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New District One president looking to focus on rural care

It’s been a little over a month since Michael Johnston stepped into the role of president of the hospitals in both Owatonna and Faribault, but he hasn’t wasted any time getting out into the communities to see how he can meet people where they’re at.

Though Johnston has been working in health care leadership roles since 2008, he admits that he never dreamed he would be working in hospitals. Always passionate about leadership, Johnston spent years working in the automotive manufacturing industry, which is where he said he was first exposed to the desperate need for quality health care in rural areas of the Midwest.

“We would send our workers to the doctor and when they came back they weren’t any better,” Johnston said. “I was seeing the problem from a different lens, so when someone first suggested I look into a health care position I already knew how broken the access to health care was and I wanted to help be the solution.”

Johnston first stepped into a leadership development position at Trinity Health in Mason City, Iowa, where he quickly transitioned into the role of vice president of network operations and development. From there he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina as the vice president of operations with a focus on administration leadership development for Atrium Health. Most recently, Johnston was the CEO of the McLaren Thumb Region in Michigan, where he oversaw hospitals in Bad Axe and Caro, Michigan.

According to Johnston, the first person who pulled him into the health care industry also alerted him of the opportunity in southern Minnesota at both Owatonna Hospital and District One in Faribault, both Allina Health affiliates. He said he was immediately interested.

“I understood that the market here is wonderful with that I-35 corridor going through both towns that otherwise themselves would be considered rural,” Johnston said. “There is also a good base and foundation of strength and community support here, and Allina is a very progressive organization that is embracing the future with things like telehealth.”

Ensuring that everyone in the southern Minnesota market – those living in the area from Lakeville down to the Iowa border – remains at the top of Johnston’s priority list as he continues to settle into his new role.

“The biggest thing is still improving access and making sure people can get to their health care providers,” Johnston said. “Access is huge and important to the overall population’s health, to me this is critical.”

Johnston said he also hopes to work on payment reform on the processing end, which is another priority he has had throughout his health care career.

Since arriving in southern Minnesota, Johnston said he couldn’t be happier with the people he has met in both communities and that he feels confident in building strong partnerships between the hospitals and the people they serve.

“That’s the why – it’s the strength and the potential and the support in the communities,” said Johnston.

Johnston is succeeding Dave Albrecht, who retired in April. Albrecht had served as the president of the Owatonna Hospital since 2006. District One was added to the scope of his role in 2017.

Faribault Rotary celebrates Mahler's Lifetime Achievement in its 101st year
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Rod Mahler has attended approximately 2,900 Faribault Rotary Club meetings since he joined 63 years ago, making him the club’s longest serving member.

“Sixty-three years of service in a club celebrating 101 years — that is what awesome is,” Rotary District Governor Ed Marek told the Faribault Rotary Club during its meeting Wednesday.

Lifetime Achievement Award winner Rod Mahler poses for a photo with Rotary District Governor Ed Marek after Mahler received a Paul Harris Fellow Award. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Rotary Club members gathered at The Inn at Shattuck-St. Mary’s at noon Wednesday to not only recognize 100 years of Faribault Rotary but also recognize Mahler as a Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

“This is really memorable to me, and I’ll never forget it,” Mahler said after accepting his award from Club Historian Murray Hanson. “Rotarians, keep working hard. It’s a fantastic experience I’ve had in my life.”

Rod Mahler joined Faribault Rotary 63 years ago and received the Lifetime Achievement Award during the club’s 100th anniversary celebration Wednesday. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Mahler said he joined Rotary when he was 25, making him, to his knowledge, the youngest member to join the Faribault club. Now, he said, he’s one of its oldest members.

Hanson compiled his research on Mahler’s history in Rotary into a slideshow, which was presented at the meeting, and highlighted many of Mahler’s achievements and acts of service to the community, which began long before he joined Rotary.

Dr. Murray Hanson introduced Lifetime Achievement Award winner Rod Mahler during the Faribault Rotary Club’s 100th anniversary celebration Wednesday. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

In his youth, Mahler worked as a trapper, and as an elementary school student, a paperboy. He held the office of seventh-grade class president, participated in summer Bible camps and drama club, and he sang in the Rotary Christmas concert in the late 1940s. Mahler received the Faribault Senior High Service Award as a high school senior.

After college, Mahler served a tour in the U.S. Army before returning to Faribault to help his father in the hardware business. Years later, Mahler switched to a career in real estate.

Mahler and his wife, Jean, were married 59½ years until her death in 2014. Together they had three children, David, Heidi and Gayle, and nine grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

Mahler’s Rotary membership began March 5, 1958, under the sponsorship of NSP sales manager Pete Beck. Apart from being out two weeks with the mumps back in 1958, Mahler had 10 years of perfect attendance within Faribault Rotary. He has participated in over 3,500 Rotary events, and his tenure overlapped with some of the club’s first members.

Murray said Mahler was instrumental in shaping the club’s focus on youth, supporting the local Rotary youth camp on Cedar Lake. Mahler and his family also hosted a Rotary exchange student from Bolivia during the club’s 50th year.

