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HERO Center on track: Cottage Grove, Woodbury councils close to final approval

Mock structures in the new HERO Center will allow police and SWAT teams to practice emergency responses. The structures can also be sealed and filled with smoke for firefighter apporach and entry drills. Submitted graphic courtesy of Leo A. Daly1 / 3
The new HERO Center will feature drive-in access where police can practice exiting a vehicle and drawing their weapon. Graphic courtesy of Leo A. Daly2 / 3
Kris Mienert, deputy director of public safety for Woodbury, discussed the progress of the new HERO Center at an April 30 joint meeting of Cottage Grove and Woodbury city councils. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

COTTAGE GROVE — The Health and Emergency Response Occupations (HERO) Center is on track for its scheduled October opening, despite winter storms and spring floods that cost construction crews 21 days of work.

City, state and county officials received a project update April 30 at Cottage Grove City Hall. The $20 million, 47,000-square-foot complex will be jointly owned and operated by Cottage Grove and Woodbury. It will serve as a professional development and training facility for police, fire and EMS.

A virtual tour of the center was conducted by Cottage Grove deputy director of public safety Greg Rinzel and Woodbury assistant police chief Kris Mienert. The tour was part of the draft presentation of the HERO Center's 2019-20 Business and Operational Plan.

Designed by the architectural firm Leo A. Daly, the campus features indoor and outdoor staging areas. Movable walls and sliding doors will serve to adapt spaces for use in mock emergencies such as vehicle crashes, hostage standoffs, de-escalation scenarios and structure fires.

"It's all interconnected," Rinzel said. "We're not doing silo-type training. You want to make it realistic. You want to make it as close to reality as possible."

Everything under one roof

In addition to three classrooms, a lobby and locker room, the HERO Center will include:

• Two indoor firearms ranges, including a 50-yard facility with 12 firing lanes and drive-in vehicle bays. At twice the length of most ranges, it can accommodate a police SUV. "We would do a mock training for traffic stop where an officer might encounter a subject who is armed with a weapon and practice getting out of the squad car rapidly, drawing their weapon ... and engaging any threats," Rinzel said. "To be able to do that in an indoor setting, 365 days a year, is imperative for us."

• An immersive, three-screen computer simulator

• Jail cells on the second floor that would provide training for corrections officers

• A training yard for staging SWAT team deployments, response-to-resistance scenarios, fire pump and ladder drills, vehicle extrications and high-risk entries. The space includes mock structures that can be filled with smoke for firefighter search and rescue exercises.

• A 6-foot aluminum safety fence around the perimeter

• Outdoor canine training area with dog wash station

A dog wash may sound cute, but not if you're Cottage Grove police officer Nils Torning and your K-9 partner, Gunnar, has spent half the evening running through a muddy swamp in pursuit of a suspect.

"I pushed pretty hard for that," Torning joked at the May 11 Cottage Grove Police Department open house.

Finally, a home on the range

Work on the HERO Center began in 2011, when Cottage Grove and Woodbury agreed on the need for a centralized location that would eliminate the time and expense of renting outside facilities. That included booking target practice at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office gun range or at private gun clubs.

"I can't begin to count the number of places we've been in my 24 years," Rinzel said. "Since I've started here it's like playing that new pop-up game of 'find the place to train every year.'"

Woodbury fire and police personnel faced similar challenges when it came to conducting emergency drills. Mienert said they kept track of homes that were scheduled for demolition and used them as a staging ground for response-to-resistance and other training. The houses sometimes had holes in the floors or other hazards that made them less than ideal.

"Typically what we do, we work in conjunction with our planning department," she said. "They know when buildings are coming down. We try to get in there before they're torn down."

Money-making potential

HERO Center rentals will begin early next year, once Cottage Grove and Woodbury public safety personnel occupy the space and make sure everything works as intended. Potential customers include other law enforcement agencies, community groups, nonprofits and colleges that offer criminal justice degrees.

A firearms range will be also available for public rental on Saturdays. Cottage Grove and Woodbury residents would receive a discount.

Additional sources of revenue could come from naming rights and a buy-in by the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

"We're still exploring as to what their involvement will be," Mienert said.

Cottage Grove and Woodbury city councils could approve a 2019-20 business operation plan for the HERO Center by the end of the month.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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