ST. CLOUD — It doesn't look much like a precinct house or a police station, but to St. Cloud Police, that's exactly the point.
On Friday, the city will celebrate the opening of the department's new "Community OutPost" — a two-story house in the heart of a troubled neighborhood that features a groundbreaking program aimed at reducing crime by moving services closer to the homes of those who need it most.
Inspired by a similar project in Racine, Wis., the single-family house is the first of its kind in Minnesota, with offices for a county human services worker, nurse and patrol officers. By moving services closer to those in need, city leaders hope to strengthen bonds between police and the community and revitalize a neighborhood made up mostly of college students and Somali families.
"It's been the biggest definition of community outreach I've ever seen," Police Lt. Lori Ellering said. "Being well is more than just not being a victim of crime."
Police departments across Minnesota have searched for innovative ways to connect with their communities, particularly as they face growing criticism and distrust. But in St. Cloud, the new COP house is the department's latest effort at increasing outreach under Chief William Blair Anderson, who took the helm five years ago.
"This adds a new and different dimension ... it gives them an inside view [to the department]," he said. "It's not always an enforcement thing."
The idea wasn't warmly received by all at first. When residents heard that the police department was moving in, some worried about surveillance or a precinct opening in a neighborhood full of apartments and single family houses.
Officers went door-to-door to explain the mission, Ellering said, as crews demolished a house in the city's Southside neighborhood that had fallen into disrepair and where police had responded to more than 100 calls in five years.
The new two-level taupe building will house police while also bringing educational opportunities and health care to the neighborhood's doorstep.
The outpost opens as police across the state have seen calls increase for issues like mental health. Helping boost wellness in a community is as important as public safety, Ellering said.
"It's really community policing to the next level," she said. "How do we get the help we need? A lot of the calls we get, they're quality-of-life issues."
Inside the house, the police department is organizing job fairs, English classes and barbecues. It will also bring in university athletes to mentor kids. A conference room is available for community meetings. Donated games fill a closet ready for neighborhood kids. And an ambulance team is stationed there for quicker responses to neighborhood emergencies.
During construction, volunteers from across the community stopped by to paint or clean, and kids dropped off a basket of cookies. The salaries of three of the four new police officers who work the neighborhood are funded from a federal grant and use the house as an office when they aren't patrolling the streets.
"This is comprehensive, one-stop wellness," Anderson said. "Every community could use one of these."
That's what Racine has found. Sandwiched between Milwaukee and Chicago, the city sought a solution to its gang- and crime-plagued neighborhoods by opening a COP House in 1996. It was deemed so successful that the department has opened five more houses and says that the shift in community policing has correlated with a dramatic drop in crime rates, reaching a 53-year low.
"There's a major disconnect between law enforcement and people they serve," Racine Police Chief Art Howell said. "We've kind of cultivated relationships with folks; they trust us."
After visiting Racine in 2014, St. Cloud Police returned with their own plans and spent three years forming the program and launching a nonprofit to finance building and operate the house, which is built to accommodate a family should the city decide to sell it.
The $400,000 building cost was funded from donated construction services and $150,000 in cash donations, $75,000 of which came from the Rotary Club of St. Cloud.
"It will help build a better relationship with the neighborhood and police and the community," said Troy Fritz, the Rotary president. "It's not going to be a place just to fight crime."