Running a small business has never been a sure path to riches. Staying viable during a global pandemic takes all the ingenuity an entrepreneur can muster, and Le Sueur County business owners and operators are finding ways to do just that.
As a cell phone and service provider, Tom Svihel, of Main Street Video in Le Sueur is open for business, though with reduced hours. He’s accustomed to activating phones remotely and delivering them to customers. But when a resident of Oak Terrace Senior Living of Le Sueur called with phone trouble last weekend, he knew picking up the phone himself was out of the question. So he instructed the caller to give the phone to his daughter or his granddaughter, both of whom work at the facility, to pass along to him.
When Le Sueur pharmacy Corner Drug had to close its store to foot traffic, they also called on Svihel for help. In addition to home and mail delivery, they offer curbside pickup. Once you’ve placed your order with the pharmacy, you park outside and text the staff to bring out your purchases. They bought a cell phone from Svihel to keep their landlines free for calls.
Despite cutting hours, Svihel wants to remain available to the public.
“I’m gonna put a big sign on the door, ‘I’m in town – call me,’” he said.
The outbreak is even affecting organizations that help businesses. For example, a promotional and networking event for Chamber of Commerce members from Le Sueur, Le Center, Montgomery and Lonsdale, scheduled for April 21, had to be canceled, according to Don Hayden, executive director of the Le Center Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s pretty discouraging — they keep adding days to this,” Hayden said of state closure orders. “I have this terrible feeling that, in small towns, some of these businesses won’t reopen,” he said.
Bars and restaurants are especially hard hit.
“The longer they’re shut down, the less apt they are to come back,” he said.
It’s especially discouraging, Hayden noted, because the chamber has 10 new members this year, mostly representing recently opened businesses. His board was scheduled to meet virtually to consider upcoming events. But in spite of the situation, he said, it’s important to look for whatever good might come from it.
For multiple business owner Chris Thomas, of Cleveland, “It all came to a crashing halt” when the state closed hair salons. Thomas owns the “SHE” Shed, a sort of mini-mall for women-owned businesses like salons and craft stores. While some vendors are still operating online, the venue itself is closed.
Thomas is also a realtor and owner of Lake Shores and More Realty. Although considered an essential service, showings have dropped to nothing. “Every one of them canceled,” she said. “People are worried.”
The National Association of Realtors issued guidelines for both agents, such as not hosting open houses, and prospective buyers, like taking off one’s shoes for a showing and not touching anything in the home.
“Normally this would be such a busy time,” Thomas said, with mortgage interest rates under 4%, making home buying especially attractive. But she is optimistic about the future.
“It won’t take long for people to come back around,” she said. She hopes that, once life returns to normal, people will reward small businesses for all they do for their communities.
For some businesses, stay-at-home orders mean inactivity. It’s made others “crazy busy” — like Kris Krause, owner of Your Time Fitness in Le Sueur. She’s taken her personal training sessions and group lessons virtual, which has been a steep learning curve for teacher and client alike. Krause’s clientele runs the whole age spectrum. Some have taken readily to the online classes; some “don’t want anything to do with it,” she said.
Fortunately, she’s had to buy only one piece of equipment — a wireless microphone — to make the transition. Some class members borrowed equipment, like weights and resistance bands, from her for home workouts. Others are making do with household items, like laundry soap bottles or soup cans.
“You just get creative and use what’s around,” she said.
Like many people these days, she uses Zoom video conferencing software to facilitate the gatherings. All participants show up in small frames in a checkerboard pattern that Krause likens to “The Brady Bunch” TV show intro. Everyone can see and hear each other unless she mutes their microphones. It allows her to observe and give feedback to class members, such as “You need to get your butt down for those planks,” she said.
Her mixed breed dog, Creed, goes with her to her studio for the morning class. He will sometimes step in front of the camera so that participants see him instead of their instructor.
Is online exercise instruction here to stay? “I think so,” she said. “It’s a way to exercise from the comfort of my own home,” she said. It helps remove some common obstacles to exercising like lack of childcare or inclement weather. And during this time of social distancing, providing the opportunity to check in with fellow exercisers is vital.
They’re her “fitness family,” she said. “I feel like I’m helping them out.”
How’s cash flow?
“I’m going to be hurting this month. The numbers are down because it’s such a change for people,” she said at the end of March. But she is encouraged by programs being offered to help small businesses, and she looks forward to the day she can open the studio doors again.
“It is going to be so much fun. It’s going to be so much energy,” she said.
Corner Drug in Le Sueur is doing five times its normal number of deliveries, according to pharmacy manager Michelle Steiger. Even so, overall business is down because sales are almost zero in their gift and over-the-counter departments.
“We’ve had a couple of puzzles go out,” as well as a sympathy card and some candy, Steiger said. Customers are glad they are taking the coronavirus threat seriously and investing more effort into providing services to the community, she said. She praised the pharmacy’s corporate headquarters.
“I feel like Sterling Drug took an appropriate response and we were one of the first to close our doors to the public,” she said. Their last day of walk-in traffic was March 18. They’ve been able to shift their front-end workers to other tasks like deliveries and post office runs.
