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Fire ravages Northfield's iconic Archer House, considered a total loss
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The historic Archer House building appears to be a total loss following a devastating fire that left crews working on scene for nearly 24 hours.

Brett Reese, CEO and managing partner of building owner Rebound Hospitality, said it will be awhile before insurance adjustors are able to enter the building. He added that despite the definite possibility that the building is beyond salvaging, Rebound hopes to save what it can or utilize any possible space within the building.

“We just don’t know,” Reese said. “It’s too early.”

The iconic hotel, built along the east bank of the Cannon River more than 140 years ago, sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout the building, according to Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek. On Monday morning, gaping holes were visible in the back and front portions of the building.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office was on scene Friday and Saturday. As of Monday morning, Franek said private investigators are at the building. No formal determination has been made on the condition of the building. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Franek noted the outer two Archer House buildings were released to the owners early this week and the upper three floors of the main Archer House buildings at a later date. He did not say whether the hotel was beyond repair. He did say that decision will ultimately come down to the estimated repair cost developed by fire insurance underwriters.

“It’s another tough, sad day for this community and also the building owners,” Franek said Friday.

The fire was reported at approximately 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Within 15 minutes, the inside of the restaurant was filled with smoke. As of about 5 p.m., smoke was billowing from all floors of the Archer House. The Archer House includes the River Inn, bar, Chapati, Smoqehouse, Northfield Tavern and Paper Petalum.

Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott said as of noon Friday crews were expected to remain for a couple more hours.

He described firefighters’ work within the building as “slow and tedious,” due to the age of the building and the layers of construction material added during previous remodeling projects undertaken since its 1877 construction. Franek said the fire spread throughout the building in walls, areas designed to hold pipes and cables, and hidden spots where fire crews couldn’t reach, making it hard to determine where the fire had gone.

“It’s been kind of a task, a rough one here to fight,” he noted.

Rebound Hospitality COO Todd Byhre said the fire has been traced to a food smoker at Smoqehouse.

Byhre noted the fire came after months after renovations to public spaces within the Archer House and revenue losses caused by COVID-19. Renovations were also ongoing on the Tavern of Northfield after a June 2019 kitchen fire at Chapati caused extensive water damage to the downstairs space. The Tavern of Northfield had been pegged for a January/February reopening. Byhre said the Archer House is a staple within downtown, adding he was thankful that no one was seriously injured and the inn was empty at the time. A firefighter was taken to Northfield Hospital and Clinics, and an employee suffered a non-life threatening burn wound.

“It’s an icon,” he said of the Archer House.

Smoqehouse employees and sisters Marta and Tove Sorenson were heading to work when they saw the fire.

“It’s just creepy to see,” Marta said of the fire.

Faribault, Lonsdale, Farmington, Randolph and Hampton fire departments have assisted on scene. To Franek, the massive fire and the relatively small size of the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services necessitated the help of other fire departments.

“I feel proud of our group of firefighters and how long and hard they’ve worked,” Franek said of Northfield and neighboring fire crews. “I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

The area around the building is closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic for safety concerns due to the instability of the building.

Division Street between Second and Third streets will remain closed throughout the weekend for the public’s safety until a complete assessment can be performed. The Archer House structure is considered unstable following the fire.

“While we understand everyone’s curiosity and worry about the historical building, we appreciate the community’s support in keeping this area clear while crews continue to work and assess the situation,” said Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott. “If you do come downtown, please remain at a safe distance. if the building were to collapse, debris could spread and we don’t want anyone in harm’s way. Stay away from the block both on the street side and river side.”

Fundraiser introduced to benefit the Archer House

The Northfield Downtown Development Corp. has introduced an Archer House Relief Fund to assist the hotel and its tenants in the coming days with financial support. The link to donate is https://bit.ly/35veKzU. As of Friday afternoon, the fundraiser has raised $2,815.

The hotel opened Aug. 23, 1877 with 50 rooms and underwent a series of ownership changes before Dallas Haas purchased the building in 1981. The hotel was known as Stuart Hotel when Haas bought it but had previously been known as the Ball Hotel and as the Manawa Hotel.

