The first thing you notice is how bright it is.

Through its two years of planning, designers of Cottage Grove's new Public Safety/City Hall building that opened recently emphasized drawing in the natural light at its new East Ravine Parkway site. The open, airy feel of the place is just one of the immediate and dramatic effects appreciated by the 54 police, fire and emergency workers who now call the building home, said Craig Woolery, the city's police chief and director of public safety.

"It's changed a lot about just how they feel about their workplace," said Woolery, adding that every member of his department had a hand in contributing design ideas. "We had been talking about this for a long time, in 2001 and again in 2005 -- it was like a roller coaster. We started planning it, and it didn't work out. We started planning again, and it didn't work out.

"This time, we had a strong mayor and [City] Council. They took a lot of heat for it at times."

The $15.1 million building, replacing one built in 1968, came in nearly $2 million under budget and at no additional cost to the city's tax levy (expected to remain flat in 2013), thanks in part to a 20-year-old building replacement fund. The building's cost and location drew some criticism, but Mayor Myron Bailey and City Council Members Jen Peterson and Justin Olsen -- all building supporters -- were handily re-elected last month.

More than 70 percent of the 67,000-square-foot building is dedicated to public safety. The new building is more than a much-improved workplace, said Capt. Pete Koerner, the city's deputy public safety director. It's going to make the task of keeping people in Cottage Grove safe much more effective and efficient -- now and for years to come, he said.

The improvements are visible and dramatic, such as the heated garage that has room for all of the city's patrol cars and their computers and video equipment. There are subtle things, as well. Take the lobby, for example.

Like nearly everything at the old building's basement Public Safety headquarters, the lobby was a cramped space, barely 10 square feet. On a frenzied Saturday night, a suspect being booked might be handcuffed to a small bench for want of space, even as a crime victim was trying to fill out a report on a clipboard, or an officer might be nearby trying to sort out details of a car accident.

The new building has its own after-hours lobby off the main entrance. It is a spacious area with comfortable chairs, toys to occupy children and a table on which to write. Off the lobby are two interview rooms, where police can take information in private, and crime victims don't have to mingle with suspects. One room has a sofa and soft chairs, Koerner said, offering a more comfortable atmosphere for children or when a chaplain needs to be with families.

Some of the features include:

• A detention area that meets Department of Corrections standards. At the old building, the two holding cells did not allow adequate separation of men from women, nor juveniles from adults and were grandfathered in under old rules. The cells also had no toilets, meaning the short-term inmates had to be escorted by officers to a public restroom.

The whole self-contained detention area, with five cells, is monitored by cameras, and holds the breath-testing equipment.

• A computer forensics room. In the old building, this was a table in a shared office, which posed a potential integrity issue for collected evidence, Koerner said. "There isn't a case we touch any more that doesn't have something to do with a computer or cellphone," added Woolery. Having the computer forensics equipment (a $15,000 server paid for with money forfeited by criminals) also allows the city to renew its participation in the U.S. Justice Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program.

• Case management room. This secured room is another feature that was missing from the old building, Koerner said. It provides a central base of operations when a major crime occurs, with computer access and pinboards across the walls for maps and enough space for officers from other agencies to work, if necessary.

• Expanded and improved evidence intake and storage area. Proper handling and secure storing of evidence -- the legal "chain of custody" -- is an essential part of building criminal cases against suspects, Koerner said. The controlled environment for testing, processing and packaging of evidence is state-of-the-art.

• Expanded locker rooms for officers. At the old building, not all officers even had a locker, and those who did had the type found in schools. Now, the rooms are spacious, and all officers have 2-foot-wide lockers designed to hold the array of clothing and equipment they use. "Before, it was three shirts and that was about it," Koerner said. There is now space for winter and fall coats, boots, locked boxes for weapons and space for bullet-proof vests to be properly laid flat to dry.

• Cellphone reception in all areas. The wiring has been upgraded as well, Koerner said. In the old building, rooms did not have enough outlets to plug in both phones and laptops -- which have become an essential tool for officers.

The opportunity to work in a new building rarely happens in a police officer's career, Woolery said, since the buildings are designed to last 50 or 60 years. That will certainly be the case in Cottage Grove, he said. It's a point of pride for the city.

"Officers from other cities used to come here and they'd say 'How do you work here?'" Koerner said.

"Now they come here to see how we've done things, and they're saying 'You really did this right.'"

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 • Twitter: @StribJAnderson