Ventura proposes new Health Department building

by Brad Ellingson

Tired of working in an unsafe and outdated building with security concerns, many employees at the Minnesota Department of Health on the University’s East Bank await a likely move to St. Paul.

Citing safety concerns, Gov. Jesse Ventura proposed $85 million in his 2002 budget proposal for the land acquisition, design and construction of a new facility for the MDH.

Ventura recommended the funding because the existing facility is not up to modern standards, putting MDH at a disadvantage compared to facilities nationwide.

According to the governor’s executive summary of the budget proposal released last week, “The physical limitations of this laboratory are obvious and alarming Ö while the department’s work may be considered a national model, the facility it occupies is no model whatsoever.”

Ventura said the building’s inability to maintain air quality and ensure the safety of employees are primary problems.

Along with safety and security concerns, the 30-year-old building, located at 717 Delaware Street S.E., has reached its capacity with more than 400 employees.

“There are a number of issues with that building,” said Buddy Ferguson, MDH information officer. “It’s more a matter of just finding the space necessary to accommodate the staffing needs.”

The current building’s layout has also limited the amount of work researchers can do, said Dr. Norman Crouch, director of state public health laboratories for MDH.

“With the changes that have occurred in technology and what we need to be responsible for, this building – in terms of its ventilation, electrical power, heating and cooling – is sort of maxed out,” Crouch said.

The proposed facility will allow for more up-to-date facilities. The new building will house officials from the Departments of Health and Agriculture, allowing the departments to work more closely together.

“There’s kind of a cluster of programs that work very closely together in terms of how they function,” Ferguson said.

While problems existed before Sept. 11, the drive for a new facility intensified after the terrorist attacks.

“Recent terrorist acts have reiterated our need for public safety,” according to the executive summary.

“What we do here is very important in terms of protecting the health of Minnesota citizens,” Crouch said.

A final decision about the new facility will be made during the next legislative session, which convenes Tuesday.

“We’ve got a long way to go in a short time,” said Rep. Jim Rhodes, R-St. Louis Park.