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When school starts at Holy Cross this fall, students and staff will need to follow new protocols to stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured, the Rev. Nick VanDenBroeke blesses the fourth-graders at Holy Cross on the second day of school in 2018. (News Review file photo)

HRA backs three more Habitat projects

Faribault’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority continued its relationship with Rice County Habitat for Humanity Friday, approving funding to cover building permit costs for three soon to be completed houses.

Once finished, the houses will provide quality, affordable housing in a north Faribault location close to the city’s industrial park. That’s thanks to developer Jeff Jandro, who reached an agreement with the organization on five parcels.

Last year, Rice County Habitat marked a significant milestone, completing its 50th home in another Jandro-developed subdivision. Once all three homes are done, Habitat will have built 54 affordable homes for families throughout Rice County.

According to Rice County Habitat Director Dayna Norvold, 24 are located in Faribault. The remaining 30 are spread throughout the county, with 11 in Northfield, nine in Dundas, four in Nerstrand, four in Lonsdale and four in Morristown. Norvold said that many recent builds have been in Faribault, which she attributed to the availability of affordable land. In addition, Faribault has a significantly higher percentage of residents living below the poverty line than the county as a whole.

Notably, all but a handful of those houses are still occupied by their original owners. For each house, Habitat selects a family from a pool of qualified applicants based on their need for housing, ability to pay a mortgage and willingness to partner with the organization.

In Rice County, Habitat families generally have an income of between $30,000 and $67,000, depending on family size. Two of the three families receiving help this time are particularly large, with nine children each in addition to a mother and father.

In keeping with its mantra of providing “a hand up, not a handout,” Habitat asks families for contributions of both time and money in exchange for their new home. Habitat families are expected to take on an affordable mortgage and contribute approximately 350 “sweat equity” hours volunteering for the organization.

Due to COVID-19, Habitat has had to dramatically alter its operations. Normally, the organization is heavily reliant on volunteers, many of whom lack a professional building background. Those volunteers are disproportionately older and thus more at risk of suffering the worst of COVID-19. Instead, the organization is relying on help from five volunteers who belong to Americorps. It’s the first time that Rice County Habitat has had a relationship with the U.S. government-backed service organization.

In response to the pandemic response team, Americorps launched the Emergency Response Initiative to help nonprofits like Habitat that have seen their regular operations impeded. Across the state, more than 80 organizations are receiving help.

According to Americorps’s Adam Kronebusch, five other Minnesota chapters of Habitat are receiving help from Americorps. They are North St. Louis County Habitat, based in Virginia, West Central Minnesota Habitat, based in Wilmar, Lake Agassiz Habitat, based in Moorhead, Lakes Area Habitat, based in Brainerd, and Douglas County Habitat, based in Alexandria.

Norvold said that the volunteers will be at Habitat’s build sites through next month. With two of the three houses not slated to be complete until October, a handful of volunteers will return to put the finishing touches on them.

Habitat receives other donations, which have continued during the pandemic. Valspar donates paint, while Dow Chemical donates insulation materials. GAF not only donates shingles, but covers the cost of contractors to install them.

Most notably, chapter 110 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has continued to provide the labor and materials necessary to wire the homes. The union has been saving Habitat a significant amount of money on home construction for more than a decade.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Norvold said. “They aren’t bringing out the big crews like they used to, but they have still come out and helped.”

Senator checks in on small businesses during COVID-19 crisis

United States Sen. Tina Smith said she hadn’t “been out seeing people” for a long time during the coronavirus pandemic, but she came out Tuesday for a tour of small town businesses in Montgomery, Waseca and Mankato.

“I’m interested in hearing from businesses, especially from small businesses, on how they’re handling this health and economic crisis of COVID-19,” said Smith after touring Montgomery Brewing Tuesday afternoon.

Smith’s goal with her tour was to see if some of the government’s efforts to help small businesses have worked out and find out what these businesses need most at this time. Next week, Smith will return to Washington, D.C., and determine what work needs to be done.