From 1972 to 1973, Mahler served as the Faribault Rotary Club’s 53rd president and helped choose the 51 presidents that followed.

In addition to Rotary, Mahler has belonged to the Elks and the Faribault Country Club and served on the Faribault Chamber of Commerce, all before turning 36. In 1969, the Minnesota Jaycees named him one of Minnesota’s 10 Outstanding Young Men.

As a personal highlight, Mahler appeared on WCCO, national TV and the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite to do energy conservation interviews in 1979.

“When I joined 28 years ago, Rod was one of the first Rotarians to fleece me during fellowship, just to be sure that I felt welcome,” Hanson said. “He has always been welcoming and encouraging to new members over the years and is a true example of what it means to be a Rotarian.”

A century of service

The Faribault Rotary Club technically celebrated its 100th anniversary at noon May 1, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the club moved the celebration to an online video platform and postponed the in-person celebration a couple of times.

Incidentally, Murray said Faribault Rotary was established during the Spanish flu that lasted from 1918 to 1920. The Faribault Club was founded as Rotary International’s 596th club with 22 charter members. The club’s charter president was Frank W. McKellip, and the 100th president was Amy Amundson, who spoke at the celebration Wednesday.

Faribault Rotary’s 100th president Amy Amundson spoke about the club’s resilience during the coronavirus pandemic and expressed her pride for belonging to the club during the 100th anniversary celebration. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Until 1987, Rotary was exclusively a men’s organization. After Rotary International allowed women to become Rotarians, Janine Sahagian became Faribault’s first woman to join the local club. She was named president in 1999.

The Faribault Rotary started various traditions in the local community such as a Christmas concert featuring the Faribault High School choir, which ran for over 80 years.

Whether through music, art, or academics, Faribault Rotary has given local students over $350,000 in scholarships. A concert to benefit youth services through Rotary started as a tradition over 55 years ago. Community projects like the development of local soccer fields, buddy benches at school playgrounds, Respect Retreats and Rotary Readers are all designed to benefit Faribault youth.

Internationally, Faribault Rotary has participated in efforts to improve farming processes in Sierra Leone, sent books to schools in Africa and inoculated children against polio in Pakistan and other countries.

Locally, Rotarians have volunteered at blood drives, rang the bells for the Salvation Army during the Christmas season, delivered Meals on Wheels and participated in beautification projects and clothing drives.

“As we look to the future, we will continue to live and promote the ideals of the ‘Four Way Test’ adopted by Rotary International in 1943,” Hanson said. “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? So, today after 100 years, the men and women of the Faribault Rotary Club will continue to honor the legacy of ‘Service Above Self’ to our community and the world for the next 100 years and beyond.”

Plans call for more than 110 storage units at former Land O'Lakes plant
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The former Faribault Land O’Lakes plant site could soon hold more than 110 private storage units.

Plans include 70 outdoor storage spaces and 41 indoor spots, including 23 climate-controlled units and 18 cold-storage spaces, said property owner Leon Endres. Current plans call for the storage units to be on the west side of the slightly more than 4-acre-site, 1612 Seventh St. NW, and include approximately 7,500 square feet of climate-controlled interior self-storage space along with 1,082 square feet of office space. Exterior improvements are expected to include painting, door replacement, new accessibility and dedicated parking areas.

Some existing pavement will be replaced and a gravel area on the north side will be paved.

Based on the proposal, the Faribault Planning Commission on Monday voted to recommend the City Council approve a conditional use permit for the site. Site plans will be considered by the council at an upcoming meeting.

The storage units are expected to range in size from 25 to 200 square feet and be protected by security cameras. The east side of the site is expected to continue to house Energy Technology Unlimited of Minnesota. ETUM takes old, used antifreeze and sends it through a filtration and additive process, creating new antifreeze.

Construction could be finished around the middle of August, pending council approval. That opening date would allow people to purchase spaces and soon store their boats, RVs and campers as the fall season settles in.

Endres, of Hastings, has already developed 960 climate-controlled self-storage units in Phoenix. He noted a local market study found that there was a demand for climate-controlled storage in Faribault, adding the site’s existing layout and available space would enable further growth based on demand.

According to Rice County property tax records, ETUM purchased the property in 2011, after it was passed between a few different owners. Land O’Lakes closed its facility in 2002. The plant had produced butter-margarine blends, flavored butters and dried dairy products for use in food manufacturing.

It had a major contract producing butter packets for airlines, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, plastic knives were banned on planes, and the demand for the product dried up. The Land O’ Lakes plant first opened in 1948 as a creamery run by Rice County Dairy, and Land O’ Lakes purchased the building in 1970.

Plans come after Self Storage Dundas recently completed a nearly 23,000-square-foot, three-building expansion in Northfield just northwest of the Dundas Dome off Hwy. 3. The more than $1.2 million expansion, at 2280 Cannon Road, could double in size in the future, also depending on demand. Two of the buildings, completed last year and filled in the fall, have a combined 92 units, each with 7,350 square feet. The third, completed this spring, is 8,250 square feet.