Minnesota's largest medical examiner's office is looking to move to Minnetonka, with plans to build a $58 million facility there.
Hennepin County leaders recently notified Minnetonka officials that they want to build a 67,000-square-foot regional medical examiner's facility on a slice of a wooded 167-acre property near Interstate 494 and County Road 62. The property belongs to the county's Home School, which houses juveniles committed there by the courts.
"We own the property and it's a good location," County Administrator David Hough said Friday.
The Hennepin County medical examiner's office has been seeking a suburban site for a larger, updated facility to meet the growing demand for services, as well as a location closer to Dakota and Scott counties for which it handles autopsies and death investigations. The coverage area served by the Hennepin County medical examiner includes about one-third of the state's population.
The move would mean vacating the M.E.'s valuable 2-acre site in the shadow of U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, where it has been located for more than 50 years. Hough said the county would look to sell the site for top dollar if the County Board decides to relocate the Sheriff's Office crime lab, which is in the same building.
Construction for the new M.E. facility could begin as early as 2018, Hough said, adding that it would likely be a one-story building with some possible walking trails.
Relocating to county property would save a projected $5.6 million in land costs. The M.E.'s office had considered moving to west Bloomington, but those plans fell through in December.
In the next few months, renderings will be put together before the County Board and Minnetonka City Council are asked to approve the project.
The county also wants to renovate the aging Home School buildings in Minnetonka. Plans to build a joint juvenile treatment facility with Ramsey County were scuttled in December after discussions and protests.
With its rolling hills and tall pine trees near Glen Lake, the bucolic county property is considered prime real estate. Part of the property is a golf course; for years, developers have asked about redeveloping vacant parcels.
As the county searched for several open acres for a new M.E.'s office, the site became "compelling," Hough said.
The M.E.'s office was located first at the then-General Hospital, later renamed Hennepin County Medical Center. The M.E.'s office, which replaced the coroner's office in 1963, moved to its current building on Chicago Avenue in 1999.
Since then the number of cases it handles has soared, especially after it agreed in 2013 to provide services to Dakota and Scott counties for deaths ranging from traffic fatalities to homicides.
In 2016, the M.E.'s office performed a record 1,300 autopsies. It oversees about 7,300 death investigations and 8,000 cremations a year.
"We're at capacity now," Hough said.
The new facility would have more parking, classrooms and space for cutting-edge technology such as 3-D imaging equipment and classrooms — nearly doubling the office's current 39,800-square-foot space.
A modern facility could also help attract staffers, at a time when the United States is seeing a shortage of forensic pathologists, according to Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker.
The three counties are asking the Legislature for nearly $26 million, arguing that a state-of-the-art facility could accommodate future partner counties and serve as a teaching facility.
"We're not talking about building an office or a bank," Baker said in December. "It's more like building a lot of operating rooms."
The three counties divide costs based on a percentage of the caseload. This year, Hennepin is paying $4.8 million, Dakota nearly $1.2 million and Scott about $315,000.
Changing Glen Lake
The Glen Lake area is one of Minnetonka's oldest neighborhoods, dating to the early 20th century when Kraemer's general store opened for nearby farmers.
In recent years it's seen a lot of redevelopment, including a controversial four-story senior cooperative and the transformation of Kraemer's into a brewery. The Home School site has been home for 35 years to the We Can Ride therapeutic horseback riding program, which plans to relocate its barn, offices and arena to Medina.
When the county was considering combining juvenile treatment centers with Ramsey County, Minnetonka officials asked residents what they wanted to see there if the county sold the site. They suggested things like an office campus, a model the M.E.'s office would fit, Mayor Terry Schneider said.
When the county notified Minnetonka officials a couple weeks ago about the idea, Schneider said city leaders were impressed by the plans for a high-end building east of the Home School.
"It sounds like a win-win," he said. "But we won't know until we get the details."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib