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University officials outline plans for a research, outreach center in Willmar

Dr. Robert Jones, senior vice president at the University of Minnesota, meets Tuesday with local officials at the Minn-West Technology Campus in Willmar. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The opening of a University of Minnesota research and outreach center at the MinnWest Technology Campus will open new doors for regional partnerships in the biosciences, university officials told a local audience Tuesday.

The hour-long discussion gave local leaders a chance to hear the latest information on the facility, which could open late next winter or early in the spring.

Officials at the university are "very excited" about the opportunities for partnerships and cutting-edge projects that will be created by the Mid Central Research and Outreach Center, said Dr. Robert Jones, senior vice president at the University of Minnesota.

"We really do look forward to some strong ongoing relationships," he said.

The project has been under discussion for several months, Jones said. "Over the last two or three years we've been having conversations with this community."

Now it is starting to move ahead. Next month the university's Board of Regents is expected to review a proposed lease agreement for the facility. The three-story building, once part of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center, was acquired by the MinnWest Technology Campus and then purchased by the city of Willmar to be leased back to the university.

The lease agreement is scheduled for final approval by the Board of Regents in October.

Once this happens, it will trigger an application to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for a $1.2 million grant to renovate the building. The MinnWest Technology Campus is matching this with a $1.2 million investment of its own.

Dean Johnson of Willmar, who sits on the Board of Regents and was instrumental in organizing Tuesday's meeting, said the university already has "an excellent working relationship" in Willmar, where it co-hosts the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education Center, the Rice Regional Dental Clinic and a poultry testing laboratory.

Development of a research and outreach center is another step in expanding the university's partnerships in the region, he said.

"The bottom line is getting more people engaged in western Minnesota with the assets and resources of the University of Minnesota," Johnson said in an interview after the meeting. "It's significant when you have a major university that starts paying attention to your community."

For the 20 or so local leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday, it was the first time many of them had heard details about the facility.

The Mid Central Research and Outreach Center will occupy 18,000 square feet, of which approximately one-third will be devoted to a research laboratory.

Although the initial focus will be on avian health and disease, future research could expand into other biosciences as well, Jones said.

"We envision it to be a very dynamic space. Projects will come and go over time," he said.

Part of the university's Extension program, which helps translate research and knowledge into services at the community level, will be located at the research and outreach center, Jones said.

The College of Continuing Education also will have some space in the building, including a state-of-the-art conference facility for workforce training and potential collaborative education projects in higher education.

The university's vision is to increase its physical presence throughout Minnesota, engage communities and become one of the pre-eminent research and teaching centers in the United States, U of M officials said.

The Mid Central Research and Outreach Center creates new opportunities for university scientists to work with industry and leverage their research and knowledge, Jones said. Ridgewater College and St. Cloud State University could become involved in developing internships for students in the biosciences.

The facility also will be a regional resource for everything from expert advice to the use of high-end technical equipment, said Dr. Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research at the university.

"It could be a full range of opportunities," he said.

If the facility reaches the potential that university and local officials believe it will, it can also be a catalyst for industry and job growth in technology and the biosciences, Mulcahy said. "It will serve as a talent magnet."

"Let's get started," was the response of Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Steve Renquist, director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said he hopes the project will bring increased visibility to the MinnWest Technology Campus.

"We think this campus sells itself," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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