined how it will fund the project, but it could use a portion of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s tax levy that is dedicated to helping prevent homelessness.
Fluegel noted that the warming shelter, which is expected to be open nightly starting in November until the end of March, will be an avenue for county and nonprofit staff to work with homeless residents and help connect them to permanent housing and other services.
COUNTY MOVING FORWARD
Tuesday, county officials noted the two-week process of finding an alternative location had some bumps, but they also noted the results were better than expected.
“We has a unanimous, positive vote from the council, and I didn’t think we would have predicted that at all,” Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said.
County commissioners didn’t officially vote on the warming center location, since they don’t need to approve a lease. However, they did voice support for the project during meetings throughout the day Tuesday.
HRA Director Dave Dunn said the commissioners will likely be asked to vote on the work once agreements and plans are finalized.
Included in the agreements will be a contract with Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, which has agreed to operate the facility with two staff members and a planned team of volunteers. The agency already operates Winona’s warming center.