Haas poured considerable time and money into revitalizing the building and brought retail shops and restaurants into the space. Fifteen tons of brick on the third floor alone were removed, according to the Northfield News archives. But after he died in 1995 due to a heart attack in the Archer House, the hotel’s future wasn’t clear.

A group of investors stepped forward to purchase the hotel and keep it vibrant. That group included Rebound Enterprises CEO Brett Reese, who continues to head the parent company of the Archer House.

“It’s such an important asset to the community, to the downtown,” Reese said in July 2017. “It’s a pillar of the downtown. It brings people here to spend their money. It’s an economic driver. It’s an icon. We wanted to try to carry it on.”

CORRECTION: The name of the hotel prior to being known as the Ball Hotel and as the Manawa Hotel was misspelled in a previous edition. That name was Stuart.

Archer House fundraiser will support impacted tenants, employees
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As fire crews continued to battle a devastating fire at Archer House Friday morning, community members and others with personal connections with the historic building started donating to support the tenants financially devastated from the blaze.

The Northfield Downtown Development Corp. introduced an Archer House Relief Fund Friday morning to assist the inn and other tenants Chapati, Paper Petalum, Smoqehouse and The Tavern of Northfield in the coming days. The link to donate is bit.ly/35veKzU. As of Tuesday morning, 118 people had donated $8,785 of a $25,000 goal.

Dan Bergeson, a member of the NDDC Board of Directors, said the donations have come from non-Northfielders, St. Olaf and Carleton alumni and people who remember staying in the Archer House Inn.

“It’s been really gratifying and heartwarming,” Bergeson said.

The iconic hotel, built along the east bank of the Cannon River more than 140 years ago, sustained damage from the fire, smoke and water throughout the entire building, according to Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek. A gaping hole is visible in the west side of the building.

The fire was reported at approximately 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Within 15 minutes, the inside of the Smoqehouse restaurant was filled with smoke. As of about 5 p.m., smoke was billowing from all floors of the Archer House. The fire has been traced to a restaurant food smoker.

The inspiration for the fundraiser reportedly came during a conversation between the NDDC and Red Wing Downtown Main Street, an organization also grappling with downtown economic loss following the destruction of a part of the historic downtown Red Wing building housing Liberty’s Restaurant and Lounge after a car crash reportedly caused by a drunken driver. The Red Wing organization raised $23,000 following the incident. The NDDC had already been fundraising for its annual Give to the Max day Thursday.

Bergeson said he wasn’t downtown during the fire but followed what had transpired on social media. He remembered he and his wife initially hoping the smoke would inflict minimal damage on the building but realized Friday morning the scope of the devastation. Bergeson noted he has spent much time in the building, attending everything from family get-togethers to business meetings. The fire came after months of revenue losses following the onset of COVID-19 and preventative steps taken to slow the spread of the disease.

Brett Reese, CEO and managing partner of building owner Rebound Hospitality, said Friday it will be awhile before insurance adjusters are able to enter the building. He added that despite the possibility that the building is beyond salvaging, Rebound hopes to save what it can or utilize any possible space with the building.

Bergeson said the fire is especially devastating because Northfield had lacked enough overnight lodging for business guests for years. Then, with the 2018 opening of Fairfield Inn & Suites, colleges and businesses had more space to house guests. Now, he noted the community has lost 40 rooms.

“That is going to have an impact,” he said.

“This is really a crushing blow on so many levels,” Bergeson added.

Local artist David Allen created a commemorative painting of the Archer House to benefit those who are out of work. A grand finale event was scheduled for Sunday night.

Local businesses on Friday announced discounts for first responders and impacted employees.

Northfield schools shift to distance learning as Rice County cases rapidly rise
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Northfield Public Schools is shifting its learning model to an exclusive distance learning format through at least winter break as COVID-19 cases continue to rapidly increase within Rice County.

In a letter to parents, Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the last day for students at the High School would be Tuesday, Nov. 16. Teachers are expected to use Nov. 17 and 18 to plan for the transition. The shift means all district athletics and activities will be suspended starting Nov. 19.

