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Measures aimed to boost economic development pass Minnesota Senate
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An economic development program that has benefited local businesses like Daikin Applied, Faribault Foods and Bushel Boy was included in the Minnesota Senate’s workforce and business development bill, thanks in part to the strong backing of state Sen. John Jasinski.

Jasinski, R-Faribault, said he was pleased to see $3.5 million in funding for the Business Development Public Infrastructure program included in the Senate’s omnibus bill, which was passed by a near party-line vote of 37-30 April 15.

As a former mayor of Faribault, Jasinski said he has long understood the importance of the program. It’s a favorite of groups like the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities because it helps local governments to fund crucial infrastructure costs related to development.

“When I got to the Senate, I requested to carry that bill,” Jasinski said. “We’ve continued to ask for it every year.”

Funding for the program has been higher at times in the past, though the $3.5 million allocation is in line with legislation introduced by Jasinski in January. In its 2021 Economic Development policy white paper, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities opposed any cuts to the program.

The most robust funding source of funds for the program is traditionally the state’s bonding bill. The Coalition hopes to see at least an investment of $20 million over the biennium, though a bonding bill isn’t expected to pass the Senate until next year.

Owatonna Community Development Director Troy Klecker said that for local development to take place, significant infrastructure improvements, from the construction of new roads to an expansion of water and wastewater service, must often take place.

That’s particularly the case when companies like Daikin Applied seek to expand on the edge of town instead of pursuing a location well within city limits. Klecker noted that for Daikin, the construction of a new chunk of road was needed to make the project work.

Such construction costs are difficult to swallow for local authorities acting with limited budgets. Business Development Public Infrastructure is a competitive program that can often be difficult to secure, but if an application is successful it can provide much-needed matching dollars to go with local resources.

“The program is so important because to bring in new businesses, a lot of times it requires investment in public infrastructure,” Klecker said. “If big ticket items are needed for a business to expand, that can become a stumbling block.”

The same amount of funding is included in the House’s version of the bill, but other differences have required the creation of a conference committee of 10 legislators, including local Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, to hammer out the differences.

Another important provision in the bill centered around unemployment. It seeks to expand options for individuals to receive unemployment benefits while they are also receiving workforce training services.

In order to qualify for the assistance, applicants must be seeking and available for employment or engaged in qualified training that will increase job prospects. Jasinski said he hopes that such measures can help to wean people off Unemployment Insurance and back into the workforce.

Local business leaders have expressed significant concerns about the current state of Unemployment Insurance. Shortly after the pandemic first hit, legislators moved to increase unemployment benefits to help those most impacted.

Now, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that business leaders are frustrated that at a time of workforce shortages, employees find it more profitable to collect unemployment than return to work.

Johnson said that many local businesses are particularly frustrated because they’ve gone the extra mile to not only meet but exceed the state’s COVID-19 safety standards to help employees feel confident in returning to work, only for financial calculations to push them away.

“We hear from frustrated employers almost every day about their struggles to get their workers back,” Johnson said. “It’s certainly understandable that if you can bring more money into your household through short-term subsidies, that choice can be appealing. But in the long run, it definitely hurts our businesses and their ability to pay for these programs.”

Play in a pandemic: Two-actor show filmed for online viewing
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The night before the 2010 New York City Marathon isn’t what the characters in the upcoming Merlin Players show expected — and the format of this stage production might come as a surprise as well.

Instead of inviting audience members to watch the show live at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Director Sam Temple filmed the production’s only two actors, Brendon Etter, of Northfield, and Paula Jameson, of Owatonna, for a home-viewing opportunity available online May 7 through 16.

“Running,” a play by Arlene Hutton, isn’t an action show like the title might suggest. Instead, it’s conversation that drives the plot forward. Stephen, played by Etter, wants to get some sleep before participating in the marathon the next morning, but a stranger named Emily, played by Jameson, shows up unexpectedly. In the midst of a mid-life crisis involving the husband she left in London, Emily needs to talk to someone. Her old roommate Stephanie isn’t home, but her husband, Stephen, is there to listen to Emily’s grievances and share a few of his own.

As a forewarning to audiences, Etter said “Running” doesn’t offer easy answers at the end but instead serves as an exploration of two characters who are both running, though not in the same way. As Stephen and Emily’s conversations become more intimate, Etter said it produces a “will they or won’t they” effect.

“I think it’s relatable,” Etter said. “The thing I like is the writing is very spot-on, very natural and similar to how people talk.”

The conversational nature of the dialogue made it more difficult to memorize, Jameson said. The other challenge for both of them was acting for film rather than a live audience.

“We’ve both been told we need to talk quieter and actually face each other instead of facing the audience,” Jameson said.

In “Running,” Paula Jameson plays Emily, who shows up at her old roommate’s apartment in New York after leaving a bad situation in London. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

While performing on stage usually involves elaborate gestures and over-acting, Etter and Jameson instead needed to keep themselves contained so their reactions would translate better to the screen.

