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Fire ravages Northfield's iconic Archer House, considered a total loss
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The historic Archer House building appears to be a total loss following a devastating fire that left crews working on scene for nearly 24 hours.

Brett Reese, CEO and managing partner of building owner Rebound Hospitality, said it will be awhile before insurance adjustors are able to enter the building. He added that despite the definite possibility that the building is beyond salvaging, Rebound hopes to save what it can or utilize any possible space within the building.

“We just don’t know,” Reese said. “It’s too early.”

The iconic hotel, built along the east bank of the Cannon River more than 140 years ago, sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout the building, according to Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek. On Friday morning, a gaping hole was visible in the back and front portions of the building. The State Fire Marshal’s Office was on scene Friday and Saturday. As of Monday morning, Franek said private investigators are at the building. No formal determination has been made on the condition of the building.

Franek did not say whether the hotel was beyond repair. He did say that decision will ultimately come down to the estimated repair cost developed by fire insurance underwriters.

“It’s another tough, sad day for this community and also the building owners,” Franek said.

The fire was reported at approximately 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Within 15 minutes, the inside of the restaurant was filled with smoke. As of about 5 p.m., smoke was billowing from all floors of the Archer House. The Archer House includes the River Inn, bar, Chapati, Smoqehouse, Northfield Tavern and Paper Petalum.

Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott said as of noon Friday crews were expected to remain for a couple more hours.

He described firefighters’ work within the building as “slow and tedious,” due to the age of the building and the layers of construction material added during previous remodeling projects undertaken since its 1877 construction. Franek said the fire spread throughout the building in walls, areas designed to hold pipes and cables, and hidden spots where fire crews couldn’t reach, making it hard to determine where the fire had gone.

“It’s been kind of a task, a rough one here to fight,” he noted.

Rebound Hospitality COO Todd Byhre said the fire has been traced to a food smoker at Smoqehouse.

Byhre noted the fire came after months after renovations to public spaces within the Archer House and revenue losses caused by COVID-19. Renovations were also ongoing on the Tavern of Northfield after a June 2019 kitchen fire at Chapati caused extensive water damage to the downstairs space. The Tavern of Northfield had been pegged for a January/February reopening. Byhre said the Archer House is a staple within downtown, adding he was thankful that no one was seriously injured and the inn was empty at the time. A firefighter was taken to Northfield Hospital and Clinics, and an employee suffered a non-life threatening burn wound.

“It’s an icon,” he said of the Archer House.

Smoqehouse employees and sisters Marta and Tove Sorenson were heading to work when they saw the fire.

“It’s just creepy to see,” Marta said of the fire.

Faribault, Lonsdale, Farmington, Randolph and Hampton fire departments have assisted on scene. To Franek, the massive fire and the relatively small size of the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services necessitated the help of other fire departments.

“I feel proud of our group of firefighters and how long and hard they’ve worked,” Franek said of Northfield and neighboring fire crews. “I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

The area around the building is closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic for safety concerns.

NAFRS is expected to release more information once the fire is extinguished.

The hotel opened Aug. 23, 1877 with 50 rooms and underwent a series of ownership changes before Dallas Haas purchased the building in 1981. The hotel was known as Stewart Hotel when Haas bought it but had previously been known as the Ball Hotel and as the Manawa Hotel.

Haas poured considerable time and money into revitalizing the building and brought retail shops and restaurants into the space. Fifteen tons of brick on the third floor alone were removed, according to the Northfield News archives. But after he died in 1995 due to a heart attack in the Archer House, the hotel’s future wasn’t clear.

A group of investors stepped forward to purchase the hotel and keep it vibrant. That group included Rebound Enterprises CEO Brett Reese, who continues to head the parent company of the Archer House.

“It’s such an important asset to the community, to the downtown,” Reese said in July 2017. “It’s a pillar of the downtown. It brings people here to spend their money. It’s an economic driver. It’s an icon. We wanted to try to carry it on.”


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Faribault Community Center, library to scale back operations
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Following the lead of City Administrator Tim Murray and the City Council, Faribault’s Parks & Recreation Department has announced that it will effectively be closing the Community Center.

The department’s Communications Coordinator, Brad Phenow, announced in an email sent out on late Thursday afternoon that all in-person events scheduled from 5 p.m. on Nov. 20 to Jan. 3 have been cancelled. Individuals with a fitness center membership will see that membership frozen on Nov. 21 and extended until they feel comfortable returning. Previously, they’d been able to exercise in the fitness room, though by appointment only.

In the meantime, the Community Center will seek to not only offer the virtual programming it had this year, but build on it. In his email, Phenow said that staff were working on additional virtual programs and would provide more information in the coming weeks.

The decision comes even though Gov. Tim Walz’s latest restrictions don’t include the mandated closure of fitness centers, one of the first moves he ordered when the pandemic first hit Minnesota hard back in March. Still, Parks & Recreation Director Paul Peanasky said that closing the fitness center will make a crucial difference in reducing contact between individuals, keeping both staff and members safe.

