What happened in Golden Valley in 2014 remains a shameful chapter in Minnesota local government history. Four years ago, the suburb's City Council members heeded a local bully instead of their own good judgment when they voted down a project aiming to turn an old building into a school for children needing day treatment for depression, autism and other mental health conditions.
Regrettably, Forest Lake is on the verge of making a similar mistake regarding a proposed new children's mental health treatment center. If Mayor Ben Winnick and the other four City Council leaders do not correct course at Monday's council meeting, they will tarnish the city's reputation and do long-term damage to its pursuit of other new employers.
Winnick, who hung up on an editorial writer during an interview, was elected in 2016. His platform called for making economic development a priority by "promoting Forest Lake as regional hub for commerce, bringing technical and professional jobs to our community that will help increase our tax base, thus lessening the burden put on homeowners."
So why is it that Winnick is leading the charge against a new $20 million medical facility that would create 150 jobs? A project, it is important to add, that had already won the recommendation of the city's Planning Commission?
The council's bumbling on the project at its Feb. 12 meeting ought to raise serious questions for new businesses about unwieldy city approval processes. Before representatives for the new facility even had a chance to present the project, Winnick said he was opposed.
As other City Council members began weighing in, one council member remembered to give the project's nonprofit developer — Minnesota-based The Hills Youth and Family Services — a chance to speak. The facility would be one of three in Minnesota to begin offering a level of care a step below hospitalization to kids ages 7-17 suffering from mood disorders, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and other conditions. Currently, kids needing this level of treatment have go out of state.
Plans call for a campus-style setting serving 60 children, with three medical staff members for each child. Images of similar projects shown during the presentation suggest it would look like a well-designed school. Farm buildings currently on the 40-acre site would be maintained so that the center could offer equine therapy and allow kids to care for animals.
It is important to note that none of the kids would be sent to the new facility by the court system. Forest Lake residents who still might be worried about having these children in the community should know that there is a treatment center in Brooklyn Park where kids stay on site. That suburb's Police Department on Friday had nothing but praise for its staff and said security threats to the community had been a "nonissue."
Forest Lake council members tabled the Feb. 12 discussion to learn more about the project, but what appears to be a final vote looms Monday night. Among the concerns that the mayor continued to voice this week: that the city is in the midst of doing a long-term comprehensive plan, and it's just too soon for this project.
But it's difficult to imagine a long-term plan that would reject new employers adding 150 jobs. The project's backers also said they would work closely with the city to accommodate future needs, such as developing parts of the 40-acre property if needed.
Forest Lake city leaders are perilously close to making a poor decision. Their weak explanations offer thin cover for the real message they're sending: Kids needing mental health care aren't welcome here.