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A TCU swimmer goes the distance in the a Special Olympic regionals last year at Gustavus Adolphus College. (Photo courtesy of Lane Wilbright)

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Area liquor stores make changes as heavy traffic continues

With Minnesotans asked to stay at home to help halt the spread of coronavirus, area liquor stores say they have bucked dire economic trends to see a significant boost in traffic, though one that has started to taper off in recent weeks.

Early spring is often a sparse time for liquor sales, and the sudden rush caught some retailers off guard. Lonsdale Liquor Manager Lynette Moe reported that for this month, liquor sales were up 60% from last year.

“I think that has to do with bars being closed, so people go to liquor stores,” she said. “And boredom. If people aren’t working, they drink more.”

For his part, Kenyon Municipal Liquor Store Manager Matt Bartel described the initial surge as “right before the Fourth of July and Christmas rolled into one.” That sudden rush led to shortages at some area liquor stores.

Some Minnesotans may have feared that the state would join a number of others across the nation that have closed liquor stores temporarily. Instead, Gov. Tim Walz has allowed them to continue operating with extra precautions, similar to those required at grocery and convenience stores.

As store closures began to seem less likely, demand for liquor started to taper off. Moe said that for April, sales have still been up compared to last year, but only by 30%. With fewer Minnesotans working, she said she sees a lot more traffic during the afternoon.

Inconsistent traffic and the need to take extra safety precautions has led some area stores to reduce hours. Lonsdale Liquor now opens two hours later and closes two hours earlier than normal, while Kenyon Liquor is opening one hour later and closing several hours earlier.

Bartel said that while weekday traffic remains strong, Sunday traffic has become so light that he’s decided to close the store that day. He said he believes that many Minnesotans are now consuming the liquor they stockpiled during the rush, reducing demand somewhat.

Particularly hard to come by is Everclear Grain Alcohol 151. At 75.5% alcohol content, the legal limit in Minnesota, it can be used as a disinfectant, at a time when shortages of rubbing alcohol, bleach and other cleaning products are in short supply.

With such demand for the product, getting ahold of it has become a challenge for liquor stores in recent weeks. Meanwhile, local distillers like 10,000 Drops have gotten in on the action, distilling their own hand sanitizers.

Fortunately, local liquor stores say they’ve been able to find enough cleaning products to keep their stores heavily sanitized. Sean Adams of Firehouse Liquors in Dundas said that his staff is cleaning the store more regularly and thoroughly than ever before.

“Anywhere that our customers or staff might touches gets sanitized a much as possible,” Adams said. “We try to do it every half hour.”

Adams’ staff also wear gloves and even tried wearing masks while serving customers. However, Adams said was scrapped because many customers had a difficult time understanding employees wearing masks.

For Moe, a key priority has been restricting the number of customers coming into the store. She is strictly enforcing social distancing guidelines, asking customers to come in groups of no more than two.

Moe said her biggest frustration is with customers who bring their children with them to shop. In Minnesota, no one under 21 is allowed in liquor stores.

Moe is enforcing that particularly strictly right now. Even though children are widely considered to have a low risk of suffering serious complications from coronavirus, they can contract it and spread it to others. That's a particularly high risk because they often have a hard time following social distancing guidelines.

“My biggest concern is when people bring kids with them to shop,” she said. “It breaks my heart that people are bringing out kids in this crisis."

Community Ed takes financial hit with distance learning; leaders talk commencement plan

The financial impact of distance learning wasn’t even a thought when Tri-City United Business Services Director Jean Kopp presented the revised 2020 school budget at the March 9 School Board meeting.

But since Gov. Tim Walz announced school closures March 15 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Kopp has adjusted the budget with distance learning in mind. She presented the updated revised budget to the School Board again during its online April 13 meeting. The board unanimously approved the budget for fiscal year 2020, which started July 1, 2019 and ends June 30, 2020.

Distance learning has impacted the school budget, in terms of food service and general funding, but no area was hit harder than Community Education.

According to Kopp, the district is projected to deficit spend an additional $100,000 or more in Community Education funding. The district already anticipated a difficult financial year for the Little Titans Preschool and WRAP programs that started in 2019-20. In March, Kopp projected the district would deficit spend $116,000 in the Community Education fund, so the additional $100,000-plus, related to distance learning, pushes the deficit spending well over $200,000.

Kopp explained that the Community Education fund is usually self-sustaining and mostly maintained by a fee-based structure, and programming tuition and fees usually account for over 60% of the Community Ed revenue. However, it’s assumed that Community Education programming will be suspended through the end of June, meaning fees won’t be collected.

The Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) team began implementing distance learning at no tuition in March, resulting in about $200,000 reduced revenue. However, Kopp said about $100,000 in cost savings will partially offset losses. Instructor pay, supplies and transportation costs are included in those cost savings.

Anticipating a $223,000 deficit to the Community Ed fund, Kopp said the School Board may need to approve a transfer from the general fund to support continued operations, most likely in fiscal year 2021. Currently, there is no legislative support to offset fee-based programming losses.

