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County launches grant program to support local businesses
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Le Sueur County has launched a $500,000 recovery program to award grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses. The fund is aimed at assisting businesses that are small in size, saw significant losses this year due to COVID-19, and/or were closed by executive order. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

Local businesses in need of a windfall may qualify for up to $10,000 in assistance from the county.

On Sept. 1, the Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a grant program aimed at paying off expenses for local businesses. Payroll obligations, rent payments, mortgage payments, utilities, payments to suppliers and other critical expenses that were incurred during between March 15 and Sept. 1 could be paid off through the Le Sueur County Recovery Fund.

The grants, which may total up to $10,000, depending on need, is being funded through CARES Act dollars given to the county. $500,000 of the $3.4 million available to the county is being dedicated to the effort. Le Sueur County will begin accepting applicants between Sept. 14 and Sept. 30.

The fund is aimed at supporting small businesses that saw their revenues plummet during the COVID-19 pandemic. To be eligible, the business must be locally owned and operated within Le Sueur County and have been in business six months prior to March 1. It must be licensed, without delinquent property taxes and utilities, and be able to demonstrate a significant loss of revenue since March 15.

The grants, which may total up to $10,000 depending on need, is being funded through CARES Act dollars given to the county. $500,000 of the $3.4 million available to the county is being dedicated to the effort . Le Sueur County will begin accepting applicants between Sept. 14 and Sept. 30 at noon.

The primary beneficiaries of these grants are those that were forced to close due to emergency executive orders by Gov. Tim Walz that went into effect last spring. Bars, restaurants, theaters, museums, fitness centers, salons, recreational facilities, golf clubs and other businesses that were forced to close may all be eligible.

However, there are conditions for a business to receive grant money, even if it wasn’t closed. A business that had between one and 20 W-2 eligible employees and took in an annual revenue below $1 million can apply. A business that’s owner-operated may also apply as long as the business has 20 or less W-2 eligible employees and makes less than $1 million annually.

Businesses can apply even if they’ve received COVID-realted funding like a PPP loan from the Small Business Administration, but to do this, it must request funding for an expense that was not covered by a prior loan or grant.

Barbara Droher-Kline who is coordinating the county’s CARES Act projects, said that the distributors of the grant monies would work with businesses that may have been denied from a different loan due to an error. Kline recalled one business owner that was denied, due to her business being registered at the wrong address.

“I was talking to a small business in Montgomery this week that was very excited about this program and applied for the state program,” said Kline. “She bought the business from someone else, the registration wasn’t quite right, and she wasn’t eligible for anything.”

In applying for this program, Kline said that administrators would double check with businesses that might be registered incorrectly.

Some types of businesses are completely excluded from the recovery fund. If the business is operated out of a home instead of physical establishment, was in default conditions prior to Feb. 29 or takes income from passive investments, business-to-business transactions, real estate transactions, property rentals or property management, billboards, or lobbying, then it is not eligible. Tax-exempt nonprofits are also not eligible.

The basis and terms of the loan recovery fund was largely borrowed off of similar programs implemented in New Prague in Carver County.

“We used a lot of their expertise from what they did for our program,” said COunty Administrator Darrell Pettis. “We thought it was very good what they did in New Prague and some other communities around there.”

Those who qualify for a grant will be notified by NextStage, a local nonprofit administering the funds on behalf of the county, by Oct. 16 by email. Businesses will then need to respond within five days with documentation including a 2019 federal tax return, evidence of loss of revenue, evidence of employment and any other necessary forms.

After generous donations, construction begins to restore historic 160 year-old Ottawa church
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

The 160-year old Ottawa Methodist Church is getting some much needed repairs. Work is currently being done to restore and replace the church’s steeple and belfry after they were taken down five years ago. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The historic Ottawa Methodist Church stands as one of the three oldest Methodist churches in the state of Minnesota, but over the years, the church structure became unstable and the steeple needed to be removed. This month, construction began to restore the historic building back to its original state.

The structure of the Ottawa Methodist Church, located in Ottawa Township in Le Sueur County, was jeopardized five years ago, when Goodrich Construction found that the steeple was leaning 19 inches to the west and 11 inches to the south.

