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Council open to demo of some Farmer Seed buildings, but want iconic sign to remain
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City councilors were clear: They don't want another iconic Faribault building coming down.

But given the choice of losing some of the Farmer Seed and Nursery Co. building or having it vacant and deteriorating further until the next buyer comes along, the council signaled it's willing to compromise.

On Tuesday, one of the property's new owners, Nicole El-Sawaf, of KK&G, asked the council whether it would agree to a partial demolition of the historic property, and if so, how she needs to proceed. Four of the seven buildings that sit on the Fourth Street NW site have so much water damage and mold that they're unsalvageable, she said. A fifth built in 1980, she said, adds little to the site either aesthetically or historically.

Ironically, the oldest building on the property is in good condition, as are concrete structures that sit at the rear of the site. Built in the 1890s, the southwest portion where the retail store was located, was first occupied by the Faribault Thresher Co. before being purchased by Farmer Seed in 1899. The remainder of the buildings were constructed between 1902 and the 1920s. And that's where the problem lies, said El-Sawaf and Faribault Building Official John Rued.

The roofs of the four central buildings leak and the water is traveling from the upper floors to the basement. Original wood floors are saturated or are so soft that El-Sawaf's foot went through them recently. The buildings are so filled with mold that one of KK&G's employees had to be hospitalized for breathing issues. Support beams have been notched in places, potentially reducing their effectiveness. Many have been painted, making it difficult to assess how much load they can handle.

On top of that, El-Sawaf and her business partner father have had trouble getting contractors to take a look at the site, never mind bid on the job.

El-Sawaf, whose company buys older buildings, then repairs and remodels them for indoor storage, says she "fell in love with the building," and was taken by the number of artifacts that remain inside.

"This building was going to be a challenge," she said. "And we were ready for it. We're here because we're struggling, struggling to get contractors."

Why, Councilor Sara Caron wondered, didn't El-Sawaf and her company understand what they were getting into?

A February 2020 structural evaluation for the city done to help the potential buyers interested in redevelopment found some leaky roofs and water damage to wood floors, but nothing like KK&G is now finding, said El-Sawaf.

The size of the building — 93,000 square feet — and the amount of time since the company had a contractor review the structure also contributed to KK&G's inability to realize the extent of the damage.

Caron again spoke up, irritated that another historic building might meet a wrecking ball. 

In September 2019, the council agreed to demo the former Columbia Hall at 27 Third St. NW,. The hall was built in 1875. And this summer, the council approved Allina Health's request to demolish Johnston Hall, built in 1888 as part of Seabury Divinity School, after structural engineers and tRued, the building official, found it in imminent danger of collapse. 

Other councilors — Tom Spooner, Jonathan Wood and Peter van Sluis — felt that razing some of the buildings and leaving others might be acceptable. Both Spooner and van Sluis said they first wanted to see a plan. There was one caveat: KK&G needs to find a way to save the seven-story portion which includes the words "Northern Grown" and "Faribo Seeds."

"I think everybody in the world wants you to save that … part," said Spooner.

Historic Preservation Commission member Karl Vohs, who was at Tuesday's meeting, agreed that a compromise could work, and noted that's what the commission hoped to do with Johnston Hall.

"I think we should find a way to help," said Caron. "Otherwise we're just going to keep knocking things down."

El-Sawaf said her company will finalize a plan to present to the city. Based on council directive Tuesday, that will likely go to the Heritage Preservation Commission for review and a recommendation for the council.

Nerstrand student ambassadors honor town's new restaurateur
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Tucked away in the southern part of Nerstrand, surrounded by Faribault, Northfield and Kenyon is Nerstrand Elementary. Fifth grader Ellie Girard takes a lot of pride in attending the small school and enjoys serving on the Student Ambassador Committee to get a chance to welcome people to Nerstrand and tell them about the school.

On Wednesday morning, the ambassadors were able to put their skills to the test. A group of seven students, including Girard, walked down to Nerstrand’s newest business, Boots and Lu’s, to congratulate owner Mary Heggedahl on the recent opening of her restaurant.

Heggedahl told students she has been overwhelmed with the response from the community, especially after going at least 40 years without a restaurant in town.

