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Senate building quietly opens after Minnesotans built it

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate building opened Monday with lots of Minnesota materials, put up mostly by Minnesota workers, and designed to work in concert with its neighbor across the street, the Minnesota Capitol building.While the building h...

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A bit of last-minute electrical work was needed Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, at the new Minnesota Senate Building. Don Davis/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Senate building opened Monday with lots of Minnesota materials, put up mostly by Minnesota workers, and designed to work in concert with its neighbor across the street, the Minnesota Capitol building.
While the building has been controversial since its inception, the facility opened in plenty of time for the March 8 opening date for the 2016 legislative session and on budget. And even though Republican senators plan to maintain offices across the street until after the November election, they will attend meetings and full-Senate sessions at the $90 million building (including an underground garage).
There was no fanfare or protests as the building opened.
Monday was quiet, with only a few senators and not many staffers, after a busy weekend of movers hauling items from temporary downtown St. Paul office space and from closer areas.
A couple of electricians worked to fix a last-minute problem on the third floor and a few people seemed to always be walking around gawking at the facility.
The inside humidity needed adjustment first thing in the morning as below-zero temperatures caused condensation.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, stopped by for a few minutes to check things out. And building Project Manager Vic Thorstenson had time to give reporters tours, and sit down and assess the construction effort as a success.
“It’s about 100 percent in the building now, about 30 percent in place,” he said, sitting not far from a row of senators’ offices lines with both full and empty boxes.
In Bakk’s office, a life-size painting of a bear leaned next on the wall, awaiting a decision about its future. A decision already made, and to no one’s surprise who knows Bakk, fish and animals heads soon will be decorating his walls.
The majority leader’s office may only be in the new building for a year. Bakk plans to move his office, along with two committee chairmen and the Senate president, likely will have offices in the Capitol once its $304 million renovation wraps up in about a year.
The new building is equipped for today’s Senate work: senators’ offices, space for staff and large rooms for public meetings.
“It was never intended to be an office building, but that is what it morphed into,” Bakk said of the Capitol, where senators used to work.
Thorstenson said the original Capitol building was not designed to have legislator offices, since it was built in a time of short sessions held every other year. No public meetings rooms were built because committee meetings were not public.
The new facility includes three rooms for large audiences, and four other meeting rooms will be available in the Capitol once it reopens.
Audiences in the new rooms have an easier time following committees, and do not face the problem of looking around columns, like was common in the Capitol.
After criticism early on that the building would be luxury digs, Thorstenson said that he tried to keep it modest.
While senators can decorate their walls, there will be no art in public spaces at first. That will save money, Thorstenson said, both in acquiring art and in time spent debating what to hang.
“If you want to see a nice piece of art, look out at the Capitol,” he suggested.
Bakk and Thorstenson said the idea was not to compete with the Capitol.
“It’s a background building to the Capitol,” Thorstenson said.
Ninety-four percent of the work was done by Minnesota companies.
The ash comes from a Sauk Rapids manufacturer, glass from Owatonna, stone from Kasota and granite from Cold Spring. Steel in workplaces can be traced back to northern Minnesota’s taconite mines. A Faribault company made low-energy air-handling equipment.
Even the font used in signs comes from Minnesota, although it was by accident. Proxima Nova was picked for sign letters, Thorstenson said, but it was not until he checked out its origins later that he learned the font was designed by Mark Simonson of St. Paul, a noted font artist.

Quick facts about the new Minnesota Senate Building:

  • Across University Avenue north of the Capitol
  • 293,000 square feet of space
  • Offices for all 67 senators (Republicans won’t move in until late 2016)
  • Most Senate staff members have offices, although some will return to the Capitol
  • One 250-seat theater meeting room and two 150-seat rooms (available for public use)

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, that a new Senate office building will better serve the public and senators because, unlike the Capitol bulding, it was built for offices and public meetings. Don Davis/Forum News Service

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