One of Le Sueur’s longest awaited development projects may finally be getting the green light.
The city of Le Sueur was awarded $856,689 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) for the partial demolition of the Valley Green Square Mall and the reopening of Main Street. Grants from DEED’s Redevelopment Grant Program pay up to half the redevelopment costs for a qualifying site, with a minimum 50% local match required.
A Mankato area developer has been looking into buying the Valley Green Square Mall and redeveloping it into a mixed-use building with 47,900 square feet of retail space and 15,000 square feet for 14 apartments on the second floor.
The Economic Development Authority, the developer and the current owners in the mall have been negotiating a potential sale that would give the western portion of the mall lot to the city upon the condition that the EDA receive DEED funding for redevelopment. The city has been unable to reopen Main Street in the past, because land needed to connect the street was owned by the mall.
“We’re working with the developers and the current mall owners to acquire the right of way that we need to reopen Main Street,” said EDA Director Samantha DiMaggio, “But we think that will have a huge impact on the future of the mall and the future of the downtown.”
If the sale goes through, DiMaggio stated that city of Le Sueur is looking to start accepting bids and begin construction in 2021. Once construction is complete, Main Street would be opened for the first time since 1975.
Redevelopment plans for the mall are in their initial stages and could change as the project develops. Preliminary renderings shared by the developer show that the refurbishing would keep ground-floor businesses, like the Corner Drug and Snap Fitness, in their current locations, but it would also make room for a potential grocery store and smaller spaces that could house businesses, like law or real estate offices facing Main Street. Businesses currently on the second floor of the building would be moved to the first floor to make room for the 14 apartment spaces. The exterior would be rehabilitated, as well, with a more modern design.
Opening Main Street has been a high priority for both the city and the community over the past several years. It’s one of the top requests the city has received at community events and has been a key element of Le Sueur’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which outlines strategies for the future development for the city.
DiMaggio believes that the development of the mall and the reopening of Main Street would be a great boon to developing the west side of the street. The project is anticipated to retain 22 jobs and increase the tax base by $25,270.
“If you look at the current mall, all of the spaces that are occupied have parking and visibility from the street,” said DiMaggio. “So basically all the businesses are on the east side of the mall, which I think really shows how important it is to have traffic going by there. So having exposure on the west side will have a huge impact on the mall and all the businesses that are inside the mall.”
The redevelopment grant making a connected Main Street a possibility was a competitive one. Out of a pool of nearly $3.8 million, ten sites and eight different cities received funding. The grants are expected to create 141 new jobs and retain 440 jobs while providing more than 400 new housing units.
“The redevelopment projects will be important drivers for community economic development as Minnesota recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact over the coming months,” said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. “These grants will spark private investment and create new opportunities for industrial, commercial and housing development while creating new jobs and increasing the tax base for these communities.”
“From a city perspective, we are very pleased,” said DiMaggio. “The development group we are working with is top-notch. They’ve been wonderful to work with.”
When local farmers have pigs to sell, one of their biggest buyers is Smithfield Foods. The Sioux Falls plant processes 130 million servings of food a week and nearly five percent of the nation’s pork. But on April 12, hog farmers across Minnesota lost one of their major buyers as the plant shuttered in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, pork producers are looking at hundreds of thousands of hogs they can’t sell as more and more processors have shut down. Along with Smithfield, a JBS pork plant in Worthington closed after 26 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Comfrey Farm’s Prime Pork plant in Windom was temporarily shuttered after one employee tested positive and Tyson Foods also idled a massive Iowa plant this month.
More than 40% of all pork processing plants in the US have closed said David Preisler, a Le Center resident and the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA). Processing capacity has diminished by more than 100,000 pigs per day, leading to a massive backup of hogs which should have been processed three weeks ago.
“The hog market itself has been pretty dismal,” said Preisler “Because there are so many more hogs that are out there coming into the marketplace than the demand for them because of the closures and slowdowns at packing plants.”
A surplus of swine
For many farmers, the backlog of pigs is beginning to overcrowd their feedlots. The longer pork producers have to wait to sell their hogs, the harder it is to sell them. Once hogs grow above 350 pounds, the pigs become too large for the machinery at most major processors to handle.
The situation has many turning to a last resort solution: euthanasia. Preisler stated that over 200,000 pigs could be killed and disposed of instead of going to market, though that number depends on how many plants come back.
“That is the ultimate financial kick to the gut because the farmer has spent probably $130 to raise that pig and for those that need to be euthanized because they have no place to go there will be zero revenue,” said Preisler. “Even the farmers that are able to deliver to those plants, the losses can be up to $70 a pig right now.”
For several weeks, farmers have been slowing down pig growth to conserve space, feeding them diets with less calories. But the diet only works for so long. As pigs gain more and more weight, they take up existing space. Eventually, there is no way to ethically house all the pigs in such tight quarters.
Some farmers have turned to other means to get rid of their pigs, seeking out local butchers to sell to and giving hogs away to be rendered and made into pet food, but for many producers, there’s no other choice than to put their pigs down without any use.
Governments take action
The issue has led to action from the lowest and highest levels of government. Le Sueur County took action on Tuesday to loosen overstocking restrictions on feedlots. The County Board voted 4-0, with Commissioner Steve Rohlfing abstaining, to allow feedlot owners to apply for an exemption from regulations limiting the number of animals they can have on their lot until Sept. 1, 2020. County Feedlot Officer Amy Beatty estimated that of the 158 registered animal feedlots in the county, 81 may request overcapacity.
