OWATONNA — Nine years after the former Steel County Highway Operations Complex was damaged by flooding, a replacement facility along Hoffman Drive in Owatonna is complete and open to the public.

Steele County’s Public Works Department hosted an open house for area residents the night of Oct. 7, offering tours of the building and affording locals the chance to see snow plows, trucks and other county maintenance equipment up close.

In addition to office space, the complex, which cost roughly $8 million to build, hosts vehicles, sand and salt storage, laboratories and a fueling station. The site also provides room for potential expansions, after the current county board cut the costs and square footage significantly during the planning process.

Maintenance staff with the Steele County Highway Department moved in to the new facility this past spring, taking over the space before the parking lot and roads were paved in order to get out of the department’s interim lease. Once paving was complete, administration and engineering staff moved in in mid-August, at the same time that the building officially opened to the public.

Since moving out of the former public works building after the 2010 flood, county staff had been headquartered in the Steele County Annex Building, according to County Engineer Greg Ilkka.

Ilkka explained that the county waited to hold an open house until staff members were fully settled into the new space. In addition to refreshments, engineers and maintenance staff provided tours and answered residents’ questions during the event.

Kevin Lindquist, who oversees the county’s highway maintenance operations, showed multiple tour groups around over the course of the evening.

“A lot of [people’s questions] were about how many snow plows we’ve got and how many miles of road we have, how we like the new building,” said Lindquist. He noted that the event was an opportunity for the public to learn more about the day-to-day operations of the public works department, in addition to the new facility. “They were really impressed with how nice of a building it is, but it’s not lavish.”

Part of the reason for the delay in constructing the new facility was public outcry over a proposed $13 million building price tag, put forward by a former Steele County Board of Commissioners. A more recently-elected board brought these costs down while retaining the “bare essentials,” according to Lindquist.

The 45-acre site also provides room for possible expansions, although Ilkka says he doesn’t foresee any additions being needed in the near future. “The size of our maintenance crew is determined by the size of our highway system and we’re not planning to add any mileage to the system in any significant way,” he explained.

Lindquist also did not foresee any short term additions to the building, although he noted that Owatonna’s steadily growing population could merit an expansion down the line.

“If Owatonna keeps growing — especially with industry — and if the population increases, then I can see an expansion. We’re going to gain some road miles when the Highway 14 project is complete,” noted Lindquist. “We’ll get that section of old Highway 14 that’ll come on to the county road system.”

The expansion of Highway 14 will include the addition of two more lanes from Owatonna to Dodge Center. The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to break ground on the project in 2020.

The new public works building was funded through a combination of federal, state and local money. According to Ilkka, Steele County received $1.6 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $4 million from state bonds. The county is on the hook for a roughly $3 million bond, which will be repaid via property taxes.

Because of state funding requirements, the new building had to meet certain energy efficiency standards it would not otherwise have been held to. Ilkka noted that all of the lights in the building are LED, and the new building utilizes lighting motion-sensors and self-timers to help reduce energy costs.

“We don’t have dust like we used to, the air stays fresh and [the building] controls the humidity,” added Lindquist, noting that the new building has a number of updated health measures reducing the likelihood of mold and improving ventilation for his staff. The new site has also been moved off of a flood plain, where it was discovered the older building had been constructed, reducing the risk of history repeating itself.

Ilkka reported that there was a fairly steady stream of visitors coming through the building over the course of the three-hour event, and Lindquist said he brought multiple groups around the facilities.

“We really appreciate the public showing interest and getting a little bit of a view of what we do out here,” said Lindquist. “I like that people are interested in where their tax dollars are being spent.”

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