Northfield Middle School students in the maroon cohort are learning in-person Nov. 16- 17 before shifting to regular distance learning Nov. 18. No school is planned for Nov. 19-20. Distance learning begins Nov. 23. Elementary students are learning in-person Nov. 16-18. There is no instruction Nov. 19-20. Distance learning begins Nov. 23.

Northfield elementary students have been learning in an exclusively in-person format this fall while Northfield Middle School, High School and Area Learning Center students used a hybrid option during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year. Students in one cohort are attending school in-person Mondays and Tuesdays before engaging in distance learning Wednesdays. Those in the other cohort are engaging in distance learning Mondays and Tuesdays and attending school in-person Thursdays and Fridays.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, 19 COVID-19 cases were reported at NHS from Nov. 2-16. The High School has seen a total of 33 cases during this school year. At least one entire classroom within the district has reportedly had to quarantine after being exposed to the virus. Rice County’s 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents from Oct. 18-31 was 40.3. The MDH and MDE recommend schools shift to distance learning for middle and high schools if that rate rises above 30 cases per 10,000 residents.

In discussing the need to shift to online-only learning last week, Hillmann noted 334 new cases had been reported over the last week in Rice County, an increase from 126 the previous week. Hillmann noted the decision to move to distance learning was made after consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health, a regional support team, Rice County Public Health and the school’s local incident command team.

Hillmann, echoing recent comments made by Department of Health officials, said the number of positive cases could jump even higher over the next two months as families gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He noted that the department has tracked much of the increase to asymptomatic transmitters who attend family gatherings. Hillmann has informed families of the need to make a plan in the event of a learning model shift more than once in recent weeks.

Hillmann said positive cases within school buildings are indicative of broader community spread. As of Tuesday, 2,956 positive COVID-19 tests have been reported in Rice County along with 26 deaths.

Already, 640 students are using the online-only Portage learning model.

In a presentation to the School Board during a Nov. 9 meeting, Bridgewater, Sibley and Greenvale Park Elementary principals Nancy Antoine, Scott Sannes and Sam Richardson said though students are pleased to be back in school, educators are experiencing high stress levels. Several educators throughout the district have been out of school on a daily basis during the school year due to exposure to the virus. The pool of substitute teachers is less this year as fewer educators want to fill in during the pandemic and risk exposure.

In a public comment submitted prior to the meeting, Northfielder Erika Kroetch Campbell urged the district not to model the Anoka-Hennepin School District in continuing after-school activities if the shift is made to an exclusively distance learning format. She cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study indicating close contact can come in less than 15 minutes.

Regionally, Kenyon-Wanamingo Public Schools is switching its high school to distance learning and elementary/middle schoolers to hybrid learning until at least Thanksgiving break. In St. Peter, schools switched to distance learning Nov. 16 until at least winter break. All St. Peter sports and activities are canceled during that time. Faribault Public Schools starts distance learning Nov. 19, and middle- and high-school activities will be suspended.

COVID-19 outbreak at care center slows, now includes 20 residents, employees
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A COVID-19 outbreak at Three Links Care Center appears to have slowed since last week. Twenty residents and employees are currently listed as COVID-19 positive and in isolation.

Three Links CEO Mark Anderson said 10 Care Center residents are COVID-19 positive and in isolation. One tested positive since noon Friday. Also, 10 Care Center employees are listed as COVID-19 positive and are excluded from working. Four have tested positive since noon Friday. Anderson noted residents and employees who have met the timeframe required for airborne precautions and are not considered COVID-19 positive are not included in the active count.

As of last week, the Three Links outbreak had swelled to at least 76 residents and staff, nearly doubling from the previous week. Anderson has said due to privacy concerns, Three Links is unable to share the location of any residents. He noted two employees at The Cottages who he had been told had tested positive Nov. 11 were last at work Nov. 10 and 11. The employees had worn a surgical mask and eye protection when in resident care areas. The employees are isolating at home and are not expected to return to work until meeting Minnesota Department of Health guidelines to return. Anderson said COVID-19 testing of residents and other employees began earlier this week.

