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Hospital president says goodbye to southern Minnesota

By nature, Dave Albrecht is a busy man.

Over the last 15 years, Albrecht relocated to a new state, built a multi-million dollar hospital under budget, headed up two hospitals simultaneously, and had his hand involved in most major nonprofit efforts that directly impacted his community.

“The people down here mean a lot to me,” Albrecht said. “Leaving is a little bittersweet, there is no question about that.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

In this 2020 file photo, Dave Albrecht challenged the community to rise to the occasion of raising the $800,000 goal during the 2020 United Way of Steele County corporate campaign. Albrecht was serving as the board chair at the time of the event. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Albrecht will be retiring from his position as president of both Owatonna Hospital and District One Hospital in Faribault – both Allina Health locations – on Friday. He will then be relocating with his wife, Debbie, to his home state of Wisconsin to be closer to their children. Though Albrecht said he has been readily warned from other retirees that they have become more busy in retirement than they ever were while working, he feels more than up to that challenge as he closed the book on a fulfilling and successful career.

The trek to Owatonna

Albrecht’s path to Owatonna – and even into the health care community itself – wasn’t necessarily a straight road.

Growing up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with three brothers, Albrecht remained in his hometown for college without a clear plan on what he wanted to do with his life as he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. Feeling there would be permanent job security in accounting, Albrecht transferred to the state school in Whitewater and eventually landed an accounting job straight out of college.

After leading Owatonna Hospital and District One, Dave Albrecht is retiring at the end of the week. He and his wife will relocate to Wisconsin to be near their children, but leave behind fond memories and a lot of love for southern Minnesota. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

Though Albrecht enjoyed his job as a public accountant, he admitted he couldn’t see that as a lifelong career. However, his gig crunching numbers is what opened the doors to the health care industry – specifically in health administration – when he was head-hunted for a chief financial officer position for a healthcare group based in Green Bay.

It was there that Albrecht decided becoming president of a hospital was a career goal, and he eventually got his Master of Business Administration with a specialty in health administration. After a brief stint as the chief executive officer of a small, struggling hospital in Indiana, Albrecht got a call from Owatonna, who was in the very beginning stages of building a new hospital.

“That was one of the main driving factors to come here,” Albrecht said. “To have the opportunity to design a hospital from the ground up – I had taken part in a number of major construction projects but never a complete redesign.”

On Albrecht’s first day in Owatonna in 2006 as the director of operations and finance, the hospital was celebrating the approval of the capital to build the new facility. Over the next three years, Albrecht was elbows deep in the design, construction, and moving coordination of the $50 million facility – which he is proud to remind people that the project came in under budget.

In late 2008, Dave Albrecht (left) works diligently alongside the project manager for the construction of the new Owatonna Hospital. Albrecht first came onboard with the Owatonna Hospital in 2006 as the director of operations and finance with the primary focus being on the design and construction of the new facility. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Another motivator for Albrecht to make the move to Owatonna was the opportunity to potentially securing a president’s position with one of the hospital’s in the Allina system, something he achieved in 2009. Instead of moving into the Owatonna Hospital as a director, Albrecht was able to close up the old hospital and start in the new facility holding the top role.

“Right away the thing that became big on my agenda was the culture at the hospital,” Albrecht said. “I wanted everyone to come together as a team and work as a team and succeed as a team.”

Expanding to Faribault

After putting in a handful of years in Owatonna and achieving the team atmosphere he was going for, Albrecht was ready to take on a new career challenge. In 2017, Albrecht added District One Hospital in Faribault to his resume, taking over as president while continuing on in the same position at Owatonna.

“Stepping into Faribault really recharged my career,” Albrecht said. “In Owatonna we still had things we needed to do, but I was 10 years in there and was looking for something new that I could really make some changes and take on. It was really energizing.”

Dave Albrecht stands outside the lobby of District One Hospital in Faribault in November 2017 after it was announced he would be stepping in as the new president, coinciding with his role in the same position at Owatonna Hospital. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Though Albrecht admits that he wasn’t able to learn all the names in District One like he does in Owatonna during his time there, he feels proud about the team atmosphere he was able to bring there as well.

