COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — After years of planning, a Nov. 7 tour of the HERO Public Safety Training Center was surreal for some, including Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague.

"I still can't believe we're doing this," Vague said. "I'm still kinda pinching myself."

Tours were conducted by Woodbury Police Capt. Kris Mienert, Cottage Grove Deputy Public Safety Director Greg Rinzel and HERO Center manager Dan Anselment.

Guests included Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry and retired Cottage Grove police chief Craig Woolery.

The HERO Center facility includes a secure storage room for ammunition. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
The HERO Center facility includes a secure storage room for ammunition. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

The $20.5 million, 47,000-square-foot Health and Emergency Response Occupations Center will serve as a professional development and training facility for police, fire and EMS. It will be jointly owned and operated by Cottage Grove and Woodbury.

Features include a 28-person classroom, two indoor shooting ranges, a catering kitchen and two realistic training houses with breach doors and tactical entry doors that can withstand small explosions.

The tour included a mock prisoner extraction in a room built to the dimensions of a jail cell. It will be used to train corrections officers.

The virtual reality firearms training simulator featured a giant video screen where officers could practice de-escalation and use-of-force techniques in a variety of violent scenarios, including a chilling recreation of a school shooting.

One of the shooting ranges will be available for public use, Mienert said. Spent bullets and shell casings will be sold to a scrap reclamation company. The money will be plowed back into HERO Center operations.

The HERO Center facility includes a 12-lane, 50-yard shooting range, which will be open to both public safety officers and the public. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
The HERO Center facility includes a 12-lane, 50-yard shooting range, which will be open to both public safety officers and the public. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

A two-story indoor tactical training area features movable walls. that can be rearranged into different configurations. Officers who used the area for room-to-room search techniques won't get used to one particular layout.

The gun cleaning room has wooden floors and walls to prevent ricochets in the event of an accidental firearms discharge. A wash station will use cold water for officers to clean up with after using the shooting range, as hot water opens up the pores and increases the exposure to lead.

The HERO tour was scheduled months ago, but may have come at an opportune time. It came three days after two veteran police officers, Cottage Grove police Capt. Gwen Martin and Woodbury police Sgt. Omar Maklad, fired their service revolvers during a fatal confrontation with a gunman in the Hidden Valley neighborhood of Cottage Grove.

The Ramsey County Medical Examiner determined the gunman, Noah Ante Erickson, 34, of White Bear Lake, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"It was a very difficult week for all the first responders," Cottage Grove Police Chief and Public Safety Director Pete Koerner said.

Meanwhile, the HERO Center is already proving its value as a law enforcement recruiting tool.

"The last time we did a hiring process, our candidate pool has about tripled," Koerner said. "That sends a message to new people that they're valued."