Though it took her three years to get to this point, Heggedahl’s pleased with those who continue to support her.

“It’s a place to gather, it warms my heart to hear the laughter from the kitchen,” Heggedahl told the students. “I love the people in this town, it’s all for them. There’s also been others not from here, it’s just been great.”

After students introduced themselves to Heggedahl and members of her staff, they enjoyed some ice cream in either a cone or cup before heading back to class. Students were shocked to learn how long it had been since there was a restaurant in the community, and enjoyed finding out more about what the area was like before they were born.

School pride

The Ambassador Committee is led by director Maggie Kiley and special education teacher Philip McBride. Kiley explains that to join a committee, students apply as third graders for one of three committees — Student Ambassadors, Peace Garden or Learn & Serve. This year there are eight students on the Ambassadors Committee, six on the Peace Garden and 10 on the Learn & Serve.

“Student committees are a unique part of who we are, and have always been a cool thing,” said Kiley. “Students get experience doing some public speaking, and because we’re so small, it allows more children to have unique experiences like leadership roles, which is a really nice thing.”

Typically fifth graders have one year of experience under their belt, but due to COVID-19, everyone is new to the committee this year. Students are eager for what’s to come for the remainder of the school year, and look forward to giving tours of Nerstrand Elementary.

Kiley says their primary function is giving school visitors a tour, though she’s looking at other ways to give them more experience this year. She hopes to have students ask grandparents or parents to come out to the school so the ambassadors can give them a tour.

“I’m excited about the potential of that and growing the committee back,” said Kiley. “I’d like to give them more opportunities to do tours.”

Students like fourth grader Alice Darlinski are equally as excited to get to work on the committee.

“One of the most fun things is probably the committees … the ambassadors is really fun and I cannot wait until we can actually show people around,” said Darlinski.

Of the school itself, Girard likes the different traditions it has. Fifth grader Mishick Smith personally likes the bell ringing tradition, where each incoming/out going student is greeted with the ringing the school’s original bell.

Fifth grader Faith Miller, too, finds the bell ringing tradition unique to the Nerstrand Elementary School. She also likes the school song.

Showing school pride is something a lot of the student ambassadors — like fourth grader Merik Siegert, fifth grader Courtney Springer and fourth grader Micah Heil — find special about their school. They also enjoy meeting new people, school spirit days and going on lots of field trips.

Fourth grader Benjamin Vinson especially likes how grades 2-3 and 4-5 learn together, because it gives him a chance to make new friends. Like Girard, he too, likes helping people out and giving tours of the school.

GOP gubernatorial candidates tackle the issues at local forum

Law enforcement, public education and election integrity were among the several hot topics discussed by Republican candidates for Minnesota’s governor.

Five of the six GOP gubernatorial candidates gathered Tuesday night at the Owatonna Country Club for a meet and greet and panel discussion hosted by the Steele County Republicans. Sen. Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake; Sen. Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake; Dr. Scott Jensen, of Chaska; Dr. Neil Shah, of North Oaks; and Mike Marti, of Kasson, were in attendance. Candidate Mike Murphy, of Lexington, was unable to attend due to a family issue.

Steven Nelson, co-chair of the Steele County Republicans, said they were extremely pleased with the night’s turnout of roughly 150. After a social hour, the candidates took their place at the front of the room to tell the crowd a bit more about themselves and their motivation to run for governor.

“I’m not a career politician, but I have Minnesota’s best interest at heart,” said Marti, a farmer and electrical contractor. Marti used his opening statement to talk about what a typical day in his life entails as a business owner, father and farmer.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake greets Owatonnans during the social hour of Tuesday’s event. Benson said she wants to make Minnesota “more free and prosperous” than it has ever been. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

In her opening statement, Benson said Minnesotans have nothing to be embarrassed about, but that recently things have changed.

“We can do this again. Let’s remember where we came from, let’s remember who we are,” she said. “Let’s look to a future with hope. We are coming out of a pandemic, we are coming out of riots. We are coming out to a future that we get to design, that we get to decide.”

With the exception of Marti and Benson, each candidate used their opening statement to blame Gov. Tim Walz and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for problems the state and country is facing.

