Hennepin County workhouse kitchen needs big makeover

All agree Hennepin County workhouse must have a new kitchen, but commissioners hope to cut the cost -- $2.4M.

Plans are in the works for a much-needed expansion and remodel of the kitchen at the Hennepin County workhouse in Plymouth, but the proposed $2.4 million cost is raising eyebrows.

County officials say the kitchen, dating back to the building's construction during the Great Depression, is so old-fashioned and fraught with health issues that they're probably going to have to spend that much to make it a safe and functional facility.

Just how much will be determined this month, when the County Board signs off on a construction contract that's been set at $2.4 million and is currently undergoing a second look for possible savings.

"There's no question that the kitchen has to be redone," Commissioner Gail Dorfman said at a recent committee meeting. "It's way old, it has antiquated systems, it's dangerous and it doesn't meet the capacity that we need today. But I'm really concerned about this cost."

Workers in the kitchen prepare an average of 2,200 meals a day -- ranging at times up to 3,000 -- for adult inmates at the workhouse and youth offenders at the Hennepin Home School and the county's juvenile justice center. That's about four times the number of daily meals the kitchen kicked out 40 years ago.

The workhouse provides short-term custody and programs for adults convicted of felonies, gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors, with stays no longer than a year. It houses up to 399 men and 78 women and averages 453 residents per day.

Although improvements have been made over the years, the kitchen still has much of the cloth-wrapped electrical wiring it opened with in the 1930s. The ceiling rises a story and a half above the area where food is prepared, making it impossible to clean.

Steam lines are too old, lights are too dim and the walk-in cooler and freezer much too small.

"Infrastructure is the problem," said Tom Merkel, the county's corrections director.

The remodeling plans would replace the wiring, drop the ceiling, increase ventilation and update the fire protection system. The kitchen also would be expanded by 1,120 square feet for a new dry food storage and cooler/freezer area.

Judy Hollander, the county's property services director, told commissioners that a major goal of the renovation is to separate food preparation and dishwashing areas to comply with health and safety codes.

If it were a simple project, it would have been done years ago.

It was first approved in 2007, but as builders and engineers dug into it they discovered that equipment needs and updates were more complicated than first supposed. One contractor with a winning bid asked to be released as the scope of the project grew.

The county took bids again last year. When all three proposals came in over budget, county officials found that project costs had been underestimated.

Even so, the revised budget included a funding gap of about $400,000, which staffers have proposed to cover with funds from a county suspense account.

"We've really tried to streamline the project, to bring it back to budget," Hollander told commissioners.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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