WILLMAR, Minn. — For a century now, a handful of Spanish Colonial-style cottages have stood on a hill overlooking Willmar Lake, their tiled, red roofs peeking through a thick grove of trees.
For passersby on U.S. Highway 71, the scene has basically remained unchanged. But the mission of this historic site has been dramatically altered; what used to be known as the “state hospital” — where thousands of patients have been treated for mental illness and chemical dependency — has evolved into a research hub for the region’s rich agricultural base.
Now called the MinnWest Technology Campus, the site is home to 19 businesses, about 260 employees and a sense of optimism about the future of high-tech jobs in this town of 20,000 residents 90 miles west of Minneapolis.
The most recent development is a $2.5 million University of Minnesota initiative to revamp one of the cottages for bioscience research. Renovation is underway, with initial research to focus on avian health and disease. It’s slated to open next summer.
‘We want this to be a gateway’
“We wanted to have some kind of university presence, and we feel that it should attract new technology,” said Steven Salzer, the general manager of MinnWest. “We want this to be a gateway for businesses in the region. We can work with them here or steer them in the right direction.”
The metamorphosis began about six years ago, after changes in the delivery of care for the mentally ill left many of the buildings on the campus vacant.
James Sieben, the president of MinnWest, was running a Willmar company called Nova-Tech — which uses robotics to treat the beaks and feet of poultry — out of a nondescript, metal warehouse when he was approached by a Kandiyohi County economic development official about moving his company to the campus.
He initially dismissed the idea as “absurd,” but slowly changed his mind after touring the campus on his motorcycle and thinking about the potential of the large buildings and vast space.
“We’re all from around here,” he said of his employee base at Nova-Tech. “Realistically, we could have lost 50 percent of our employees had we moved to South Dakota or the Twin Cities, and that would have been hard.”
Eventually, in 2006, two businesses — Nova-Tech and Life-Science Innovations, another Willmar company — purchased the campus for $1 million. The two are the co-owners of MinnWest and lease space to the resident businesses.
“There was a time when it was questionable whether we could get everything through to do this,” Sieben said, tapping on two six-inch folders of signed documents that had to be completed during negotiations. “There were so many entities involved.”
An incubator for ag ideas, technologies
Now, nearly five years later, the MinnWest Technology Campus, which bills itself as “the Midwest’s newest technology park,” is an incubator for businesses that can work together on ideas and technologies related to agriculture, which fuels the economy here.
Nova-Tech leases its devices throughout North America, Europe and other parts of the world. Life-Science Innovations, meanwhile, is the parent company of several of the other businesses located on the MinnWest campus, such as Epitopix, which develops animal vaccines, and PALS, which supplies equipment and animal health products for turkey and hog producers in the Midwest.
The University of Minnesota center, called the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center, stands to become the flagship enterprise of the campus. Between 20 and 40 people are expected to work at the U of M site, including university professors and students who can help businesses with research and development.
On a recent morning, workers strolled between buildings on the campus, which was built in the early 1900s and at its peak employed hundreds of workers. (Three cottages continue to be used by the state for chemical-dependency treatment.) In all, about a dozen cottages — most of them stucco-sided and built in a Spanish Colonial or Renaissance style — and some other buildings cover 110 acres.
Another 30 acres of trees and grass could be developed in the future.
Amenities for employees
Besides the individual businesses, the campus has a cafeteria, a pool and workout room, a gymnasium and a day-care center — amenities that make life easier for the workers, considering the campus is a few miles from the center of town.
So far, MinnWest has poured about $11 million into the renovation of the cottages and other buildings — restoring wood transoms, adding insulation, even pouring a vibration-resistant floor in one building — according to Salzer. The goal is to soon have 20 tenants and more than 300 employees on campus.
For a small town in rural Minnesota, especially during a time of recession, the revival of dormant state property into a private enterprise is welcome.
Said Sieben: “It’s hard not to walk in here and say, ‘This is a pretty cool place.’ “
Gregg Aamot is a former newsman for The Associated Press and the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.” He is currently teaching at Ridgewater College and Southwest Minnesota State University.