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Mental health professionals encourage parents to check in on their children’s mental and emotional well being during the pandemic. (Metro Creative Images)

Le Sueur Theater restoration marks major milestone with roof replacement
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The effort to revive the historic Le Sueur Theater was halted to a slow grind over the course of 2020. Piles of rain-soaked debris, rubble and theater memorabilia waiting to be preserved turned even a simple walk through the abandoned halls into an expedition. Droplets leaking from the roof for more than 12 years stripped away paint from the walls, molded over film reels and weakened the wood flooring, making some areas unsafe to cross.

But the newest Le Sueur Theater owner, Katherine Elke, is determined to restore the aging 87 year-old venue to even better than its old self. She envisions the theater as not just a place for cinema, but as a place for live music, theatrical performances, comedy shows and all kinds of entertainment.

The work has been less than glamorous. Elke has spent the last year, with plenty of help, hauling out more than 24 tons (58,000 pounds) of debris from inside the interior. So much rubbish filled the building that some areas of the theater were completely blocked off when Elke purchased the building back in 2016.

“We had to get an engineer report before we could do the roof,” she said. “And in order to get the engineer in and get him up on the bottom-set roof, he had to go up on scaffolding on a tall ladder, and to be able to do that, we had to clean out the building, so that was all part of the process.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Nieman Roofing Company, of New Prague, installs a new roof and insulation in the Le Sueur Theater to keep the building watertight. (Carson Hughes/sourthernminn.com)

Much of the debris is now cleared, allowing Elke to tackle one of the biggest hurdles of the restoration — the leaking roof. In the last two weeks of December, Nieman Roofing Company, of New Prague, tore off the old roof and finished installing a new structure. The crew replaced the theater’s rubber membrane and inserted foam insulation and replacement decking to make the building watertight.

“It was bad,” said Tom Nieman, owner of Nieman Roofing Company, speaking about the Le Sueur Theater’s old roof. “We’ve been looking at this building on and off for about 10 years. We’ve been trying to maintain it even before [Elke] bought it. On and off, we’d been doing repairs to keep it watertight, but it was a losing battle compared to the condition of the roof.”

The problem with the old roof, said Nieman, were the two aging layers, a rubber roof on top and a tar roof below. When the rubber membrane ripped at the seams, water sat on the tar roof and deteriorated the structure over time. The leaks were so severe that previous owners placed tubs and bins strategically throughout the theater to catch the rainwater.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Repairing the Le Sueur Theater Marquee is one of the next steps in the restorations. Underlying support structures along with new lights, paint and a tempered glass exterior will be added to the marquee to make it functional and more resilient if hit by oncoming traffic. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Elke)

There’s still work to be done on the roof. To avoid the winter weather, Nieman Roofing is returning in the spring to replace the marquee roof, the rear jut out roof and add metal trim. But the theater is sealed from the elements this winter, allowing Elke to put her focus on other features of the theater in need of repair.

“Now we can start to remedy the problems of the past by starting over,” said Elke. “Like the dirt floor in the basement that should all be cemented. There’s tuckpointing that needs to be done. The bathroom paint needs to be redesigned, and we can start fresh with a fresh palette.”

Elke’s vision is for the history of the Le Sueur Theater to be preserved while updating the facilities for a modern audience. From the past, Elke is looking to restore the terrazzo flooring and floral mural in the theater lobby and display many of the theater’s historic assets including movie posters, old tickets, film reels, books and old advertisements. At the same time, Elke is looking to make changes like installing comfier seating in the auditorium, expanding the women’s bathroom and converting the viewing room into a balcony.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Widmer Masonry, of Le Sueur, tuckpoints the Le Sueur Theater exterior. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Elke)

The work needed to revive the theater is extensive and Elke has pulled together an extensive team to plan out the repairs. Crews from Nieman Roofing, Clear Cut Carpentry, Ryan Electric & Plumbing, Widmer Masonry and the city of Le Sueur have all been involved in the project.