“We just really have a strong team-based culture at both sites,” Albrecht said. “We were able to accomplish a lot during the short time I was in Faribault, but it wasn’t just me, it was that culmination of team effort.”

The pandemic curveball

Albrecht has known for a long time that those who choose a career in health care are unique in many ways, but that was amplified even more throughout the last year as the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have great employees – that has never been a question – but watching them go and take on the challenge of COVID-19 brought it all into focus,” Albrecht said. “It takes a special type of person to work in health care, to serve other people and try to relieve pain and suffering and anxiety and just help people find their way forward with their physical or mental health.”

Like the rest of the world, Albrecht could have never seen the pandemic coming. Though he said it was definitely the hardest challenge he has been faced with throughout his entire career, Albrecht was able to witness profound efforts by his staff that he hopes will continue forward following the end of COVID-19.

“If nothing else, COVID-19 made our entire group come together and know one another as people,” Albrecht said. “Everyone became more reliant on each other, there is no just handing patients off, we have all become co-dependent on each other to help with the recovery and succeed in the services our patients need.”

Community involvement

Aside from his position at the two hospitals, Albrecht has been a prominent figure in the communities he serves – specifically in the nonprofit work in Owatonna.

Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON jjackson@owatonna.com 

In this January 2016 file photo, Dave Albrecht (center, holding the number 2) joins other board members of United Way of Steele County to announce how much the organization had raised in its annual fund drive. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Holding the position as board chair for both the United Way of Steele County and the Free Clinic of Steele County, Albrecht has also been heavily involved throughout the years with a variety of Rotary Club initiatives, the Riverland Foundation, the school district’s Community Task Force, Owatonna Forward, as well as a plethora of other events and efforts.

“I am sure I will eventually find new organizations to be a part of, but I will wait for just a bit,” Albrecht said about his plans when it comes to community involvement when he moves to the eastern side of Wisconsin. “We’ll have to see how I idle.”

It is the people of southern Minnesota, though, that Albrecht said he will miss the most once he says goodbye.

“This is a great place to live and I am not sure a lot of people fully realize that,” Albrecht said. “The togetherness of the communities is very special and very rewarding.”

Community's generosity helped Paradise survive pandemic, says director
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It’s not a surprise that an entertainment venue like the Paradise Center for the Arts would see a decrease in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for Executive Director Heidi Nelson, it also isn’t a surprise that the Faribault community helped the venue keep its doors open for the long run. The revenue from ticket sales and concessions may have dropped 70% in 2020, but thanks to generous donations, city and county resources, volunteers, and the flexibility to offer entertainment and classes in a different way, PCA continues to move forward.

Throughout the year, Nelson said the Paradise Center received multiple donations from individuals. Whether it was an extra $10 added to a membership or $1,000 more, the community recognized PCA needed all the help it could get. Little notes of encouragement, saying “Keep going” and “We can’t want to get back to seeing shows” gave Nelson and the PCA staff an emotional boost as well.

“I really want to make sure the community understands how much that meant to us,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s positive outlook came in handy during her first year as Paradise Center executive director, which has coincided closely with the pandemic timeline. She served as interim executive director beginning in November 2019, and her official hire date was March 19, 2020. Staff worked from home after the PCA’s doors closed due to government orders, but Nelson said, “It was very disheartening to not be at the Paradise.”

“It was difficult for me to learn how to maintain a positive attitude, but I had complete faith in the people of this community,” Nelson said. “So I was never afraid the doors would close [permanently], but it was definitely a challenge.”

Kelly Nygaard, who serves on the Paradise Center of the Arts Board of Directors, commended Nelson for her work as the new executive director during the pandemic.

“I think she navigated the challenges she faced in a way that showcased her skills around organization and efficiency,” Nygaard said. “She was able to eliminate excess spending, organized a fundraiser, and pursued grant opportunities to help the organization remain in the green during this challenging time.”

