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Faribault senior Payton Evenstad pokes the ball over a Cannon Falls block attempt during Wednesday’s sweep in Cannon Falls. (Martin Schlegel/southernminn.com)

Openings on city boards offer opportunity for resident involvement
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Dan Behrens’ experience as a member of Faribault’s Charter Commission has been so satisfying that he applied to sit on a second city board.

Earlier this year, Behrens, an engineer, was chosen for the newly formed Environmental Commission, bringing more than 35 years of professional design and construction experience to the role — complimenting the skill sets and experiences of other members. With just a bit of effort, he said, commission members can really make a material difference in the community.

“It’s really valuable experience, you learn a lot about what happens in government,” he said. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”

With 2021 fast approaching, the city of Faribault is looking for fresh faces and new voices from the community to fill openings on its numerous boards and commissions. The city this week began accepting applications from residents interested in joining one of its boards or commissions. Mayor Kevin Voracek noted that such boards, composed of community volunteers, play a critically important role in the city’s approach to a wide variety of issues.

“From the airport to parks to housing, just about every aspect of the city is on a board or commission to some degree,” he said.

Most board and commission members serve staggered terms, giving newcomers the opportunity to learn from more experienced members. Still, seats on more than a dozen boards are opening, with terms starting in January.

Councilor Royal Ross urged interested residents to apply for a spot on a board or commission, arguing that joining a board or commission can be an enriching learning experience. While many board members are likely to seek another term on their boards, he noted that others are subject to term limits or wish to step down for other reasons.

Every year, there’s some people who are at the end of their term and may not have the time or may not want to be on that same board or commission,” he said. “There’s always a need for people to step up.”

Applications for some boards and commissions are expected to be more competitive than others. For example, Faribault’s Economic Development Authority traditionally draws an abundance of applicants from the city’s business community. On the flip side, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission has been shorthanded for years. In addition to filling current member Ron Dwyer’s position, the city has hopes of filling an additional three-year term to bring the group back to a full seven members.

Former Mayor Chuck Ackman said that his appointment to the Planning Commission nearly three decades ago was truly life-altering. In the years following, he went on to serve as Planning Commission chair before becoming a councilor and then mayor.

Most city boards usually end up with enough interested applicants, many of whom are returning members seeking another term. Nonetheless, Ackman said it’s important for the city to recruit fresh voices with unique perspectives from the community.

“This is a great opportunity to get involved,” Ackman said. “Our government is not a spectator sport, you should be involved.”

Ackman noted that there are likely to be at least two openings on the city’s Planning Commission, which plays a crucial role in overseeing projects of all sorts throughout town. Two more slots will be available on the city’s newest board, the Environmental Commission, including the seat currently occupied by Ackman himself.

Environmental Commission Chair Roger Steinkamp said that the commission, which advises the council on issues dealing with the environment, is still getting its bearings and strategizing on how best to fulfill its broad yet vaguely defined mission.

While other regional cities of comparable size have had environmental commissions for years, Faribault’s City Council created its own board this year after receiving a petition signed by more than 70 area residents. That’s not to say the board is starting from scratch. In 2016, Faribault applied for and was accepted into Xcel Energy’s Partners in Energy program, which has partnered closely with area residents and businesses to improve their energy efficiency.

With support from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Faribault has also taken significant steps to prepare for the impacts of climate change. The city completed a Climate Impact Study several years ago and was recently chosen to put together a Climate Adaptation Plan.

Interest in the topic is significant enough that when applications opened, an abundance of qualified candidates stepped forward to put their hats in the ring. Still, Steinkamp said he’d like to see the board look a little bit more like Faribault.

“We’d like to get representation from young people interested in representing their generation, as well as members of our different communities,” he said.

As Medford moves to distance learning, superintendent hopes to get students back in class
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The Medford School Board spent Monday night discussing learning model updates, COVID-19 cases within the district and how the district plans to proceed with school athletics as COVID-19 cases are increasing in Steele County and the state.

Students didn’t have school on Monday as teachers and staff prepped for distance learning in the coming weeks. As previously announced, students will remain in their current learning model through the rest of this week. Superintendent Mark Ristau said the district will ensure students are sent home with the materials and devices needed for distance learning.

“Our goal is still to make it to Friday, our in-house numbers are OK right now and the county was fine with that moving forward,” Ristau said.