The most immediate work being looked at for spring 2021 is the theater’s marquee. Currently hanging above the edge of the curb, the marquee has been the unfortunate victim of trucks and semis passing through. The impacts and neglect from prior owners have left the marquee with cracked plexiglass, broken lights and chipping paint.

Repairs will focus not just on restoring the marquee, but making it safer. Elke’s plan is take the marquee down to add structure supports to the underside. The marquee would be taken apart to replace dysfunctional parts while preserving existing materials.

“This has been long awaited for this community,” said Elke. “It’s been a really sad situation over the years for people to lose that building, because that’s where people went for their social time. But then during the pandemic, we’re all in a crisis, which is a downer every single day. I think doing this now is helping raise people’s spirits.”

Year in Review: COVID-19 dominates headlines, but local stories, tragic and uplifting, also resonate in 2020
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For better or for worse, 2020 was a year unlike any other.

The year began with an unprecedented pandemic changing the way Le Sueur County residents and people all over the globe worked, learned and had fun. But the year had far more in store than the coronavirus.

For Le Sueur County, the year was marked by both tragedy and charity. The community felt the deaths of two young teens and a respected Le Sueur Police officer, but also witnessed a Cleveland teen save his brother’s life and a community come together to raise money for a local business in need. Festivals were canceled, summer activities were put on hold, but new developments from a renovated mall to the restoration of a historic theatre reminded us that life goes on, even in a pandemic.

Here are 10 of the top stories that defined Le Sueur County in 2020. These stories were selected based on website statistics and voting from readers.

COVID-19 cases began to rattle Le Sueur for the first time in March and early April as MDH reported the virus was now spreading through the community. (Adobe Stock)

1. MDH confirms community spread in Le Sueur County, encourages same distancing guidance

No story has been as widely talked about this year as the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed the lives of countless people across the globe and at home in Le Sueur County.

After the first confirmed case of the coronavirus was detected in Minnesota on March 6, it wasn’t long before cases began to emerge in Le Sueur County. Through March, many of the cases detected in Le Sueur County were contracted from travel from outside the county. But in an April 4 report, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that coronavirus was spreading through the community.

Three of the 20 confirmed cases of the time were contracted from individual(s) who did not know they had the virus and passed it on to someone else. At the same time, Le Sueur County was outpacing neighboring counties in total infections.

Public health officials MDH Infection Disease Director Kris Ehresmann and Le Sueur County Public Health Director Cindy Shaughnessy advised residents at the time to social distance and follow the stay-at-home order to slow the spread.

2. Le Sueur teen killed in single-vehicle crash


TCU School District student killed in single-vehicle crash

The Le Sueur County remembered the lives of two young members of the community that were killed this year in separate car accidents.

17-year old Blake Asher of Lonsdale was known at Tri-City United High School for his positivity, sense of humor and his positive outlook. Asher spent his school days learning, hanging out with his friends and competing on the speech time.

But Asher’s life was tragically cut short when Asher lost control of his vehicle on the icy and snow-packed Le Sueur County Road 28 on the evening of Feb. 25. The Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Office believed that the vehicle slid into the north ditch and rolled into a tree. The crash caused sever damage to the passenger side of the vehicle and Asher was pronounced dead at the scene.

19-year old Raquel Elizabeth Stutsman was a recent 2020 graduate of Le Sueur-Henderson High School and a resident of rural Le Sueur before she was killed in a single-vehicle auto accident on Nov. 21. Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Office found Stutsman dead on the scene after receiving a report that a vehicle went off the roadway and impacted trees.

3. Cleveland senior saves younger brother’s life with lesson he learned in school

Standing in for Stan Stocker of the Le Center, Le Sueur County Rehab, Cleveland Fire Chief Brady Hahn presented Cleveland High School senior Luke Mueller with an award for using the Heimlich maneuver to save his younger brother’s life. In front of a small audience of family, the presentation took place outside of the Mueller home on Tuesday.

Cleveland senior Lucas Mueller made a compelling case this year for why you should always pay attention in school.

Mueller was presented with an award by Cleveland Fire Chief Brady Hahn after saving his brother’s life using CPR training and anatomy lessons he learned at Cleveland High School.