Gazelka, the state Senate majority leader for the last five years, said he was “tired of playing defense” against the Democrats in the Legislature, which is why he stepped down from his position in September to run for governor.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Sen. Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake discusses business and economy with Owatonna locals at the country club. Gazelka said his five years as Senate Majority Leader prepared him to be governor and that Republicans need to “stick together” against an “onslaught” of Democratic ideas. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“It’s a constant battle to stop what they’re doing and I said, ‘I am tired of being on defense — I’m going on offense,” Gazelka said. “Frankly it’s not just about running for governor: it’s about winning governor, winning Senate and winning the House … if we don’t get all three it’s just going to be a stalemate.”

Republicans have won just one statewide race since 2006 while DFLers have taken 26.

Jensen, a physician who served in the Minnesota Senate from 2016 to 2020 and did not seek re-election, said in his opening statement that election security has been “harpooned” each session by liberals and that the political system is broken.

“We have far too many omnibus bills, far too many shenanigans in the e11th hour, far too much secrecy, far too much backroom dealing,” Jensen said. “That’s not where we want to be.”

In his opening statement, Shah made it simple: he wants Walz out.

“I want to fire Tim Walz because we can’t tolerate four more years of what he is doing to our state,” he said. “Tim Walz locked us in our homes, pulled our kids out of school, forced them all into masks, shut down our businesses, and he’ll do it again at the drop of a hat. We can never again allow that to happen.”

Prepared questions

The Steele County Republicans Executive Board sent the candidates four questions in advance, Nelson said, in an effort to address a wide variety of topics. The first question asked the candidates what they believed was the most crucial issue currently facing the state, to which each candidate provided a different answer.

Gazelka said public safety is the number one issue, and that recent movements to defund police were concerning. Though he gave several examples of recent gun violence in the Twin Cities, Gazelka said the problem is statewide.

“The police are demoralized everywhere as a result of the actions of too many Democrats and it’s driving police out of the police force … suddenly we don’t have enough help,” he said. “We’ve got to turn that around, and it’s not just the police. It’s the prosecutors not prosecuting, it’s the judges that lower the sentence, it’s all a mess and we have plans to deal with that.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Dr. Neil Shah, of North Oaks, introduces himself to members of crowd before the questions began. Shah said he is running for governor to “start a movement” and that he looks forward to leading Republicans in that fight. (Annie Granlund/ southernminn.com)

Shah said he believes the “woke mob” is what is currently “destroying” the state, adding that they have infiltrated every aspect of state government and are allowing the left-wing group Antifa to burn down neighborhoods.

The Star Tribune last year reported that FBI records contradict the theory that radical groups led riots in Minneapolis.

“In particular, what they’re doing to our schools will have repercussions for years to come,” he said, adding that many Minnesotans do not have the economic means to pay for a private school. “They pay into a public school system that should provide education, not indoctrination. Until the purse strings are given back to the parents and there is a parental right to choose an educational venue, the public schools will not reform.”

He added that children should not be pawns for teachers unions to manipulate. Shah said this year he and his wife pulled their children out of the public school system and now has them in a private school.

Benson also said the education system, which she claims has been failing for decades, is the most crucial issue facing the state.

“We’re teaching our children what to think, not how to think,” she said. “The left aggressively entered higher education and we didn’t wake up, we didn’t stop it, we didn’t say ‘now.’”

She added that there also needs to be a “high standards, no excuses” policy in the public system that states those enrolled in public schools must learn to read by third grade.

When posed the same question, Jensen said it reminds him of death certificates and how people need to look at the underlying cause to the “death” of democracy.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Dr. Scott Jensen of Chaska greets guests Tuesday night at the GOP gubernatorial candidate panel in Owatonna. Jensen said the current system is “flawed and broken” and that Minnesotans “deserve better.” (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“If we can’t fight against the apathy that has the potential to take over the democracy and our nation we will have lost what we stand for,” Jensen said. “So to me, it seems we have got to find a way to secure our elections.”

When asked, every candidate said they would support a Voter ID law that requires voters to provide identification when they vote.

Marti said the “cultural war” is the most critical challenge Minnesota is facing and that politics will not solve that issue.