Because a pharmacy provides an essential service to the community, they have implemented extra precautions to ensure the safety of their staff, such as temperature taking, glove wearing and extra hand washing.
“It sounds like this is going to be a new normal for a while. We’re prepared to adapt to it,” she said.
Lonnie Seifert, superintendent of Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop Schools, will soon exchange his Thunderbirds garb for Titans attire, but the Tri-City United School Board was notably split on the measure.
Based on a majority vote during a virtual meeting Tuesday, the Tri-City United School Board agreed to hire Seifert as the new superintendent of TCU Public Schools. Four out of seven of the School Board members voted no — Ashley Rosival, Josh Beulke, Dale Buss and Krista Goettl — and School Board Chair Marsha Franek and Board members Michelle Borchardt and Kevin Huber voted against.
Seifert previously served New Prague High School as assistant principal and then principal. He also served as activities director and dean of students for ROCORI High School in Cold Springs and activities director and dean of students for Montgomery-Lonsdale Schools before the district consolidated with Le Center.
In his application, Seifert said, “A great deal of my time has also been spent working on building a sense of togetherness in a district with a history of being three separate communities.”
He holds a bachelor’s in elementary education with coaching certification, a master’s in educational administration, a K-12 principal licensure and a superintendent licensure.
Seifert has been named Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Hennepin Division Assistant Principal of the Year.
The second round of Tri-City United superintendent interviews took place virtually Tuesday afternoon, and later that evening, the School Board held deliberations on Zoom. The other two candidates up for consideration were Lisa Edwards, the director of continuous improvement at Farmington Area Schools and Carmen Daniels-Strahan, a middle school principal in Mankato Area Public Schools.
During deliberations, the School Board weighed community and staff comments on each of the three finalists, and Goettl read the questions she asked of the candidates' references and their responses. Board members then shared their own perspectives on each candidate based on their interviews, experiences, strengths and weaknesses.
Rosival said Seifert stood out to her as “a step above all the other candidates we interviewed.” She noted that during the interview process, he described how he would, or already has, responded to various situations a superintendent might encounter. A potential concern for Rosival was how Seifert would handle modern work and strategies.
Echoing Rosival’s comments, Goettl said Seifert’s experience benefited him in that he offered realistic approaches for balancing three separate communities within a district. His philosophy is to pick three or four things to “do really well” rather than trying to accomplish everything.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t have any cons [for Seifert] at this point,” said Goettl.
Beulke took Seifert’s idea of weighing what he can commit to and doing it well as evidence that he is reasonable and wouldn’t deal with as much of a learning curve serving three separate communities as the other two candidates maybe would.
“I think Lonnie was the most consistent candidate among all of them,” said Beulke. “He didn’t change who he was from one interview to the next.”
Buss declared Seifert his No. 1 candidate, noting his leadership skills and his ability to allow other people to lead. Although Buss recognized Seifert as “more of a short term plan person,” he believes Seifert will do well working with the TCU strategic plan.
At GFW, Seifert has not had the opportunity to work with a district strategic plan and lacks budgeting experience. GFW doesn't have an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, so Seifert is also unfamiliar with that structure. These were among the concerns for board members who instead favored Daniels-Strahan, who is well versed in all three of these areas.
Borchardt said she considered Seifert's lack of understanding of school budgets a “red flag” as well as his lack of a social media presence.
Buss noted that while Seifert only uses Twitter as a social media platform, he takes various age groups into consideration when communicating and uses many of the same tools at GFW that TCU currently uses: the local newspapers, school websites and email newsletters. That cross-generational communication is something Buss viewed as a strength.
Borchardt, Franek and Huber declared Daniels-Strahan their top candidate. Her strength with relationships and communication stood out, not only to board members, but to public commenters.
"I think Carmen would take us to that level where Teri [Preisler] is going to leave us off," said Franek.
Said Huber: "I think we have to remember [Carmen has] worked her way up from being a teacher to where she is now. Teri was not a superintendent before we hired her either and she excelled beyond what we could have ever imagined."
Goettl disagreed; she said while Daniels-Stahan sounded carefully planned, she gave the impression that she may delegate too many tasks to teachers, taking away their classroom time.
Buss agreed that Daniels-Stahan "might be too aggressive for the three communities."
Beulke named Daniels-Strahan as his other top candidate. He liked that she appeared to have researched TCU between interviews and noted her firm knowledge in budgeting and her clear passion for education. But if it came down to a vote, Beulke said he would choose his other top candidate, Seifert.
None of the seven board members picked Edwards as their top choice. Community commenters and board members recognized a number of her positive qualities, such as her friendliness, genuine nature and calm demeanor, but these traits couldn't compete with experience. Edwards has never served as a superintendent and has never worked with a school budget, strategic planning or AVID.
After about two hours of deliberations, the board decided to move forward with a majority vote even though, as Franek said, “I don’t ever remember a [split] vote like this in our time on the School Board together.”
Seifert's contract will be ready for the School Board to approve during the April 13 meeting via Zoom. Once approved, his contract will start July 1.