When his younger brother Isaac began choking on some food, Mueller recognized that his brother was in real danger. The senior immediately performed a Heimlich Maneuver on Isaac and successfully dislodged a piece of food from his throat.

Isaac could partially breathe again, but there was still a remaining blockage in his throat. Mueller knew that if the food shifted around in Isaac’s throat, it could obstruct his breath again. So Mueller picked up the phone, dialed 911 and waited for emergency services to arrive. Responders brought Isaac to the hospital and emergency room staff cleared his airway, allowing Isaac to breathe normally.

4. Le Sueur receives over $850,000 in state funding to reopen Main Street, redevelop mall

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Valley Green Square Mall will be redeveloped as Tiller + Main which will demolish the west side of the mall to make room for Main Street, add apartments to the second floor and new retailers on the west side of the mall. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

After years of attempts, the city of Le Sueur finally found the funds and a partner reconnect Main Street begin a long-awaited redevelopment of the Valley Green Square Mall.

Le Sueur was one of sites and eight different cities to receive a grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development last May, amounting to more than $850,000.

With those dollars, the city entered into an agreement with developer Building Good Downtowns, LLC. The developer would take ownership of the Valley Green Square Mall, revamping it into Tiller + Main, a mixed-use building with 47,900 square feet of retail space and 15,000 square feet for 16 apartments on the second floor. In exchange for financial incentives, the developer agreed to have the west portion of the mall demolished, allowing for North and South Main Street to be reconnected after being separated by the mall for more than 40 years.

Demolition on the mall began in October and redevelopment is expected to continue through August 2021.

5. Amid coronavirus, Cleveland declares local emergency, postpones Cherry Creek Days and waives utility billing late fees

To correspond with a song in the band’s repertoire, flag twirlers in the St. Peter Saints marching band were dressed like French peasants at the 2019 Cherry Creek Days.

The COVID-19 pandemic cut short numerous summer festivals this year, including the city of Cleveland’s famous Cherry Creek Days.

Since 1978, the festival attracted visitors with a classic car roll-in, 5k fun run, fireworks and parade. But those festivities were put on hold by the Cleveland as coronavirus cases continued to rise with no signs of stopping.

The Cleveland City Council voted to postpone and later cancel the event at their April and May meetings. With at least six weeks needed to plan and hire talent for the festival, city officials said there wouldn’t be any time to prepare even if case numbers fell in the summer.

6. Le Center Pool closes following rising cases of COVID-19

AlexKerkman / By ALEX KERKMAN akerkman@lecenter.com 

After its opening July 6, the Le Center Pool was closed just one day later. A post on the Le Center Swimming Pool Facebook page stated that a person was at the pool that tested positive for COVID-19 and left before the pool opened. City Hall did not confirm or deny the post. (Leader file photo)

After being shut down through the whole month of June amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Le Center pool was finally opened on July 6. But the pool was closed again on July 7, almost as soon as it opened.

City officials’ only explanation for the closure was that conditions violated the city’s pool policy. But on the same day of the closure, a post on the Le Center Pool Facebook page said the pool was shut down on the 7th because an individual tested positive for COVID-19 before the pool opened.

City administration said the message did not come from city hall and they were unable to confirm if someone if a person infected with the coronavirus was at the pool. The only reason for the pool to be shut down listed in the city’s pool policy was if a staff member becomes affected by COVID-19.

The Le Center pool was eventually reopened for the rest of the summer On July 20.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@lesueurcountynews.com 

The Le Sueur Community Center will be closed for the rest of the year if no stimulus funds are available to the facility. The city council made the decision after finding that they could not open the Community Center without a significant budget defecit. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

7. Without stimulus, Le Sueur Community Center will need to close for rest of year

Opening the Le Sueur Coummunity Center’s gym, ice rink and indoor pool this year appeared fiscally impossible to city staff in June without stimulus dollars. Membership fell off during the stay at home order while the Community Center’s existing half-million dollar deficit was ballooning without customers using the facilities.