Kopp did not apply adjustments to the general fund balance but noted the district may experience added savings in transportation fuel costs, utility costs and staff travel reimbursements as a result of distance learning. However, additional instructional software for distance learning may count as an additional expenditure.

The food service fund also required updates since school closures began. TCU continues to provide meals for families, but the numbers and processes have fundamentally changed. Both the revenue and expenditure estimate are lower due to fewer meals served, but state mandates will determine actual reimbursements and costs, said Kopp.

Graduation plans

“What will happen with graduation?” is the question many high school seniors and their families ask as shelter-in-place orders and school closures continue.

The Tri-City United School Board answered that question as best as it could during its online meeting Monday, April 13. However, only time will tell which path is the best option.

TCU High School Principal Fitterer and Superintendent Teri Preisler previously met with graduation advisors and senior class officers to discuss scenarios for a graduation commencement should coronavirus remain a heavy concern May 29, when the ceremony was scheduled. The general takeaway from the meeting, said Fitterer, is students want a traditional graduation, even if it means holding the ceremony in summer.

The School Board voted to postpone the ceremony to July 31 should large group gathering restrictions continue through May 29. If the coronavirus outbreak warrants social distancing through late July, the board would then explore alternative commencement options, such as an online format.

“I think [we] do everything in our power to make sure these kids have their day to walk across that stage rather than going right to the virtual,” said Board Chair Marsha Franek. “This is something they want and they have said. That is my vision I see moving forward for those seniors.”

Added Ashley Rosival, board member: “I personally support whatever those teenagers want. I think we just have to follow whatever the governor says at that time. By all means, whatever we can do for them to make it as normal as we can for them given the circumstances, I’d be in support of that and playing it by ear.”

Tri-City United Public Schools kitchen staff get meals to kids who need them, as the district continues district learning this month. (Photo courtesy of Tri-City United Public Schools)

Future police station not to include a city hall, per City Council vote

It’s not so easy to plan for the future when a pandemic is going on, but one thing’s for certain about Lonsdale’s future: a new police station is not a want, but a need.

City staff has already negotiated a purchase agreement for two parcels at the 15th Avenue NE and Commerce Drive SE intersection, approximately 10 acres of land, and the purchase agreement was approved March 26. During a special online meeting Thursday, the City Council gave City Administrator Joel Erickson clear direction on what the project entails. The next step is to send RFPs to architectural firms and post on the city of Lonsdale website.

The City Council held the special meeting on Thursday to reach a consensus on the project’s scope, since differing opinions came up at a previous regular meeting. Originally, city staff drafted RFPs to request the design, bidding and construction of a new police facility of approximately 6,000 square feet as well as the price of a “master plan” for future amenities that may be added to the site later. These future amenities may include a city hall, a library and public spaces. However, another opinion was to plan immediately for construction of a new city hall, along with the police station, rather than waiting.

At the beginning of 2019, the City Council nixed a plan to build a police station and city hall amenity at a different location, because too many unknown factors inhibited the planning process. This time, the council voted unanimously to proceed with plans for a police station only. Councilor Steve Cherney was absent for this portion of the meeting.

With minor renovations applied to City Hall in 2019, the council agreed a new facility isn’t necessary. However, a new police facility remains a high priority. The current police station is small, approximately 1,500 square feet of office space, making it impossible for officers to comply with Minnesota Department of Corrections requirements and provide room for storage.

“We made some improvements, and I think City Hall is working for what we need it for,” said Councilor Scott Pelava.

Added Councilor Cindy Furrer: “It’s not a perfect situation at City Hall, but I think we’re in an OK place for now.”

With the decision made final to move forward with a police station alone, City Administrator Joel Erickson described the various financing options for the project. He said he initially considered a lease purchase with the Economic Development Authority the best financial route for the project, but after giving it more thought, he recommended the city issue general obligation capital improvement bonds.

“I agree with you pretty much 100%,” said Mayor Tim Rud. “I think we are the elected officials, so we should drive the train to promote the police station, instead of an advisory board.”

With this option, the project is subject to a reverse referendum initiated by 5% of voters in the last city election, which took place in November 2019. Since 136 voters participated in the last city election, it would take seven voters to trigger a reverse referendum, where voters could choose whether they want the police station project to go forward. The city would then need to pay for the election.

Councilor Kevin Kodada said he believes general obligation bonds allow the city to be as transparent as possible with the project, and Pelava added it’s the most “financially responsible” option.

“There is a risk with the reverse referendum, but this is something that’s been talked about over and over,” said Pelava. “… I’m not worried about someone trying to push against it. I think everyone realizes [a new police station] needs to happen.”

The estimated cost of a 6,000-square-foot police facility is $1.6 million. Additional expenses include furniture, fixtures, equipment and indirect costs, such as planning and designing. In official project timeline has not been determined yet.

There was no motion for the City Council to approve the financing mechanism for the project, but rather for approving the RFP. The motion was approved unanimously with Cherney absent.