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Lakeville developer hopes to improve, expand Florella's park

Walking through Florella’s manufactured home park on Friday, Mark Zweber eyed the mobile homes to his left and to his right, some built as many as 50 years ago.

The manufactured homes, which thinly line the main road the park is on, Edward Lane, are weathered from decades of use, some appear dilapidated and in need of replacement.

Zweber, who assumed ownership of the park in June 2019, believes, despite the extensive work needed to improve the park, that the area will one day include at least 25 more mobile homes — often referred to as coaches — and be viewed as a source of safe, affordable housing within Northfield. His company, Lakeville-based Zweber LLC, is already updating the park’s electric and gas lines and has cleared a large portion of the extensive tree canopy so emergency responders can safely access to the area. Zweber hopes infrastructure work is completed by this fall.

Once that process is completed, Zweber plans to fill each home site to make the park cash flow. As part of his plan, Zweber has told current residents that he intends to upgrade Florella’s current coaches, but has no plans to force out current residents.

New coaches typically cost between $60,000 to $70,000. Despite that low cost, current coaches are considered well-built, properly insulated and up-to-code, unlike coaches built before the mid-70s which didn’t meet building codes. New single-wide units range from 14 feet to 16 feet wide. Double-wides, 40 to 70 feet, typically consist of two to three bedrooms, and provide kitchen and living room space.

“We can make this kind of housing very affordable,” Zweber said. “It’s a very affordable place to live, very comfortable.”

A long process

The manufactured home park was developed by the Florella family in the 1960s.

Efforts to improve the park began in 2008 when the city discovered that none of the rental homes, in the 700 block of Hwy. 3 North, were licensed. An inspection in early 2009 turned up a number of code violations, including missing smoke detectors, leaking roofs and one unit without water. A blight inspection later that year found additional concerns.

At the time, the city requested the units be brought up to code and threatened criminal charges.

In 2013, the HRA worked with the owner at that time, Florence Stanitis, to remove four manufactured homes that were considered uninhabitable and beyond repair. Later that year, the HRA announced it was close to buying and demolishing five uninhabited manufactured homes and would soon restart the process to remove six more. The HRA has recently removed eight asbestos-ridden coaches.

Zweber plans to come before the HRA late this year to request assistance with removing the old coaches, said Northfield Housing Coordinator Melissa Hanson. Florella’s is expected to be included in a fall cleanup, and the city is considering creating a down payment assistance fund to help manufactured homes develop as part of the city’s goal to maintain affordable housing. A working group could include stakeholders and other partners to define strategies for the fund and increase the down payment assistance fund to $20,000.

Eighteen of the 43 sites on the property are currently occupied. The vast majority of them are owner-occupied, something Zweber hopes to continue.

Zweber has spoken with a couple of mobile home manufacturers who say they are four to five months behind schedule, creating a backlog that could delay site development. He hopes at least a couple new coaches are in place by the end of the year and would be “extremely surprised” if the sites aren’t occupied.

Branching out

Florella’s is the first manufactured home park Zweber has owned. He currently owns commercial property in Roseville, Apple Valley and Lakeville.

He said he purchased the property because he had friends who owned such developments. Although developing Florella’s isn’t a lucrative proposition, he hoped to expand the city’s supply of affordable housing while making “a reasonable profit.”

“We like to take on challenges,” he said of his company.

Although Zweber acknowledges the stigma associated with manufactured home parks and says his altruism in pursuing the Florella’s redevelopment has been questioned, he says his only motivation is helping people obtain affordable housing and enabling them to build enough equity to eventually purchase a larger home.

“We like to help people, quite simply,” he said.

Zweber said he wants all residents of Florella’s to feel like they have been fairly treated and can approach him with any questions or concerns they may have.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said of his company.

“It is part of our thought process. I’ve been this way my entire life.”

Market Fair cancellation met with derision, support

The Riverwalk Market Fair Board of Directors June decision to cancel in-person events this year to combat COVID-19 is being met with both derision and support from vendors.

Detractors question the decision given existing health guidelines being taken at similar in-person markets, while supporters say the cancellation was needed to stop the spread of the disease.

After deliberating the issue for months, the Board of Directors stated it couldn’t adhere to Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 guidance on gatherings and still operate the fair. The board also expressed fear over the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak that could sicken or kill attendees. Market Fair Chair Rick Hirsch said last month that organizers didn’t want to have to police the market and ensure that vendors and attendees were properly masked, maintaining a safe social distance and washing their hands.

The weekly seasonal event draws crowds to Bridge Square each weekend and is among the best known celebrations the community offers.

‘It’s ridiculous’

Regular Riverfront vendor Adam Weeks was caught off guard when the decision was made.

Weeks, a Market Fair board member until he moved to Red Wing in 2019, said he didn’t understand the decision because he had already supported the board’s previous idea to possibly open the in-person fair with proper safety measures.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said of the decision. “Every other market I’ve been to in the state has been open.”