Silver linings

Both Nygaard and Nelson use the phrase “silver linings” to describe some of the unexpected byproducts of COVID-19, including increased digital techniques and greater access to classes for out-of-state participants. With that might also come a deeper appreciation for live entertainment.

On Friday, the Paradise Center hosted its first live performance in months. Country performers Mario Caroboni “The Honky Tonk Rebel” and Norm Hamlet “The Stranger” brought just the right energy to the building, according to Nelson.

“We couldn’t have asked for two better guys for putting that together,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to start 2021 like that.”

Added Nygaard: “People were so thrilled to have the opportunity to see live entertainment again; it was really a fun evening.”

Paradise Community Theater found a creative way to make performances accessible when in-person events were restricted. Two radio style shows — one around Halloween and the other during the Christmas season — familiarized the Paradise with doing livestream recordings. Even after the pandemic, Nelson said the Paradise will continue this offering so relatives outside the community can tune in to performances.

Looking at more silver linings, Nelson noted that COVID-19 gave the Paradise Center an opportunity to highlight art education and galleries in a new way. Thanks to the ability to host classes online when in-person education had limitations, PCA offered 63 classes to 560 students in 2020. Those online classes will continue when resources are possible, even after the pandemic.

Featured artists met with the public in person during their gallery openings, as they did before COVID-19. The Paradise closed between March and June, but when the gallery was open, the community could view the art in person. Through Facebook live events, artists also had a chance to reach a virtual audience.

Behind the scenes, Nelson said the Paradise couldn’t have made it through 2020 without its volunteers. Last year, 151 volunteers contributed 453 hours to helping out at the Paradise Center, whether that meant shoveling the sidewalks in the winter, opening up the pottery studio, or cleaning the building.

Nygaard also credits the PCA staff as a whole for making the Paradise Center more successful than it could have been during a uniquely challenging year.

To keep the venue in operation, the city of Faribault and Rice County staff kept the Paradise Center in the loop about available funding. PCA took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped small businesses survive during the pandemic. The State Bank of Faribault helped the Paradise put its mortgage payments on hold until December. Before COVID-19 started, PCA was a recipient of an estate gift from the Mary Ellen Thomas Estate. Sporadic funds from the estate amounted to just over $30,000, which really helped the Paradise navigate financially trying times. Nelson said she would like to see a true endowment fund for the Paradise to help sustain the organization for the long term along with committed programming sponsorships.

Nelson is also grateful to those who renewed their Paradise membership in 2020, without knowing if or how performances and classes would continue the rest of the year.

“What’s wonderful is people are so forgiving and so understanding, whether it’s affiliates or performers that come to the Paradise,” she said. “We’re so lucky people are so understanding because they want the Paradise Center for the Arts to thrive.”

One lawsuit against county, ex-jailer settled; one to go
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A federal lawsuit filed by one of two former Rice County jail inmates who claimed that a then-jailer improperly restrained him, causing injuries and violating his rights, has been dismissed.

Marcus Allen King also alleged that city of Faribault police officers failed to intervene after witnessing the then jailer, James David Ingham, of Dundas, knee a handcuffed King in the groin, and apply pressure to his neck and “extreme pressure” over his face and nose for an extended period.

According to a November 2019 criminal complaint charging Ingham with assault and misconduct of a public official, a sheriff’s deputy and police officer both notified their supervisors of Ingham’s behavior Sept. 7, 2019, suggesting he had used excessive force with King. Ingham pleaded guilty and was convicted of misconduct, a misdemeanor, in October. He resigned from the Rice County Sheriff’s Office in March 2020.

The suit’s dismissal was part of a deal agreed to by the Rice County Board of Commissioners in January, and requested by attorneys for the city, county, Ingham and King, according to court documents. The agreement called for the county’s insurance provider to pay King $50,000. The county is responsible for a $2,500 deductible.

U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tuheim signed the dismissal order March 29. The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can’t be refiled.

King filed suit Sept. 17 in U.S. District Court, alleging Rice County failed to train and supervise its deputies, and that the neglect led to injuries suffered while in jail following an arrest for drunken driving.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum said last week that he still expects a second case against the county and Ingham, which doesn’t involve the city, to be settled. Commissioners Tuesday agreed unanimously to extend an agreement approved in January that could absolve the county of responsibility for a former jailer’s legal fees in a case filed by Elizabeth Benjamin.

