From food stamps to child support, Hennepin County services now are closer than ever to the doorsteps of the residents who need them.

County leaders this week cut the ribbon on a new building on E. Lake Street in south Minneapolis, the final piece in a five-year, $80 million moving project to bring human services out into the community.

It’s the sixth human services center to open after the county started shifting staffers and offices out of downtown Minneapolis into the city’s south and north sides, as well as Hopkins, Brooklyn Center and Bloomington.

“Our residents don’t want to come downtown,” said Rex Holzemer, who as assistant county administrator of human services spearheaded the five-year project. “We’re finally able to respond to that.”

Of Hennepin County’s 1.2 million residents, about 350,000 receive county services such as health care assistance or child support. Of those, about 30,000 people visit the service centers each month.

For years, residents trekked downtown to a few buildings or most often to Century Plaza, a six-story former school building near the Minneapolis Convention Center. Ten years ago, county leaders started exploring the idea of decentralizing services to make it easier and cheaper for residents to get them.

In 2011, the county opened a small Plymouth site, the first of 11 satellite sites mostly for human services employees. The Brooklyn Center hub opened the following year, the first of the six regional centers.

Holzemer, who is retiring next year after more than 40 years with the county, orchestrated the project. “We’ve been able to move services to where [people] live,” he said.

Lake Street center

The last of the new service centers, at 2215 E. Lake St. near Hiawatha Avenue, opened last month. It includes ground-level space for four local retailers and a plaza for the Midtown Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays and is close to a Blue Line light-rail stop.

In 2015, county and city leaders broke ground on the 6.5-acre site that the county bought for $50 million, some of which will be recouped when the county sells part of the land to a developer planning to build 500 housing units where a school now sits.

“We are very excited about Hennepin County being a partner in redeveloping that lot; there was a huge opportunity,” said Heidi Johnson McAllister, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, which operates the Midtown Farmers Market. “It’s really exciting to have something on that corner and to have it more active.”

Meanwhile, Century Plaza in downtown has been sold for $9.4 million to a developer to convert into offices, senior housing and event or hospitality functions. The County Board approved the sale of the building this week.

Improving services

It wasn’t easy for Hennepin County to decentralize its services. It required moving offices and hundreds of staffers, Holzemer said. But now the county will save on parking reimbursements, and residents will benefit from free parking and child care at all six centers, he said.

The county should also save some money in the long run by making it more convenient for residents to get help sooner rather than later, when problems can become worse and costs rise. The county has changed how it helps residents, doing just one assessment so clients don’t have to repeat their stories to different departments.

County surveys show residents are more satisfied with the new sites, Holzemer said. All six service centers are designed with “open access space,” meaning there are no assigned cubicles, and all include community partnerships, housing nonprofits or organizations.

“People can now go to one place and get access to services ... instead of going to multiple places,” he said. “It’s been a huge undertaking.”

 

kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141