All residents are quarantining in their rooms, and indoor visits have been suspended with exceptions for end-of-life services “and other urgent needs,” Anderson said. Residents who have tested positive are reportedly being cared for in a designated area of the Care Center. Staff is working in designated areas and is not allowed to cross into other areas of the facility. Anderson said Care Center residents and staff are frequently tested for the virus, and extra sanitation and cleaning of surfaces is being done on an ongoing basis. Anderson noted Minnesota Department of Health surveyors found no deficiencies within Three Links during a Nov. 5 COVID-19 survey of the Care Center.

“We know this news may cause concern,” Anderson said Monday of the ongoing cases. “Our staff (is) trained to care for our residents in a calm, professional manner while following strict infection prevention measures.”

Continued COVID-19 cases at Three Links, which offers a care center, senior apartments, assisted living, memory care and end-of-life services, comes as Minnesota saw 12 COVID-19 deaths from Sunday to Monday, including eight in private residences and four in long-term care facilities. The Minnesota Department of Health listed 7,444 newly-reported cases. The state has recently set records for positive cases several times.

At least three NH+C long-term care staff test positive

Three Northfield Hospital and Clinics Long Term Care Center staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as of last week. According to a press release, no residents have tested positive or had any symptoms. Staff wear personal protective equipment when caring for residents, reportedly based on specific Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines in skilled nursing facilities.

The release states the staff are the first positive cases in the Long Term Care Center. The tests are considered part of routine weekly testing for all Long Term Care Center staff, based on requirements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which governs skilled nursing facilities.

NH+C was expected to begin testing all Long Term Care Center staff within a 24-hour period starting Monday, with repeat testing every seven days until reaching 14 days with no positive test results.

Visits have been suspended. Visitor restrictions had been in place since March 13. However, limited, scheduled visits resumed last month. Window visits are allowed as weather permits, and families are encouraged to connect to friends and family via phone and video chat.

COVID-19 has taken an especially high toll on those over 70. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, more than 80% of COVID-19 deaths within the state have been in that age group.

In Rice County, 25 deaths have been attributed to the virus, including 10 since Nov. 8. The average age of death is listed at 77 years old. Of total deaths, 10 have come in private residences. Thirteen have been in long-term care facilities, and two have been in prison.

Gov. Tim Walz tightened restrictions on bars and restaurants last week to slow the rapid spread of the disease, including instituting a 10 p.m. curfew for in-person service at restaurants and bars. Beginning Nov. 27, wedding receptions and other events will be capped at 50 people, which will be further reduced to 25 by Dec. 11. School districts in Northfield, Faribault, Kenyon-Wanamingo and St. Peter are shifting away from in-person learning as the spike continues.

Purfeerst: Keeping COVID-19 out of care facilities “challenging”

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst noted keeping COVID-19 cases out of long-term care facilities is difficult because of the high number of asymptomatic people who are spreading the virus, and COVID-19 spreading easily in congregate settings. She said any facility with at least one COVID-19 case is given an MDH case manager who ensures the care center is taking the necessary steps to minimize resident and staff risk. Purfeerst expects the introduction of a vaccine will help prevent staff and residents from spreading the virus.

Purfeerst said in October that increases in positive tests and deaths from the virus across the state are expected as more people spend time indoors due to colder weather. At the time, she noted COVID-19 testing indicated Rice County was in a slightly better position in combating the virus than comparable areas. Still, she said it was most important that people follow existing guidelines to combat the spread of the virus, including minimizing close contact with others, quarantining for 14 days following a positive test, and isolating after being exposed to the virus.

Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said last week that Steele County congregate care facilities continue avoiding outbreaks but have seen a few scattered cases of staff and residents as the county sees a substantial increase in positive tests. She noted no recent cases have been reported in congregate care settings, but some over the 70 have been diagnosed in private residences. However, she added most new positive cases are coming from people in their 20s to early 50s.

County public health staff has assisted with testing since September, and facilities continue to have preventative measures in place to slow the spread of the virus, including limiting or not allowing visitors, refusing to allow residents to congregate, using PPE, masking, social distancing and disinfecting.

Steele County hosted community testing days Nov. 9 and 10. Caron noted a majority of the more than 900 people who took the tests, some sick, live within the county.