Ownership of building comes as a surprise to county officials
Steele County has one more building than most anybody, even county officials, realized.
When a longtime substance abuse recovery operation notified Steele County that it was planning to move elsewhere from a building in the West Hills campus of Owatonna, county officials were caught off guard because they didn’t know about it.
The county suddenly had a three story building on its hands to find a new tenant to utilize it. For county administrator Scott Golberg and members of the county board, it came as a complete shock that the building belonged to the county. “I didn't know about it,” Golberg said. “It was a surprise to me.”
Added county commissioner James Brady, “It’s a piece of property I knew nothing about it and most people didn’t know. Most didn’t know it was county property.”
For about 35 years, West Hills Lodge has provided a facility at 545 Florence Ave. for a substance abuse recovery operation. West Hills also operates in Northfield. Since the beginning of the year, the non-profit organization has consolidated to one facility in Northfield.
West Hills assists people after they leave inpatient treatment because they are usually facing serious problems or life crisis. The Owatonna location offered walking distance for mental health services, to Steele County Human Services, fitness center and housing options.
The three-story building is about 13,000 square feet with about 4,000 square feet on each floor. While Golberg is not criticizing West Hills Lodge in any way, he said there has been neglect with the building for years. “It needs work,” he said. “They have been doing minimal work on it.”
Golberg said as far as he’s been able to figure out the county board back in the early 1980s issued a quick claim deed to set up the arrangement for West Hills to use the property. There never was a formal lease agreement between the county and West Hills Lodge, according to Golberg. West Hills, he said, paid an initial fee when they took over the building, but had not been paying rent. West Hills had been paying the utilities on the facility.
“I’m not sure how the county ended up with it,” Golberg said, noting he believes the building served as a former hospital for the state school property.
With West Hills now out of the building, the county is left with the dilemma of what to do with it moving forward. “It’s not in our best interests to leave a vacant building,” Golberg said.
In recent weeks, the county has provided tours to some other providers in the area. “We have some people interested in it,” Golberg said. “If there is an obvious service provider, the county would be interested in letting them have it.”
While West Hills obviously slipped under the radar of the county for years, Golberg said the organization proved to be beneficial for the building. “They were providing a needed service in the community,” he said. “It fit in our line of human services.”
The property, Golberg said, is not on the state historic site. “We need to make sure we understand what we can and can’t do with the property,” he said. “It’s still being evaluated for potential occupants,” he added.
If the county decides to sell the property, the City of Owatonna would have first right of refusal, Golberg noted.