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University of Minnesota is latest to set up operations at Willmar, Minn., tech campus

Darrell Cox is the regional director of Southwest Regional Extension office. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- The University of Minnesota is establishing a new, bold presence in Willmar that could touch local businesses, education, agriculture and even family meals.

The $2.5 million Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center, located on the MinnWest Technology Campus, officially opened early this year although outfitting the labs is still a work in progress, staff is still moving in and the program are slowly gearing up.

U of M President Eric Kaler is expected to speak to community and business leaders May 15 on the MinnWest Campus to mark the official opening of the center. Details of that event are still in the works.

The center is housed in one of the campuses' historic buildings that has been renovated. The large windows and solid woodwork of the original building have been kept but the interior color scheme boasts the university's maroon and gold.

The center has a teaching kitchen and high-tech media center, a regional office for the U of M Extension Service, a level-three bio-secure lab where avian research will take place and open lab space, offices and conference rooms for future projects that could be either public or private enterprises.

The building is part of the university's land grant mission in a unique collaboration of higher education and private and public financial support, including a grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and the Minn-West Technology Campus.

The facility provides a conduit to the University of Minnesota, said Tim Miller, facility manager and outreach coordinator for the center.

The university will increase its visibility in west central Minnesota, and businesses and the public will benefit by having easier access to many of the school's programs and services, he said.

The goal is for the center to be "home to basic and applied research, outreach, and engagement in fields related primarily to the poultry, renewable energy, and technology industries headquartered in Willmar," according to the U of M's website.

Located on the MinnWest campus, which is fast acquiring a reputation for its bioscience and technology business leadership, the center will also serve as a regional center for continuing education, distance learning, internships and workforce preparation.

The trick, Miller said, is getting people to understand the potential the center holds for a marriage of private and public sector entities.

Right now the relationship is like a junior high dance with girls on one side of the gym and boys on the other, Miller said.

The centerpiece of the building is the third-floor lab space where Dr. Carol Cardona, from the university's School of Veterinary Science, will begin establishing research on poultry diseases this spring. The timing will likely be tied to available grant funding.

That research program, hosted in the largest turkey-growing county in the state, will have ties with St. Cloud State University, University of Minnesota Morris and Ridgewater College. It could be a big asset to businesses already on the MinnWest campus that focus on poultry, including Nova-Tech and Epitopix.

The second floor houses the Southwest Regional U of M Extension office. Although it's a separate entity from the research center, the programs are tied together under the U of M's umbrella.

The regional Extension office replaces similar offices that were closed in Hutchinson and Fergus Falls, as part of a statewide restructuring of the extension districts, said Darrell Cox, regional director of Southwest Regional Extension office.

Having a regional center located here is a boon for Kandiyohi County because highly-trained staff will be in Willmar, making it easier to access programs. And individuals from other counties will also travel to Willmar for training offered by those directors, increasing Willmar's role as a regional hub.

Besides Cox, who'll oversee the operations of the region, there will be at least three Extension program directors in Willmar that will focus on youth development, 4-H and crop/soils agriculture. More directors will be hired to oversee different areas, said Cox.

"It's a work in progress," he said.

The first floor of the center will likely get the most public exposure because of facilities equipped to handle everything from high-tech media to cooking.

A teaching kitchen out-fitted with a gas range, microwave and drawers full of utensils will soon be available for use through Extension's nutrition programs. There'll be no charge to use the space as long as it's being used in conjunction with Extension.

The kitchen may be used to train people to teach others about food and nutrition, but it also means, for example, local 4-H clubs could use the kitchen at no charge for an educational program. An extension nutrition educator may also be available to provide cooking lessons through its "simply good eating" program, said Cox.

A high-tech multi-media center is also on the first floor, which is where some of the large-group training sessions will take place, such as a workshop on invasive special in agriculture and rural landscapes will be held on April 4.

Business and community organizations can also lease the media space. With the ability to host interactive communications to anywhere in world, the media center will be a valuable asset for the community, said Miller.

There is still unused office and lab space in the building that could be used by other "partners" that tie in with the University of Minnesota or MinnWest, said Cox, suggesting that a program that would economic development for the region might be a good fit. Conference rooms are also available for rent.

For more information about the University of Minnesota Regional Extension office or the facility use call 320-235-0726.