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Mental Health Center anxious for office construction

WORTHINGTON -- While newly fallen snow covers the ground on the former Central School site in downtown Worthington today, the site will look considerably different by this time next year.

The Southwestern Mental Health Center (SWMHC), which completed construction of a new Unity House on the property in December 2010, is finally moving forward with plans to build new offices for the agency. The 14,000-square-foot, $2.5-million project is expected to break ground this spring.

The project is a long time in coming for SWMHC. For years, agency staff has had to work out of a multitude of office spaces in Worthington. SWMHC Executive Director Scott Johnson said the staff of nearly 40 has worked out of four different offices for the past five years -- including a building adjacent to Sanford Worthington Medical Center where the agency's lease expired a few years ago.

"It's not the most effective and efficient way to operate," Johnson said. "Each location we have to heat, (pay for) lights, rent, phones, copiers and fax machines. That's all duplicated at all of those locations. Folks have to move between office locations to get things done."

Johnson said the new facility will be large enough to house all of the employees, including in-patient and out-patient staff and contract workers.

"We think it will be much more effective, much more efficient going forward," he added. The facility will also offer some room to grow.

"Some of the expansion has already taken place," Johnson said, detailing a new intensive, family-based therapy service and additional out-patient psychiatric services offered to clients.

"We will add some more out-patient therapists just to meet the demand that we've been seeing," he added.

The SWMHC has more than 800 active clients annually, with those numbers rising in recent years due somewhat to the economy.

"We know throughout history when finances get tough, mental health needs increase," Johnson said. "We also think it's much more acceptable to people now to come in and get help. Treatment is better now than it's ever been."

As the largest county, by population, and largest city in the five counties served by SWMHC, Johnson said the list of Nobles County and Worthington clients has increased -- a mirror to the population change.

In fact, the agency's latest service -- a permanent supportive housing project -- serves about 20 households (50 individuals), many of whom reside in Nobles County. The program, offered in collaboration with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, provides supportive housing for the homeless. It, too, will be based out of the new facility, once it is completed.

Johnson anticipates his staff will be able to occupy the new offices by January 2013, though he has yet to see a final schematic of the structure.

"We hope to seek bids in March yet and be ready to go in April," he said.

Nobles County will contribute $500,000 for the building project, with the city of Worthington also participating with a low-interest loan. Low interest loans are also offered by other partnering counties, which include Rock, Pipestone, Cottonwood and Jackson. Additional financing for the facility includes SWMHC reserves, anticipated proceeds from the sale of the former Unity House -- currently undergoing renovation -- and a bank loan.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer can be reached at


Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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