“It was an imminent collapse,” said Goodrich Construction Manager Randy Dinsmore. “I wrote a letter to the Historical Society regarding the condition of the building and how I felt it was at risk. They called me back and asked how long we had and I said somewhere between five minutes and 50 years.”

The roof also had an array of problems. The east side of the tower is supported by post bearings on the masonry wall above the entry doors were intact, but not anchored to the masonry wall. Wood beams on the west side of the tower were defected and down. Beams on the north side showed tension, while beams on the south side show significant deterioration due to rot and compression.

To stabilize the building, the Historical Society removed the steeple and belfry from the building. But at the time, the Le Sueur County Historical Society couldn’t afford the costly repairs, which added up to $176,000. The restoration had to wait years and the belfry and steeple sat on the ground in the church yard.

Around $180,000 was raised to restore the church by the Le Sueur County Historical Society with the help of community members and the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation. The Schmidt Foundation, which funds grants for historic restorations along with other community oriented projects from libraries to children’s hospitals, agreed to match $2 for every dollar the Le Sueur County Historical Society raised, up to $120,000. With the help of community contributions and Unimin, the historical society was able to raise $60,000 and pay off the $176,000 needed for repairs.

“It’s been difficult to get funding, but the Schmidt Foundation came through, and there are a lot of local people that made $200 and $400 dollars, some $1,000,” said Historical Society President Bill Stangler. “It’s unbelievable how the local people came in to match the funds.”

Over the last week, Goodrich Construction has removed the entire roof deck through three phases. The company has placed new wood trusses in the back of the church which will carry the support of the new roof rather than the old structure. This week, Goodrich took out the front third of the roof and the rafters to set a steel frame to carry a new belfry. The new belfry and steeple will replace the old one and will be made with tubular steel.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Goodrich Construction replacing the roof of the historic Ottawa Methodist Church. $180,000 was raised to help the church through community contributions and a grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The building’s structure is now complete, but there are many more details Gooodrich is tackling — from scrapping and replacing deteriorated lumber to relaying the chimney to installing and bolting down the belfry onto the new steel frame. Afterward, Goodrich will touch up the siding and painting.

“It’s an expensive project for a little church out there, but it should last a long, long time,” said Stangler. “ It’s a wonderful little thing to have. It’s a treasure.”

This year, the Ottawa Stone Church will turn 161 years old, having been established in 1859 by a group of Ottawa methodists. The one-room church was in too small a community to carry a large congregation, so the church recruited pastors from surrounding areas including Le Sueur and Le Center to lead the congregation part-time.

The church remained operational for nearly 100 years until 1950. During that time, the church originated Ladies Aid, a group that held social events and fundraisers to pay the pastor and finance church activities.

After the closure, the church eventually fell into disrepair. The building was only used for weddings and funerals and maintenance work declined, allowing the brush and vines to overgrow.

In the winter of 1967-1968, local residents formed the Ottawa Restoration Committee after learning that the church was one of the oldest in the region. Dedicated to preserving the history of the church, the group raised money to restore and re-open the church on Sept. 22, 1968. Since then, the Le Sueur County Historical Society has preserved the building and it’s been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Dinsmore hopes for the construction to be completed by the end of October, but the date at this point is uncertain. Goodrich Construction has performed historical restoration before at sites like the Julien Cox House in St. Peter and the Hubbard House in Mankato and Dinsmore has learned that historical projects don’t always meet a neat timetable.

“It’s a little hard to judge time on the historic restoration process,” said Dinsmore. “There’s no standard procedures. Everything has to be adapted to the original conditions of the building and reality of what we can do.”

Construction has been fairly smooth so far, said Dinsmore. There haven’t been many problems the team has encountered with the exception of the back gable. At the time it was built, Dinsmore said the carpenter made an error while laying out the back gable, leaving it four inches lower at the peak. The roof was framed to this error so the construction team has to rebuild the back overhang of the church to put it into a proper position.

