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Faribault second baseman Aiden Tobin catches a ball as a Red Wing base runner slides into second base. Faribault dropped the game 18-6. (Nick Gerhardt/Daily News)

Paradise board asks city for help retiring $500,000 debt


Toward the end of a marathon work session, Faribault’s City Council considered a “big ask” — $250,000 — from a key nonprofit that serves as an anchor in the city’s downtown.

The Paradise Center for the Arts has provided a wide variety of arts and cultural programming in a historic, restored theatre. Its predecessor, the Faribault Arts Center, has been a part of the community since the 1950s.

Originally built in 1885 as the Faribault Opera House, the building was destroyed by fire in 1929. In its place was built an ornate theatre, which operated into the 1990s but was ultimately forced to close. Years of vacancy and decay subsequently put the theatre at risk, but the community came to its rescue. In 2006, it was transformed into its current use thanks to an extensive renovation and opened the following year.

A major part of the funding that allowed the Paradise to open came directly from the city of Faribault. Eager to add amenities downtown, the city poured $250,000 into the renovation project and has since provided annual financial support for the Arts Center.

Despite the help it has received from the city, the nonprofit was forced to take out significant loans to complete a project. Executive Director Heidi Nelson said that today, the organization remains nearly $500,000 in debt.

Although the Paradise has worked hard to expand its list of individual and business sponsors, the theatre has traditionally relied heavily on revenues from regular shows at its 300 seat theatre to pay staff, make ends meet and reduce its debt. Even before COVID, the organization’s efforts to reduce its debt had been slow. After watching the city provide major financial assistance to Buckham West Senior Center, Paradise board members explored the possibility of asking for assistance themselves.

Out of that discussion came a plan devised by Paradise board member Nort Johnson, who serves as director of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, that would see the city match privately raised contributions of up to $250,000 to pay off the organization’s debt.

While the idea has been under consideration for several years, Johnson said he hesitated to bring it to the council until he had a clear sense of commitment from donors. In response to concerns raised by some councilors Tuesday night, he insisted that the $250,000 would be raised.

Nelson said that the initiative has become all the more urgent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many of its scheduled events postponed all the way to 2021, the Paradise faces a deeply uncertain financial future. Nelson said that since COVID hit, the Paradise has done what it can to try to maintain financial sustainability and continue to offer programming. In large part, she told the Council that this has meant making the most out of online offerings.

Still, she acknowledged that the Paradise has taken a major hit and could close without financial assistance. Without it, she said that the local arts scene and downtown Faribault would both be much poorer.

On the other hand, Nelson said that if the collaboration between the city and the Paradise succeeds, the organization could focus on offering quality, accessible arts programming rather than having to scrape to make ends meet every month.

Nelson also noted that Faribault would hardly be the only city in the region to invest so heavily in its arts and cultural heritage programming. She noted that across the state, many cities equal in size or even smaller than Faribault have their own city-backed arts centers.

Councilors expressed support for the Paradise and were willing to consider its request, but also had tough questions about the size of the investment. Councilor Tom Spooner said that providing such a large sum of money would pose a risk to the city.

“In a way it’s a bailout,” he said. “If we give you this money and you go broke in 18 months, the taxpayers will rightly hang us out to dry.”

Spooner asked Johnson whether the Paradise board would consider releasing some of their financial statements to the council and giving the city a lien on the building, protecting it if something were to go wrong.

Johnson said that while he’d need to consult with the Paradise Board, he expected that they would be willing to support both requests. He also noted that the council has an appointed representative on the board, currently Peter van Sluis, to keep tabs on the group.

Both van Sluis and Royal Ross, who served as the council’s previous board representative, said positive things about the organization and how it has been run. Still, Councilor Janna Viscomi said she’d like to see “new blood” on the board.

Another concern was just where the council might be able to get the money to fund it. Johnson, drawing on his own experience as a elected official, said he believed that an arrangement could be worked out to provide the funding over a period of time.

Despite the concerns, no council members were opposed to the Paradise’s request. Nelson said that she was very pleased to see the council express a clear willingness to work with the Paradise board on the issue.

“I’m excited by the positive response from the City Council,” she said. “I knew they wouldn’t make a decision immediately, but I’m glad they’re considering it carefully.”