“This is a matter of the heart, one election isn’t going to solve this. It will get us a little farther down the road, but we have to realize that we need to change our culture,” he said. “We need to reach out to places where we haven’t in the past and we have to stop being moderate, wishy-washy Republicans and stand for something that the rest of the people believe in.”

Other prepared questions included mitigating the worker shortage, securing election integrity and what historical figure inspires them.

With the worker shortage, each of the candidates said it is important not to provide people with incentive not to work and that there needs to be an emphasis on valuing a strong work ethic. Gazelka said there also needs to be an immediate stop to any and all vaccine mandates. He also wants to eliminate the tax on Social Security income and prioritize legal immigration to help fill workforce gaps.

Marti said the workforce shortage is not new, but is decades old when looking at the trades. He blamed high school guidance counselors, saying they push children into four-year colleges.

Benson also spoke about the schools being the key to helping the workforce, believing many women are reluctant to enter the workforce because of the state of the public schools and choosing to keep their children at home. She echoed Marti that options outside of four-year colleges need to be promoted in high school settings.

Shah said there is no real clear understanding on why the workforce shortage continues to be such a problem in Minnesota, but said the cost of childcare is a huge issue. He suggested reducing taxes on businesses so they can pay their employees more and reducing tax burdens on employees so they can afford childcare.

Aside from Voter ID, options suggested for protecting election integrity included hand-marked paper ballots, provisional ballots and poll watchers. Shah said liberals in the Legislature have been working to weaken safeguards that protect elections, such as allowing same-day voting and no ID requirement for absentee ballots.

Marti, Jensen and Gazelka said more Republican election judges is crucial to securing elections, with Gazelka stating Democrats had 20,000 election judges in 2020 while Republicans had only 3,000.

According to Risikat Adesaogun, press secretary and deputy communications director for the Office of Minnesota Secretary of State, the claims made by Gazelka are unfounded.

“Minnesota law requires party balance and we achieved that in the 2020 election,” she said Wednesday. “Regardless of party status, under Minnesota law every election judge has to swear under oath to administer elections impartially. Ultimately, there is no factual basis for Sen. Gazelka’s claims.”

Jensen added that mail-in ballots need to be investigated, but that the division between the state and the country is the biggest threat to election security. He said people calling those who have concerns about election security “conspiracy theorists” is “exactly what is wrong with where we are at today.”

Blind questions

Questions submitted at the event included legalizing recreational marijuana, ensuring access to quality education and the priorities regarding law enforcement and public safety.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Mike Marti of Kasson (left) visits with a Freeborn County resident at the end of the event. Marti said the governor is meant to be an “unassuming servant of the people” and that he plans to be exactly that is elected. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

Marti was the only candidate who said he would support the legalizing recreational marijuana, and would want it to be an open market with no monopoly held by the government.

The other candidates said they are in support of decriminalizing or reducing sentencing for marijuana use and possession, with Benson adding she would support employers prohibiting its use and sending any adult to jail who provides marijuana to a child. Jensen said he simply wants to see the enforcement surrounding marijuana to be equal across the board.

Multiple candidates brought up critical race theory, curriculum that explores through the study of law and history how racial oppression shaped the legal fabric of the country, during the night and that it needs to be kept out of the public school systems. There was also agreement across the panel that the “dollars should follow the children,” meaning if families take a child out of public schools that the should receive a portion of their student’s “per-pupil” funding to pay for their education, whether that be at home, at a private school or other school setting.

Every candidate showed strong support for police and the role they play in public safety. Several candidates said it is important to prioritize training and made references to supporting more sentences resulting in jail or prison time.

Shah said he believes the root of the problem Minnesota is seeing in public safety extends beyond law enforcement agencies and to prosecutors and judges. He said having a run of conservative governors will allow the state to appoint “judges who want to follow the law” and if elected judges are acting like partisans he wants to have their political party added to the ballot.

In their closing statements. Marti said Walz has been acting like a “king” and not a civil servant, and Benson said Walz does not trust or respect the Minnesotan people. Jensen and Shah both emphasized that it is time to elect someone other than a career politician.

Gazelka said he is ready to do in the governor’s seat what he was able to accomplish during his time as Senate Majority Leader, despite the roadblocks from across the aisle.