Distance learning for Medford students begins Monday and goes through Friday, Dec. 4 with a break for Thanksgiving Nov. 26-27. Ristau said he hopes to bring students back to their current learning model on Monday, Dec. 7, depending on case data.

The School Board also agreed to push the beginning of winter sports back to Dec. 7. though Gov. Tim Walz halted high school sporting events through Friday, Dec. 25, though a challenge to that decision may be mounting.

Let Them Play MN, a group of parents, coaches and kids who want youth sports to be allowed during the pandemic, urged Walz to reconsider, calling youth sports “an important bright spot” in a difficult year. Affected sports will include prep football and volleyball.

“Coaches and schools have adopted protocols that help prevent the spread of COVID more than the things teens will do without sports,” Rocori High School head football coach James Herberg said in the group’s statement. “Cancelling sports may sound helpful on paper, but with no protocols or supervision, the spread will be worse.”

Several Medford staff have just completed quarantining and another staff member is quarantining, awaiting test results. Depending on those results, more students and staff may have to switch to distance learning earlier than planned. On Thursday, Steele County reported 35 new COVID-19 cases within the past 24 hours for 1,482 total and 6 deaths. Last Thursday the county’s case rate per 10,000 was at 41.99. Neighboring Rice County added 177 cases for a total of 3,248 cases in all and 27 deaths, while Waseca County reported 26 more cases since Wednesday, making a total 1,201 and 10 deaths there.

With trends going in the wrong direction and Ristau says the next rate could be in the 60s and could jump up even more the following week.

“Our new positives have more than doubled from last week and we have quadrupled over the last two weeks for our cases,” Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said in her Monday update on Facebook.

The next Medford School Board meeting is set for Dec. 21 at 6 p.m.

Three downtown Faribault projects earn financial help from city
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Among the Faribault Economic Development Authority’s most successful initiatives is the Downtown Commercial Rehabilitation and Exterior Improvement Program, intended to preserve and enhance economic activity in the historic downtown district.

The program provides building owners with deferred loans covering up to 75% of basic maintenance costs up to $15,000. Loans can be forgiven after five years so long as the building is retained by the owner.

The EDA approved assistance for three projects on Tuesday, including a loan that will cover 50% of the costs needed to cover basic repairs of a downtown building that has become a sore point for city officials in recent years.

The historic building at 216/218 Central Ave. has been owned by Darrell and Luella Jensen for more than five decades. Over the last 15 years, a series of near-constant struggles between the Jensens and the city over the building’s maintenance have taken place. While the building remains structurally sound, according to a report from architecture and engineering firm ISG, its foundation is in such poor enough shape that scaffolding has had to be installed to prevent pieces of the facade from falling onto pedestrians below.

Economic Development Coordinator Samantha Markman noted that because the building is technically two adjacent properties, the project could bypass the $15,000 cap and be eligible for $18,050 in assistance, or 50% of the project cost.

Dave Hvistendahl, who represents the Jensens, said that the work would take care of the most pressing issues identified by a report from Larson Engineering, supporting the crumbling facade and correcting structural deficiencies.

Once the initial work is done, Hvistendahl said that a much larger, more expensive project would take place to restore the front of the building. He promised that once all work is complete, the issues with the building should vanish.

“It’s a 100-year project,” he said.

Hvistendahl’s own building, the former Peterson Art Furniture Co. at 416/418 Fourth Street NE received awards, thanks to its multiple addresses. The EDA awarded a loan of approximately $15,500 for the project, or 40% of the total project cost.

As part of the project, Hvistendahl will install eight new windows on the third floor of 28 Fourth Street NE building, home to Corks & Pints, and construct two new openings on the 405 NE First Ave. building, home to 10,000 Drops.

Hvistendahl has said that the new windows and doors are just the beginning of changes he plans to make to the complex he’s owned for more than two decades. In the short term, his plans include a heated outdoor seating area and new patio.

The third project to receive funding is developer Todd Nelson’s project to transform the former Masonic Lodge building on Central Avenue downtown into apartments. Projected to cost roughly $1 million, the project has already received around $300,000 in assistance from the city.

At approximately $13,500, this latest round of support for Nelson’s project is much smaller, covering 20% of the costs of a roof replacement. Nelson said he hopes that the entire project will be complete by next spring, with the roof repairs coming much sooner.