Rice County’s Board of Commissioners has gone all in in a push for state funding to improve safety at one of the area’s most difficult intersections.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the county board officially approved an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to review, develop and fine tune a proposed roundabout. The county will spend $33,000 for the work. In return, MnDOT will cover the remainder, estimated to be around $67,000.
The roundabout is intended to improve traffic flow at the Interstate 35 and Hwy. 19 interchange, long a top county priority. Last fall MnDOT finally initiated and funded a safety analysis which found the roundabout to be the best solution based on traffic flow and projections on the easter portion of the interchange. Though MnDOT officials haven’t yet made a funding commitment to the project, instead directing the county to apply for the competitive programs, Commissioner Galen Malecha expressed relief that the department finally seemed to be taking the project seriously.
“I am seeing light at the end of the tunnel and MnDOT has come to their senses,” he said. “But, it has taken a long time.”
The county board has hammered MnDOT officials for years about the need to upgrade that portion of the interchange. The west side, with the Flying J Travel Center, MnDOT salt shed, and park and ride lot, has long had a traffic signal. But the eastern portion, particularly the northbound exit ramp, is often backed up for motorists looking to turn left.
“Anyone who travels that road knows how congested it can be early in the morning and late in the afternoon, especially after 3 o’clock,” said Commissioner Jeff Docken.
County Engineer Dennis Luebbe noted that traffic has increased substantially since Pilot Corporation bought the Flying J and expanded it. With heavy truck traffic at the intersection, it’s a challenge for drivers to navigate.
“(The current setup) causes some confusion and triggers drivers to weave through the area,” he said. “That’s not good when you have heavy traffic volumes.”
A total of six exit and entrance ramps would be included in the proposed roundabout, enabling easy access to and from I-35, Hwy 19 and several area frontage roads that have been considered possible sites for economic development.
Once the design review is complete, the county will have formal, site-specific plans for a functional roundabout. However, the county isn’t waiting for the review to complete before seeking federal and state dollars.
Loath to invest its own dollars in a project that would primarily improve a trunk highway and interstate, the board hopes to limit its investment in the project to about 10% of $3 million project estimate.
With dollars at the state and federal levels limited, that’s proven a hefty challenge for other local government entities. Malecha cited the experience of neighboring Dakota County, which was eventually forced to pour its own dollars into a similar project.
While MnDOT has pledged to support the project, that has not extended to any specific funding commitments. The county will apply for a combined $1.6 million from two MnDOT pots of money, but will be up against plenty of other competitive projects.
Of that, $900,000 has been requested from MnDOT’s District 6 Partnership Program. That’s the entire yearly budget of the program, and the county will have to compete against projects from 10 other counties in southeast Minnesota. Another $700,000 will be requested from the Transportation Economic Development grant program, out of a total of $1.85 million available in the program. The county will compete with even more counties for these dollars, with all but the seven metro counties eligible to apply.
Finally, Luebbe is applying for $1.1 million in federal funding, out of a total of $13 million available. All three applications will announce project recipients within the next couple of months, so the county will soon find out if the money will be available.
If everything goes well, Luebbe said construction could start on the project by summer of 2022. If at least one of the funding applications falls through, he said the county will need to work with MnDOT to assess a path forward.
One potential solution could be state bonding. Luebbe told the board that he’s written to the House and Senate committees asking them to pass a bonding bill. While the roundabout hasn’t been included in bonding previously, he said he would make a push for it.
However, legislators have struggled in recent years to come to a consensus on a bonding bill, which requires approval by a 3/5ths supermajority of both houses of the legislature, a situation that drew Malecha’s ire.
“It’s unfortunate that the Legislature has to play games at the Capitol,” he said. “We have real needs here.”
After more than a decade of renting a storefront in historic downtown Faribault, a local family-owned business is finding success in its own building.
Luis and Ana del Aguila moved their small store, Anadelas Novedades, to 327 Central Ave in February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They bought the century-old building from Paul Swenson, a well-known local photographer who was retiring.
Prior to that, the Aguilas rented a building exactly a block down the street at 227 Central for about five years. Before that they rented a different downtown building across the street from Pawn Minnesota. The Aguilas have owned other small businesses in Faribault over the years, including the Taco Campanero Grill at 508 Central Ave. and a grocery store that occupied the building that’s now home to the Cancun Grill.
While those businesses closed, Anadelas Novedades has stayed, with the Aguilas providing check cashing and money transfer services, tax preparation and some retail with a focus on serving the area’s growing Latino community.
Luis del Aguila, a Guatemalan immigrant and U.S. citizen, commented that over the decade that Anandelas Novedades has been in business, the number of local Latino-owned businesses has not grown substantially.
However, he said that his business has seen a steady increase in traffic over the years. Unlike so many other downtown businesses, Anandelas Novedades, as an essential business, stayed open during the brunt of the pandemic. Even with much of the economy shuttered, Aguila managed to continue to do good business. With much of the area’s Latino community working in essential jobs, there was a continued need for check cashing and other services.
