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Rice County families with toddlers wanted for early learning program
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Northfield resident Jannette Aguilar Rubio has noticed her 2½-year-old daughter, Jereni, become more ready for school since starting the Rice County ParentChild+ program.

For the past month, Early Learning Specialist Laura Baltazar has met with Jannette and Jereni virtually. Because they are bilingual, they receive books in English and Spanish. The first book they received, “First 100 Words” by Roger Priddy, features colorful photos corresponding with each word.

“[Jereni] actually loves that book; her vocabulary has expanded because of the book,” Jannette said. “Laura has helped me teach her colors; she can count to 10 and learned things I wouldn’t have been able to teach her myself without struggling.”

The program’s goal is to prepare young learners between 18 months and 2½ years for school with twice weekly visits — or virtual calls during the pandemic — from trained early learning specialists. While the program is open to any Rice County family with children in the appropriate age group, Northfield-based Healthy Community Initiative wants to reach families who have transportation and/or language barriers that make it difficult for them to seek early childhood programs at a school.

Jannette said she recommends the program to anyone who has a toddler younger than 3 years old.

“It’s a really nice program to get to learn things before they go to school,” Jannette said. “I truly recommend it 100%.”

The Rice County ParentChild+ program began in September 2019 with support from a grant from Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Minneapolis. Eighteen families signed up to participate in the program during its first year of operation, which exceeded the HCI’s goal of 15 families.

In its second year, ParentChild+ Director Leslie Limón said she and the team of early learning specialists hope to reach 11 move families by the end of November to meet their goal of 50 families.

In particular, they want to reach out to Somali families. Limón said there are seven slots open for Somali-speaking families in particular, now that Somali-speaking specialists have been hired.

The ParentChild+ program tailors meetings to family schedules, and all five early learning specialists are bilingual in either English and Spanish or English and Somali.

“We’re really intentional about reaching families who are low-income in particular who might have barriers that make it difficult to access pre-school,” said Sandy Malecha, Healthy Community Initiative senior director. “We are intentional about hiring bilingual staff [to serve families that speak English as a second language]. That’s really the population we’re trying to reach.”

For children and parents

Throughout the pandemic, families still receive free educational books and toys for their young learners every week. Families can decide if they feel comfortable with an early learning specialist visiting their home, but most arrange for them to drop off the materials outside during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, the home served as a setting where both the children and their parents could comfortably engage one-on-one with their early learning specialist.

The program offers about 15 different books and toys, which the family can keep, and specialists use guide sheets with focus areas like numbers, colors and vocabulary terms. They receive mega blocks one week, play food, a farm puzzle, and books like “Where’s Spot?” by Eric Hill. Bilingual parents have the option to tailor the focus on two languages at once or English alone. With every book or toy, the specialists also provide a link to an online video about 15 minutes long. Malecha said ParentChild+ is an international program with curriculum planned by early childhood experts.

Early learning specialists are part of the team, so they work hard to provide support to families in other areas by answering questions about COVID-19 testing, housing and food resources. Limón and her team partner with other organizations to connect families to other resources they might find helpful.

“Some families don’t have access to devices, so we are able to provide that for them,” Limón said. “We work through that process to connect them to the internet. They’re very grateful they’re able to view the link we send them through their laptop.”

5 Central Avenue businesses benefit from downtown micro grants
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New flooring, new signage, a loading dock, an outdoor patio and an app for biking at home have one thing in common — they were all made possible by Downtown Micro Grants.

Five entities in Faribault’s Central Business District have benefited from Downtown Micro Grants, announced by Faribault Main Street announced this fall. Some of the businesses have already used their prize dollars to expand business offerings or get their storefronts closer to opening, while others need to wait for better timing.

The Faribault Economic Development Authority (EDA) earmarked $25,000 for the Downtown Micro Grant program, which Faribault Main Street facilitated. The goal of the Micro Grant program is to support entrepreneurs, create opportunities in the Central Business District, retain local businesses, and provide financial assistance to businesses preparing to open or expand services.

The judging panel, consisting of local businesses, banking and marketing professionals selected five business entities to receive between $500 and $5,000: Cry Baby Craig’s Hot Sauce, Good Day Coffee, Mill Town Cycles, Mighty Fine! Coffee Co. and Janna’s Market Grill.

