A repurposed health facility in Willmar is now a top-notch campus for area manufacturing and technology businesses.
In 2005, Jim Sieben had a problem. As vice president and general manager of Nova-Tech Engineering, a robotic systems manufacturer, he knew his business was cutting edge in technology. Unfortunately, the company's facility was the exact opposite.
"We were actually working out of a pole barn, which is literally an insulated pole shed," Sieben says. "We're interested in recruiting engineering staff and Ph.D.- level people, and they aren't really impressed when they come into a pole barn and we say, 'Hey, we've got
this really cool company to work for, but look at where we have to work.'"
Sieben and other company leaders were considering construction of a new facility for the company when they discovered the State of Minnesota's plans to repurpose a set of nearby buildings. Dating back to the 1920s, the buildings had served as mental health and addiction
recovery facilities, housing some 1,200 patients at the peak of activity. Though Sieben was doubtful the campus would be an appropriate facility for his business, he decided to take a look.
What he saw was inspiring. Beyond a better facility, the second challenge in attracting highly skilled workers had been a lack of companies in the area that were similar to Nova-Tech Engineering. In discussions with the state's economic development team, Sieben and others saw
potential in the buildings for forming a campus of similar businesses, where businesses could compete for talented workers and share resources to help each other thrive.
Today, that vision has become reality. Nova-Tech Engineering and Life-Science Innovations purchased the campus from the State of Minnesota in 2006, renaming it MinnWest Technology Campus, and ever since have been leasing the additional buildings to other technology-oriented
businesses. At present there are 18 businesses and approximately 250 employees on campus. Sieben, who serves as campus president, says there is room for more. While building exteriors must remain the same due to a connection with the Minnesota Historical Society, tenants are free to
renovate the interiors to their liking. Employees enjoy a gymnasium, pool, auditorium and dining facility with meals prepared by a catering company. The campus's pristine landscaping and walkways encourage lunchtime walks and offer a natural view.
Sieben says attracting new workers has been much easier since the move, allowing Nova-Tech Engineering to grow from 43 to 85 employees. "People come in here now, and the facilities are just so awesome," he says. "It's very stately. You walk in and there are big arches
that you walk through to come into the building at each entrance. We just did not have a facility that could wow anybody before, and now it's quite the opposite. It's jaw-dropping."
The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities will offer tenants another advantage in coming months when the Mid Central Research and Outreach Center opens on campus. The center will help connect businesses facing specific challenges or training
needs with professors from Minnesota colleges and universities who might be able to help.
"The idea is really to connect the education system directly to business . . . which is the fastest route to economic development," Sieben says. "It's about getting companies to grow and prosper here in our region."