As some of you may be aware, I have long been troubled by the safety center project and, even more, by the safety center process. However, unlike some of the most vocal opponents, my concerns are not driven by passionate charges of questionable ethics or legality, but instead are driven by perceptions of flawed process and product.
I’m sure that there will be some who will quickly challenge or deny my version of events. However, based on what I’ve heard from at least a half dozen people who were directly involved, in at least some point, and had a verification of my memory by three of the people in the last week, I believe my version is more than adequately accurate and, more importantly, captures the true essence of the process and the product.
About a dozen city staff members met for twelve months and developed the conceptual plan for the safety center. Then a task force was formed; it consisted of the original twelve city staff people with the addition of six citizen representatives. This task force was given three months, not to consider the facility’s problems or solutions, but to provide a quick review of staff’s plan.
Two of the citizen members, the two with decades of experience in real estate development and construction, were so disturbed by staff’s plan that they issued a minority report. Although these citizens were attacked for their report, they raised enough valid concerns so that another task force was formed. This group included the same dominance by city staff and the citizen members were generally more supportive of leadership’s agenda. However, one of the citizen members, the one with decades of real estate development and construction experience, supported the conclusions of the minority report.
There were two more task forces, mixes of staff and councilors. As I recall, one looked at the feasibility of reusing the existing safety center facility and one was to consider sites for a new facility. Neither group explored, much less challenged, the assumptions or recommendations of the original staff report.
In my opinion, this was a closed, unhealthy, adaptation and innovation-preventing process. There was no genuine citizen involvement that would, in my opinion, characterize a positive, creative, and successful process, particularly one for a project that was characterized by Northfield’s leadership as being of such high priority and by Northfield’s taxpayers as being of such substantial burden.
The result of this closed, unhealthy, and innovation-stifling process was, I believe, a flawed product. Specifically, I fear that we have a plan that does not meet our greatest needs, requires development costs which are excessive and unproductive, takes resources from higher community priorities, and will produce operating costs that are so much more than our current costs that we will be forced to cut services or raise taxes.
Like the “minority” members, I have some experience in real estate development. When developing a facility for a client, we started with the programming, or “needs” and then proposed a space program, or “solutions”. The needs for the safety center have been all over the map.
Based on my memory of Northfield News articles, there have been a series of “crises” that we needed to address. These crises, captured in separate, alarming Northfield News articles, included: 1) the fire truck garage bays, 2) the flood plain, 3) the joint training room, 4) the drunk tank, 5) the police car computers, 6) the puddles and the mold, 7) and the staff offices.
For these ever-changing needs, or crisis, there was one solution: build a new safety center. It was a single facility that cost $10.5 million…or, according to those with the knowledge and experience, $12 million. Or it was two facilities that would not cost more than $8.25 million. Finally, it was a new police station, or Phase 1 as the Mayor called it, for $7.2 million, with either a redevelopment of the present site or a new fire department addition to the new police station, Phase 2 according to the Mayor, for an unknown additional $ millions.
Back when I was involved in real estate development, it was not uncommon for clients to want more than one possible proposed solution for a programming problem or need. A wise local man referred to these as the “Chevy-Buick-Cadillac” options. In my opinion, we started with the Cadillac and moved to the Hummer.
Off the top of my head, I could toss out some “Chevy” solutions. For 1) the fire truck garage bays, add a bay or two on the current site, 2) for the flood plain, build that $160,000 (if I recall) dike around the southeast corner, 3) for the joint training room, rent a facility for the once or twice a year event, 4) for the drunk tank, build where the required medical personnel are already in place, perhaps in a location that could service a larger region, 5) for the police car computers, buy detachable computers, 6) for the puddles and the mold, mop up the water and turn the dehumidifier back on, and 7) for staff offices, either a) keep the officers in their cars with their computers or b) store some of the file cabinets at a different site.
Now, I realize that some of my simple solutions might actually be simplistic. I sincerely don’t want to trivialize any of these issues, and I am deeply committed to meeting the needs of the police and fire departments, through an affordable and sustainable plan. However, I just want to demonstrate that I was able to quickly come up with alternative solutions to spending $ millions on a new facility. Actually, I guess my proposed solution for the fire truck garage bays isn’t really “mine”, it’s right out of the March 2007 “City of Northfield Minnesota Municipal Facilities Space Needs Analysis” by Hay Dobbs. It was part of an earlier, was it $3 million, plan to renovate the existing facility.
But the bonds are sold and an entity, either the City or USBank, is going to build a new police station in the southwest corner of Northfield. Perhaps there’s still an opportunity to insure that building a garage for police cars and offices for police staff will meet their, and the community’s, police facility needs at a cost that won’t limit the community’s ability to address other priorities.
In my opinion, the best way to assure an effective plan and successful product is a truly open process that includes a healthy amount of participation by those with the essential knowledge and experience. Perhaps the “Minority Three” might participate, one more time, in a more balanced and open process.
In order to assure an open, invigorating process, resulting in an effective and sustainable product, I would suggest that commercial property taxpayers also be included. The financial burden of both the development and operations of the police and fire stations are borne by taxpayers, commercial property owners at three times the burden of residential property owners per dollar of value. No one will be more motivated to work to assure that Northfield citizens get the biggest bang for their bucks.
We’ve got just a few months to insure that all of the time and talents invested by our community’s leaders are well spent; now is the moment for the final focus. Let’s put together a balanced team, for an open process, and achieve an effective, and sustainable, solution.