Nancy Edmonds Hanson
When Clay County residents think of a long wait, chances are good that the Department of Motor Vehicles comes to mind. Now, though, they’re waiting for something far more welcome – the day the new, far larger DMV office opens in the Moorhead Center Mall.
It’s good news for residents renewing drivers licenses, ordering license plates and transferring vehicle titles. Since the DMV office – closed for months due to the pandemic – reopened last summer, long lines have built up outside waiting for the office to open at 8 a.m. A staff member has taken names and assigned numbers as they reached the door; she sends them back to wait in their cars until they receive a call that their number was up.
“The commissioners have considered this a priority,” county administrator Steve Larson. “When we received our funds through the federal CARES Act, two things rose to the top – first, getting help to businesses badly affected by the pandemic, and then finding a good solution for the DMV.”
Commissioners have made great strides in providing business relief, issuing grants of up to $10,000 to businesses with fewer than 20 employees and $3,500 to sole proprietors. A total of 137 businesses qualified for $982,000 in grants through the end of that effort. Their program is now in Phase II, offering assistance to larger businesses with up to 50 workers, as well as long-term care facilities and group homes; another $719,000 is set aside for Phase II.
At the same time, a portion of the funds made available for pandemic-related costs could be used to ease the problems at the DMV facility on 15th Avenue North – the challenge of meeting social distancing standards for residents who would otherwise be crammed into its 721-square-foot waiting room.
“Before the pandemic, we’d often have 25 to 30 people sitting and standing in there,” Steve acknowledges. “It was so tight that we could only have half of the windows open. Waiting times could be substantial.”
Pandemic distancing regulations made the crowding an even bigger headache. “There was no way we could provide adequate spacing inside,” Steve notes. By the time the DMV office could open again this summer, pleasant weather gave the county some breathing space, since clients could line up outside. But the oncoming winter was about to bring that to a halt.
A solution emerged last month, when the county commission wrapped up negotiations to lease unoccupied space in the Center Mall. The new DMV will occupy the space left empty when Furniture for Less left earlier this year. The county’s initial three-year lease with the mall ownership group totals 8,800 square feet. About half, 4,300 square feet, will accommodate staff operations. The remaining 4,000 square feet is being turned into a spacious waiting area.
The county has initially leased the area for $105,000 per year, with an option to renew it in years 4 and 5. An additional $216,000 was earmarked to fit up the space; changes in the plan have now boosted that figure by $37,000.
Remodeling is underway now. The target date for opening is Nov. 16.
According to Larson, finding a solution for the undersized old DMV location has been a frustrating challenge. Minnesota is mothballing its problem-plagued MNLARS, the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, introduced just two years ago, on Nov. 12. It will be replaced with (pronounced Vit-rus), the new Vehicle Title and Registration System. The software handles licensing for the entire state. The shutdown of the old system provides a window in which the Clay County operation hopes to move into its new quarters.
“We will have plenty of space for people who are waiting,” Steve reports. “The mall opens at 7:30, so they can wait inside for the office to open at 8. They can walk around or sit in areas around the mall; we’ll let them know when their turn comes.”
One thing leads to another – and the opening of the DMV may lead to other desirable changes in the mall. One is the possibility of a coffee shop to accommodate those who wait, as well as other mall customers and visitors. “With 150 people coming in every day, many in parties of more than one person, the traffic may be beneficial,” Steve predicts. “We hope this may be a potential activator for other good things downtown.”
One service long associated with the DMV, however, is not going to relocate in the mall. Drivers license testing is conducted by the state of Minnesota, not by Clay County. The operation closed in March and still has not reopened in Moorhead, though some other offices – notably Detroit Lakes – are back in business. Those who need to take the test will continue to have to drive 45 miles for the foreseeable future.
“We invited them to come to the mall with us. It has plenty of space to accommodate them,” Steve notes. “Unfortunately, they have decided to stay on 15th Avenue North.”