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Michael Hughes / By MICHAEL HUGHES mhughes@northfieldnews.com 

From left to right, seniors Abby Goodwin, Olivia Williamson and Haley Lang accept the Section 1A runner-up trophy after Thursday’s 5-1 loss against Rochester Lourdes at the Owatonna Four Seasons Centre. It’s the second straight runner-up finish for the Falcons. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)


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Hickey steps down as executive director of Ruth’s House, Fox appointed ED

Over 15 years ago, Ruth Hickey had a vision for a shelter that could provide safety, security and hope for women and their children in crisis situations.

Hickey found support in a group of women who shared her vision, and they together became the founding mothers of Ruth’s House of Hope, named for the Ruth of the Old Testament. Since its establishment, Hickey has served as executive director of the nonprofit organization. But now, she’s excited for someone else to take the reins.

Earlier this week, Hickey announced her decision to step down from her executive director position, effective Monday.

“I am looking forward to spending more time with my family,” she wrote in a message to supporters. “It has been a privilege to serve the women and children in our community. I thank the community for all their support throughout the past 16 years. I will continue to support the ministry of Ruth’s House in an advisory role and a community supporter.”

Suzzanne Fox, outreach coordinator for Ruth’s House, has been appointed the new executive director starting Tuesday. Fox has been employed at Ruth’s House for nearly five years. She brings with her a background of over 20 years of experience and extensive knowledge working in non-profit missions including agencies that provide shelter to those who need it most. Fox will continue to lead Ruth’s House vision: A community where everyone has a safe place to call home as well as being dedicated to fulfilling Ruth’s House mission: Empowering lives offering hope through transitional housing and support.

Fox said Hickey has mentored her, so she feels well-equipped to serve as executive director even with the “huge shoes to fill.”

“I am honored and excited to lead Ruth’s House,” said Fox. “I believe the mission of Ruth’s House matters to our community as we continue to serve families impacted by homelessness.”

Said Hickey of Fox: “She’s been an asset to Ruth’s House. She’s got some great ideas, and she’s really smart. The community already loves her and she will be perfect.”

Speaking on behalf of the Board of Directors, Jeff Sandgren said, “The board believes that the job of the executive Ddrector requires certain qualities to successfully fulfill the mission of the organization. Suzzanne has the right skills and leadership abilities to serve in this position.”

After stepping down, Hickey said she will do consulting with Fox and potentially a bit of part-time work with the house. No matter what, she said she will continue supporting the organization she loves.

“We very much appreciate Ruth’s efforts and her service to Ruth’s House for the past 16 years,” said Sandgren. “Ruth is the founding director of Ruth’s House and started the nonprofit organization back in 2003, along with the founding mothers. Ruth led the startup of the organization by securing funding as well as the Buckeye Manor, which serves as the home for the residents.”

Before it was Ruth’s House, Catholic Charities owned Buckeye Manor at 124 SW First Ave., which housed a short-term residential program for juvenile offenders. Since its 2003 establishment, Ruth’s House has provided transitional housing for over 1,800 female heads of household in situations that include poverty, addictions and domestic abuse. The house also provides safety and security for residents’ children.

Apart from providing a place to live, the Ruth’s House staff also connects residents with resources, such as the HOPE Center, which provides assistance with court processes and safety planning tools for women exiting domestic violence situations. For long-term housing options outside the house, HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) funds a program that provides nine apartment units off campus.

“HOPE Center has relied for many years on a close collaboration with Ruth and Ruth’s House to fully serve our clients,” said Erica Staab-Absher, HOPE Center executive director. “I am sorry to see Ruth go, however, she has earned some much needed rest and respite. Running Ruth’s house is a whole-hearted endeavor and she has thrown her whole self into serving our community. Her energy, enthusiasm and kindness will be missed. And I am so thankful for all she has done for the community.”

Hickey has played a strong role in not only establishing Ruth’s House and working with community partners but also advocating for its services through fundraising events, particularly the Hearts Gala held at the Faribault American Legion each February. The gala typically welcomes a guest speaker who shares how Ruth’s House made a difference in her life. Just last weekend, Ruth’s House celebrated its 17th annual Hearts Gala, which pulled in over $122,000 from community supporters.

“I am truly grateful for how the community has come together to provide a safe healing place for women and children,” said Hickey. “It has been the community that keeps this organization moving and lifts us up. We can’t do it without the community.”

