A month after Forest Lake rejected it, a proposed psychiatric treatment center for children and teens may have found a new and welcoming home in nearby East Bethel.
"It's an opportunity for our community to address a serious crisis in our state," East Bethel Mayor Steven Voss told residents at a community meeting Monday. "We are embracing this project."
The Hills Youth and Family Services, a Duluth-based nonprofit, is spearheading an effort to build a 60-bed facility to treat children, mostly ages 6 to 17, with severe mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and neurological conditions such as autism.
Nonprofit officials had approached Forest Lake with the project, which promises 150 new jobs. But despite widespread community support, the Forest Lake City Council last month declined to pass the zoning change needed for the facility.
By then, East Bethel officials had signaled their willingness to shepherd the $26 million project across the border to Anoka County. And that has made all the difference, proponents say.
"It has been night and day when it comes to the mayor and the City Council" in the two cities, said Dave Hartford, administrator at the Hills. "A whole new world."
Advocates have praised the project's innovative design and its role in filling a gap in care for children with mental health problems. Children in Minnesota often wait months for placement in psychiatric facilities and are caught cycling through hospital emergency rooms or going out of state for treatment.
East Bethel was not the only city to reach out after Forest Lake's rejection.
But for now, the northern Anoka County community of 12,000 is a leading contender, with the nonprofit working to finalize a site for the project, called Cambia Hills.
"As a community leader that saw what happened in Forest Lake," Voss said, "it's quite rewarding as a city to be able to step right in and help this project happen."
Cambia Hills had broad community support in Forest Lake, where it was backed by the city's Planning Commission and many neighbors.
But it faced opposition from some City Council members including Mayor Ben Winnick, who said the project "doesn't fit our vision for the area."
Hard feelings over Forest Lake's decision linger. While East Bethel residents discussed the project Monday night, a fiery public forum at a Forest Lake City Council workshop culminated with the mayor cursing at a member of the Planning Commission.
The commissioner, Eric Langness, had supported the zoning change for the Cambia Hills project, proposed for the site of an existing horse stable.
"For someone that has shown such cowardice behavior to our community in recent times, you've got a lot of nerve calling me a liar," Langness told the mayor during the public forum Monday.
"We'll see you sometime when you are not in here," Winnick responded. "We'll see who's a coward then."
In East Bethel, the project appears to have early backing from several key groups, including a Lutheran church that sits near the preferred site.
City officials are already taking steps to make the land use and zoning changes needed for the proposal to move forward.
"It gives me goose bumps, honestly," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota. "They are showing, frankly, the true values of Minnesota."
At the Monday night meeting held at a local church, dozens of East Bethel residents heard about the facility's proposed layout.
They were told that children admitted to the facility will have to be able to live safely in a group setting. Most stays will run from three to nine months. "We expect to be at full occupancy almost every day," said Jeff Bradt, CEO of the Hills.
Common questions centered on preserving the area's rural charm, with concerns raised about traffic, lights and security.
"I think it's a beautiful plan, but I just don't want it right here," said resident Ruth Larson.
Some neighbors, surprised by the rapid timeline, said they were still digesting the details. Pending city approval, the plan is to break ground this year and open Cambia Hills in 2019.
Though the East Bethel site has yet to be finalized, it didn't take neighbors long to sleuth out the property of interest: a wooded, 37-acre homestead near Our Saviour's Lutheran Church.
Some residents were quick to voice their support Monday, including local business owner Deanna Kleven, who said simply, "We need this."
Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751