“There’s no substitute for getting out and talking to people,” said Smith.

At her first stop, Smith and her associates visited with Montgomery Brewing owner Charles Dorsey and brewer Josh Kaderlik. Dorsey said his brewery is open to customers at 50% capacity during the week, and 60% on Saturdays during street closures outside the facility.

During her visit, Smith asked Dorsey if he applied for loans like the Paycheck Protection Program. Dorsey said he applied for that, which, coupled with Economic Injury Disaster Loan, allowed him to keep his workers on payroll.

Smith also asked Dorsey what she can do for Montgomery Brewing. He asked her to advocate for the ability to sell 12- and 16-ounce cans at breweries, which the state currently prohibits. While breweries may sell crowlers, growlers, and 750-milliliter bottles to go, Dorsey said much of his site’s canned beer has gone to waste during the pandemic.

Dorsey also explained that foot traffic impacts the sales of alcohol at breweries, unlike a liquor store, where customers make a quick stop. But one of his biggest challenges during the pandemic, he said, is staying updated on changing rules and regulations for businesses.

Smith empathized; she said it’s understood now that the coronavirus won’t “go away when the sun comes out.” While hopeful about the development of a vaccine, she said, “We just have to be realistic” about its immediate effectiveness and accessibility.

“I’ve never met a senator before,” said Dorsey. “I think it’s great a small town like this is recognized by a Congress member and given a platform.”

After visiting Montgomery Brewing, Smith ventured to Waseca to talk with the owners of Trio Coffee, Wine & Ale House and to Mankato to visit with Rahma Abdi, owner of Karshe Tea.

In this Jan. 8, 2019, file photo, dozens of red-shirted gun control advocates from Moms Demand Action and allied groups demonstrate outside the Minnesota House as they pressed for progress on one of the most divisive issues in Minnesota politics in St. Paul, Minn. A major gun control group with ties to Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday, July 14, 2020, it plans to spend at least $1 million to try to flip the Minnesota Senate to Democratic control and keep the Minnesota House in the hands of lawmakers who back its positions. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

Murder charges filed in fatal Owatonna park stabbing

A argument between two Owatonna men ended with one dead, the other charged with his murder.

Hassan Nur Hassan, 28, of Owatonna, was charged Wednesday morning in Steele County court with two counts of second-degree murder, one count of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon, and one count of theft of a motor vehicle – all felonies — in the Sunday night stabbing death of Mohamed Aweis Mohamed.

According to the criminal complaint, Owatonna police officers were dispatched to Dartt’s Park in Owatonna for a reported stabbing at 5:17 p.m. Sunday. When they arrived, officers found Mohamed, 32, unconscious, lying on the ground of the park’s southeast parking lot, and with a stab wound to his chest. Emergency responders tried to revive Mohamed, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.

While on the scene, Mayo Clinic helicopter paramedics told officers that they observed a knife lying in the grass as they were approaching the victim. An officer located a green brass knuckles knife in the grass just east of the baseball field and a silver brass knuckles knife.

Officers spoke to three witnesses at the scene all who identified the suspect as Hassan. The witnesses were not identified by law enforcement in the criminal complaint.

The first witness, identified as Witness 1 in the complaint, said that they had been at Owatonna’s Manthey Park earlier where Hassan and the victim had a disagreement. Witness 1 said that after they left the park, he and Hassan were stopped by Owatonna officers before going to Dartts Park to “hang out.” At the park, the witness said Mohamed and two other men approached them and that Mohamed and Hassan reportedly began fighting.

Witness 1 reportedly told police that Hassan had a knife and that after Mohamed was stabbed that Hassan stole the witness’ vehicle and left the park.

The second witness told officers that when he was at Manthey Park with Mohamed and that Hassan was looking to fight Mohamed, according to court records. Witness 2 reported that Hassan punched the witness’ car window with brass knuckles, shortly before Mohamed and that witness headed to Dartts Park.

