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Behind the scenes, changes abound for Friendly Rider

The building that formerly housed Bob's Auto is being remodeled to become the new home for the Friendly Rider transit service. It's directly adjacent to the county highway department, right across Harry Rich Drive from Sunnybrook Park.

For Friendly Rider passengers, it's business as usual. But for the county officials in charge of the transit service for Wadena and northern Todd counties, 2014 will be a year of transition.

After a decade in a small office in the human services building, transit dispatch will move into more spacious digs in a building that formerly housed Bob's Auto. So will the buses, which currently operate out of a facility next to human services.

The new location is literally next door to the highway department on Harry Rich Drive. That proximity, combined with the human services director's pending retirement, has prompted discussion of shifting oversight to its new neighbor.

As the Minnesota Department of Transportation moves toward regional transit hubs, officials aim for the improved facility to add Internet dispatching, which would allow Wadena to take on duties from nearby counties. In the divergent direction, regional dispatchers in Beltrami and Douglas counties have made offers to provide services for Friendly Rider.

There's also preliminary talks about creating a regular bus route from Staples to Brainerd.

And last week the county sold a retired bus to local nonprofit Rising Phoenix.

New facility

At their final meeting of 2013, county commissioners voted 3-2 to purchase Bob's Auto for about $119,000. MnDOT, which will lease the building from the county, agreed to spend $45,000 to remodel the building.

While the county will hire contractors for electrical and plumbing work, a sentence-to-service crew with inmates from the Wadena and Todd county jails is doing the framing and sheetrocking.

That will reduce construction costs, although county engineer Ryan Odden hadn't crunched the numbers to figure out how much.

The inmates also "enjoy getting out and doing something beneficial," said Paul Sailer, human services director. "It's a win win."

In the past, sentence-to-service crews have helped with tornado recovery projects such as building the new fairgrounds.

The new transit facility, with office space and a garage for the buses, will be finished as early as April, Sailer said.

Management changes

With the new transit building located merely feet from Odden's window, both he and Sailer said it makes sense that oversight of the Friendly Rider program get transferred from human services to the highway department.

It also makes sense because Sailer is retiring at the end of March and county commissioners are considering several scenarios regarding his replacement.

On Monday, Sailer and Odden met to discuss details of the possible move.

Job descriptions and dividing duties among staff members - "Those are the types of things we're trying to think about right now," Sailer said after the meeting.

They expect to present a proposal to commissioners in late February.

Passengers, they said, won't notice any changes.

"All the phone numbers should stay the same," Sailer said.

Internet dispatching discussed

In February, officials will hold the first formal discussions about providing Internet dispatching services for Becker County's transit system.

"They've requested an opportunity to visit with us about a future together," Sailer said.

If approved, a dispatcher in Wadena would dispatch rides remotely, using a screen with a map of Detroit Lakes. A GPS tracker would ensure the dispatcher knows where the buses are at all times.

On Monday, Sailer said, MnDOT indicated it would support such a collaboration. "They have to be supportive or we really couldn't do it."

Last year, when they were making the case to buy Bob's Auto, Odden and Sailer told commissioners that the larger facility would put Wadena in a position to be a transit hub, which could lead to a new job in the city.

"With the new building, the new office space, we would have the room to support it," Odden said. The partnership with Becker County, he said, would be "the first step towards" the goal.

"The idea of leading from Wadena is happening," Sailer added.

In the opposite direction, Wadena County has received two offers to transfer dispatching to organizations that already offer the Internet service, one from Paul Bunyan Transit of Bemidji and another from Rainbow Rider out of Douglas County.

Sailer said although commissioners haven't made a decision, the county can only move in one direction. The likely scenario, he said, is Wadena will add Internet dispatching rather than outsource it. "It's better to have local oversight than oversight from further away."

Bus corridor proposed

Also in February, Wadena officials will be a part of a preliminary discussion with Crow Wing County Transit about adding a bus route from Staples to Brainerd.

"There's quite a bit of movement along the 210 corridor already," Sailer said. "There might be a place for transit."

If the route is added and is successful, he said, more could follow, perhaps between Wadena and Detroit Lakes, where many people work in the factories of Perham and New York Mills.

"MnDOT is promoting these corridors now," Sailer said.

County sells bus

At the monthly social services board meeting last week, commissioners approved the sale of a decommissioned Friendly Rider bus to Rising Phoenix for $4,000.

Besides operating a thrift store and a liquidated merchandise shop, the Wadena nonprofit teaches independent living and vocational skills to people with disabilities. It will use the bus to bring clients to and from work, said Barb Ellingson, Rising Phoenix's executive director.

"It worked out really well for us," she said, noting the bus's wheelchair lift will be particularly beneficial.

Once the Friendly Rider decals are removed (Sailer said that should happen within a week), the bus will join a fleet of two minivans and two other buses. It will replace a vehicle destroyed in an electrical fire.

Friendly Rider replaces buses when they reach 150,000 miles.

"It's fairly typical that they go to churches and nonprofits," Sailer said.

The $4,000, Odden said, will go toward the local cost - approximately $12,000 - of buying a new bus. The newest vehicle debuted last fall in Staples.