A fairgoer holds a full bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies on the first day of the 2017 Minnesota State Fair. (Evan Frost/MPR News 2017)

Two take on incumbent District 5 commissioner in Aug. primary

With the Aug. 11 primary coming up fast, four candidates are vying for just two spots on the November ballot in Rice County Commissioner District 5.

Until the last day of the filing period, incumbent Commissioner Jeff Docken was set to run unopposed. Docken, a farmer from Webster Township, was first elected to the board in 2008 and is seeking a fourth term.

Docken faced multiple challengers in 2008 and 2012. Comfortably elected to his first term, he nearly lost in 2012, narrowly fending off a stiff challenge from former Rice County Sheriff Richard Cook. In 2016, he was re-elected by a large margin over his only challenger, Kim Halvorson.

Jeff Docken

Docken’s district includes most of western Rice County, including Lonsdale and Morristown. On the board, he’s focused on fostering business growth in the county. He’s particularly excited about the industrial park in Lonsdale.

To reach out to voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Docken said he’s relied heavily on social media and word of mouth. Docken said he’s also attended township meetings, which recently have been held in person but with social distancing and masks recommended.

“I haven’t started telephone calling and I do not plan on doing door knocking,” he shared.

Docken said that if elected to another term on the board, he’d focus on improving access to broadband internet in his largely rural district. He said that from farmers to students, many of his constituents are badly in need of better internet access.

Under current state law, legislators have set lofty goals with regard to broadband access. By 2022, state law mandates that every Minnesotan have internet access with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps.

Docken said he doesn’t believe it’s possible for the state to hit that goal anymore, but that it’s vitally important that it come as close as possible. He said that quality broadband is a crucial economic development tool that could help to achieve the goal of expanding the tax base.

Another key priority for Docken is improving the county’s infrastructure. He noted that projects like the reconstruction of Baseline Road, which was recently delayed to 2021, are crucial to attracting more businesses.

While Docken hails from the north end of the district, both of his opponents live on the south side. While their resumes include significant community involvement and even prior runs for office, they pledged to bring new ideas to county government.

Kim Halvorson

Kim Halvorson ran against Docken in the 2016 election, though she lost by a significant margin. Nonetheless, she decided to seek a rematch, saying that she believes the board could use a fresh voice and felt like she could provide that.

Halvorson owns a turkey farm in rural Morristown, has served on the County Planning and District One Hospital boards, and previously owned Bio Wood Processing, which recycled wood products for turkey bedding and mulch.

Bio Wood had a rather unhappy relationship with county leaders and was sued by the county for violating its conditional use permits. While the county was initially successful, the state Court of Appeals overturned almost all of the district court’s decisions.

Halvorson has been critical of Docken for, in her view, not representing the southern portion of the district as actively as the north. She said that to represent her ag and rural constituents, she would seek to address issues with several drainage ditches.

“I would work to bring in the right people to make sure all of the issues get addressed,” she said. “I’m well connected at the state level as well to make sure the people near that ditch get the answers they would like.”

Another top priority for Halvorson would be transportation. She said that improving the I-35 corridor, potentially by adding an exit at County Road 9, would be a boon for economic development and convenient for local residents.

That interchange project was proposed more than a decade ago, with support from the city of Faribault. Even though Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, has continued to support it at the state capitol, progress has been slow. More recently, the city of Faribault focused its economic development efforts on the interchange at Hwy. 60, and away from the northern portion of the city.

Kurt Wolf

Former Morristown Mayor Kurt Wolf is the third candidate who threw his hat in the ring. First elected in 2008, Wolf was defeated for re-election in 2010 by just two votes, then won his seat back in 2012 and held it until 2018, when he lost to now-Mayor Tony Lindahl.

Wolf, who works in information technology for the city of Northfield, could have sought to get his old job back, but opted to run for county board. He said that decision was heavily influenced by his strong desire to see broadband internet access expanded to cover the whole county as quickly as possible.

“It’s absolutely my number one priority. It affects economy, education and healthcare,” he said, noting the expansion of telemedicine in the wake of the pandemic.