Craig Kaiser, owner of Cry Baby Craig’s Hot Sauce, applied for the grant with the goal of building a loading dock in the back of the building for shipping logistics.

“Not only are we going to use it for ourselves but our intent was to have a communal aspect to it,” Kaiser said. “The money was greatly needed to make it a possibility. We had to go through the HPC (Heritage Preservation Committee) to get that approved, knock out a hole for the garage door, and talk with Public Works to get it approved.

All in all, it’s been a pleasure to work with everyone because they’ve green-lighted the entire project.”

Todd Trembley of Mill Town Cycles said eh’s noticed a decrease in physical activity during the pandemic, and plans to use the grant funding to purchase an example of indoor equipment his customers might like to buy.

An indoor cycling app called Zwift allows bike riders to set their bikes on a trainer, which is connected to the internet. In completing a bike course, the rider can watch on TV, the trainer gives more resistance during uphill courses and less resistance during downhill courses. Bike riders may also connect with others, as they might while playing a video game, and track their heart rates.

“Assuming the pandemic will be worse again this winter, I took the grant to buy all the necessary equipment to demonstrate what this is all about,” Trembley said.

The equipment includes a gravel bike, a smart bike trainer and platform, an accessory training kit, a flat panel TV and a Zwift app membership. Since some of these pieces are hard to come by during the pandemic, Trembley won’t have all the equipment ready until early December.

Nathaniel Cunningham, co-owner of Mighty Fine! Coffee Co. at 409 First Ave. NE Suite A, said the Micro Grant his business received will cover the cost of new signage. Cicada Signs has helped Cunningham and his business partner, Jordan Brennan, pick out the design, and the sign will make the location clearer to drivers and pedestrians. The sign will be ready to display in a month or two.

“We’re also going to use [the grant] to augment or improve some of our shipping capabilities for the online customers,” Cunningham said. “We’ll probably update some packaging as well.”

The custom shipping option will help the products get out to customers in a more timely manner, Cunningham said, and the new box delivery model will allow the company to ship more products at once.

Jessica Prill said her new business, Good Day Coffee, is about 80% complete. The Micro Grant pushed her closer to that opening day by helping pay for new flooring. The unglazed quarry tiling covers the entire floor and matches the tile that made up the back half of the former Bluebird Cakery business at the Central Avenue location.

“That grant has made a much lighter weight on our shoulders,” Prill said.

Although it’s taking longer than anticipated, Prill expects an early December opening.

Janna’s Market Grill, located at the former Bernie’s Grill location and under the same ownership, is another local business awaiting for the right time to open.

Owner Janna Viscomi said she’s waiting on state licensing and hopes to know more about the status of that this week. She pointed out that everything seems to take longer than anticipated during the pandemic, even the small things, but she’s hopeful and encourages others to remain patient.

“The best thing we can do is not be angry about it,” Viscomi said.

With the Micro Grant funding, Viscomi announced her plan to add additional seating outdoors with a deck and awning. The permit was recently approved, bur with the weather turning colder, she plans to start the project in the spring. The finished deck will be made with refurbished barn wood.

“I’m excited to see the deck put on and excited for the place to open,” Viscomi said.

Indoor farmers market back, bringing local products to the table
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Area residents will have a place to go to support small businesses as they sell their locally produced foods and farm-derived products beginning Saturday.

The Cannon Valley Farmers Market, formerly known as Faribault Winter Farmers Market, begins this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Faribo West Mall. The mall’s large space will allow for social distancing, according to market founder, farmer and co-manager Tiffany Tripp.

Cannon Valley Farmers Market will run every Saturday through Dec. 19 on the north side of the mall. From January through March, the market will be held every third Saturday of the month. Weather permitting, the market will move to the Rice County Fairgrounds for April 17 and May 15, 2021.

For some vendors the market is a welcome chance to make some money after other streams of revenue have become less dependable due to the pandemic. While some venues for vendors were canceled this year, Farmers markets have still been allowed to continue.

“(The Minnesota Department of Agriculture) made sure that Farmers markets were exempt under any rules, so essentially farmers markets are held to the same rules as grocery stores,” Tripp said.

