The Rice County Board of Commissioners approval of $125,500 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Act funding to the Community Action Center of Northfield is good news for Faribaultians whose cupboards look bare.
The funding, which commissioners approved during Tuesday’s meeting, will help cover costs associated with a combination choice food shelf and mobile food distribution program in Faribault.
The sudden closure of the Faribault Food Shelf this spring presented an obstacle for low-income households needing to access food. St. Vincent DePaul’s food shelf has limited hours and cannot expand beyond its location. The Faribault Diversity Coalition currently provides food storage, but that space may soon become unavailable.
"The CAC has stepped forward in an attempt to fill that gap," said Social Services Director Mark Shaw, who brought the request to the board. "They're looking to create an infrastructure not only to meet the immediate needs of Faribault residents, but to be a lasting infrastructure."
Commissioner Galen Malecha noted that the $125,500 is only a portion of what is and will be needed. Shaw responded that he anticipates there will be resources available to sustain any organization in the long term.
Later, Malecha called the decision, "… a great investment. A great use of these funds."
Commissioner Steve Underdahl said that while there's a definite need for a food shelf in Faribault, he was concerned about the overhead in comparison to dollars spent.
Becky Ford, executive director of Faribault Youth Investment, said grant funding as well as contributions from community partners and individual donors, will help make up the additional $206,900 needed for the project.
Ford said the CARES Act funding will provide stability in terms of staffing, particularly for bilingual and multicultural employees, which are especially needed. Funding will also allow CAC to purchase and distribute fresh food to clients rather than emergency boxes packed with dried goods and nonperishables. In addition, funding will cover transportation expenses for the mobile service.
Currently, Ford is working with city contacts and local real estate agents to find a vacant building or government-owned building to house the new food shelf.
FYI is one of 10 area entities that teamed up to provide meal distribution services as a response to COVID-19. Soon after Gov. Tim Walz announced stay at home orders for Minnesota in March, FYI and Growing Up Healthy partnered with CAC, Faribault Public Schools, Rice County Public Health, Northfield YMCA, Three Rivers Hiawathaland Transit, University of Minnesota Extension and Healthy Community Initiative to create a food distribution system during the pandemic. Channel One Regional Food Bank, the Food Group and local donors like Hosanna Church served as food providers. In the first 10 weeks of the program, over 1,000 unique households used the service.
“It’s the most wonderful but crazy process I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sandy Malecha, senior director of Healthy Community Initiative.
As summer progressed, community partners knew they needed to consider a long-term solution to food inaccessibility. The group continued to meet weekly to discuss short term and long term solutions to food distribution challenges and held virtual listening sessions in English, Spanish and Somali. Using feedback from one another as well as survey results of 200 clients, the teams determined the most desired plan for Faribault clients is a choice model food shelf along with mobile distribution sites.
The group decided CAC would be the entity best suited to support the effort of a long term food shelf project. Faribault clients who previously used the Faribault Food Shelf have been referred to CAC, which serves over 4,000 Rice County clients. The organization, formed in 1969, operates a food shelf, clothes closet, and provides support for youth and services to seniors as well as gas vouchers and housing assistance.
The proposed choice model food shelf will have an electronic selection option to clients during the pandemic. Rather than receiving pre packaged boxes, clients can select their own food options and contribute to the CAC’s effort to reduce waste. It will operate similarly to this summer's distribution model, but Ford said locations may change.
This Thursday marks the final day of the mobile food distribution, so the CARES Act funding was approved at an opportune time. Before the new food shelf opens, Malecha said they're negotiating with the Minnesota Department of Education and Faribault Public Schools to set up an interim food service.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of conversations to be had between now and the end of the week,” Ford said. “But that’s how this whole thing has been; we’ve had to make decisions and move really quickly, so we’ve kind of gotten used to it.”
After the food shelf opens, Ford said keeping the collaboration of the original meal distribution partners will be important for making good decisions, as each entity has a different leg in the community.
“Despite the hardship of COVID and all the problems it has created, this is one of the silver linings,” Ford said. “Receiving this money to address COVID response is really an opportunity for the community of Faribault to come together and not just address the needs during the pandemic but also set up something sustainable that will serve the community long after.”
Faribault’s City Council has opted to revisit a controversial permit it granted in January, after complaints from councilors and neighbors that the spirit of the agreement was not followed.
In January, the council overrode the recommendation of its own Planning Commission and approve an Interim Use Permit request from landlord Siegfried Homes. Long owned by Sigfried, the site located at 3701 Hwy. 60 W had been vacant since last summer. Represented by Councilor Royal Ross, a property management agent who abstained from any decision in his role as city councilor, Siegfried asked for the permit on behalf of an as-yet unnamed tenant who wanted to use the vacant property to sell storage sheds.
A similar store existed in Northfield but has since closed, gap a vacancy in the local market. Without naming the proposed tenant, Ross said that the tenant had a long history in the business, and was looking for a new site after losing their previous site in a different city.
At the time, Ross insisted that the tenant had been in the previous city for a lengthy period of time without controversy. However, tenant Pat Tripp began attracting controversy and complaints almost as soon as he moved in.
