With few local options for people experiencing mental health crises, Dakota County wants to replace an aging behavioral health crisis center in South St. Paul with a new facility by the end of 2024.

The county last week accepted $3.5 million from the state toward the project's total price tag of $7.6 million. The 16-bed, 15,000-square-foot facility would provide a place for adults having a mental health or substance abuse crisis to stay for either 10-day or 90-day periods and an array of support services, from group therapy to social activities with peers.

The project is a partnership with Guild, a nonprofit mental health provider. Guild would run the site — its location is still undetermined — while the county would own it.

"These beds are really critically important to the county," said Julie Bluhm, chief executive officer of Guild. "We're turning away probably 80 percent of people … because we just simply don't have enough space."

People who do get a precious spot are housed in Guild South's current center, three old Victorian houses that are inaccessible to those with disabilities. That facility's capacity has been reduced from 16 beds to 11 to allow for COVID-19 social distancing.

"It's really not designed from the standpoint of, what do people need to heal?" said Evan Henspeter, Dakota County director of social services.

Officials are considering two main sites for the new center, both in West St. Paul. One is owned by Guild on Livingston Avenue, behind Lowe's, and the other is on county-owned Northern Service Center property on Mendota Road.

"We have more work to do to figure out an ideal site for the project," Henspeter said. "There may actually be more possibilities than those two."

One concern with the Northern Service Center site is whether clients would be comfortable accessing mental health services so close to a government building, Henspeter said.

County commissioners discussed whether some services could actually be located inside the Northern Service Center, which has vacant office space.

A condition of accepting the state funding is that the county must own the building. It would then be leased to Guild to provide services.

If the Guild site were chosen, the nonprofit would sell it to the county.

A first for the county

Guild South is one of just two places in Dakota County providing intensive residential treatment services (IRTS), Bluhm said, and the only one providing crisis residential services.

"We have people who go into crisis but don't need hospital-level care," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Minnesota. "They just need a different level of care, and this can be it."

The new building would be the first behavioral health crisis center built and owned by Dakota County, though the county contributed $360,000 toward a similar center in Savage several years ago, she said. Guild runs that center while the Scott County Community Development Agency owns the building.

Intensive residential treatment may last up to 90 days, Henspeter said, while crisis care may occur for up to 10 days. Either option may prevent or follow a hospital stay.

The center may also provide 24-hour drop-in services, Henspeter said, allowing people to stay for just a short period and receive services such as an assessment and counseling if needed.

And there will be other services available, Henspeter said, including job and housing help, case management, social activities and support groups.

"The idea is to remove barriers to access by having some of those supports co-located so people can get to them more easily," Henspeter said.

Next steps on the project include evaluating sites, choosing one and going through the zoning process with West St. Paul, since a zoning change would be required in both scenarios, and designing the building and its services.

The county also will work to inform and engage the community about the project and will consult with its mental health advisory group, Henspeter said. To complete the funding, the county will ask the Legislature for an appropriation and may seek contributions from other counties or health care providers.