By Don Reeder
City halls have traditionally served as a place to conduct city business such as council and commission meetings. As a resident, you would only go there to do things like pay utility bills or purchase permits. But that has started to change in recent years, as cities have begun remodeling or building new city halls that welcome the public to come in and have fun.
More and more, modern city halls are including spaces designed for public and private gatherings, community centers, water parks, coffee shops, and other resident-friendly amenities (see bottom of page for two examples). Likewise, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) is reimagining its own office space to be more welcoming to its constituents — city staff and elected officials.
Nearly 25 years after constructing its building across the street from the state Capitol in St. Paul, the League is embarking on a renovation, partially to create a more social, user-friendly environment for its members — the hundreds of city officials who visit and conduct business in the facility throughout the year.
The changes are coming about as a result of numerous discussions in recent years among members of the League’s Building Company Board, which includes two members from the League Board of Directors, two members from the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) Board of Trustees, and the League’s executive director. Since there have been no major renovations of the structure since it was built and it no longer meets current operational needs, the Board concluded it was time for an update.
Changing work styles among League employees since the implementation of a flexible work environment was one reason the renovation was needed. Another primary driver of the change was a desire to promote greater collaboration among staff.
The Board also considered the evolving member usage needs and the desire to make the League a more welcoming destination for city officials. It was decided that renovation plans should accommodate both trends.
The Board also agreed that meeting those needs could be better achieved through renovation as opposed to a full reconstruction or replacement. The remodeling option was deemed the most cost-effective way of reaching space goals. Over the years, the League has budgeted for this project incrementally as a capital expenditure, and it has the cash on hand to complete the project.
The League authorized a contract with Herman Miller and BWBR architects in November 2018 to conduct a workplace study and develop a schematic design for the renovation of the League’s building. League staff contributed to the planning process through focus groups and employee ambassador committees.
Total project cost is estimated at $7 million to $8 million, and the project concept plan has approval of the LMC, LMCIT, and Building Company boards. That cost estimate includes construction, replacement of the building’s aging furnishings, and soft costs like architecture and construction management.
New space for city officials
Though the League has always made working space available for members who visit the building, renovation will result in a visitor experience that will be enhanced in highly visible and appealing ways — evident upon first entering the building.
To strengthen building security and allow for a more immediate welcoming environment, the reception area desk will be relocated from the center of the first floor to the area near the west entrance, adjacent to staff and visitor parking. Visitors will now be able to check in immediately upon entering the building.
Additionally, the first-floor areas where the Communications and Intergovernmental Relations staff now reside will be the new home of a large meeting/training room with a seating capacity far greater than the current St. Croix conference room. The Intergovernmental Relations team will continue to operate on the first floor, where members can easily consult them about legislative advocacy efforts.
There will also be accessible small meeting room options in the member area on the first floor. This is a change from the existing layout, which often requires officials to go the second or third floors to access meeting rooms.
Visitors will also notice a dedicated work area with spaces to plug in devices. Adjacent to that are small, soundproof “phone booths” — rooms that visitors may use to have a private phone conversation.
The meeting and work spaces will be surrounded by glass walls to maximize a sense of community and collaboration, and to let in more natural light.
“Staff from our city visit St. Paul frequently to meet with state agency personnel and legislators, especially during the legislative session” says Alison Zelms, deputy city manager for Mankato and Board of Trustees member for the League’s Insurance Trust. “We have always found the League to have a welcoming environment when we’re in town, but with the new amenities, we’re enthusiastic about spending even more time there.”
Visiting members will see very little disruption of normal activities while the physical reconstruction is taking place. Business will continue as usual — and visitors can still use the League parking lot — during this process, which is tentatively slated to begin in the early fall of 2020.
Strengthening member engagement
The renovation of the League building occurs simultaneously with the organization’s renewed focus on personal communication efforts with members. For the past several months, League and Insurance Trust senior managers, as well as Board members, have devoted time to a series of member visits throughout Minnesota.
Those visits involve traveling to specific regions of the state and meeting with officials from member cities either individually or in small groups of cities. The goal of these visits is to encourage city officials to more actively take advantage of member benefits through participation in League programs and services, and to learn about how to become more involved in League leadership opportunities.
Many of the meetups are strategically designed to include cities less likely to attend League-hosted events or committee meetings in St. Paul due to distance considerations or a lack of staff resources.
The building update is a critical element of this renewed focus. League Deputy Director Luke Fischer hopes that the building renovations will attract visiting city officials who are typically more reluctant to make the trek to St. Paul.
“With our new member features, city officials won’t miss a beat in getting their day-to-day work done, even though they might be physically separated from their home offices,” Fischer says. “The features of our reimagined member space will not only be convenient but provide a pleasant and comfortable environment for networking with colleagues — along with an abundance of coffee, tea, and hospitality.”
Renovation of the League building will foster productivity and collaboration among visitors and staff alike. The project is tentatively scheduled for completion by the end of 2020. Future project updates and logistical notes will be posted on the League’s web site at www.lmc.org/LMCbr and included in the Cities Bulletin e-newsletter.
Don Reeder is public affairs manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 215-4031.
BUILDING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY AT CITY HALL
As the League plans its building renovation, it is following the lead of cities that have created more visitor friendly city halls. Cities are making changes that are designed to bring residents together for common activities that build a sense of community. Now, it’s not uncommon in Minnesota cities — large and small — to walk into city hall and see a number of activities taking place.
For example, the City of Carver completed construction in 2019 of a new City Hall that features a commercial kitchen and a community meeting room on the first floor. City Administrator Brent Mareck says it’s used by community groups for meetings, fundraising dinners, holiday events, community events, recreational programming, and other functions.
Another example is the City of Ellsworth. Following the loss of their old City Hall to fire, Ellsworth leaders are planning a new City Hall, along with construction of a fitness room and a walking track adjacent to the building. Additionally, as reported in the local newspaper there, the city plans to include meeting and event space in its new City Hall, so residents planning an event won’t be forced to use a facility in another city.