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Council grapples with expansion of building inspection program

Of the 158 downtown buildings the city has attempted to inspect, 102 had fire and/or safety code violations, an average of about 2 per building, according to a report given to the City Council Tuesday.

Since the initial inspections, Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, and Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen reported, 60 of those buildings have been re-inspected and found to be up to code, while 42 remain in violation. Some buildings remain non-compliant, while some property owners have requested extensions that will give them until 2020 to fix up their properties.

The report was part of a discussion updating elected officials on the Downtown Property Maintenance and Fire Inspection Program, intended to ensure the safety buildings in the city’s historic district. The program was launched earlier this year as part of a series of measures the council has enacted over the last decade in an effort to improve the condition of downtown buildings.

The need for property maintenance inspections was highlighted by the former Columbia Hall, at 27 Third St. NW, set to be leveled with a parking lot put in its place. The historic building once housed a public hall and stage that were often used for events, especially prior to the completion of the Faribault Opera House in 1893. Over the years, Columbia Hall was used in many ways, including as an armory, implement dealer, hardware store, restaurant/saloon and more recently a laundromat. Such a building might seem a natural cornerstone of Faribault’s Downtown Historic District, a unique asset which the city is attempting to emphasize as part of its Community 2040 vision.

But years of neglect enabled by a lack of mandatory maintenance inspections left the building in a dilapidated and dangerous state. By the time the city purchased Columbia Hall late last year, it would have cost nearly $3 million to bring the building back to usable shape, according to a report from engineering firm ISG.

Despite the formation of numerous structural problems, including a large hole in the roof, Columbia Hall’s exterior remained relatively sound despite some water damage. As a result, the city didn’t have grounds to enter the building and compel the owners to fix up the building.

Under the city guidelines that existed prior to the maintenance and inspection program, the city could only conduct a mandatory inspection of the building had the owners applied for a building permit or rental license. All other property inspections were handled on a voluntary, by complaint basis.

Earlier this year, the council hired an inspector to conduct comprehensive fire and safety reviews of downtown buildings.

With inspections nearing completion, Kuennen and Dienst urged the council to consider expanding the program beyond downtown to other high-occupancy buildings. That would likely require the council to fill the position of fire & property maintenance inspector, which has become vacant with the inspector’s departure.

For future inspections, Kuennen and Dienst urged the council to adopt the 2018 International Property Maintenance Code. For this year’s inspections, the city has used the 2006 standards, which are less comprehensive than the 2018 code, and do not include fire safety standards.

While councilors unanimously agreed that downtown inspections had been essential, they were apprehensive about staff’s request to expand the program. Councilor Janna Viscomi, who owns Bernie’s Grill in downtown, said that she didn’t believe the need for building inspections to be nearly as pertinent outside of downtown. Downtown buildings tend to be mixed occupancy and are often built with common walls without fire breaks, greatly increasing the likelihood fire could spread rapidly.

“The concern that I’ve had is that if a downtown property did catch fire, it could take out an entire city block,” she said. “I’m not as concerned that if McDonald’s catches fire, it will take out an entire city block.”

City Administrator Tim Murray said that expansion of the program is needed to move the city away from the complaint-based enforcement system he views as inadequate. Kuennan added that enforcing code on a complaint basis is not only inadequate, but that uneven enforcement frustrates those business owners who are reported for violations of code minor enough that they may not understand them to be violations.

With market, music and more, River Bend to host 38th annual Ramble

River Bend Nature Center hosts its 38th annual River Bend Ramble on Saturday. And with an artisan market, live music, drawing and more, this year’s edition of the Ramble promises plenty of fun.

Founded in 1978, the nonprofit nature center provides a pleasant venue for community events, hosts a variety of environmental science-related classes for children and adults alike, designed to pique the public’s interest in the natural world. River Bend also maintains more than 10 miles of public use trails spread out over more than 740 acres of park land.

The Ramble not just a fun event, but an essential fundraiser that supports the important and unique work of the Nature Center. Thanks to the support of local businesses and individuals, nearly all proceeds from the event will go towards park maintenance expenses and community education programs.

River Bend Communications Coordinator Molly Olson said that the Ramble, a tradition nearly as old as the center itself, remains its largest fundraising event. To keep coming people back, the Nature Center always tries to add some new attractions.

Ramble Rundown

The event starts with an artisan market, which River Bend added last year as a way to integrate more local businesses into the event. From noon until 5:30, attendees will have the chance to support not only River Bend but also local businesses like the Cheese Cave and Becker Woodcraft.

From 1pm to 2:30, attendees will get the chance to try their hands at archery. River Bend has held its “Splatter Paint Archery” programs before, but this is the first time that Splatter Paint Archery will be a part of the Ramble.

For a cost of just $10 per adult and $5 per child, those interested will get to practice archery a bit, with balloons filled with paint as targets. Separate pre-registration is required for this portion of the event.

Check-in for the dinner begins at 4 p.m., with a happy hour complete with live music from 4:30 to 5:30, followed by dinner. At 6:15, a live auction will be held, with nine unique packages/gifts donated by local businesses and individuals up for bidding.

Those who are unable to attend the Ramble can bid on the items by proxy if they contact River Bend prior to the event. Everything from pedicures for a year (donated by Sunset Salon) to a Turkish dinner for six (donated by Jan Mitchell and Jane McWilliams) to a diamond necklace (donated by Chappuis Jewelry) will be up for auction.

