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K-W trap team competitors at the range in Wanamingo (Leader file photo)

In 'Redemption' story, fine dining returns downtown

After a year of hard work a Northfield-area businessman and restaurateur are finally on the verge of bringing high-end dining and apartments to downtown Faribault.

Before settling down for a lengthy Tuesday work session, Faribault’s City Council took a tour of the building at 31 Third St. NE. Located across the street from the city Post Office, the 1875 structure has served a multitude of purposes over the years. Once a warehouse, a shoe manufacturer and a furniture manufacturer, the building has been home to several restaurants in the recent past. With elegance and historic charm, it’s attracted several restaurateurs who’ve seen it as a fitting destination for fine dining.

So far none have quite managed to make the model stick, but Craig Korvela may have come the closest. Korvela owned and operated Monte’s Steakhouse on the site, for years a hit with locals and visitors alike.

Despite its popularity, Monte’s struggled to stay afloat amid aftereffects of the late 2000s recession and was ultimately forced to close. Korvela has had more success of late, opening up several local venue,s including Fielder’s Choice Taproom in Northfield.

As for the building, it was purchased in 2013 by Rebound, the investment firm of Northfield businessman Brett Reese. The two got to know each other after Korvela took the job of chef at Northfield’s Fairfield Inn & Suites, also owned by Rebound.

Now, Reese has once again turned to Korvela in hopes of establishing a business plan that can succeed. Over the last year, Korvela has focused on transforming the building’s interior to help emphasize the clean break with previous restaurant failures, including his own.

As for the menu itself, he’s said it’s likely to feature classics like chicken, steak and seafood, all prepared over a wood-fired grill. That could hit the spot in Faribault, which has a noted lack of fine dining options despite strong economic growth in recent years.

In addition to fine dining, the new building will offer six high-end apartments upstairs, which were also toured by the City Council. Located in the heart of downtown and near plenty of amenities, the apartments dovetail nicely with the city’s needs and goals.

We are excited to add the Redemption restaurant to a list of excellent other dining options in Faribault … as well as other improvements in that building adding higher end housing,” said Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson. “We really appreciate the investment in Faribault.”

Anticipating success

In recent years, a lack of housing has become one of the most difficult obstacles to continued growth in Faribault. The rental market has been particularly tight, with a rental housing study conducted in 2017 showing a vacancy rate of less than 1%.

Since then, city staff have worked tirelessly to encourage developers to embark on large and small multi-family housing projects alike, with striking success. The effort has been particularly focused on increasing downtown housing, a goal of the city’s Journey to 2040 vision.

Once all projects currently in the works are complete, more than 300 units will be added to Faribault’s housing stock. Yet with the exception of Rochester-based developer Mac Hamilton’s Hillside Apartments, few of those developments have been completed. While the apartments won’t be leased until Sept. 1, interest in them is already high. Korvela said he’s already secured one tenant and is confident that most will be leased out by the middle of September.

While the project is finally on the verge of completion, it hasn’t happened as quickly as initially anticipated. Last fall, Korvela said he hoped to open early this year, but was sidetracked by responsibilities with other projects.

Fortunately for Korvela and his partners, the project has managed to stay under budget despite the delays. However, when the restaurant does open for business around the first of October, it will open in an economic climate much less certain than one might have imagined a year ago.

Korvela conceded that making it work during the COVID climate is likely to be very tricky. Still, he’s anticipating success. Already, he’s conducted a few interviews for management-level positions and says he anticipates stepping up hiring around Labor Day.

“To be profitable during this pandemic is very difficult,” he said. “Restaurateurs need to be able to adjust and figure out a new normal.”

Korvela said that the timing does make sense in that he’ll get to see how the beginning of the school year affects things. If it brings a new rise in COVID infections, the restaurant could be forced to open on a takeout-only basis, limiting the number of staff needed.

One thing Korvela’s latest effort could have going for it that previous efforts didn’t is additional on-site parking. Thanks to the demolition of the old Knights of Columbus building next door, there’s now far more nearby parking than before.

The restaurant could enjoy an additional boost from an electric vehicle charging station that’s set to be installed in the parking lot this summer. The new station is paid for by settlement funds stemming from a lawsuit against Volkswagen Motors for violating the Clean Air Act.

The station will be the third overall in Faribault, but the first that offers a “fast charge” option. In general, charging stations are few and far between in Greater Minnesota. Korvela expressed optimism that the new station could attract potential customers to the restaurant.

“If people are traveling from the metro for a day trip, it’s a great option for them to charge their vehicle while they’re eating a meal,” he said.

Local drainage ditch causes consternation

A lowly ditch that runs through Rice and Steele counties is provoking significant controversy at the local government level, with one local farmer warning that a fix is needed soon to avoid severe damages to area properties.

Starting in Steele County, Joint Ditch 6 enters Rice County through Warsaw Township and bends east into Walcott Township before joining up with the Straight River. On the county board, Warsaw is represented by Jeff Docken, while Walcott is represented by Jake Gillen.

While most Rice County ditches are overseen by the Board of Commissioners, Joint Ditch 6 is unusual because it travels through more than one county. Therefore, a Joint Ditch Committee was established to oversee the maintenance of this specific ditch.

Gillen and Docken, who together represent all but one rural township in Rice County, sit along with Commissioners from Steele County on the committee. It meets on an as-needed basis, and hasn’t held any meetings as of late.

At Aug. 4 Board of Commissioners meeting, Brian Gillen expressed significant concerns about the state of the culvert. Brian Gillen, the son of Commissioner Gillen, is a local farmer who farms land near to the ditch. In his address to the board, Brian Gillen made it clear that he fears a catastrophic accident could occur if the ditch is not repaired. He even claimed it could cause significant damage to area properties and potentially even loss of life.

“When this thing blows it’s going to be like throwing a case of dynamite at the King Mill Dam,” he told commissioners.

While Brian Gillen declined to expand further on those comments or provide clear evidence supporting those specific fears, citing fear of a potential lawsuit. However, his father has championed the cause on the county board for several years.

Jake Gillen said that about five years ago, the ditch was cleaned and the quality of the culverts crossing it had been found to have deteriorated. Shortly after, he believed he had secured funding to fix up the culvert, but the arrangement fell through. In the roughly six decades since the ditch was built and crossings were installed, Jake Gillen said that maintenance was minimal. In the meantime, tractors have become larger and many culverts are historically undersized in their ability to accommodate heavy rainfall events, which have become more frequent.

Jake Gillen said that the county isn’t keeping up on its mandate to provide a crossing for area farmers. Gillen said that of the three crossings is causing the most consternation, two were initially put in by the ditch authority and should be repaired by it.

Docken said it’s possible that the ditch authority may need to repair some of its older ditches. Should such repairs be deemed necessary, a special assessment would be borne by those in the ditch watershed, not all county taxpayers.

However, Docken noted that some of the crossings causing the most consternation are actually the responsibility of the individual landowner. As a result, it’s possible that the ditch authority may only be able to provide limited help.

Jim Purfeerst, a member of the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District, said that the topic was discussed by the SWCD several years ago but not recently. At that time, the SWCD also concluded that the most troublesome crossings were private.

Given Brian Gillen’s concerns, Rice County Soil and Water Board Director Steve Pahs promised to revisit the issue. Pahs said that in the coming weeks he will go out with his colleagues from Steele County to inspect the ditch and see if repairs need to be made.

At that point, a meeting of the ditch authority could be called to determine the future of the culverts. Docken and Pahs both pledged to work on this issue and provide as much assistance to area landowners as possible.

“Once we’ve got a more in-depth assessment, we’ll see what we have to do,” Docken said.