While the check-cashing side of the business has stayed largely stable, Aguila said that most of the rest of the business has grown. In particular, he noted that the tax preparation side of the business has become particularly popular.”
“Ten years ago we started out in a much smaller space,” he said. “But we’ve kept growing and growing, and now we’ve bought our own building.”
Aguila said that not having to deal with a landlord has been a great help. He’s been able to collect a bit of extra income by renting up two apartments on the building’s upper floors.
But owning a business in downtown Faribault comes with its own responsibilities. Though they haven’t reached out to Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen yet, the Aguilas plan to get windows on the upstairs of the building fixed.
Downtown building maintenance has long been a controversial topic at City Hall, with the city recently providing grants to businesses willing to fix their building. An historic structure like the one at 327 Central is eligible for more assistance but also subject to more restrictions.
Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that the Chamber was aware of the move and is pleased to have another successful building owner in downtown Faribault.
“We’re glad to see they’re growing their business in our community,” he said.
For Dave DuChene, Believet Canine Service Partners in Northfield offered him not only a dog but a lifeline.
“He saved my life,” said DuChene, a veteran and Faribault resident, looking down at Jack, his standard poodle. “ … My doctor said I suffered from PTSD, which I knew, so I say [Jack] saved my life.”
DuChene’s wife learned about Believet from Executive Director and founder Sam Daly, who she met at their church. She urged her husband to learn more about the program, which connects veterans with custom-trained assistance dogs, and he agreed to give it a chance. A year after being matched with his dog, he’s also a volunteer trainer, helping other veterans.
Another volunteer, Patty Benson, became involved with Believet after one of its dogs helped her husband, also veteran.
“It has helped him reclaim his freedom,” Benson said. “I’m very grateful.”
Volunteers train 10 to 12 assistance dogs per year for veterans in and far beyond Rice County. Daly reported over 30 veterans on the waiting list. Since it takes 18 months to train one service dog, some of these vets need to wait up to two years to receive their dog.
“What we do costs money just like any charity, but the return on investment is also relevant” Daly said. “The benefit of the community is in keeping families together and keeping veterans employed … Most people think this program is about the dogs, but really it’s about disabled vets and their families and giving them back their lives.”
April usually marks Believet’s biggest annual fundraiser, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the event from happening. Daly said the organization is “OK for now” financially, but reduced funding could negatively impact 2021.
Daly started Believet in 2015 after serving as a civilian contractor attached to the U.S. Marine Corps. During deployments in Helmand Provide and Afghanistan, Daly used labrador retriever military working dogs for battlefield detection of improvised explosives devices. He noticed the dogs providing comfort to the Marines, and that inspired his efforts back in the U.S.
“After that experience, it was a progression,” Daly said. “We’ve been training here in this location for 21 years. It wasn’t like we just started a new idea; we had a lot of background and training.”
Four main trainers bring four to 15 years of dog-training experience to Believet, and veterans must commit 120 hours of training after their dogs complete one year of training with volunteers. Believet staff matches veterans to dogs based on several factors, including activity level. An older veteran might benefit from a less active dog, for example.
George Wickstrom, a Believet board member, accounted a story of a veteran whose assistance dog, nuzzling up to him, disrupted his thoughts of suicide. According to Daly, that story applies to nearly all the vets who participate in the program. Almost all veterans involved in Believet use dogs that provide psychiatric services as opposed to physical services, but many psychiatric service dogs also offer practical skills.
“When you’ve been a veteran and seen the things we’ve seen, it’s hard on your system,” DuChene said. “You read about suicide … This is a way to prevent it.”
All Believet staff members undergo suicide prevention training and keep that top of mind. Rather than relying on medications to reduce the symptoms of PTSD, Believet looks at cortisol levels in conjunction with the assistance dogs. Daly explained that individuals with PTSD experience lower levels of cortisol, which helps the body respond to stress, but the dogs prove to increase those levels to a healthy baseline.
In addition to offering companionship, the assistance dogs are trained to perform specific behaviors that helps calm veterans. Dogs notice changes in their veterans, like sweating and raised voices, as signals to intervene. Since individuals with PTSD may experience difficulty controlling their behaviors, and therefore choose to isolate at home, Daly said the dogs help restore veterans’ confidence in going out.
“I’ve seen some remarkable things,” said Charles Kenow, a volunteer trainer and member of the Believet Board. “I know individuals who weren’t able to get out of the house but now speak before 200 people and go shopping. I think this is a great organization.”
Volunteer dog trainers also train dogs to to meet clients’ specific needs. Females with military sexual trauma make up about 50% of the clients, and their dogs learn behaviors specific to their needs.
Daly explained that if veterans suffer from vivid, traumatic dreams while sleeping, their dogs might awaken them in a comforting manner, by turning on the bedroom light and slowly removing the bedding. Dogs also learn how to retrieve security items, like a cell phone, if they fall in the snow.
“I think the organization is probably top-notch to any similar organization,” said Kevin Bauer of Dundas, who served 27 years in the U.S. Army. “… Sam not only runs the organization but talks to us individually and tells us what we need to do to get the dogs and become self-sufficient. It should be more widely known from what it really is.”