Hopkins officials worry that a proposed social services hub at the Wells Fargo building could take up valuable parking, stretch local police and go against the image the city has been working toward.
“There’s no one who’s going to argue with the need. The question is: Why Hopkins and why now?” Mayor Gene Maxwell said at a Tuesday work session. “St. Louis Park looks like it could use the hub just as much as Hopkins.”
Hennepin County's Human Services and Public Health Department wants to lease additional space in the building, located at 1011 First Street S., in order to create a one-stop-shopping center for those using the department’s services.
The proposal is part of a regionalization push to bring the full spectrum of services out to communities, particularly those with the greatest concentrations of those who use the services. Under the current arrangement, clients often have to travel downtown, said Rex Holzemer, an area director for the department. The services they receive also tend to be isolated from one another.
The new model will allow the county to take a more holistic look at clients’ needs—bringing to bear the services most likely to help them get off of assistance, said J. Michael Noonan, manager of the department’s real estate division. It will also make it more convenient for them and accelerate intake times so they will be more likely to seek services early, in addition to allowing the agency to partner better with non-profits and faith groups in the community.
Said Holzemer: “What we’ve done over the last 30 years is we’ve developed a whole set of specialized services—and those services are good, but they’re also very fragmented.”
The county already uses the lower level of the building and the second floor. The new plan envisions taking over 14,500 square feet of the first floor, leaving Wells Fargo with a smaller portion of the building. The number of staff would increase from 70 to about 150—although many of those would spend much of their time off site. The county expects to add about 70 clients per day to the 100 or so who currently use the building each day.
But city officials say those numbers could hurt Hopkins. Parking has been a recurring issue with downtown planning, with the city even considering building a Ninth Avenue Parking ramp.
Council members noted that county plans call for hubs with as many as 300 employees. With the Southwest Light Rail Transit line running nearby—one reason the county likes the Wells Fargo site—they worry the center could draw people from as far away as Eden Prairie and Chanhassen.
“Retail isn’t going to locate here until they’re comfortable with the parking. So if this is going to make it more congested, it may deter commercial,” City Manager Mike Mornson said.
Social services centers, like the much-larger Century Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, also carry a stigma for being trouble spots. Councilwoman Molly Cummings said she had a business located in Century Plaza before the county took it over completely. During that time, there were a lot of issues that kept officers busy.
Said Maxwell: “If they have any trouble whatsoever, the Hopkins Police Department isn’t large and can’t afford to be over there constantly, neglecting other places.”
But perhaps most importantly, the hub doesn’t fit the city’s image for its downtown. Planners have been putting the pieces together to transform Hopkins into a regional destination that, with the help of the light rail, will attract people to the community.
Just two blocks over, Klodt Inc. is building a mixed-use development whose lower level will be open for retail use. And city officials have proposed transforming Eighth Avenue into a one-way, pedestrian- and bike-friendly street that entices visitors into Hopkins’ downtown from the light rail stop planned just across Excelsior.
Maxwell said it’s not acceptable for Hopkins to be the place for facilities that other communities don’t want.
“We’re trying to work our way up. If other cities think they’re elite, well, they’re not anymore,” he said.
Hennepin County counters that the new hub centers don’t have as many problems as giant facilities like Century Plaza. They’re much smaller and better oriented toward customer service.
“When you treat clients as if they are important—and you take down bullet-proof glass and you take down barriers and you set up interview rooms—when you treat them differently, they act differently,” Holzemer said.
Turning the site into a hub also avoids the possibility of a vacant building. With banking trends moving toward smaller sites, Wells Fargo wants to downsize its footprint.
“This building has for years been propped up by Wells Fargo bank,” said Peter Fitzgerald, a Concord Advisory Group agent who represented the building owner. “We view this as a positive thing from our perspective, and this has our full support.”
Fitzgerald said other tenants have not yet been told specifically about the hub plan.
If that plan goes forward, Hennepin County could have the hub operational in the second or third quarter of 2013. Hennepin County staff invited Hopkins officials to tour its first hub, which opens October, and said they want to continue talks with the city.
But with no need for new zoning or other city permissions, Hennepin County does not need Hopkins to move forward with plan. During a discussion after Tuesday’s council meeting, Mornson and council members said they felt county staff had already made up their minds to put the hub in Hopkins.