The men reportedly parked in the main lot off Cherry Street, with Hassan arriving shortly after and yelling at Mohamed. As Witness 2 approached Hassan, Mohamed reportedly moved the vehicle to the park’s other lot. When Mohamed got out of the vehicle, the witness alleged, Hassan stabbed him.

The third witness, identified as Witness 3, said that Hassan began chasing Mohamed with a knife. Witness 3 said that Hassan had a brass knuckle knife on each hand and that Mohamed was running away from Hassan.

The Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office in Rochester found that Mohamed died of a single stab wound to the chest, and ruled his death as a homicide.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was called in to assist with the investigation Sunday. Both the Owatonna police and the BCA identified Hassan as a person of interest Monday, asking the public’s for help in locating him. Hassan was arrested without incident in Minneapolis and booked into the Hennepin County Jail early Tuesday morning before being transferred to the Steele County Detention Center.

Steele County Judge Joseph Bueltel set bail for Hassan without conditions Wednesday at $1 million. His next court appearance is scheduled for July 22.

County Road 76 project delayed to 2021

Half of Rice County’s marquee highway project has been officially postponed to 2021. Blame it on the pandemic.

This year, the county was slated to reconstruct a 2.3 mile portion of County Road 76/Baseline Road on the east side of I-35. Commissioners solicited bids for that project earlier this year, as it’s part of the 10-year transportation plan approved most recently in December.

Extending from County Road 76’s intersection with County Road 1 to its intersection with County Road 8, the project was to be in essence a two-year project. In 2020, the foundation was to be laid for a gravel road. That was to lay the foundation for the gravel road to be paved in 2021. At the same time, the county was looking to improve a 2.8-mile stretch of County Road 46, the interstate’s western frontage road.

That portion of frontage road runs from County Road 1 to the Flying J Travel Center at the intersection with Hwy. 19, next to the Northfield exit. In March, the Rice County Board of Commissioners signed off on a bid for the project.

As the low bid from Kasson-based Swenke Ims came in more than $1 million under budget, Commissioners expressed optimism that the county might not have to borrow from its 2021 state aid account, as was previously expected.

While the west frontage road project was able to proceed, the east frontage road project got caught in the eminent domain process, after landowners refused to cede their rights to the land. Initially, the county hoped to get a hearing set up on the matter swiftly.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way, forcing multiple the rescheduling of hundreds of cases and creating a significant case backlog. On Monday, the court finally set a date for the preliminary hearing, but it isn’t until October.

According to County Engineer Dennis Luebbe, that’s just way too late in the construction season to start a project. That means that the project is likely to get bumped back a year, with final completion of the second phase moved out to 2022.

Commissioner Jake Gillen, who along with his colleague Jeff Docken represents the area, said that not much could be done about the delay. At this point, it’s unclear what effect the delay would have on the project’s cost.

However, Gillen expressed particular frustration because a local contractor, Northland Excavation and Grading, had managed to beat out several larger firms for the project. Now, the project will have to be bid out again.

“We don’t know if he’ll be able to get the project next time around because the big guys could cut their bids a bit and get it,” Gillen said, noting that the difference between the bids was relatively small.

The two projects were prioritized as the county looks to build up a business corridor with easy access to the Twin Cities via I-35. Access to both frontage roads would become easier if the county succeeds in improving the interchange on the west side of I-35 and Highway 19. In February, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety completed a traffic safety report on that interchange. Based on traffic flow and projections, officials concluded that the best approach would be to install a six way-roundabout.

Exit and entrance ramps to frontage roads would be included in addition to those allowing access to I-35 and Highway 19. However, Lubbe has said that project is likely at least five years into the future.

In addition to delaying the County Road 76 project, it’s likely that the COVID pandemic will force the Transportation Improvement Plan to be slimmed down, as social services costs rise while tax revenues fall.

Unlike the federal government, state and local governments face strict restrictions on borrowing. One of the only exceptions is the bonding bill, which would allow state leaders to make major investments in infrastructure projects like those Rice County is considering.