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mikerandleman / By MIKE RANDLEMAN mrandleman@faribault.com 

Sam Graves gave instructions to a group of campers at Teepee Tonka Park. (Daily News file photo)

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Reprieve for Johnston Hall: City landmark to become a chemical health treatment facility

Eighteen months into a two-year search period agreed to by the Faribault City Council and Allina Health, a suitor has finally been found for Johnston Hall.

Under plans discussed at a Tuesday night City Council Work Session, the Faribault landmark, owned by Allina Health and adjacent to District One Hospital, will be transformed into a 35-bed residential chemical treatment facility for men, with outpatient services for women. The facility will include a cafeteria, meeting and therapy rooms, lodging units and a canine training/therapy program.

The new development will be spearheaded by Twin Cities-based Developer Jason Palmby. Palmby previously redeveloped two historic buildings in Chaska for similar use, and is in the process of completing a substance abuse rehabilitation center in Shakopee.

According to council documents, Palmby is no newcomer. He’s been analyzing the viability of a potential project at Johnston Hall since January 2019, meeting with contractors and architects as well as the State Historic Preservation Office and working to identify funding sources. The plan submitted by Palmby to the City Council is estimated to have a price tag of $4 million. To help facilitate the project, Allina has agreed to sell Palmby the building for $1 and grant him a 60-year zero cost lease agreement to the land.

Should the city swiftly grant its approval, Palmby hopes to get started on construction by the end of this summer. The renovation project is expected to take a year.

While Palmby has been enthusiastic about the project, he struggled to identify a service provider to partner with. With Twin Cities-based service providers already occupied by their own projects, Palmby has instead turned to a pair of care providers with Faribault roots.

Last year, Mallory Fuchs and Tracy Sunde partnered to create Sisters of Serendipity, which offers substance abuse recovery services to adults and adolescents. Fuchs and Sunde had previously worked together previously in several settings, including at the Minnesota Correction Facility-Faribault.

At first, Fuchs and Sunde offered their services in the back of Grit & Grace boutique in downtown Faribault, which Fuchs co-owns. While looking for a larger location, Sunde was able to connect with Palmby and they developed a plan together.

“We’re really excited to be a part of this effort to restore the building,” Fuchs said. “And we think it’s a great location for what we’ll be doing.”

Fuchs is currently a chemical health specialist with the Faribault Public Schools, and said she will continue in that role for at least the next year while the building is under construction. She said that there’s a real need for a sober living facility locally.

While Councilor Elizabeth Cap questioned why the residential facility would not be open to women, Fuchs said that the need for inpatient care is greatest among men and that a co-ed model is less likely to be effective.

“In our experience we’ve seen a greater need for men, or willingness for men to do residential care,” Sunde said. “A lot of women have kids and refuse to leave their kids.”

The current project isn’t the first time that mental and chemical health treatment center has been considered as a potential use for Johnston Hall. In 2018, Meridian Behavioral Health, which operates Beauterre Recovery Institute in Owatonna, investigated the possibility.

Meridian ultimately concluded that Johnston Hall would be too small for the type of facility it envisioned. Meridian indicated an interest in other properties, noting a significant shortage of mental and behavioral health facilities locally and nationally, but the topic has not been discussed since 2018.

Built in 1888 for $50,000, Johnston Hall is now all that remains of what was once the Seabury Divinity School incorporated by Henry Benjamin Whipple, the state’s first Episcopal Bishop. Last used for office space, it’s been vacant since 2012.

A lack of maintenance over the years left the building in need of millions worth of repairs. After its closure, a group of concerned citizens worked with then-State Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, in hopes of securing state funding for the project, but were unsuccessful.

In 2017, Allina Health sent a letter to the city asking for permission to demolish the structure, which sits on the National Register of Historic Places. Allina stuck by its request even after the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority offered to help redevelop the property.

However, the city pumped the brakes on that process, with officials insisting on a lengthy process including an environmental review. In May of 2018, Allina temporarily withdrew its request for a demolition permit.

That November, the council and Allina inked an agreement giving the city two years to market the property. Under the agreement, Allina had the right of refusal over any purchase and development agreement.

Among the potential uses suggested by Allina were housing, offices, non-competitive medical services or a retail coffee shop. Should the city have been unable to find a suitable developer after two years, Allina said it would have have restarted the demolition application process.

According to a joint press release issued Wednesday morning by the city, Allina Health, Palmby and Sisters of Serendipity, "The Faribault City Council sees this as a welcome project, especially in light of the proposed demolition and the substantial costs associated with the rehabilitation of this structure. The city is excited for the reuse and rehabilitation of this iconic building, and for the addition of these important and much-needed services to the community."

After weeks of wrangling, council backs downtown apartments

Faribault’s City Council gave final approval to developer Todd Nelson’s plans for the old Masonic Lodge building, paving the way for the addition of additional housing downtown.

Nelson purchased the old Masonic Lodge building on Central Avenue from the Masons last year, with the intention of transforming it into apartments. In order to bring the building back into shape, Nelson has proposed nothing short of a top to bottom rebuild, at a price of $1 million. He has secured approximately $300,000 in public funding. Most of that funding came from the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which approved it on the condition that Nelson would keep rent affordable.

The new housing, approved by the council Tuesday, will make a small dent in the city’s shortage of affordable housing and is in sync with the city’s Downtown Master Plan. Adopted last year, the plan envisions a revitalized downtown district as the centerpiece of the community, with additional housing and amenities.

