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Lena Smith skybox

Lena Olive Smith was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist in the ‘20s and ‘30s. She made major contributions toward securing civil rights for minorities in the Twin Cities after becoming the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota in 1921.

EDA, Chamber discuss potential collaboration opportunities
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The Lonsdale Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Lonsdale Chamber of Commerce both seek to support and promote area businesses, so why not do it together?

Results from a recent survey directed toward the EDA’s Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program suggest these two entities, plus the Old Town Lonsdale group that specifically focuses on the downtown area, could work together for economic development opportunities.

The final survey report, which City Administrator Joel Erickson presented to the EDA during its Thursday meeting, suggests strategies moving forward in the categories of business support, workforce strategies, community identity and availability/cost of land.

To offer more business support to BRE members, the potential projects Erickson mentioned include a business succession/business assistance group that conducts seminars about topics like writing a business plan. According to the results, 55% of businesses have business plans while 45% do not.

Another strategy under the business support umbrella is to create an exports task force using experts like Minnesota Trade, which has export grant financing programs.

Business mentor programs could also increase the level of business support offered to BRE members. The program, Erickson said, could function in a similar way to the 1 Million Cups group that allows entrepreneurs to engage with their communities to develop ideas and solutions. Minneapolis Business Mentors or SCORE are other models to consider.

In terms of workforce strategies, Erickson spoke about possibly offering shared training programs where there is a need, having businesses establish career pathways programs or apprenticeships to allow employee growth, creating a childcare partnership and conducting a cost of living analysis. Of those who participated in the BRE survey, 55% reported needing training.

Marketing was the biggest area to explore under the community identity bracket. Possible ways to attract more businesses and residents may come with forming a downtown alliance with the Lonsdale Chamber of Commerce.

Lonsdale Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shanna Gutzke-Kupp attended the EDA meeting along with three Chamber members to discuss ways to partner with the EDA for economic development opportunities. The EDA also invited representatives of the Old Town Lonsdale group, which formed in 2019 to draw attention to the downtown in particular, but none of the members attended.

The Chamber of Commerce holds lunch and learn networking gatherings several times a year to give members a chance to connect with one another and show nonmembers how the Chamber functions to promote Lonsdale and support businesses. The EDA and Steele Waseca Co-op Electric have sponsored lunch and learns in the past, and Gutze-Kupp said she liked the idea of having a utility company hosting a lunch and learn about rebates and cyber security to build engagement and trust.

To increase marketing of Lonsdale businesses, the EDA discussed advantages to off-premise advertising like billboards, particularly one on highway 19. The city would need to look into changing an ordinance that forbids off premise advertising, Erickson said.

Community Day in Lonsdale also presented a discussion, since the BRE survey suggested growing festivals and establishing cultural events. Although Community Day was cancelled last year as a result of the pandemic, Gutzke-Kupp said the plan is to move forward with the annual celebration this August.

With state goals fast approaching, local legislators seek $120M for broadband
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Fast, reliable internet would be a godsend for Al Meyer, a Richland Township farmer who counts on the internet to help him stay in contact with everyone from suppliers to the bank.

If his equipment breaks down, he relies on internet access to fix it, since farm equipment manufacturers don’t print paper manuals anymore. But Meyer’s home internet is far from reliable. Not only does weather frequently disrupt the connection, but trying to connect during peak usage times, usually during the evening, is basically a lost cause.

Even though Minnesota’s approach has been seen as something of a national model, the latest report from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband shows that progress toward the state’s own broadband goals has been inconsistent — and time is running out to meet them.

Released in time to help set priorities for the 2021 legislative session, the headline of the Broadband Task Force’s latest report is a call for $120 million in funding for high-speed broadband grants over the next biennium.

A $120 million funding bill co-sponsored in the House by Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, and in the Senate by John Jasinski, R-Faribault. Jasinski said the effort is a particularly high priority in the wake of COVID-19. The $120 million figure is roughly twice of what the state has devoted to rural broadband efforts in recent years. The call is so urgent and the ask so big, not only because of COVID, but because Minnesota is in danger of missing its first goal.

Under state law, every household and business must have internet access with download speeds of at least 25mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second by 2022. Those targets make a big jump in 2026, increasing to 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits per second for uploads.

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said that the latter goal is much more realistic for consumers given the demands of current technology. However, more than 12% of Minnesota residents still don’t have access to broadband that fast.

Rural Broadband Task Force Chair Teddy Bekele, who serves as chief technology officer for Land O’Lakes, said that covering the remaining 157,000 unserved households in Minnesota will be greater a challenge than the raw number might suggest.

The challenge becomes apparent when looking at the map embedded in the Rural Broadband Task Force’s report. Those 157,000 Minnesota households generally live in the most rural and isolated parts of the state, making them the hardest and priciest to reach.

Working in tech at Land O’Lakes, Bekele said he’s met many of those rural farmers who struggle to access the internet, making their business operations all the more difficult.

Currently, most Rice County residents have access to high-speed internet, making the county a somewhat less compelling candidate for broadband dollars. Jim Purfeerst, a newly elected member of the Rice County Board of Commissioners, is among those who do not.