Etter hasn’t previously acted on the Paradise stage, but he’s performed in numerous shows throughout the area, some with the Merlin Players at different venues. He’s starred in solo performances and worked with other small casts, but Jameson said she’s more accustomed to working with large Merlin Players casts. “Running” is their first show together.

Before filming, which took place March 31 through April 23, the pair completed three weeks of Zoom rehearsals. This was challenging, said Etter, because they couldn’t rely on stage directions to help with line memorization.

The filming process didn’t happen chronologically; instead, Temple shot the three acts out of order with the first scene being the last recorded. The method, he said, ensures the characters are fully formed the first time the audience sees them.

Sam Temple, director of the Merlin Players’ show “Running,” filmed the production April 21 through 23 to release for online viewing May 7 through 16. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Production Manager Julianna Skluzacek said Merlin Players has needed to reinvent itself countless times throughout the years, so it was no question that filming a show would be possible. “Running” was not the original plan for the spring production, but based on guidelines related to COVID-19, the crew needed to move the show “Brighton Beach Memoirs” to October and quickly find a show with fewer cast members.

“This one fit the moment well,” Temple said. “The messaging is relevant without it being about a pandemic. It’s a comedic drama that leaves you feeling great and good.”

Steele County proposes Rice-Steele joint venture at Detention Center
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Steele County commissioners plan to formally request on Tuesday that Rice County share the Detention Center in Owatonna in a 50-50 financial split.

The Rice County Board is scheduled to choose an option for constructing a new jail Tuesday, but Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe is expected to present an alternative proposal to the board Tuesday to create a Rice and Steele joint powers agreement to use and oversee the Detention Center.

Steele has a facility that has undergone upgrades recently and has the capacity and staff needed, County Administrator Scott Golberg told the Steele County Board during a special meeting Monday to discuss the proposal.

“We’ve got a facility that’s ready and available,” Golberg said.

Steele County Commissioner Greg Krueger said their proposal will save money for taxpayers in both counties and County Board Chair James Brady called it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity between the two counties.”

Steele County’s proposal includes a $7 million buy-in from Rice County, which could be paid in installments over a number of years, and then $2.1 million each from Rice and Steele counties annually to cover the Detention Center’s expenses. Steele County commissioners hope the proposal is a jumping off point for negotiations and they said there’s some wiggle room in the 50-50 split to appease the transportation concerns of Rice County law enforcement, who would be traveling farther and on I-35 in inclement weather to Owatonna rather than a shorter distance to Faribault. Law enforcement has also raised concerns that the longer distance may be prohibitive for families wanting to visit an inmate.

The proposed amounts are preliminary in an effort to show Rice County officials what a scenario could possibly look like, Golberg said.

Steele County commissioners also considered Monday splitting the finances based on the number of inmates, in which Steele would pay 60% and Rice would pay 40%, and by population, in which Rice would be 65% and Steele would pay 35%.

Krueger said he’d like to see a 50-50 split, pointing out that while Steele has more inmates than Rice now, it could be flipped in the future. The other commissioners agreed with the idea before their unanimous approval to propose it to Rice County.

Rice County commissioners are faced with a decision between three options for a new jail: a new $49.2 million facility on an undeveloped property, a new jail and remodel of the current law enforcement center at a cost of $46.6 million or making the current facility a 90-day jail for $44.3 million. In the latter scenario, inmates needing to be housed longer than 90 days would go to another jail, bringing an additional cost. Rice County’s main jail, which is 50 years old, doesn’t have the space for programming required by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The DOC has balked at the idea of Rice and Steele combining their jails at the Detention Center. Sarah Johnson, who works in enforcement and inspections for the DOC, told the Rice County Board earlier this month that a joint venture with Steele to use the Detention Center is likely not a “viable solution” to its space woes.

Krueger said Monday his goal is to have the DOC “help us figure out how to make this work rather than tell us why it can’t work.”

The Detention Center has a maximum capacity of 154 beds, but the DOC has set its operational capacity at 138 beds. Steele County’s jail study concluded that the county needs 66 beds to accommodate Steele County-only inmates and 118 total beds to accommodate all the jurisdictions that use the Detention Center. Rice County’s jail study concluded that its inmate population would remain at about 48.

The Detention Center has always been “a pressure point” in Steele County’s budget, Brady said. The Detention Center was constructed to house inmates from other counties, but that has waned in recent years, leaving Steele County with too many empty beds.

It has been operating at a deficit in recent years. It has $3.9 million more expenses than revenue slated in the 2021 budget and in 2020, it had $3.5 million more expenses than revenue.

The total net value of assets at the facility is $14 million, with the land and building valued at $7.5 million and its improvements valued at $6.3 million, according to Steele County Treasurer Cathy Piepho. The county’s debt for the building is $8 million: $3.2 million on the building and $4.9 million for building improvement projects.