Twenty vendors are currently registered to participate, with both returning vendors and new vendors from Medford, Faribault, Northfield, Dundas and other locations across the Cannon Valley area. The market was renamed this year as a way to be more inclusive to the vendors within the market, which sees vendors within the region up to 50 miles away, Tripp said. Vendors will be selling baked goods, eggs, sauces, pickles, honey, pasture-raised pork, grass-fed lamb and beef, cheese, pesto, goat milk soap, wool yarn, wool bedding, jams and cheese, among other items.

This will be Julie Johnson’s second time as a vendor, bringing products from her Cannon River Fiber Farms to sell. After participating in the Northfield market for a couple of years, Johnson decided to give the Faribault market a go. She and her husband have a 60-acre piece of land north of Northfield where they raise angora goats for mohair and alpha for fiber products.

With the pandemic, Johnson said selling her wool products has been tough, adding that the pandemic has stifled her opportunities to get out and sell in the community.

“We do sell products online, but people want to feel their yarn before they buy it, so it’s pretty tough to sell if you’re not selling face to face,” Johnson said.

Soon the Cannon Valley Farmers Market will be up and running and Johnson is looking forward to selling in the market once again.

Besides contributing to the local economy, buying local products can be an environmentally friendly alternative to grocery shopping. Not only do consumers know exactly where their products are coming from, but buying local also cuts down on transportation costs, energy, fuel consumption and air pollution.

“It feels like, at this time in our lives, people are understanding more and caring more about where their products come from, whether they’re food or fiber or wood or ceramics,” Johnson said.

Other reasons why someone might prefer to buy local foods and products include the freshness factor. Local foods don’t have to travel as far to get to the dinner plate, so they tend to be more fresh. Other consumers might choose to eat more locally and sustainably because they feel it’s beneficial to their own health, Tripp said.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why people buy local and why I think that it’s important to buy local and all of those are important to me and to the people who do seek out local food,” Tripp said.

The market’s origins

Wanting to partner with a nonprofit to create a more stable future for the market, Tripp reached out to the Cannon River Chapter of Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) for management assistance. With more hands on deck to help manage the market, the market’s future looks bright, Tripp said. The market is now run by a committee of five, including vendors and non-vendors. SFA is a 501c3, which means that the market can now apply for grants and get sponsorships to fund special events and activities.

To maintain visitor safety, COVID-19 guidelines will be in place at the market. Since it’s indoors, masks are required per the governor’s mandate and social distancing will be enforced. Additionally, product samples will not be allowed this year and food and beverages are to be consumed off the market premises.

This will be the first year the market is held at the mall, which will allow good traffic flow, room for social distancing and space for vendors to spread out. The building’s high ceilings, large aisles and several entrances and exits worked well for the committee’s needs.

“We sought out a larger space, the previous location was a great location downtown at the Paradise Center for the Arts, but it was very crammed,” Tripp said. “Even without COVID we were looking for a larger space because we didn’t have room to grow.”

Tripp put out the call for vendors a while ago, adding that many vendors were happy to return after the uncertainty the pandemic has caused. Many of the market’s vendors are smaller businesses that don’t have many opportunities to sell in larger markets.

“So it really becomes a main income source for a lot of them,” Tripp said, adding that many of the businesses build up a clientele through their interactions at the local market.

Johnson is looking forward to interacting with her customers safely again. Having already participated in one Farmers market in Northfield during the pandemic, Johnson said customers have been very respectful and careful in maintaining a safe environment. She says she is grateful for the opportunity to sell once again.

“I think the silver lining is this will help us be sustainable next year and the year after and the year after,” Johnson said of the various obstacles the pandemic has posed.

Medford council moving to bigger venue, but the public still can't attend

The Medford City Council will vote on the much debated Main Street reconstruction project, a plan that provoked clashes between residents and officials over the details and perceived lack of transparency, but there will be one thing missing from the council’s special meeting Tuesday: the public.

For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Medford City Council will move to a larger venue for its special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, but area residents will still be required to attend virtually.

While the council has continued to use the council chambers throughout the last eight months for in-person meetings, they have closed the meetings to the public to meet social distancing requirements set forth by Gov. Tim Walz.