After the church is repaired, the Le Sueur County Historical Society hopes to hold a fall celebration if possible and a Christmas celebration inside the church this winter. The church won’t be open to congregations, but it may be rented out for weddings.

“I want to put out a big thank you for the community for support they’ve given us,” said Stangler. “And I hope the support will continue.”

The city if Henderson has canceled its classic car roll-ins, but residents have carried on the tradition. To accommodate the increased traffic, the Henderson City Council directed the police to keep an officer monitoring Main Street on Tuesday evenings. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

TCU seventh-grader Ella Schmissing, who has set five school records in two meets this season, swims the anchor freestyle leg of 26.27 seconds in the 200-yard medley relay Thursday at St. Peter Pool. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Le Sueur County pursues 2021 expansion to Bevcomm broadband network

Bevcomm is looking to expand its fiber optic broadband network with the help of Le Sueur County and a Minnesota Border to Border grant. The new network, located south of the 2020 Border to Border network, would reach more than 200 homes in Lexington, Montgomery and parts of Sharon Townships. (Graphic courtesy of Bevcomm)

Earlier this year, internet service provider Bevcomm, in partnership with Le Sueur County, received a near $2 million grant to build a fiber optic network to upgrade internet speeds for more than 400 households across Le Sueur, Rice and Scott counties. Now, Bevcomm is looking to expand its fiber optic network even further into Le Sueur County and has requested assistance from the Board of Commissioners.

Construction on the fiber lines from the original $2 million in funding is still in process, but that’s not stopping local organizers from looking to the next project to expand internet access in the county.

On Sept. 1, Bevcomm brought plans to the county to pursue a second Border-to-Border grant from the state of Minnesota. The proposed fiber optic network would improve speeds for 239 homes in Lexington and Montgomery Townships and parts of Sharon Township.

It would cost $1.6 million for Bevcomm to install the 100% fiber optic network supporting 1Gbps speeds in the area, a price that Bevcomm CEO Bill Eckles said was too high for the company to pursue on its own.

“Even with the state giving us a 50% matching grant, it just doesn’t work out for us to overbuild the Frontier in that area without some support in the county,” Eckles told the Board of Commissioners.

Eckles requested a $300,000 commitment from the county toward the project to offset some of the costs. The pledged dollars would only go to Bevcomm if the internet service provider was successful in earning a Border to Border grant from the state. $20 million in state monies are available to grant applicants.

The Le Sueur County Commissioners unanimously approved the $300,000 pledge with plans to split the costs 50/50 between the county and townships. Councilor John King said that county townships had already been notified and were supportive of the project.

“All of the townships that would be impacted by this proposal, their meetings have been attended and they are aware of the situation and they have agreed in principle to collectively pay half of the $300,000 that would be the county’s obligation,” said King.

What complicates Bevcomm’s plans for expansion is that the area is currently served by Frontier Communications. By law, Bevcomm was required to notify Frontier of their plans to expand and give the service provider a chance to respond. If the current service provider wishes to boost internet speeds, that could prevent another service provider from receiving state monies to expand into the area.

Eckles said that he was told by Frontier Communications that they were planning to upgrade speeds in their area to 10 mbps. However, the Bevcomm CEO was unconcerned with this, noting that areas with 10 mbps speeds are considered unserved by the state of Minnesota.

“When they say they’re going to upgrade to 10 mb a second, it doesn’t even meet the state’s definition of broadband,” said Eckles. “If all they’re doing is the 10 mb service, I don’t anticipate the state is going to exclude us because of that.”

In the Border to Border grant, the state of Minnesota defines an unserved area as an area of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC threshold of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. In an underserved area, households or businesses do receive service at or above the FCC threshold but wire-line speeds of 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload.

If approved, Bevcomm would begin working on the network in 2021. It would border the southern edge of the fiber optic network currently being constructed, which is intended to bring high speed broadband to 417 unserved households, 88 unserved farms, 59 unserved businesses, and 4 community anchor institutions in rural areas around the communities of Montgomery, Heidelberg and New Prague in Le Sueur, Rice, and Scott counties.