At 7 p.m., River Bend will host its Wall of Wine/Craft Beer event. One lucky winner will take home 20 cases of craft beer and another 20 cases of fine wine. River Bend is soliciting donations of beer and wine for the raffle.

New survey shows surge in vaping by Minnesota young people

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A new survey says one in four Minnesota 11th graders reported using an e-cigarette in the previous 30 days, a 54% increase from the same survey in 2016, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday, prompting a call for action from Gov. Tim Walz.

And the jump among 8th graders was even more significant, the department said, with 11% reporting vaping in the preceding 30 days, nearly double the 2016 figure.

In response, Walz directed his administration to launch an aggressive outreach campaign to schools as they struggle with vaping among students, and to come up with policy proposals for the 2020 Legislature to combat youth vaping.

The Minnesota Student Survey, which is conducted every three years, polled students last school year, well before the nationwide surge in lung disease blamed on vaping. Minnesota now has 55 confirmed or probable cases of vaping-related severe lung injuries, the department said.

Nationally, the toll has topped 800 with at least 14 deaths. Most of those who got sick vaped THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high, though some patients reported that they vaped only nicotine.

“Vaping is a public health crisis for young Minnesotans, and it is critical that we act now to bring the rate down,” Walz, a former high school teacher, said in a statement.

Some legislative options that his administration is already considering include raising the state’s legal age for tobacco to 21; prohibiting internet sales of tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping products; prohibiting the sale of flavored nicotine and tobacco products because they appeal to youth; and giving more authority to the health department to act against youth vaping.

Other states and communities have already taken steps to discourage vaping and conventional tobacco smoking among young people as concerns grow about the illness outbreak.

Los Angeles County on Tuesday banned flavored tobacco products including e-cigarettes, while California Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on lawmakers to send him legislation next year to ban vaping. A law barring people under age 21 in Maryland from buying tobacco products including electronic smoking devices took effect Tuesday. Washington state is slated to impose an emergency, four-month ban on the sale of flavored vaping products next week.

New York, Michigan and Rhode Island have announced at least temporary bans on flavored products, while Massachusetts has imposed a four-month ban on all vaping products, flavored or not. President Donald Trump last month proposed a federal ban on all e-cigarette flavors except tobacco.

The Minnesota survey found that the state’s teens are poorly informed about the health risks of e-cigarettes with 76% of 11th graders saying there’s either no, slight or a moderate risk. According to the health department, teens who try e-cigarettes are nearly four times as likely to start smoking cigarettes as teens who don’t.

“We should all be very alarmed by the increasing number of eighth graders who reported vaping, because we know that the earlier a person is exposed to nicotine, the greater their risk in terms of future brain development and addiction,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement.

Proposed park would take advantage of scenic Straight

Faribault’s City Council discussed placing a park at the old public works site where the city plans on demolishing the current buildings this fall so a five-story, 96-apartment complex can be built in its place.

City officials have envisioned a public park on the north corner of the lot. The new park, a part of the city’s Journey to 2040 vision, would take advantage of the scenic location along the Straight River and provide a gathering space for the increasing number of families who will be living downtown, city staff told the council Tuesday.

Because the site is contaminated, the city hopes to apply for an environmental cleanup grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The deadline to apply for a grant that could be used next year is Nov. 1, so city officials need to come up with a semi-final plan for the park by that date in order to get the grant.

The park proposed by City Engineer Mark DuChene would include two parking lots with 10 parking spaces each, a playground area and a picnic shelter. Councilor Janna Viscomi was critical of the proposed design, arguing that the design needed to take the park’s unique location into account more than it did.

“I know we’re trying to put something in quick to go with the apartment complex, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve really utilized that this is next to the river,” Viscomi said. “This is a park we could put anywhere.”

Viscomi said she wanted the shelter to be closer to the river, rather than set back toward the parking lots. She said that with a design tailored to utilize the space, the new park could become an ideal backdrop for weddings and other memorable life events.

“We need to be mindful of the fact that this ambiance cannot be found anywhere else,” she said.

Mayor Kevin Voracek added that he liked the idea of moving the picnic shelter closer to the river because it could create a large green area in the middle of the park for a variety of uses.

“You’ve move that picnic shelter, you open up all of that beautiful green space,” he said. “You could throw a football around or toss a Frisbee.”

Councilor Elizabeth Cap said that she liked DuChene’s proposed design. By keeping the picnic shelter in the middle of the park, Cap said, that the areas along the Straight River could be open for public use even if a group has reserved the park shelter.

At Viscomi’s urging, the Council was ultimately supportive of moving the shelter toward the north end of the west parking lot, which would put it closer to the river while maintaining a healthy amount of green space. DuChene and City Administrator Tim Murray said they’d bring back a plan along those lines for the Council’s consideration before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Local business leaders and Faribault High School administrators toured Shakopee High School Wednesday to discuss how that district collaborates with its business to implement career pathways into its curriculum. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Public Schools)

Faribault’s Bennett Wolff goes for the kill during the Falcons’ 3-1 homecoming victory over Austin Tuesday. (Dan Slaubaugh/Faribault Daily News).