FARGO — Cass County Commissioner Mary Scherling said when she learned that the county may receive about $35 million under the new COVID-19 relief plan, her thoughts almost immediately turned to the need for a new Red River Regional Dispatch Center.
The center, which has been at its current mixed-use building location at 300 NP Avenue in downtown Fargo for about 17 years, is overcrowded and faces safety concerns.
It's not a new problem, as Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who visited the site about three years ago raised concerns about vulnerabilities at that time.
Those involved with the operation certainly hope the funding under the American Rescue Plan Act could be the answer.
"How to pay for it has been the critical question," Scherling said. "I think we need to pool our resources to get it done."
Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting and Fargo Fire Chief Steven Dirksen agreed. The center is a joint facility serving as a conduit for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo, and Cass and Clay counties.
Although the board overseeing the operation hired a commercial real estate agent to look into finding a building site or an existing building that could be renovated, Empting said they really haven't found the right spot yet.
"We are looking for options," he said.
Empting also thinks the relief aid could be a "positive way" to find the funds for the project as he said it's also hard for the employees there to observe social distancing guidelines with the crowded conditions.
If COVID-19 relief funds can be used for the project, Dirksen said, "I can guarantee you if they need a shovel-ready project we can work on it really quickly."
Scherling, whose portfolio as a commissioner includes emergency services, had another guarantee: She will pursue using the relief funds for the project.
"It's on everybody's radar," she added. "The sheriff's department and other agencies have it on the top of their list."
Dispatch Center Director Mary Phillippi said, "We are sure hoping" it can get done soon.
She said the operation is at full staffing currently with 41 dispatchers and supervisors working in the crowded facility around the clock.
Dirksen said he realizes they are "about out of space. There's no room for them to expand there."
He also pointed to the growing metro area population and an increase in calls for service.
Safety concerns have been an issue for many years.
The location near the railroad tracks could be an issue if a derailment occurred. The large windows to the building could be a hazard with a tornado or other severe weather, when 911 services would be needed the most.
Condominiums, built above the dispatch center after it moved in, also present a risk as a broken water pipe could lead to a leak and damage the center's vital equipment.
Scherling said using relief funds for the project could aid in keeping the property tax bills down for residents as mills wouldn't have to be raised to fund the move.
She added that the two counties and the cities have worked well together on other projects, even though it's across state lines.
As an example, she pointed to the West Central Regional Juvenile Center in Moorhead where Cass County contracts for juvenile detention services with other area counties and cities.
"That's worked extremely well," she said.