Wireless internet for Tyrone Township, more broadband projects funded through CARES
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Le Sueur County is using it’s CARES Act dollars to install wireless towers bringing high-speed internet to underserved areas of the county like Derrynane Township. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

One of Le Sueur County’s top priorities for the year is to expand broadband into under-served areas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in planned and proposed broadband projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year through federal funds from the CARES Act.

Le Sueur County received $3.4 million from the federal government. One of the first projects approved with that money is a $140,000 proposal to bring high speed wireless internet to Tyrone Township in partnership with Netwave Broadband.

Netwave, a subsidiary of Access Networks Inc., brought a proposal to set up a 5G 900 Mhz wireless tower. The tower would provide 100 mb speeds for up to 218 homes in a 7-mile coverage radius from a tower off Hwy. 169 near the Cambria Processing Facility.

The wireless tower would utilize both line of sight and non-line of sight fixed wireless. Redundant wiring would be connected to locations in Minneapolis and Mankato to prevent outages.

If there are low-lining areas that can’t be reached by the tower, NetWave is willing to build micro pops, which would cover between 10-15 homes each at a price of $13,000 per location. This cost is not in the deal approved by the county. Micro pops could be approved by the county and added at a later date.

Barbara Droher-Kline, the coordinator for broadband and CARES proposals for the county, said that Tyrone Township has been a historically difficult place for internet service providers to deliver coverage. Some areas in the radius have as little as 9 mb/s speeds, not even a tenth of what would be offered by the new wireless tower.

“It’s been one of the most challenging townships because of the hilliness and because of the smaller number of residents there,” said Droher-Kline. “So the cost per mile is more expensive. So this seemed like a very quick alternative for this township.”

The wireless tower is to be installed by the end of the year in order to qualify for federal funding. The CARES Act comes with a number of restrictions for what county’s can use it for. Projects must be related to COVID-19 recovery, they must be items that were not budgeted for the year prior and the dollars must be spent by the end of the year.

“It looks like more and more of these schools are going to hybrid or online learning and the big issues they have is internet access in these areas,” said Le Sueur County Administrator Darrell Pettis. “So that’s why we started focusing on broadband to spend our CARES Act dollars on.”

Droher-Kline became aware of the company for their work in Scott County. The company targets underserved areas and partnered with Scott County to construct seven wireless towers.

On the customer side, it would cost $299 for a basic one-time installation fee. Customers would be charged $99.99 per month for 100 mb of service in a three year contract. The $99 would only cover internet, but NetWave also has a phone service and is in the process of setting up television services.

In the deal, NetWave Broadband would take on most of the risk for keeping the wireless tower operational.

“All the risk as far as the tower maintenance, keeping everything afloat as far as tower rent, power, the responsibility is all on us,” said Steve Herman with NetWave Broadband. “We’re just asking for capital investment to provide service in the area and then we’ll take all management and everything over from that point.”

Upcoming proposals

The wireless tower is not all that’s being discussed for the year. Droher-Kline plans to bring a proposal in two weeks that would provide higher speed internet near Le Center.

The proposal would make use of a tower located near the old County Jail. There is fiber near the tower, which Droher-Kline said would cut down on installation costs. The location is also being explored because of a high demand from residents around Le Center.

“There’ve been 100 more added [to the Wireless Access survey] last week and it’s been in the Le Center area where there’s been a lot of people talking about broadband access issues,” said Droher-Kline. “I think that this is really timely that we look at this tower in Le Center.”

Droher-Kline is also putting together a proposal for Waterville and a Border to Border Grant partnership with MetroNet. MetroNet, which acquired the Minnesota ISP Jaguar Communications last spring, has come to the county with a plan to expand broadband access from existing fiber networks in the county.

The plan makes use of fiber lines running up from St. Peter into Ottawa and Sharon Township, a line from Cleveland running east into Cordova and Kilkenny Townships and lines in Lexington, Kilkenny and Waterville Townships. The project would cost a total of $535,000.

“We’re really sitting on a tremendous opportunity with the CARES Act dollars to really expand on our broadband service in our area,” said Droher-Kline.