"There's a day care here?"
After three visits, Shaquira Palmer thought she'd seen everything at Hennepin County's new social services center in north Minneapolis. But on Thursday, she was happily surprised to discover a supervised playroom. Her 3-year-old, Lamarion, bound through its gate and made a beeline for a shelf filled with puzzles.
"All those other times, he was running me ragged," said Palmer, who was accompanying her mother in seeking food assistance. She said it's good to have a place where her toddler can play so she can focus when they meet with a caseworker.
The center Palmer and her mother used to go to in downtown Minneapolis also has a child-care room for the convenience of clients, but in other ways it's very different. That facility, in Century Plaza, has long been Hennepin County's headquarters for human services, a larger labyrinth where all county residents have converged to apply for help with food, housing, employment and other assistance.
Now that central location is gradually being replaced with regional human service hubs in six locations closer to where residents live, work and attend school.
The new North Side center at 1001 Plymouth Av. N. is the latest. It opened for business in June and celebrated its grand opening Thursday night. The first center opened last year in Brooklyn Center, and another opened earlier this year in Bloomington. One will open in Hopkins this fall, while the last two — in northeast and south Minneapolis — will be ready in 2015 and 2016. After that, the Century Plaza facility will close.
About 4,000 residents already have come to the north Minneapolis center, which is expected to eventually handle about 300 clients a day. Most visitors Thursday were newcomers, such as Raina Williams, 35, a Minneapolis teacher who needed emergency assistance while on summer break.
"It's fabulous, and a long time coming," said Williams, looking over the airy waiting room lined with tall windows facing Plymouth Avenue. "It feels like you're at the library."
Judy Sledge, a program manager for human services, agreed.
"The physical environment is just great; it's very soothing," she said. Having all services on a single floor also makes it easier for clients to navigate, she said.
Williams, who drove to the center, said she appreciates its free parking lot. The facility also has permission to use the parking lot of a church next door.
Parking has long been an issue for people driving to Century Plaza, Sledge said. "If you're going downtown, there's just no way not to have to pay for parking," she said.
The new center also meets the county's goal to be mass-transit friendly. A Metro Transit stop is across the street.
And people who ride bikes to the building can lock them up on a striking and functional piece of public art — bike racks fashioned to look like abstract versions of break dancers. The racks were made by Juxtaposition Arts, a North Side nonprofit youth arts education program.
Besides the more convenient locations, the new centers offer a streamlined process for people seeking services. After checking in, they only have to tell their story once to an intake person, who then directs them to a range of services, often in the same building. In the past, people sometimes had to deal with multiple intake officers, making some visits last for hours.
"Here you are in and out in less than an hour," said Craté Darden, a human service supervisor.
As part of the planning process for the center, the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council and Hennepin County asked residents to weigh in on their wishes. One was a desire for more services.
As a result, the North Side center does double duty on Wednesdays, letting people apply for or get driver's licenses, hunting and fishing licenses, and other permits and certificates.
The building, a former printing plant, is owned by Minneapolis-based Ackerberg Group, which spent about $1.5 million in refurbishing. The county is leasing the building from Ackerberg.
Darden said the north Minneapolis center was her choice among the new decentralized locations, and not just because it's close to a home she recently bought in the Hawthorne neighborhood.
"I grew up on the North Side," she said. "I want to do what I can to see that residents receive optimal service."