“This day and age, we’ve taken every opportunity to provide a safe environment,” Mayor Lois Nelson said. “Our number one goal is the safety of the council who have made the commitment to continue to physically come and meet in person.”

But Medford Mayor-elect Danny Thomas says he plans to bring the public into the meetings again if he can find a way.

“I’ve pleaded with them to move to a bigger venue. Everybody has,” Thomas said. “Everybody knows it, but it’s just fallen on deaf ears.”

The meetings have been recorded and posted online, sometimes with a live feed and others waiting up to two days for video to be posted. They have also allowed for a phone-in option for residents to listen to the proceedings. Throughout the months, however, residents have said what is being provided is simply not enough.

In meeting after meetings since the pandemic began, specifically those related to the Main Street project, Medford residents have called in to the public comment portion of the meetings and asked the council to move to a large venue. Suggestions have included everything from moving to the park to utilizing Ritchie Bros. Auction House off Interstate 35. But the suggestions have seemed to stop there.

“When it was presented at the council’s meetings as far as how future meetings would be conducted, the council moved forward with the way it was presented,” said City Administrator Andy Welti, noting the public comments over the past months calling for a larger venue. “If the council had feedback to change venues, we could have talked about that. The council briefly discussed meeting logistics, but there was never official action to make changes.”

Tuesday special meeting, initially set for October, was to be when a final decision on the Main Street project was made. Welti said the council will move into the fire hall, which shares the municipal building with City Hall. The move is to accommodate for the inclusion of Thomas and councilors-elect Chad Merritt and Mandy Mueller and maintain social distancing. When the decision was made in October, it was at the request of outgoing Councilor Marie Sexton that new council members attend.

The alternate venue will still not be open for members of the public to attend in person, something Thomas has promised to put an end to when he steps into the role of mayor in January.

“I have all intentions of getting the public involved in any way that it is possible to do it,” Thomas said, adding there is always a chance the state will have harsher restrictions on government meetings if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. “It’s big to me. It’s important that we hear from the public if they want to be heard, and that’s a step we’ve missed for the last eight months.”

While the city is legally allowed to restrict the public from attending open meetings in-person, so long as they are provided a virtual monitoring option, the state’s foremost expert on public records and open meetings laws says he is not sure it aligns with the spirit of the law.

“Even if the law doesn’t require it, you would think public officials would make an effort to accommodate their constituents more,” said Mark Anfinson, Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney. “Maybe the council feels the risk of COVID is too great to do things publicly, and who is going to fight that? Even if it’s not the real reason, limiting public attendance prevents exposure to the public.”

Mayor Nelson said the risk of COVID-19 is precisely the reason for the not allowing the public to attend the meetings, doubling down on the safety of the council and the city staff as the priority for keeping attendance limited.

“If it ticks some people off, I’m sorry, but it’s for the health and wellbeing of our current council and employees,” Nelson said. “There really isn’t any physical place available.”

While the city has used the Medford Public Schools in the past for bigger meetings, Welti said the city was told early on in the pandemic that the school would no longer be an option for the meetings because of limiting people coming in and out of the building and reducing the risk of COVID-19. Welti said their first public hearing regarding Main Street during the pandemic was originally scheduled to be held at the school, but had to readjust following the school’s decision.

Despite the option to phone in to monitor city council meetings, Thomas said the audio quality has been poor throughout the pandemic. Nelson acknowledged this problem had been brought to the city’s attention on several occasions, leading the city to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to purchase a special microphone that is meant to pick up sound in the room more efficiently. Thomas, however, says that is still not enough.

“We’ve told them the sound is an issue time after time, and that is well known from anyone in the public,” Thomas said. “I want to get a system similar to Claremont, where the purchased microphones and speakers for each council member and a camera that allows them to go live for anyone to watch from home.”

Thomas said he has also been in contact with the Fire Department to arrange a potential ongoing use of the fire hall for meetings at the start of the new year, adding that while improved sound quality for at-home viewers is important, his priority remains to bring the public back to the council meetings. John Anhorn, a commander with the Fire Department, confirmed its willingness to work with city officials to provide a public space for their upcoming meetings.

“There are other options out there and we will be looking into all of them,” Thomas said. “If there is any way possible to get the public there and let them be heard, I’m going to make it happen.”