From Fox’s perspective, Hickey has made “a tremendous impact” on the house and its residents.

“God chose [Ruth] to lead this organization,” said Fox. “We are so grateful to her, too.”


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Local legislators split along party lines on Green Energy First bills

A bill introduced by Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, just might pave the way for DFLers and Republicans to unite behind the state’s first comprehensive clean energy bill in a decade.

To be sure, significant differences remain between the former Senate majority leader's plan and those offered by DFLers, who have called for a transition to 100% clean energy by 2050. Yet both local Republicans and Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, expressed support for the legislation's basic premise.

The bill is a version of the "Clean Energy First" policy long touted by environmental groups as one potentially important tool to reduce Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its backers regard it as a logical follow-up to the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, which was passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the legislature and signed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

That law set a goal of reducing Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2015 and 80% by 2050. Those goals have been exceeded thus far, as coal-burning power plants provided just 39% of Minnesota’s energy supply in 2017, down from 59% a decade earlier.

The Clean Energy First Act would seek to exceed that by regulating how Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission makes decisions. Under state law, major utilities must regularly submit long-term energy plans to the commission.

The PUC must then consider whether the plan is in the public’s best interest and whether it would assist in meeting the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. The Clean Energy First principle would take that a step further.

Changes coming?

Under Senjem’s bill, first introduced in 2018, the PUC would only be allowed to approve new development of fossil fuel-based energy if the commission determines that the utility would not be able to meet customer needs with power generated from affordable and reliable clean energy sources.

Over the next couple of decades, it’s likely that most of the major power plants will need to be decommissioned. Thus, Clean Energy First seeks to take advantage of that situation to usher in clean energy with minimal disruption.

“We’re seeing a worldwide trend toward clean energy sources,” Senjem said. “We’re not going to build new coal plants, it doesn’t work politically or economically.”

While environmental groups have praised the "Clean Energy First" concept, they've been much slower to get behind Senjem's bill. Jessica Tritsch, a Sierra Club staffer who has worked with the Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota for more than a decade, said that her organization regards the Senjem bill as inadequate.

“We don’t think the policy lives up to its name of clean energy first,” she said. “Instead it continues to prioritize dirty sources of energy.”

Tritsch offered praise for the plans offered by Gov. Walz and DFLers. She said in theory, Clean Energy First is a start, but needs to be part of a much more comprehensive plan. Tritsch was particularly critical of the bill for classifying carbon capture and sequestration as a clean energy source. Tritsch also raised concerns about the inclusion of nuclear and biomass in the bill, raising concerns about potentially dangerous waste.

Any expansion of nuclear power is sure to be controversial. Given concerns around the long-term environmental and public health risk, the state has had a moratorium on building new nuclear plants for decades.

Carbon capture and sequestration is also controversial. A relatively new and developing technology, it involves capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground. Some of that captured carbon could be then pumped underground to assist with oil extraction.

For his part, Senjem said he doubted that biomass, nuclear power and carbon sequestration would get much traction even if his bill were to pass, noting that power produced from solar, wind and other renewable sources tends to be much cheaper.

The bill has also gotten its share of criticism from business groups and the political right. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has come out in opposition to the bill, arguing that it would raise power rates.

Local feedback

State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said that while he’s supportive of clean energy, he wants to make sure power rates are kept down. He expressed particular concern about northern Minnesota’s iron ore mining industry, among the state’s largest consumers of power.

The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, a lobby group representing the industry, has voiced opposition to the bill. Association President Kelsey Johnson warned that rising energy prices threaten to make Minnesota’s iron uncompetitive on the global market.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, described the legislation as “thoughtful.” Draheim said he hopes that to see the state move to a mix of affordable and reliable energy sources, including nuclear, solar, hydro, wind and natural gas.

Draheim was critical of the proposals offered by the DFL, saying they focus excessively on increasing the state’s revenue and investing too heavily in energy sources of questionable reliability.

Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, concurred, saying he views the bill as a sound alternative to the left-wing Green New Deal proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, which he sees as too radical. Under Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, which takes the form of a non-binding resolution, the U.S. would seek to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. It would dramatically overhaul the economy, establishing universal health care and a jobs guarantee.

An analysis from the right-leaning American Action Institute and regularly cited by President Trump and Congressional Republicans found that if enacted, the proposal could cost as much as $93 trillion.