Weeks, owner of Mississippi Hills Produce, had provided his product to fairgoers over the previous nine years.

“It has hurt my bottom line immensely,” he added of the financial impact the decision has had.

Though Weeks said the Market Fair is the best event of its kind in southern Minnesota, he doesn’t anticipate returning next year — even if the board accepts an in-person schedule in 2021.

“I’ve put too much into the market,” he said.

Weeks noted his business has a digital payment system, so customers don’t always have to physically interact to pay for their products. Also, he said Market Fair customers want the fresh air and produce provided by an in-person market, adding such a format allows organizers to teach attendees important lessons about their work.

Pheng Yang, owner of regular Market Fair vendor Mama & Papa Yang’s Country Vegetables, says he, too, didn’t understand why the Market Fair was moved to an online format when similar events in Brooklyn Park and Minneapolis have successfully operated in-person market fairs while allowing for social distancing and requiring masks.

“That pretty much works pretty well,” Yang said.

‘It’s not worth it’

The Market Fair is typically the second most lucrative for Yang, who opted not to participate in the online Market Fair and instead contracted with another organization.

“That won’t make any difference,” he said of participating in the online Market Fair. “It’s not worth it.”

Yang added he initially thought the in-person events might be delayed for two weeks, noting he was “very upset” that the board moved the Market Fair online only after he planted for the season ahead.

Yang, who has been a vendor at the Market Fair for at least four years, questioned whether the Board of Directors cared for the farmers who started planting before the decision was made. He said though he was told most vendors agreed with the decision, he believed those sources didn’t take into account the money spent by others to prepare for the events. Despite his concerns, Yang said he’ll be back to the fair when it reopens

Though Riverwalk Market Fair Manager April Kopack acknowledged there was a mixed reaction to the decision, she noted the board waited to avoid any possible regrets in making a premature decision. She said the final decision was made after the board realized further postponements were no longer possible.

Kopack said of the 44 vendor responses organizers received in a survey gauging their feelings on reopening the Market Fair, 30 expressed disapproval of having in-person events under current health guidelines. Fourteen reportedly said they could do so while complying with health guidelines.

“There’s no win on this one,” she said of the lack of an ideal format.

Both sides

Laura Thompson, who was entering her first year as a Market Fair vendor selling canned products, baked goods and homemade produce for Thompson Family Farm in rural Eureka Township, said she supported the board’s decision.

“(COVID-19) is here, and it’s really, really good that we are able to keep everybody healthy and safe,” she said. “It was a really tough choice for them too, but I think knowing that they want to keep us as healthy as they can, that’s part of the picture as well.”

Thompson said though she isn’t selling as much product as she thought Thompson Family Farm would through the Market Fair’s online setup, she still sees it as good exposure.

To Weeks, who is also a manager at Welch Village during the winter, a tough stretch of weather in 2019 and the complications wrought by the pandemic might mean he never farms again.

“I respect them immensely, but I do not respect the decision they made to cancel the market,” he said.

Northfield senior Rachel Wieber (9) and senior Emma Torstenson (1) were set to potentially help lead the Raiders to the program’s first state tournament this fall. With the season delayed until the spring, and the status of a postseason in flux, the possibility of volleyball players electing to play club this spring is a possibility. (File Photo)

Construction crews are seen working on the site of the 62-unit apartment development slated for the southeast intersection of Jefferson Road and Honey Locust Lane. (Sam Wilmes/Northfield News)

District prepares for back-to-school decision, details how it might look

As Northfield Public Schools officials prepare to make a decision on the initial 2020-21 learning format, plans for all three possible options are becoming clearer as COVID-19 causes more uncertainty.

Those options, surrounding an exclusive in-person learning format, a hybrid option and distance learning-only approach, were presented Monday during a School Board meeting. A decision is expected Aug. 17.

Under any return to in-person learning, whether exclusively or through a hybrid format, Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann said district staff will be responsible for screening themselves for COVID-19 symptoms on a daily basis, and parents would be required and responsible for screening their children. They would then be required to report COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to the school. Face coverings will be required for all students.

School staff is expected to create as much physical spacing as possible, and frequent hand washing and/or hand sanitation will be encouraged. If COVID-19 symptoms are reported during a school day, an isolation process would be implemented.

Regardless of the learning format, K-12 students will be provided with a district-issued iPad. Internet access will be provided for students whose families are unable to purchase the service.

Regarding transportation, Northfield K-12 rural students will be picked up on the first tier and dropped off at the school. Buses will be disinfected before all in-town K-12 in-town students are picked up and dropped off at school. That order would then be reversed in the afternoon.

Hillmann added that students would spread out to eat in the cafeteria. Meals will be prepared on-site and served individually packaged when possible. When such packaging isn’t possible, food and beverages will be directly served to students.