The agreement, which runs until 5 p.m. June 1, is similar to the agreement with King, requiring Ingham to dismiss cross claims against the county should the settlement occur before that date and not to make similar requests in the future. If there’s no agreement by then, Ingham is free to appeal to the board, asking it to cover his legal bills, something Fossum denied late last year.

Ingham’s encounter with Benjamin took place just hours before he came in contact with King. Benjamin has alleged that she was injured when Ingham used a technique meant to subdue prisoners on her that flung her up against a wall and split her head open.

District Court documents have said Benjamin was argumentative and verbally aggressive just prior to Ingham’s use of force, and that Ingham claimed Benjamin lunged at him. Video of the incident reportedly shows Benjamin had backed away from Ingham. Benjamin was taken to the hospital where she required four staples to close a head wound.

Citing Lonsdale's growth, county board denies request
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At its Tuesday meeting, Rice County’s Board of Commissioners quietly, but conclusively shut the door on a Lonsdale businessman’s request to build a home on his property just outside of town.

The board’s unanimous decision follows the recommendation of Lonsdale’s Planning Commission and City Council. The city’s opposition, which came after the Rice County Planning Commission initially signed off on the rezoning, ultimately derailed the proposal.

Located about a quarter mile outside of Lonsdale, Kes’ 141-acre property is zoned urban reserve along with nearly all properties located within a mile of city limits. Urban reserve is a zoning designation typically used to mark land a city hopes to incorporate in the future. Lonsdale’s comprehensive land use map identifies it as appropriate for medium- to high-density residential housing.

Kes says the rezoning would enable him to build a house for his daughter. Because the home would need to be handicapped accessible, he says that other lots he’s checked out in the area just wouldn’t work.

The project initially won support, with Planning Commission member Preston Bauer noting that many cities have irregularly shaped urban reserve districts. The city weighed in after the Planning Commission’s recommendation to commissioners, saying that the project was the type of development that the URD is designed to prevent. When the request came before commissioners last month, they sent it back to the Planning Commission so it could consider Lonsdale’s perspective. That led to a turnaround, with the Planning Commission recommending not to approve.

Kes disputes that Lonsdale needs additional land for housing, noting that Lonsdale hasn’t had a major residential development since 2005. In his eyes, the city has more than enough land to accommodate growth and it’s unlikely that the land he owns will truly be needed within a reasonable timeframe.

Between 2018 and 2020, Lonsdale approved 125 permits for single-family homes, far more than any other Rice County city.

The city’s objections forced county officials to take a closer look at the application, and Commissioners didn’t like what they saw. Commissioner Jeff Docken, who represents the area, noted the property is mostly embedded in the urban reserve district with only a small portion touching its edge.

Commissioner Steve Underdahl said that Lonsdale has every reason to want to protect neighboring areas for future development. Underdahl said that he’s particularly sympathetic to the city’s case because the land is designated in Lonsdale’s Comprehensive Plan.

“They want to be able to grow into (their URD), and don’t want it to be taken away,” he said. “Most municipalities covet that land.”

Even though residential growth may be more of a challenge, Docken noted that Lonsdale has seen substantial business growth. Lonsdale’s business park could be filled up by the end of the month, with all but one spot filled and a letter of intent reserving that one.

“Lonsdale is a community that is growing so fast that it’s at the point of running out of lots,” he said.

City Administrator Joel Erickson, who testified before the Planning Commission against Kes’s proposal, said that the city is in regular contact with businesses interested in expanding in Lonsdale, including near Kes’s property.

For Docken, Lonsdale represents an economic success story providing benefits for all of Rice County. He gave much of the credit to Lonsdale’s city leadership for promoting the community as a destination for both new residents and businesses.

“It’s crazy to see the growth that they’ve had,” he said. “If they didn’t have a progressive council and mayor, they’d just be a little burg out there.”