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Faribault Foods says biodigester could mitigate plant's odor

The air in one north Faribault neighborhood might be about to get a lot less smelly, assuming that novel plans laid out by Faribault Foods Wednesday come to pass.

As required under state law, the City Council’s meeting was postponed to accommodate the presidential nominating primary. When Councilors did meet Wednesday, Faribault Foods’s plans for an expendable biodigester system headlined a packed agenda.

Faribault Foods has long been a pillar of the local economy. Despite fears that the company might pack up and leave after being sold to Mexican canned foods company La Costeña in 2014, its presence in Faribault has only grown since. In 2017, the company moved into a $140 million, 1-million-square foot facility on Industrial Drive. Company officials promised that the facility, which uses far less water than its former plant, would cut down on unpleasant smells.

That hasn’t happened. Instead complaints quickly began to filter in about odors emitted through the new facility’s sewer vents. The odor is tied to the production of hydrogen sulfide gas from bacteria in the sewer system.

According to Public Works Director Travis Block, about 10 homes in the neighborhood are directly impacted by the operation’s wastewater. That’s because their wastewater travels through the same sewer line as Faribault Foods.

Often times, the odor has a much greater reach than that. When the weather is humid, giving the noxious gas moisture to stick to, residents across the north end of the city complain that they just can’t escape it. Given the difficulty of quantifying a smell, there aren’t any city ordinances specific enough to force Faribault Foods to take odor mitigation steps. Still, the company has worked hard to try to find a solution, exploring one option after another.

No single solution has proved a success, although some of them did cut back on the stench. The latest approach would be the most intensive yet, but it’s one with a proven track record of success, according to the presentation made by Dave Tieman, Faribault Foods vice president of manufacturing.

The high-technology biodigester system is currently used with success by some breweries, according to Tieman. It would remove odor-causing solids from wastewater, purifying it before it’s shipped to the water treatment plant.

In addition to reducing the odor, the new system will produce biogas, which could be transformed into electricity or heat for the facility. That nifty feature won it praise from Councilor Elizabeth Cap, Mayor Kevin Voracek and others.

“If you can use it to power your building, that’s a great thing,” Voracek told Tieman. “It’s a great way for you to use more of what you’re producing.”

The system will include two biodigester tanks along with an equalization tank. It’s designed to accommodate an additional two biodigester units, should the company see its needs expand at some point.

The company is already working through the design engineering process and hopes to secure the necessary permits this spring. Construction could start as soon as May, which would enable it to be completed and up and running before next winter.

Council offers mixed reviews on library gathering space design

On Wednesday, Faribault’s City Council reviewed plans from the Friends of Buckham Memorial Library that could soon see the historic building surrounded by extra gathering spaces and parking.

Making the library an appealing and accessible gathering space has been a goal of city planners. Under the city’s recently approved Downtown Master Plan, downtown gathering spaces are envisioned to accommodate an increased number of downtown residents.

Few places would be a better fit for a downtown gathering space than Faribault’s historic and centrally located library. Late last year, librarian Delane James put some tables and benches near an old entryway to help visitors envision what might go there.

To come up with more formal and extensive plans, the Friends turned to Perkins & Will, the same architecture and design firm the city used for the Downtown Master Plan. Following the master plan, the design seeks to combine historic charm with green space.

Of course, the Friends of the Library dreamed of such a vision, but the resources have never been there to make it happen. Bringing the plan to fruition would still require significant fundraising in the near future.

But while the City Council isn’t likely to fund the project, it has spent quite a bit of money on improving the library and nearby surroundings. The council has already approved funds for roof repairs, new carpeting and a parking lot reconstruction. The city is even preparing to undertake a reconstruction project to improve Central Avenue in front of the library. To James, that means now the right time for the library to think big, and that argument won traction from several council members.

“We’re definitely on the right track,” Councilor Elizabeth Cap said. “I think this plaza is really an appealing gathering space.”

Others were somewhat more skeptical of the initial design. Noting that the library’s historic status and regal architecture make it an iconic Faribault image, Councilor Tom Spooner said he wanted to see the final design mesh well with the structure.

The library sits on the National Register of Historic Places and is within the Downtown Historic District, so such concerns will need to be actively evaluated. That also means the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission will get its say on the project.

Councilor Janna Viscomi raised concerns over the proposed pergolas, which were also a sore spot with the library board. Board members preferred the area to be a simple green space, while Viscomi suggested putting up a canopy.

“Some days, it could be raining,” Viscomi said. If you’re going to go to the effort to put something up there, why not put up a solid canopy?”

Along with the additional amenities would come parking along the east side of the library. The parking won’t exactly be new, as it’s set to replace spots lost with to the Hillside Apartment complex directly across the street. The space previously served as public parking.

Under preliminary plans, 15 additional parking spaces would be located on the southwest side of Peace Park, the small, triangular area located at the intersection of Division Street and First Avenue Northeast. The park itself is limited for development, and not only because of its awkward location.

According to the Rice County Historical Society, Peace Park was once used as a former Native American burial ground. However, City Engineer Mark Duchene said that from studying photographs, the area where extra parking would go should not disturb any burial sites.

The Heritage Preservation Commission’s Karl Vohs, who was at the meeting, raised concerns over the plan. However, Duchene said that photos of the area indicate that it was actually a part of Trunk Highway 218, and underground utilities currently pass through it.

