Shutting down the power

WILLMAR -- The mechanical guts of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center will be torn out, revamped and rewired in order to create independent utility services for the campus' two new owners.

WILLMAR -- The mechanical guts of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center will be torn out, revamped and rewired in order to create independent utility services for the campus' two new owners.

The transition will mean the treatment center's power plant will be shut down -- possibly by the end of the summer.

The plant's remaining five employees will have opportunities to accept jobs elsewhere in the state system, accept early retirement or accept a "buyout," according to Mike Tessneer, chief executive officer for the Minnesota State Operated Services. Two power plant employees have already left to take jobs in St. Peter and St. Cloud.

When the treatment center was owned by the state, all the buildings shared common utilities -- most of which were generated at the treatment center's power plant.

But the state sold most of the campus, including the power plant and the maze of underground tunnels where the utility lines run, to Willmar-based MinnWest Technology. MinnWest is remodeling buildings, which will be leased to technology businesses.


Kandiyohi County purchased the remaining seven buildings.

Five are being leased to State Operated Services, which is the area of the Department of Human Services that provides direct services to people with disabilities. Those five buildings will house the adult chemical dependency program and the adolescent behavioral hospital. The two other county buildings will continue to house the juvenile detention facility -- Prairie Lakes -- that Kandiyohi County and other area counties use.

Because of the dual public-private ownership of the campus, the utilities that run through the campus like a spider web must be split.

Power transition

The power plant is like a beating heart on the campus. It has sent high-pressure steam heat, hot water, soft water and emergency backup power to all the buildings on the campus for decades.

Kandiyohi County Administrator Wayne Thompson said the county recently completed installation of separate electrical meters on each of its seven buildings as part of the transition. The process went smoothly, he said, and cost about $500 per building.

An engineer is also drawing up plans for the county to provide some sort of heat source -- probably a low-pressure steam heat -- and hot water and soft water to the county buildings. Thompson said it's likely that each of the county's buildings will be equipped with its own low-pressure boiler to provide heat and hot water.

Finding an affordable source of emergency backup energy is proving to be difficult. A shortage of diesel generators following Hurricane Katrina caused the price to be high -- in the $500,000 range -- and alternatives are being sought, said Thompson.


The county has a short-term lease with MinnWest to use the power plant and its emergency generation until the utility transition has been completed, he said. Once that is completed, the power plant will be turned over to MinnWest.

"Our intention is to shut the boilers down in the power plant," said Steven Salzer, general manager of MinnWest Technology. Like the county, MinnWest is also in the process of installing stand-alone heating systems in each of the buildings.

The county has a long-term easement with MinnWest to use the underground tunnels for the utility lines.

The tunnels, which are connected to all but two or three buildings on campus, were once used by patients and staff to walk from building to building. Peeling paint from the concrete walls and wet spots on the floor make the tunnels unattractive but still usable.

Salzer said MinnWest is researching the feasibility of using the tunnels as "people movers" once again so that tenants can go from building to building without being exposed to the elements.

The demise of the power plant also means the loss of the official National Weather Service reporting station, which provides the Tribune with its daily report on high and low temperatures and precipitation in Willmar. It's possible the National Weather Service will seek another 24-hour-a-day facility to take over that duty.

Paying the bill

It's estimated Kandiyohi County will spend $50,000 on each of its seven buildings, for a total of $350,000, to make the utility conversions.


The county expects lease payments over the next five to 10 years to cover the costs.

The county is currently billing the state $2.50 a square foot for using the five buildings, for a monthly total of $23,810. The monthly lease payment for the Prairie Lakes juvenile detention facility is $6,000.

Once the utility work is completed, the lease rates to the state will increase to cover the cost of the improvements, said Thompson.

Doing business with the state does have some risk. The contract allows the state to terminate with a 30-day notice if state and federal funding cutbacks don't allow for the lease payments to be fulfilled.

Thompson said there's a "certain amount of trust" on the county's part that the state will reimburse the county for the money it invested in utility improvements.

Tessneer said it's very unlikely that the state will back out of the lease. "I don't think that's likely at all," he said. Tessneer said the state has a "vested interest" in seeing the programs succeed in the community.

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