Before Tripp entered the scene, the west Faribault site was relatively nondescript, despite its prominent location along one of the main gateways to Faribault.
Still, with an office building next to a metal store and warehouse, it offered ready-made opportunities for development. No rezoning was required for the project to move forward, as the site had already been zoned for commercial development. But there was a catch: city ordinance requires outdoor sales to be conducted on a paved surface.
At the time, Ross argued that this was an issue of governmental regulation threatening private business, and that the regulation made no sense in this particular case.
“(The gravel surface) allows the filtration of stormwater when it rains and reduces runoff from the site,” Siegfried said. “It’s more environmentally friendly than paving it, and meets the objectives on the (city’s) website.”
More controversial was the way in which Tripp, with the consent of Siegfried Homes, utilized the space. While initial depictions showed a nicely organized row of roughly 10 sheds on the property, the site has at times had roughly 25.
Other issues were identified as well. Tripp was flagged for parking trucks on the grass and even encroaching onto his neighbor’s property. In addition to sheds, he’s also been running a U-Haul rental business out of the site.
City Planning Coordinator Peter Waldock says he visited the site, once in April and again in July, to inspect it following complaints. While Waldock said he told Tripp the site was not in compliance with city code, Tripp disputed that.
“I met with Peter and he couldn’t give me a specific complaint,” Tripp claimed. “After Looking at the property, he said it looks like there’s compliance.”
Tripp also said that while the number of sheds has been significantly higher than shown in the initial drawings at times, it’s also been lower at other times, depending on the ebb and flow of supply and demand.
While acknowledging that Tripp violated city ordinance by parking trucks on the grass, Ross criticized the city’s approach to the violation. Instead of threatening termination of the IUP, he said the business owner should have been given a chance to correct it.
As for the U-Haul business, Siegfried said that she wasn’t aware that Tripp would need permission to sell them on the property. She said that initial drawings shown to the Council were created in the initial stages of planning the development.
“We were just trying to see if it could work,” she said.
Siegfried was quick to point out that a defined limit on the number of sheds which could sit on the property isn’t included in city code. She said that she didn’t see the initial depiction as necessarily binding, an argument which several councilors were sympathetic to.
“When I saw the original request with 10 sheds, I thought of it as a general depiction,” said Councilor Peter van Sluis.
Councilors initially seemed sympathetic to the case made by Tripp, Ross and Siegfried. Then, area businessman Matt Drevlow got up to speak on behalf of KGP Co, Tripp’s neighbor, and made a forceful case that the shed company had not in fact been a good neighbor.
Drevlow criticized councilors directly, saying he believed that the issue stemmed from improper approval of the interim permit. Since the use was permissible at the location, he argued that it would have been more appropriate for the council to consider granting a variance.
Had it done so, Drevlow argued that the council likely would not have granted the variance. Furthermore, once the permit was granted, he expressed frustration that the council had essentially signed a “blank check” for the business to develop as it wanted to.
As a result, Drevlow said that the development of the space had simply become excessive, without any parking requirements to ensure accessibility. As a result, he said it had become something of a nuisance on the edge of town — and next to KGP. While it has locations in dozens of states throughout the country, KGP has made Faribault its corporate headquarters. A manufacturer and distributor of telecommunications equipment, KGP’s clients include prominent businesses across the country.
Drevlow said that in recent years, KGP has poured more than a million dollars into its Faribault building and regularly hosts major clients there. He said that the development created an unappealing gateway to the facility, potentially turning off clients.
“To be honest with you, there are other places we could make those investments,” he said. “We didn’t anticipate that this kind of development would take place.”
When the initial permit was approved, Drevlow and KGP did not raise their concerns. Drevlow said that he was not aware of it. He also said he was surprised to see the council approve the development against the recommendation of staff and the Planning Commission. That convinced Councilor Elizabeth Cap that the permit needed to be repealed. After expressing frustration with Ross’s decision to represent a client before the city, she said that allowing the permit to stand would set a poor precedent.
“I really appreciate this business, but the site doesn’t work for the property and neighboring properties,” she said. “We have a liability to ensure that we’re applying these ordinances equally.”
The rest of the Council took a more cautious approach. Though it may not have been laid out explicitly in the IUP, Councilor Janna Viscomi expressed frustration at the discrepancy between what had initially been envisioned at the site and what happened.
“I think we should try to make this cuter,” Viscomi said. “It’d be nice if we can find a compromise on this.”
Mayor Kevin Voracek commended Tripp for running a good business, saying that as he drives around town he sees new sheds sprouting up where they weren’t before. However, he said that the development itself was overwhelming.
“I think it caught the council off guard,” He said. “I think to all of us it looked nice and clean, and as Janna said, cute. Then this mass allotment of sheds showed up, a U-Haul business came in with it, there were selling some Dodges off the front of it and extra signage.”
Ross suggested that the council could wait until next year, when the IUP would need to be automatically revisited. However, the council was intent on placating KGP and other potential concerned neighbors by finding a solution now.
While Cap’s motion to repeal the permit failed, a motion from Councilor Jonathan Wood to set a deadline of two months (Oct. 25) for an agreement to be reached was approved. That sets the stage for further discussion of the issue at upcoming council work session.