Others raised concerns that the additional parking would result in the closure of the small Park Place street, pushing more traffic into an already crowded intersection. However, Duchene said he doubted the change would significantly hamper traffic flow.

The proposal now goes to the Heritage Preservation Commission for its input.

Jason Hommes / By JASON HOMMES jhommes@faribault.com 

WEM’s Toryn Richards works around the perimeter of the Medford defense on earlier this season. Richards and the Buccaneers will try to secure a trip to the state tournament Friday against Sleepy Eye-St. Mary’s. (Daily News file photo)

Area man wanted for Las Vegas murder arrested after truck stop standoff

A Blooming Prairie man wanted for a murder last month in Las Vegas was taken into custody Wednesday night after a deputy noticed a suspicious vehicle parked at an Interstate 35 truck stop.

The man, Mark Allen Doocy, 60, was reportedly inside an SUV parked at the Flying J Truck Stop at the I-35/Hwy. 19 interchange. Both Doocy and the SUV are connected to a Feb. 28 homicide, according to a release from Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn. Several deputies and officers, called shortly after 7:30 p.m. to assist in apprehending Doocy, were unable to get him to respond.

Members of the area’s tactical team later used a chemical aerosol and other non-lethal tactics in an attempt to get Doocy to respond and exit the SUV, but he continued to be non-compliant, said Dunn. Just before midnight, officers entered the SUV and extracted Doocy, arrested him and turned him over to Cannon Falls ambulance personnel for treatment and transport to Northfield Hospital.

He was later transferred to a Twin Cities hospital where he is listed in stable condition. Rice County deputies have the suspect in custody at the hospital. He’s expected to be released from the hospital and transported to the Rice County Jail Thursday to be held on the Nevada homicide/murder with a deadly weapon warrant pending an extradition hearing.

The Sheriff’s Office was also assisted by Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, Lonsdale, Faribault, Northfield and Lakeville Police departments, Minnesota State Patrol, South Metro SWAT team, which includes officers from Dakota and Rice County agencies, and Cannon Falls Ambulance.

Rice County deputies continue to assist Nevada officers in the investigation.

Principal: 2019 FHS graduation rate doesn't tell entire story

Minnesota’s four-year high school graduation rate reached an all-time high in 2019 — 83.7% — an increase of .5 percentage points from 2018.

According to Minnesota Report Card, Faribault High School’s four-year graduation rate was 73% in 2019, a drop from its 78% rate in 2018. But while FHS falls below the state average in the four-year graduation rate category, Principal Jamie Bente recognizes FHS demographics are also not average.

“I think the biggest thing for people to understand is Faribault High School is so drastically different than any other high school around us,” said Bente. “We’re more like a city school than a country school.”

Where 99% of Northfield High School students and 90% of Owatonna High School students graduated in four years in 2019, comparing FHS to these neighboring schools isn’t like comparing apples to apples.

At FHS, Bente said staff like to say students “haven’t graduated yet” with a strong emphasis on the “yet.” He compares it to students attending a four-year college but instead graduating after five or six years, not because they failed, but because it simply takes them longer to fulfill their requirements. Eight percent of FHS students continued their high school education after four years in 2019, and that’s the same as the state average.

Bente pointed out that many FHS students are Somali immigrants who know little to no English when they first enroll. In 2019, 35% of English learner (EL) students continued pursuing their high school diplomas after the common four-year period. In fact, the 89% seven-year graduation rate at FHS for 2019 is slightly above the state seven-year average of 88%.

“The vast majority of [English Learner students] will graduate in five, six or seven years, which is still amazing considering you’re putting them through 13 years of education in six years, and they’re learning English on top of it,” said Bente.

Looking at the numbers, it appears that the four-year graduation rate for EL students dropped significantly at FHS — from 37% in 2018 to 16% in 2019. But according to Bente, 2019 was the first year a large group of new-to-the-country students were included in the four-year graduation rate statistics. These students would have started as newcomer students at FHS in 2015.

Comparing 2018 to 2019, the four-year graduation rate has declined slightly for most FHS students when broken down into subcategories. The rate for white students at FHS dropped from 92% in 2018 to 88% in 2019 — slightly below the state average of 89% for white students. For black students, the four-year graduation rate dropped from 45% in 2018 to 38% in 2019.

One group that did show a sharp increase, however, is the Hispanic students at FHS. Where 53% graduated in 2018, 63% earned their diploma in 2019. The dropout rate for Hispanic students at FHS also decreased from 17.5% in 2018 to 14.5% in 2019.

The Minnesota Department of Education noted the dropout rate has decreased across the state for every student group. That’s partially true at FHS, where the dropout rate for EL students slightly decreased from 20% to 19% between 2018 and 2019, and the dropout rate for black students at FHS has decreased more significantly — from 20% in 2018 to 13% in 2019. For white students, however, the dropout rate increased from 2% to 5% between 2018 and 2019.

FHS has implemented programs to boost the graduation rate, including the Ninth Grade Academy for students who learn better in smaller class settings. However, since the first batch of Ninth Grade Academy students are still juniors this year, the program’s progress won’t be reflected in the graduation rate statistics for another two years.

The implementation of a seven-period day this fall could also boost the FHS graduation rate in the long run, but that won’t be reflected in statistics for another five years. Bente recognizes there are no quick fixes, but knowing the story behind the numbers, he believes the district is doing well.

“We challenge each student that walks through our doors, and educate each student that walks through our doors, no matter what level they’re at,” said Bente. “We meet them where they are and get them to the next level.”