One of the only certainties the district seems to have is the scope of the virus will shift during the school year, thereby shifting any learning format. Hillmann said the lessons administrators learn from the pandemic could alter the future learning format for students who either work better in exclusive distance learning or rely on the personal aspects of in-person instruction.

In-person guidelines

Under an exclusively in-person learning format, building capacity would be limited to two-thirds. Hillmann noted that shift could result in some students not arriving in school until around 8:15 a.m., slightly shifting school start and end times.

A fee-based child care program will be available before and after school. Nonessential visitors, volunteers and activities involving external groups or organizations would be restricted.

Hillmann noted parents can drop off essential items in accordance with building procedures.

The hybrid option

Under state guidelines, current Rice County infection rates would call for Northfield Public Schools to adopt a hybrid option of in-person and distance learning.

Under the plan, one group of students would meet in-person Mondays and Tuesdays and switch to distance learning Wednesdays through Fridays as another group transitions to in-person instruction. Buildings would be deep-cleaned on Wednesdays as both groups undergo one day of exclusive distance learning.

Those groups are also expected to be announced Aug. 17.

Students will be able to pick up to-go meals at the end of the school day on Tuesdays and Fridays during distance learning as part of the hybrid model. Teachers would still be on site all four days.

Distance learning

The distance learning format the district instituted last March after Gov. Tim Walz closed Minnesota schools to combat COVID-19 would be improved upon this fall, according to Hillmann. That means attendance will be taken. Teachers would deliver instruction online via Seesaw for K-3 students and Schoology for fourth- to 12th-graders. Videoconferencing would take place via Zoom. Buses would still be used for food delivery and Wi-Fi access. Meals will be provided using curbside pickup or bus delivery.

Under this option, limited all-day child care would be available at Sibley Elementary School for Tier I critical care workers. Fees would still apply for the before- and after-school times. EarlyVentures would continue as scheduled.

No after-school activities would be allowed.

Northfield Public Schools is also offering an online-only option for families who don’t feel comfortable having their students return to school this fall. Anyone taking part needs to commit to doing so for at the least the entire fall semester. K-5 students would undertake learning through videoconferencing and assignments under the direction of a Northfield Public Schools teacher. Sixth- through 12th-graders would also be coached by a NPS teacher and use the online curriculum Odysseyware. Tutoring will be available. Meals would be provided using a pre-order, curbside pickup system.

Those participating in Portage would still be eligible to participate in after-school activities.

District plans constant communication with parents

To prepare for the possible scenarios, Northfield Public Schools has had three teams each consisting of 12-19 people who have met several times a week since the middle of June and represent teachers, custodians, nurses, the District Youth Council, assistants and others. The groups have focused on instructional design, logistics, and health and virus protection.

The district plans to share information relating to the fall learning format with families late this week and then continue communicating with them on an ongoing basis. Further consultation is also expected with Rice County Public Health on how schools can safely reopen.

The departments of Education and Health are expected to work with school districts and local health professionals throughout the school year to help the districts decide, based on the progression of COVID-19 and the spread of the virus in specific communities, whether to transition between learning models. According to the governor’s office, the plan prioritizes keeping younger children in the classroom with the understanding that transmission is less likely for them and that in-person learning is critical for their development.

Northfield Public Schools delays school start to Sept. 14

The first day of instruction for Northfield Public Schools students has been pushed back nearly a week to allow for family conferences as the district transitions into an uncertain 2020-21 school year caused by COVID-19.

The meetings, slated for Sept. 8-11, will allow families to discuss the impacts they’ve seen from the pandemic and describe any possible barriers to in-person instruction or a distance learning format. Administrators hope the meetings will allow families to gain a better understanding of the technology their students will use.

“It’s going to be an extremely valuable time,” said School Board Chair Julie Pritchard. She added another goal of the conferences is to ensure families understand teachers will support their students regardless of the learning format. She noted elementary school principals spoke of the success students and parents shared in closing conferences conducted at the end of the 2019-20 school year and subsequent additional chances for student summer learning.

“We do support every student, and I think we are showing it by saying literally we are going to connect with every student,” Pritchard said.

In announcing his recommendation to delay the start of the school year prior to unanimous School Board approval Monday night, Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the shift would reduce the number of school contact days from 174 to 170. He sees the benefits of having conferences as making up for any negative impacts the delay could cause. Hillmann added the district already had nine more instructional days than the minimum number allowed by the state.

The district expects to announce the initial 2020-21 fall learning form next Monday. Currently, the district, along with other schools throughout the state, is unsure of this fall’s learning format. The three possible learning scenarios include exclusively in-person instruction, a hybrid option of in-person and distance learning, or an exclusively distanced format. The current COVID-19 infection rate per 10,000 people, considered the state standard on the preferred learning model, qualifies Northfield Public Schools for in-person learning for elementary students and a hybrid format for secondary students.