When tornadoes tore through the region in 2018, Wolf was forced to leave his home for a year and a half, taking up residence near the Flying J at Hwy. 19 and I-35. There, he and his family lacked the ability to access broadband, hammering home the importance of the issue.

If elected, Wolf said that he would use his relationships in local government and with local broadband providers like Bevcomm and Jaguar Communications to boost broadband access. Wolf also sits on Morristown’s EDA, and said attracting new businesses to the county would be a priority of his.

In addition to improving access to broadband, Wolf said that the county also needs to work on the issue of affordable housing. Even though his district may be more rural than those which include Northfield or Faribault, he said that the shortage is still a major concern.

“It’s a challenge for Morristown, and for communities across the county,” he said.

Tough choices: Council tackles funding for nonprofits

Faribault’s City Council kicked off its 2020 budget preparations with a spirited discussion over a small but important portion of the city’s budget: funding for area nonprofits.

For years, the city has supported local arts, cultural heritage and community-oriented programming by providing funding for several nonprofits, including Buckham West (senior center), Heritage Days, Faribault Community Television, Paradise Center for the Arts and the Rice County Historical Society. Along with those organizations, two others — Faribault Youth Investment (FYI) and the Faribault Foundation — are asking the city for its support.

FYI Executive Director Becky Ford said that if the council could provide the $10,000 it’s requesting, it would leave FYI well positioned to tap into matching grant funds from Youthprise, a Twin Cities based nonprofit focused on expanding access to youth programming.

In order to receive the funding, FYI will need to raise at least $25,000 from local sources, a portion of which must come from local government entities. Faribault Public Schools has also been a key financial supporter of FYI.

The other new request came from the Faribault Foundation. For more than two decades, the Foundation has supported a wide variety of community programming through its community pride grants, though its budget has always been small.

Executive Director Dee Bjork said that it’s the first time the Foundation has applied for funding from the city. With Bjork unable to attend the meeting, Foundation board member and former councilor Kymn Anderson instead presented the Foundation’s case.

While councilors were generally supportive of the foundation’s mission and believed it would be appropriate to provide some funding, they were astonished at the size of its request — $100,000, more than all other requests combined.

Anderson told the council that the money wasn’t needed for any specific program, but that with more funding it could do more. She said that with only a small amount of overhead, the Foundation could get the money into the community quickly and efficiently.

“Dee’s philosophy is go big or go home, so she asked big,” Anderson said.

This year’s budget is likely to be tighter than last year’s due to COVID, notwithstanding aid from the federal CARES Act. Nonetheless, van Sluis said that rejecting any of the applicants would be very difficult for him to do.

“It’s like the final judging rounds of America’s Got Talent,” the councilor quipped. “You have a whole bunch of acts that you really want to go through, but you have to make some decisions and it’s not fun to do that.”

Wood suggested that approximately $10,000 in available funding be divided between FYI and the Faribault Foundation. While it wouldn’t meet even the much more modest request of the FYI, Wood said it would help both organizations to “get their foot in the door.”

Councilor Elizabeth Cap was more inclined to fulfill the FYI’s entire request and consider giving the remainder to the Faribault Foundation. She praised the FYI’s vision and said that helping the organization to achieve the matching funds would be a major win for the community.

One alternative considered by the Council could be to create a special program to support nonprofit organizations. Under federal regulations, CARES Act dollars could be used to fund such an initiative.

City Administrator Tim Murray noted that the council would need to set up a program separate from its small business relief program, which was approved at last week’s City Council session. In the past, he’s warned the council to carefully consider whether it could afford such a program.

Then there’s the issue of what the program rules might look like. A program funded by CARES Act funds would need to follow federal guidelines and councilors might want to consider implementing additional rules of their own.

Buckham West Director Mona Kaiser said that if such a program were to be created, the nonprofit organization would “absolutely” look into it. She said the nonprofit’s thrift store on clothing store on Central Avenue, Clothes Closet, has taken a beating during the pandemic.

Because the Senior Center is a nonprofit organization, it wasn’t able to apply for the kinds of assistance available to small business owners. Kaiser said that although the program could be a lifesaver, the devil would be in the details.

“I would have to see what the money could be used for,” she said. “Would there be a lot of restrictions or would it be largely discretionary?”