Councilors were first asked to approve a variance request for the new development two weeks ago. The request was necessitated because city ordinances don’t allow a parcel the size of the old Masonic Lodge property to have more than five apartments on site. According to research later done by City Administrator Tim Murray, that limitation was implemented in the 1990s, after several downtown building owners converted the upper floors of their buildings into apartments.

That raised the concern of the City Council at the time. Councilors were particularly worried that more development would lead to parking problems downtown, so they passed the residential unit restriction along with one requiring units to be accompanied by parking.

The parking requirement was modified and later repealed, but the issue has remained a top concern for the city. According to an exhaustive report from the city’s Parking Commission, a dire shortage of downtown parking remains, particularly during peak times.

Even more concerning to councilors than the parking issue was the lack of a dedicated indoor trash or laundry room under Nelson’s original plan. Councilors also criticized Nelson’s plans for lack of detail and tabled the motion for further discussion at a work session.

Last week, Nelson submitted updated plans which reduced the number of units on the site from nine to eight. In place of the ninth planned unit is a dedicated laundry room and public space, while a trash room was added on the ground floor.

That satisfied most council members, although several expressed concerns about the lack of detail. Some members of the council encouraged the developer to consider reducing the number of units further, with Mayor Kevin Voracek emphasizing a preference for “quality over quantity.”

On April 23, City Planner Dave Wanberg received updated sketches from the project’s architect. Those sketches satisfied the council, including Councilor Elizabeth Cap, who had been the most vocal in raising concerns over the project’s size

“Based on the information that was presented, there was a perception that there would be too many small apartments in this building, but that’s not what we have in front of us here,” she said. “It will be a very desirable location and a real help for the downtown.”

Just one hurdle for the project remains. As the property sits in the Downtown Historic District, Nelson will still need to secure approval for the project from the Heritage Preservation Commission.

Falcons coaches continue to mentor athletes, but from a distance

Claire Boatman already anticipated a change this spring, coaching softball for Faribault High School for the first time, but COVID-19 was not the curveball she expected.

It wasn’t long after the season began that Boatman needed to switch to distance coaching. But while she hasn’t interacted with the girls in person much this season, she’s connected with them on a more personal level than she may have otherwise.

“It’s very different,” said Boatman. “In the sense of being able to see them every day, that’s not the same, but I’m sending them messages daily … I feel like we’re getting more conversations out of them.”

Across the district, spring sports coaches have shifted to online formats for the sake of keeping their athletes motivated and engaged in the activities they love, even if that means no physical contact with their team. But apart from encouraging their athletes to stay active, coaches find themselves showing up as life mentors and added support during a national crisis.

According to FHS Activities Director Keith Badger, coaches’ overwhelming response to the distance learning is that they’re more involved with athletes than they would be during a normal season.

“The only thing we’ve removed this spring is the scoreboard,” said Badger during a virtual School Board meeting April 22. “The education and growth experience is absolutely there.”

Boatman and some of her former college teammates and coaches together created a YouTube channel called Safe at Home to share with their athletes and any other interested softball players. The channel contains videos in which the coaches demonstrate ways to practice softball skills when equipment is limited.

“It’s been fun,” said Abby Lake, a senior on the Falcons softball team. “It gives us something to do during the day, and I think it makes everyone feel a little bit more active.”

Lake was looking forward to one last season on the FHS softball team and seeing how the new coach and younger athletes worked together as a team. But through weekly online meetings with the whole team and small groups with individual coaches, she at least enjoys catching up with the other girls.

Boatman said athletes can join these weekly meetings as they like to share what’s going on in their lives and ask any questions about the videos. But since some of the athletes need to work or babysit on top of managing six distance learning classes, Boatman understands if they’re unable to join discussions at the scheduled time.

“Different times work better for some people,” said Boatman. “They’re really hungry for any sort of softball related activity, so they carve out that time as they would. Some have really stuck to that schedule.”

Boatman also recognizes her athletes crave competition, but due to the pandemic and rules the Minnesota State High School League established in response to it, she hasn’t yet found a way to supplement contests. Especially for seniors whose softball career may soon come to a close, Boatman hopes her athletes find ways to fill the competition void, either now or in the future as coaches themselves.

“I have to say I’m very impressed with the maturity of all my athletes,” said Boatman. They’ve been handling this way better than I ever could have expected them to. They know they’re not the only people in the world going through times that are really unfair and unfortunate. I could not be more proud.”

Ready to run

Mark Bongers, head girls track coach for FHS, has also found distance coaching allows him to connect more with athletes on a personal level. Like Boatman, he reaches out to his athletes through weekly meetings online.

Instead of offering his usual coaching, he focuses more intensely on promoting mental wellness. Before shifting to distance coaching, Bongers said physical coaching usually took precedence over the mental health component. He now invites athletes to do weekly workouts, if they want to participate, but more than anything he wants athletes to have an outlet for expressing frustrations and disappointments. Part of that involves becoming more intentional about sharing his own experiences of social distancing.

“It’s OK for a coach to be angry about this, too,” said Bongers. “As adults, we process emotions in the same way, and kids don’t always get shown that … It’s good for them to see I’m not different from them in a lot of ways.”

Lilli Ruisi, a senior on the Faribault High School varsity girls track team, said distance coaching is “definitely different.”

“It’s weird to have an option to do workouts instead of having to do them,” said Ruisi. “Overall Bongers has done a phenomenal job in motivating us.”

As a senior, Ruisi said it hit her hard Tuesday evening when Bongers said the track season was officially cancelled. But distance coaching, she said, is absolutely a better alternative than no coaching at all. The meeting sessions keep the team together and allow them to interact without leaving home.

Thinking positively, Ruisi said, “I look back at all the things I did get to do. It’s hard, but I don’t regret anything.”