Daniels said that while wind and solar are excellent, the state needs a mix of energy sources to get through the winter. He also raised concerns about waste disposal from solar panels and windl turbines that have reached the end of their usable life.

The region’s only DFLer in St. Paul, Lippert, said that although significant differences exist between the DFL and Republican positions, he’s glad to see some Senate Republicans putting their own proposal forward.

With polls showing that climate change has become an important issue for many Minnesota voters, Lippert, a member of the House’s Climate Action Caucus, says that he’s hopeful that legislators will be eager to take action.

“I’m encouraged that Senate Republicans are bringing some legislation forward,” he said. "Clean Energy First is a great way to phase in renewable energy, and we’ll be supportive as long as they do it right.”


Johnson-Dang


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Transportation Committee pushing for passenger rail to Twin Cities
Sam Wilmes / By SAM WILMES swilmes@northfieldnews.com 

The two options for passenger rail from Northfield to the Twin Cities are shown in this graphic. One heads along the Dan Patch Trail through Lakeville, Savage, Bloomington, Edina and St. Louis Park before ending at the Target Field Light Rail Station. The other heads through the eastern suburbs before stopping at the University of Minnesota Inter-City Campus Busway. (Image courtesy of the City of Northfield)

The Northfield Transportation Advisory Committee has several goals for the coming year.

One of the committee’s top goals involves voicing support for a plan to provide passenger light rail from Albert Lea to the Twin Cities, a route that would include a Northfield stop and be one of the most ambitious projects in recent state history.

Bills now in the House and Senate would authorize $500,000 in general funds needed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to complete a passenger rail study needed before any work could begin.

Two possible rail passenger routes between Northfield and the Twin Cities have been established. One cuts through the east metro suburbs through Farmington and other communities. The other heads along the Dan Patch Trail through Lakeville and Burnsville.

The Albert Lea to Twin Cities passenger line, once complete, would be a part of a federal passenger rail network that could span from the Twin Cities to Dallas. Northfield Transportation Advisory Committee Co-chairwoman Suzie Nakasian said city leaders from around the country say cities need to be connected with viable public transit systems to achieve the most success. She added the initiative would draw in employees from long distances and improve the local economy.

Nakasian

In 2014-15, Nakasian organized a coalition of business and public groups to submit letters to the Minnesota Department of Transportation requesting the addition of the passenger rail line from Albert Lea to the Twin Cities. The request was given top priority of any installation of a passenger rail corridor.

Nakasian urged residents to tell state legislators to vote for the proposal.

Fellow committee member Glen Castore said the project “seems like a good idea.” He added that it would make commuting to the Twin Cities easier and remove cars from the road.

“It’s safer to ride trains than it is to drive cars,” he said.

Nakasian

The Transportation Advisory Committee was established out of the city’s 2017 strategic plan and has a goal to foster an economically friendly, multi-use transportation system.

The committee is expected to complete a written report and present to the council on specific unmet local and regional transit need,s and provide a preliminary list of private and public regional transit service options.

Transportation Advisory Committee members will also be encouraged to voice support to the Legislature for the city’s request for bonding to complete the Northfield Transit Hub.

Nakasian said more than half of Rice County residents commute to Hennepin or Ramsey counties by car because there is no regional public transit option.

“This is the first attempt at establishing a transit base from which we can launch regional transit options,” she said.

The public transit option could include ride-shares or buses to Metro Transit stations, allowing for an alternative to car traffic.

“We need that service to support commuters to the metro and to support local employers whose employees come in from out of town,” Nakasian said.

The Advisory Committee this year also plans to complete and present to the council a report on options regarding the potential turn back of Highway 246 to either the city or county.

“We are just asking for specifics about that,” Nakasian said. “There’s nothing imminent there. The state or the county have not indicated any urgent interest there.”

The committee also plans to complete a Hwy. 19 corridor study and present needed improvements to the Hwy. 19 corridor from Hwy. 3 to Interstate 35. The study is expected to be focused on intersection and turning zone safety, efficiency and accessibility in conjunction with a planned resurfacing project in 2025.

“The study would include information on traffic, accidents, design considerations, funding opportunities, pedestrian safety, trail extension, Northfield gateway enhancements and include recommendations and work plan for 2021,” the report states.

Nakasian said there are treacherous intersections in the corridor, and that making needed improvements would make the stretch safer and more efficient for trucks and other motorists on the 6-mile stretch from I-35 to Northfield.