At the time, city staff calculated that it would cost nearly $100,000 a month to keep the fitness center open, while keeping the other facilities closed. Since the city is required to keep a balanced budget, the city would need to peel money out of the general fund to pay off the estimated $262,000 end of the year deficit required to open the fitness center.

With the data in front of them, six of the seven city councilors reluctantly approved a plan to close the community center throughout the year and furlough all employees except the manager. Sullivan favored an alternative plan that would have left the community center closed and furlough part time staff while cutting hours for full-time staff.

However, stimulus dollars were eventually distributed to the city of Le Sueur through the CARES Act. City Councilors approved a new plan in July which would use CARES dollars to finance the Community Center deficit and allow the facility to open Sept. 1. The fitness center, gym and racquetball courts were opened at the beginning of the month, the ice arena opened in Sept. 26, but the indoor pool remained closed throughout the year due to high expenses associated with it.

8. New owner remodels historic Le Sueur Theatre for the 21st century

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@lesueurcountynews.com 

More than 53,000 pounds of debris has been cleared out of the Le Sueur Theater over just 12 days, with plenty more work to be done. Owner Katherine Elke plans to restore the building and make it usable once again for the community. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The historic Le Sueur theatre has been closed for more than a decade, but under the new ownership of Katherine Elke, the theatre is making a comeback.

Over the years, the entertainment venue fell into disrepair. With water leaking from the ceiling and more than 24 tons of trash and debris lining the insides the site is more than just a fixer-upper.

But while it might not look like much in its current state, the Le Sueur Theatre has had a storied history with the city dating back to 1884 as Snow’s Opera House. It’s been swapped from owner to owner over many decades and was the only place to catch a movie in Le Sueur.

Elke plans to reopen the building as not just a movie theatre, but an entertainment venue for sorts including plays, music and comedy. Artifacts including old film reels and ticket stubs will be preserved and featured at the newly renovated theatre, which Elke hopes will blend the old style and design of the theatre that Le Sueur residents grew up with and updated facilities for the 21st century.

9. Le Center opens recycling center for an extra shift, purchases new garbage truck

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@leusuercountynews.com 

Following a council vote, the city of Le Center will continue to operate its city-run recycling and waste management. In addition, the council voted to keep the recycling center open for an extra shift during the week and to pursue the purchase of a new garbage truck (County News file photo)

Le Center’s great recycling debate came to an end last year, with the council voting 4-1 to keep recycling city-run rather than hire out a private contractor. But though the recycling center remained under ownership of the city, the council pursued some changes to recycling policy since it was the center was no longer subsidized by Le Sueur County.

One change that was brought about by the public hearing on the subject was a decision to open the recycling center for an evening shift on Wednesdays. This came after residents, particularly those with large families, complained that they didn’t have time to drop off recyclables on Saturday mornings and would have to schedule trips weeks in advance.

Since Le Sueur County cut ties with the recycling center, the facility was restricted to just Le Sueur residents and out-of-town dumping was banned at the beginning of the year. The city also added $2 to the solid waste fee on water bills to make up lost revenues from the lack of county involvement, the extra shift and a new $160,000 garbage truck purchased by the city.

10. Battling brain cancer, popular Le Sueur officer retires, focuses on family

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@lesueurcountynews.com 

Le Sueur Police Officer Travis Muchow stands beside his son Braden, dressed up in a uniform of his own. Muchow favored an empathetic approach to policing while at Le Sueur, looking to build relationships with the community and respond to situations with understanding. (Photo submitted by Monica Muchow)

Le Sueur Police Officer Travis Muchow was a proud member of the force, serving the city for more than 15 years. He was celebrated by friends and colleagues for his ability to put himself in others’ shoes and treat members of the community with dignity and fairness.

Muchow had planned to continue his work as a police officer for years to come, but retirement came early when he was diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Muchow later lost that battle to cancer and died at the age of 42 on Nov. 24.

Muchow made his last months count. Following his retirement in April, he made the decision to focus on his wife and son and some of his favorite activities like riding his motorcycle.