As earlier this year, several members of the Community Center’s staff will be furloughed, while others will continue to work through the pandemic. Those furloughed will remain on the city’s official payroll, enabling them to resume duties when the situation changes.

Library

After months of offering “Browse and Go” by appointment, much like the fitness center’s workouts by appointment, Buckham Memorial Library is scaling back as well. Starting Monday, patrons will have to call ahead or reserve books online for pickup at the front desk.

City Administrator Tim Murray said he’s already heard from people frustrated by the changes, which he hopes will last for only a “relatively short period of time.” While the numbers are clear and alarming, he said some city residents feel the risk is ultimately overblown.

Murray defended the decision as a responsible course of action that could serve to protect both residents and staff. The issue is not merely theoretical — at Tuesday’s Council meeting, he disclosed that several staff members had already tested positive.

“There are needs and there are wants,” he said. “We all want everything to be normal, full operations, but the last thing we want to do is be the cause of someone being sick.”

Senior Center

At adjacent Buckham West, formerly known as the Faribault Senior Citizens Center, no similar changes are in the works. Executive Director Mona Kaiser said that the nonprofit organization’s board of directors met Friday but were comfortable continuing to provide services.

Kaiser noted that Buckham West is playing a crucial role in providing meals to seniors, along with other support. She said that continuing that program is crucial given the elevated risk seniors face from COVID-19.

“At this point it is our intention to continue our operations as we have them in place,” she said. “We already have great COVID safety protocols in place.”

Other nonprofits throughout the community are operating full steam ahead as well. Paradise Center for the Arts Executive Director Heidi Nelson noted that a recent show had been cancelled — but only due to low attendance, not COVID concerns.

Nelson excitedly noted that for the COVID-concerned, the Paradise is offering additional livestreaming options. Nontheless, she said in-person shows are continuing and the Paradise will continue to be open three days a week for the foreseeable future.

“We are going to do exactly what we have been doing,” she said. “It’s still a really important service we provide.”


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County attorney, sheriff request 4% pay hikes in 2021
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Nothing’s settled, but two county officials are likely to see pay increases of 4% in 2021.

On Tuesday, Rice County Attorney John Fossum and Sheriff Troy Dunn made their annual appearance before the Board of Commissioner’s Personnel Committee to discuss their wages for the upcoming year.

Fossum, halfway through his second term, asked for an increase of 6.6% to 8% before amending that to 4% after Sheriff Troy Dunn made his request. That would equal $5,903 on top of Fossum’s existing salary of $147,576 annually. While he pointed out that union employees in his office will get two cost of living increases next year of 1.5% apiece and length of service increases between 3.6% and 5%, County Administrator Sara Folsted noted that the union the office’s assistant county attorneys belong to hasn’t yet come to terms on a contract.

He also mentioned anticipated increases in health insurance.

According to Folsted, county employees are expected to pay about 9% more for insurance in 2021. But, she pointed out, costs are still lower than in 2016 thanks to a a five-year contract that expires next year.

A chart provided to the committee listing the salaries of five county attorneys in counties with comparable populations showed Fossum’s 2020 earnings were on the lower end. Only Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh made less, though the difference was about $3,400. McIntosh oversees fewer assistant county attorneys, five to Fossum’s nine.

Otter Tail County Attorney Michelle Eldien had the highest salary of the five, $165,136. There are eight assistant county attorneys in her office.

The document also showed salaries for chief public defenders ($161,399 for those with four plus years of experience) and first assistant attorneys in Scott and Dakota counties, $174,506 and $189,467, respectively.

Dunn, in his 11th year as sheriff and 32nd in law enforcement, based his request on cost of living and length of service increases as well as insurance costs for 2021.

“I don’t think it would be fair to ask for more due to COVID,” said Dunn, “even though our workload has increased.”

A 4% increase for Dunn would give him an additional $5,730 for an annual salary of $152,986 in 2021.

Dunn also requested three additional correction positions for his office. Corrections personnel are hard to find and hard to retain, he said, as the job is frequently used as a stepping stone to higher-paying jobs in law enforcement and related careers. In addition, new Department of Corrections regulations require a more hands-on approach to wellness checks for medium- and maximum-security inmates.

The new procedures would make the jail less secure during wellness checks if the second jailer needs to assist in another area and step away from closed-circuit cameras.

“If we don’t add these people I think we will face sanctions,” Dunn said, telling committee members, Commissioners Jeff Docken and Galen Malecha, that he anticipates the facility won’t be able to hold inmates for more than 72 hours should the board decline his request.

Dunn said he needs a minimum of two additional corrections positions, but would like three positions to give his office some “cushion.”

Other sheriff’s departments in Minnesota often have more positions than they need due to frequent turnover. And given discussion about a new, larger jail is about to come before the board, the Sheriff’s Office will need additional officers should a new facility get county board approval.

Dunn also worried about how the coronavirus may impact his department in the coming months.

“Who know what COVID’s going to bring,” he said.

The full Board of Commissioners is expected to take up the requests sometime next month.