“There are thousands of pigs that are going to be euthanized in Minnesota because there isn’t capacity in the packing plant,” said Commissioner John King. ”In the meantime, as things are progressing, hog owners are forced to double-fill, increase the number of pigs they have at a specific site, and do that. So this is the proactive approach to protect those producers and allow them to continue their conditional use permit without any chance of losing it because they’re exceeding animal numbers.”
The measure passed a week after the County Board heard the proposal on April 21. While the proposal was initially voted down 2-2, Commissioners David Gliszinski and Lance Wetzel joined King and Danny O’Keefe in support of the measure on April 28 with an extension of the overstock deadline into September.
At the state level, there have been efforts to assist hog farmers with the disposal of carcasses. One common technique is composting, which allows farmers to spread remains as fertilizer back onto the land. But composting requires massive quantities of materials like wood chips, corn stalks, sawdust or straw and farmers aren’t used to the mass disposal of animals when slaughtering typically takes place at the processing facilities.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health is working to connect farmers with the materials. While the board can’t buy mulch for producers, it can act as a middleman. A state survey already has dozens of responses from companies with wood chips, “raw tree material,” sawdust, leaf compost and more to offer. It’s also legal to incinerate, bury pigs in certain soils or send pigs to landfills.
President Donald Trump also responded on Tuesday by invoking the Defense Production Act and signing an executive order requiring meat processing plants to stay open. The MPPA has praised the decision, but Preisler stated that even with the plants reopening pork producers will still be in rough shape.
“Really the only solution to getting these pigs euthanized is getting these plants up and operating as soon as we can.” said Preisler. “But that’s still not going to cure the issue because we are so far behind. It’s going to be impossible to catch up.”
The MPPA has made a number of requests to the state and the federal government. Preisler stated that the organization is looking to secure aid from the state to help producers dispose of carcasses and financial support and indemnity for hog farmers from the federal government.
With Minnesota being the country’s second-highest pork producing state, Preisler emphasized that both farmers and rural communities are taking a financial hit.
“This is an extremely difficult, both financial and emotional, time for hog farmers,” said Preisler. “And it will have incredibly negative consequences for rural communities because hog farms and other farms are really what drive rural communities in Minnesota.”
Like many establishments, the Blue Moon Bar and Grill has relied upon an in-house atmosphere with live music and entertainment, sports, billiards and more to invite customers in for a drink. But all that came to an abrupt end for the Kasota establishment when the COVID-19 pandemic forced bars and restaurants to shutter last month. Once a hot spot for evening entertainment, Blue Moon Owner Bret Haslit reported that if he were less financially secure, he wouldn’t be able to keep it open.
“If I relied on this place to support me and my employees we would have closed down a long time ago,” said Haslip. “It is currently costing me about $3,000 a month or more.”
Since closing its doors, Blue Moon has offered its menu of burgers, wraps, sandwiches and pizzas for just three hours of takeout, 5-8 p.m. daily. Staff spend the rest of their time cleaning and remodeling the bar for its deeply anticipated reopening. With the bar making just 20-30% of its regular revenues, that’s all the Blue Moon can afford to do.
Adding to the woes of slow business, alcohol sales for Blue Moon are pretty much non-existent. While the bar is legally allowed to service customers with carryout beer and wine, Haslip said that it’s a poor income source when liquor stores can perform the same service at a cheaper price.
“I don’t know why they would buy a six-pack of beer from me for six times what they would get buying from the liquor store,” said Haslip.
While the business has been poor, Haslip said that Blue Moon will be able to weather through the pandemic. The owner has supported the bar with money he had earned from selling rental properties.
But others are starting to worry about their businesses’ survival. Mark McMillen, also known as “Mac,” the head of Mac’s Green Mill in Le Sueur, was uncertain about how long the bar could endure.
“It’s destroying our business,” said McMillen. “I’m really not sure how long we’ll survive.”
While other bars and restaurants have had to rely on their food service, Mac’s Green Mill doesn’t even have a full kitchen.
“Business has basically been non-existent,” said McMillen. “We do not have the facility set up to provide large amounts of food. We do not have a kitchen per se. So everything we do has to be done under special event permits.”
Mac’s Green Mill has been kept afloat through large, but infrequent events — a meat raffle, fish dinner and pork chop dinner cooked up with smokers. While the events have been a success, they also require a lot of work from volunteers.
“When we do special events, we get great participation and sell an average of 135-150 meals,” said McMillen. “But I only feel comfortable doing it so often, because it requires a bunch of friends to volunteer their time and come in and help volunteer during their Saturdays and what not. I feel guilty asking them to do that.”
Food sales have made up a big difference for establishments like Blaschko’s Embassy Bar and Grill in St. Peter. The bar has maintained decent food sales with daily specials, including burritos, steak and shrimp, wings and sloppy Joes which are available for take-out only.
“It helps to be in a small town where people know that we’re known for our food,” said bartender Kristi Klinger, who’s worked at Blaschko’s for six years. “We’ve had pretty decent lunches and suppers … We’ve been working with local businesses, too, to deliver food for orders from bigger companies. So we’re trying to work with all the people in our local areas to continue providing food we enjoy serving.”
“I think every bar is suffering by not having in-person sales of drinks and things like that, but luckily the Embassy is still serving off-sale,” she added.
The Embassy, like many local bars, is waiting to reopen, but that could take longer than some had hoped. On Thursday, Gov. Walz extended the Minnesota stay-at-home order to May 18. The order requires dine-in service at bars and restaurants to remain closed during this time.
Kasota’s Haslip wanted to see bars and restaurants reopened as soon as possible to prevent others from having to shut down.
“We need to open up,” said Haslip. “There is going to be a lot of places that will currently probably not reopen, and the longer we are closed, the more places that are going to fold.”