Purfeerst relies on fixed wireless through the air to get his work done, which since COVID hit has included Zoom meetings and other online communication with increasing frequency. While it generally works, just a change in the weather can leave him without the internet.

“If it’s rainy or cloudy, some days it limits your ability to receive a good signal,” he said.

In rural Steele County, the team at Dagry Tooling often struggles with its own connectivity issues. Dagry’s founder and owner Dave Luedtke said that the nearest fiber optic connection is a mile away, so the business relies on a broadband tower. While connectivity is generally pretty solid, Luedtke said that there are still days where the business still struggles with extremely inconvenient connectivity issues — making a reliable broadband connection much preferable.

“Whether it’s due to weather, some type of radio wave interference, there are days we still end up with interruptions,” he said. “(Broadband) would be more reliable unless somebody hit it with a backhoe.”

While Rice and Steele counties still have a ways to go, some rural counties have led the way in ensuring access for all residents. That includes Rock County in rural southwest Minnesota, which even beats out urban Ramsey County with a connectivity rate over 99.9%.

In Rock County, local leaders have worked with state and federal partners to finance and build a high-speed network. That made things easier last fall when COVID hit and telemedicine, telework and online learning all came into vogue.

“There was only one student that didn’t have some type of connectivity, and that was because they were transitioning and moving, and the library bailed them out with a hotspot,” Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre was quoted as saying in the report.

Other rural counties haven’t done so well, including some of Rock County’s neighbors. Across the state, a majority of residents don’t have access to broadband meeting the state’s 2026 goals in nine counties, with Kanabec County in north central the worst. Data collected by the school districts found that for roughly a quarter of students in Kanabec County internet access was either nonexistent or not sufficient for them to participate in online learning, leaving them behind their peers.

Unfortunately, that situation isn’t uncommon.

The Broadband Task Force’s $120 million figure isn’t arbitrary, but based on what the task force believes it will cost to hook up every unserved Minnesotan. While that total cost is projected at $868 million, it’s anticipated that most funding will come from private or federal dollars.

In addition to that topline figure, the commission offered a number of other changes, including additional annual funding to the Office of Broadband Development for programs designed to address inequities in broadband access. In particular, the task force recommends programs to programs to increase “digital fluency” among lower-income and older people and provide targeted grants to help low-income Minnesotans gain reliable access to the internet.

The task force also encouraged the state to streamline the process of getting broadband permits approved. Bekele said that broadband companies too often spend precious time navigating application and permitting processes through multiple state agencies.

“Our short construction season shortens the time frames for development, so the more you can do to expedite the process of getting permits the better,” he said.

Krocak, Holy Cross principal, announces plans to retire
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In her 41 years of education, Connie Krocak said Holy Cross is probably the most rewarding place she’s ever worked.

Krocak has served as principal of the preschool through eighth grade Catholic school for the past six years, but this year will be her last. On Ash Wednesday, she told the Holy Cross community of her plans to retire.

“Please know that I did not come to this decision lightly, and the decision has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on education,” Krocak included in her letter to the Holy Cross community. “I have been in conversation about this with Fr. Barnes since December 2019 and with Fr. VanDenBroeke since January 2020. Last February I decided to stay through the 2021 school year to be sure that the school’s accreditation process was successful and complete.”

The accreditation process took almost a full year, Krocak said. Holy Cross completed a self-study of all its components, including safety, maintenance, policies and board makeup, and compiled all this data into a profile of population trends. The Minnesota Nonpublic School Accrediting Association then reviewed the profile and sent a team to the school to interview teachers and parents and see how well their feedback matched with the self-study. According to the report, Holy Cross passed in 64 out of 64 items, making the school compliant until 2028.

Fr. Nick VanDenBroeke, canonical administrator of Holy Cross and pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Lonsdale, recognized in an email to the Holy Cross community the ways Krocak made the school what it is today.

“I am deeply grateful for the tremendous service that Dr. Constance Krocak has given Holy Cross over these past six years,” VanDenBroeke said. “It is a great loss to our community to receive her resignation at the end of this school year. We wish her the very best in retirement.”

Holy Cross’ Catholic identity was raised under Krocak’s leadership, he said, with added faith practices woven into the school’s curriculum. He also noted that Holy Cross students have tested above the national average in every subject area under Krocak’s leadership, and the school’s atmosphere “has been fostered to be a place of joy” throughout the different grade levels.

Apart from her first year of teaching in a public school, Krocak has spent her entire education career in Catholic schools in Minnesota. She has taught a variety of grade levels for 32 years, including preschool, middle school,and family and consumer science for grades five through 12. Before becoming the successor to former Holy Cross Principal Lisa Simon in 2015, Krocak took her first principalship at Our Lady of the Lake in Mound. She also taught at Providence Academy in Plymouth for a number of years.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has posted the job opening, and Holy Cross leaders will next meet with the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education. Krocak’s retirement is effective sometime in the summer, depending on the hiring of a her successor.

While Krocak said she has no plans for retirement so far, she plans to spend time at her home in Minnetrista.

“I’m very glad,” Krocak said. “My favorite place to be next to school is at home, and with this time of COVID, that’s where we need to be.”