When Farmington opened a license center at city hall about a week ago, officials thought it would drive more people downtown.

Turns out the city-owned center couldn't help residents drive anywhere, because it failed to get state approval to offer driver's license and motor vehicle services. That meant residents could only get hunting, fishing or boating licenses there.

The center has now abruptly closed after selling just a couple of licenses in its first week.

"When we were setting this up, I thought this would be something that would be a model: 'Look at what Farmington did,'" Mayor Todd Larson said.

"It's kind of a shock," he said.

The center, which was owned by the city but operated by a private subcontractor, will be closed until the city can figure out what to do, Larson said.

The license center idea had been brewing for about two years, Larson said. Last year, the state passed special legislation allowing Farmington to establish a full service office for a deputy registrar for motor vehicles -- the kind of place that sells license tabs. The plan was to also process driver's licenses.

Last month, the City Council approved an agreement with Quick-Serv License Center, a company that would operate the office.

But the private-public partnership, which Farmington had touted as the first of its kind in the state, was part of the center's undoing. In a letter to the city, the director of the state's Driver and Vehicle Services division said state rules prevent the city from delegating the responsibilities of motor vehicle deputy registrar to a third party.

Larson said the state is sending mixed messages.

"What I don't understand the most is the governor wants cities to start using more public-private partnerships. ... We went ahead and did this and then found out it was not allowed."

The partnership is "unique," said City Attorney Joel Jamnik.

"I don't know of any others that have that kind of a hybrid situation," he said.

The center ran into another problem -- there are two other driver's license offices within a 10-mile radius of the city's office, which means it can't provide those services without special permission.

In the week after the office opened on Feb. 28, the center made two DNR-related transactions, said Amanda Van Binsbergen, the license center manager.

There's already a hardware store in town that sells similar licenses, Larson said.

While the city didn't spend any money for the office, if the center made more than $100,000 next year and in subsequent years, the city would collect a quarter of what was made in filing fees.

It is unclear what else the city can do to get the state approval it needs, but Larson has written a letter to the governor and said that the city attorney is reviewing its options.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495