ST. CLOUD – Don’t forget the West End. It’s something Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud often mutters in conversations with St. Cloud area leaders.
Waite Park, a town of about 8,400, often falls in the shadow of St. Cloud for funding and project applications, despite being part of the same school district and being the most racially diverse of the metropolitan cities of St. Cloud.
Last month, lawmakers announced that St. Cloud would receive nearly half a million dollars in federal funding for a second COP House — surprising organizers, who had instead helped with initial plans for a COP House in Waite Park. .
St. Cloud’s COP House – also known as the Community OutPost – is owned and maintained by the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation. For about six months, Bentrud has been working with the foundation and Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota to create a new space for children and seniors.
They envision a Waite Park outpost as bringing together the police department, boys and girls clubs, health care agencies and even businesses for technology and job training. Seniors, who now only have a dedicated space in the basement of City Hall, would also benefit from improved gathering space.
“Working with the Waite Park Police Department would be so natural,” said Mary Swingle, President and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota. “It’s all about crime prevention, positive and healthy relationships, education and career development. The stars are aligning for the perfect opportunity. We’re super excited about the potential.”
The idea caught the attention of State Sen. Aric Putnam of District 14, which represents parts of Benton, Sherburne and Stearns counties, who on March 29 presented a bill for a $463,000 grant to fund a year of full-service Boys and Girls Clubs programming at Waite Park and help organizers design the proposed multipurpose facility.
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant,” Putnam said. “There are huge needs in Waite Park that are totally overlooked and this is one of them. A lot of Waite Park is retail. There are very few spaces for people to young people come together safely.”
The COP House on the south side of St. Cloud is the first in the state. It’s modeled after a program in Racine, Wis., that opened its first COP House in 1993 to deter violent crime by placing officers and other services in the midst of crime-riddled neighborhoods.
The Public Safety Foundation purchased a home in South St. Cloud that received nearly 100 police calls in the previous five years and opened the new home in 2017.
The outpost, which is near the Southside Boys & Girls Club, is home to a handful of police officers but also provides health care, social services, after-school homework programs, sports clubs and services of ambulance.
A survey of neighborhood residents showed they felt safer and healthier since the COP House opened – findings that have the foundation’s board of directors excited about expanding the program.
“We’ve had calls from outside agencies all over the state and the Midwest asking how we’re doing things,” said Jim Steve, retired St. Cloud Police Department commander and chairman of the foundation.
Steve said news of the $475,000 federal funding for a second COP home on the east side of town came as a surprise. He said he expected this outpost to look like the COP house on the South Side, but said he was still in initial conversations with Police Chief Blair Anderson and Mayor Dave Kleis at the about federal funding.
Unlike the St. Cloud outpost, the Waite Park site would not be selected based on crime rates. Instead, organizers are proposing to build the outpost in an area of town just north of the Discovery Community School, which houses apartment buildings and senior housing.
Seniors could use the space during the day for activities and meals and children could use the space in the afternoons and evenings for after-school programs. There would also be an overlap, where seniors could help children with homework and children could teach technology to seniors.
While a committee has just started brainstorming ideas for the outpost and gathering feedback from residents, Bentrud said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from residents and businesses.
“We don’t know if this will become a reality or not, but I’m hopeful,” he said. “It’s a natural collaboration and this intergenerational aspect of the possibilities is really exciting.”