A lingering symbol of rapid suburban growth, Washington County's deteriorating public works building caught fire, leaked rainwater and ran up bigger energy bills than the county's 146-year-old Historic Courthouse.
"As the county grew, there were closets turned into office space," Commissioner Fran Miron said of the structure, built in 1962 when the county's population was less than that of Woodbury's today.
In July, after a year of construction, Washington County will open a rebuilt public works shop in Stillwater Township better equipped to serve a quarter-million residents and their expectations for roads and parks.
The sprawling new complex comes at a time when the county has undertaken a record number of road projects, a $58 million investment.
"The windows are shiny but it's not a shiny building," said Don Theisen, the county's public works manager. "It's not extravagant. You don't walk in and see marble floors.
"In the first 50 years we had a building that served us well, and now we have a building for the next 50."
Reusing old space
One day this week, Theisen led a tour of the new North Shop (the county's smaller South Shop is in Woodbury) to show how much of the old building's original footprint had been saved in the reconstruction. It came to 58,000 square feet, about half the total new space.
"Blended nicely," said building services manager Greg Wood, who said the "salvage value" was about $2.5 million.
The improved complex, 4 miles north of Stillwater, represents a Washington County that's very different from the largely rural county that existed when it was first built.
"The reality was, we were dealing with an antiquated facility," said Miron, a Hugo farmer. "People have high expectations now. In the 1950s we were still largely an agrarian society."
The original North Shop was built when the county had 55,000 residents. In 1962, county highways had two lanes and no traffic signals, and a single engineer planned road construction. The county had no regional parks or trails.
Traffic was sparse by today's standards. Manning Avenue, which runs between Stillwater and Forest Lake, saw 300 vehicles a day back then; now that number has climbed to nearly 15,000 daily on its busiest stretches.
Fifty years ago, fewer residents meant fewer requests for services, and a modest 1972 expansion of the North Shop seemed suitable. But in the ensuing years, problems became glaringly evident.
A 2013 report faulted the building for lacking fire-suppression sprinklers. It provided less than half the space needed for modern county services, and no locker rooms for female employees. Conference rooms were cramped, there was inadequate stormwater and septic disposal, and the heating and ventilating were substandard.
"How long do you want to run a metro county highway department on port-a-potties?" Theisen said when he appealed to the County Board for permission to move ahead with emergency repairs.
Setting an example
The county budgeted $19.7 million to build the new North Shop. It will be finished four months earlier than expected, and about $700,000 under the original cost.
"I hope people can look at it and be proud," Theisen said.
All the problems were corrected in one fell swoop, he said, such as stopping stormwater from running into a wetlands on the 54-acre site. That water now goes to a settling pond. Interior water, including road salt from the wash bay, is piped into Stillwater's sewage plant.
"Environmentally we weren't setting a good example for the county," Theisen said.
If fire should break out anywhere in the complex, a basement room has two 15,500-gallon tanks of water that can feed sprinklers for two hours.
Walls were knocked out in the mammoth storage garage, making more room for quarter-million-dollar snowplows that had to be left outside before. A new snowplow repair shop now has doors on both sides, ending the practice of having to back one vehicle outside before driving another in.
The office portion of the complex will house the county's engineers, parks managers, surveyors, planners and accountants. They'll work at stations in a large open room, where "there are no corner offices for the boss," Theisen said.
Innovations include more accommodations for women, including locker rooms and a "mother's room" for breast-feeding.
The county is planning an open house, tentatively set for August 20.
"It will be an opportunity for people to have a sense of what their tax dollars paid for," said County Administrator Molly O'Rourke.
Washington County's engineers have 25 road projects in the works this year, the most in its history. All the projects will expand and improve county roads built long ago.
"People trust that we're making good decisions," Miron said.