Honorable Mention — Henderson community uses roll-in to help struggling business owner

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@lesueurcountynews.com 

Barb Wagar Conrad, owner of Wagar’s Grocery and Shell Gas, is receiving the help of the Henderson Classic Car Roll-In Committee after her Main Street business was robbed. The Henderson Roll-In Winter Polka & Trivia Party on Feb. 22 will allow visitors to donate to Conrad’s aid and all proceeds from Henderson RoadHaus’ Beer Bash will go toward her benefit. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

Last year was a difficult time for Barb Wagar Conrad, owner of the Wagar’s Grocery and Shell Gas, but the Henderson community helped her get back on her feet. The business owner was saving up for a $30,000 bathroom remodel when her store was robbed. To add insult to injury, high flood waters on Hwy. 93 and County Road reduced traffic and customers in Henderson, making it all the more difficult to save up fund.

Fellow businesses owner Danny Ross, manager of Henderson RoadHaus, understood the difficulties of running a small business and helped organize an effort to come to Conrad’s aid. The Henderson Classic Car Roll-In was quick to pitch in and together, the groups organized a Winter Polka and Trivia Party on Feb. 22 for Conrad’s benefit.

Le Sueur County administrator resigns after 20 years
  • Updated

Two major staff members at Le Sueur County handed in their letters of resignation in December — County Administrator Darrell Pettis and Planning and Zoning Administrator Joshua Mankowski.

After two decades leading Le Sueur County, administrator Darrell Pettis unexpectedly handed in his letter of resignation.

It was a shock, said Steve Rohlfing, chair of the Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners. The board was told that Pettis planned to resign in a budget personnel meeting just before the commissioners meeting on Dec. 22, where the group unanimously, albeit reluctantly, accepted Pettis’ departure.

Pettis could not be reached for comment before publication of this article.

Rohlfing said that Pettis had received an offer to work elsewhere. Although he was heartbroken by the resignation, Rohlfing assured Pettis that it was the right decision.

“I told Darell, ‘You have to do what’s right for your family and put yourself first,’ said Rohlfing. “We’ll find someone in the county. It’s going to take time, but I thanked him for service.”

As county administrator, Pettis was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the county and oversaw management of all departments. He also served as an essential advisor to the Board of Commissioners and helped manage Human Resources.

“We didn’t always agree; the whole board will tell you the same thing, but at the end of the day we come to a conclusion, we got it done,” said Rohlfing. “His wealth of knowledge is going to be missed. Ditches, roads; he’s a licensed engineer, so he knows a lot of stuff in the county and is going to be hard to replace.”

With his background as an engineer, Pettis was able to take on duties that a future county administrator might not be capable of, noted Rohlfing. Pettis had a deep knowledge of county ditches, evaluated engineer’s reports and could answer engineering related questions at public hearings. He also put in time at the Human Resources Department, allowing what would be a two-person job to be run by a single department head.

Pettis is staying on as county administrator until Jan. 22. The county will begin a search process on Jan. 5 to find a candidate to fill the position. The Board of Commissioners will likely hire a third party to conduct the search, said Rohfling, and it’s a lengthy process that could take months before a new administrator is hired.

Between the time Pettis departs and a new administrator is hired, one or several staff members are expected to step up to serve as interim managers of his duties.

Planning and Zoning Administrator and Environmental Services Director Mankowski resigned and was given a severance package, as the county moves to outsource the responsibilities of the Planning and Zoning Department to a private contractor.

Under a contract approved by the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 1, WSB Engineering will begin acting as consultants to the Planning and Zoning Department, managing day-to-day operations, such as reviewing permits and zoning applications and responding to customer inquiries. WSB will also provide the Board of Commissioners with recommendations to improve department procedures, best practices and the zoning code.

The deal came about as several commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the department’s response to address an increasing number of permit applications to the county.

The new contract has at least one staff member being retained while WSB Engineering consultant Molly Just would serve as a senior planner for the county, establishing planning and zoning protocols and advising the Board of Commissioners and Kristen Moen as a planner conducting day-to-day planning.

Josie Plut, a senior, was named one of the Triple “A” Award nominees for TCU High School. (Photo courtesy of Josie Plut)