2020 was a year Northfielders would like to forget for many reasons.
Last year, COVID-19 brought everyday life for local residents to a dramatic stop and caused immeasurable physical and economic suffering. Not only that, but in November the iconic downtown Archer House was heavily damaged in a large fire, one of the most devastating in the city’s history.
Here’s what grabbed the headlines for Northfield News readers throughout the year.
1. Fire heavily damages historic Archer House
The historic building appeared to be a total loss following the devastating Nov. 12-13 fire that left crews on scene for nearly 24 hours. Brett Reese, CEO and managing partner of building owner Rebound Hospitality, 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.
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.
The fire was reported at approximately 3:30 p.m. Within 15 minutes, the inside of the restaurant was filled with smoke. As of about 5 p.m. that day, 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. Fire crews remained on scene until Friday afternoon
Franek 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. The fire has been traced to a food smoker at Smoqehouse.
Gaping holes are still visible in the back and front portions of the building.
“It’s another tough, sad day for this community and also the building owners,” Franek said.
COVID-19 brought a stop to everyday life in Northfield and the surrounding area in many ways beginning in March. Northfield Public Schools shifted to an exclusively distanced learning format last spring in the initial stages of the pandemic. Though the 2020-21 school year started in September with only in-person classes for elementary children and a hybrid option for older students, students have been in a distance-only format since late November.
At Three Links Care Center, at least 76 staff and residents tested positive for COVID-19 in one outbreak from late October to early November. The outbreak later slowed.
Government meetings have taken place virtually for a better part of the year.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the pandemic, however, has been the ongoing restrictions to business owners and the general public, a preventative measure officials see as a way to slow the spread of the virus. Though many Northfield businesses remain, restrictions will last until at least the initial stages of 2021.
In Rice County, 57 deaths from the virus have been reported. In the more populous Dakota County, there have been 285 deaths. The toll of the virus has been especially stark in long-term care facilities across the state. As of Dec, 28, of the 5,160 deaths were attributed to the virus in Minnesota, 3,339 have been residents in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
3. City Council elections
Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell captured a second term as mayor in November. With all eight precincts reporting, Pownell had 6,973 votes, handily defeating challenger David Ludescher, who had 3,606 votes — 65.6% to 33.95%. Pownell was first elected mayor in 2012 and initially elected to the council in 2008. After two terms, and an unsuccessful first run for mayor in 2012, she was elected in a close race against then incumbent Mayor Dana Graham in 2016.
“It will be a great opportunity to serve another term,” she said.
Incumbent Councilor Brad Ness also ket his seat on the board. Council challenger Jami Reister bested incumbent David DeLong and George Zuccolotto won in a race against Don Stager. Their terms begin this month.
For the Northfield School Board election, incumbent Amy Goerwitz was reelected with 16.27% of the vote, while newcomers Claudia Gonzalez-George and Corey Butler were also elected with with 17.05% and 12.32% of the vote, respectively.
The final open seat for the Northfield School Board election was decided by only 125 votes, with incumbent Noel Stratmoen garnering 11.56% of votes to retain his seat ahead of Eric Lundin, who received 11.27% of the vote.
In Dundas, Luke La Croix and Luke Swartwood won the two seats open for the council. La Croix, co-owner of Cartime Auto Center in Dundas, received 410 votes and Swartwood had 352 votes to gain their spots. Incumbent John Cruz finished fourth with 235 votes, behind Kim Hildahl, who had 322 votes. Former city administrator John McCarthy received 230 votes.
4. Northfield businesses advised to lock doors, activate cameras as tension rises following death of George Floyd.
Late May was an especially harrowing time for the Twin Cities following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police Department custody. Many throughout the U.S. attributed his death to ongoing police bias against people of color, and thousands took to the streets to call for change. Also in the days following, businesses and neighborhoods were reportedly destroyed or damaged near where Floyd’s death took place. That situation proved to be a source of concern for the surrounding areas, including Northfield. Here, police said May 29 that they were ready should such destruction spread south into the community. A curfew was issued for Sunday, May 31. Extensive damage was not reported locally.
“NPD is aware of growing concerns in the community for criminal acts that have so tragically destroyed other communities and detracted from the passionate peaceful protests,” then-Deputy Chief Mark Elliott wrote in an email. “We are closely monitoring the situation and have additional resources ready to respond should they be needed.”
Floyd’s death also sparked calls for police reform and more steps organizers said would ensure racial equity. 2020 saw the City Council approve a citizen-led police task force to review any updates to Police Department policies. The council also passed a racial equity plan, an initiative Program Coordinator Beth Kallestad said is intended to help people of color who are plagued by racial inequities across societal indicators for success, including education, criminal justice, employment, housing and public health. A major component of the city’s initiative includes normalizing city staff and community conversations centering around race and equity, and distinguishing between individual and institutional racism, and implicit and explicit bias.
5. Business owners defy Walz, state files lawsuit
Ongoing restrictions on indoor dining and gym activities late this year Gov. Tim Walz said were needed to control the spread of COVID-19 have drawn pushback from local businesses, including from Lisa Monet Zarza, co-owner of Lakeville-based Alibi Drinkery and Alibi at Froggy Bottoms in Northfield. Monet opened her Lakeville establishment last month, a move that drew large, mainly unmasked crowds.
Monet Zarza noted though she and fellow business owners believe the virus is real, they feel the economic impact and psychological toll they, their employees and the broader community face are even greater threats. The emotional toll is staggering, she said, adding that the shutdowns imposed by Walz and other governors have resulted in suicides and preventable deaths, social isolation and drug abuse across the country. To her, she had no choice but to open to save her business and her 45 employees, now furloughed.
However, Monet Zarza was sued by Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has successfully moved to close other noncompliant restaurants during the executive order, and Dakota County District Court Judge Jerome Adams seemingly expressed support for the state during a court hearing last month. In filing the lawsuit, Ellison said noncompliant restaurants were placing the community at risk during the pandemic.
“The right to go to a restaurant or a bar is not considered a protected activity under the Constitution,” Abrams said. “As a result of that, the standard the state has to apply to these types of activities is considered to be the lowest standard, that is: Are the actions of government rationally related to a legitimate purpose?”
He also reportedly suggested the state’s actions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been reasonable.
6. Lawsuit: Physicians violated standards of care, hospital fired whistleblower
A former Northfield Hospital & Clinics nurse alleged in a lawsuit filed late last summer that the hospital violated the state’s Whistleblower Act by firing her as she tried to sound the alarm about improper surgical techniques and delayed followup visits, leaving patients at greater risk of cancer recurrence.
Kaya Latzke, who served as the hospital’s endoscopy program manager for more than five and a half years, is seeking damages, back pay and compensation for benefits she said she would have been entitled to if she was still employed at the hospital.
Northfield Hospital & Clinics has said the lawsuit “is without merit.”
“Endoscopy care at NH+C is safe, thorough and professional,” said Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann after the lawsuit was filed. “We regularly review care provided and connect patients who require followup care. Endoscopy patients who require followup care, for any reason, have been notified.”
A scheduling conference in the case is scheduled for Jan. 15.
7. Greenvale Park Elementary School opens
Students began to file into the new school, made possible by a $41 million 2018 referendum in September. The building is 90,000 square feet, larger than the approximately 65,000-square-foot footprint of the former Greenvale Park building. Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the abundant amount of natural light in the new building and the small and large group offerings have been made possible by the new space.
The former Greenvale Park building was constructed in 1971 with an open concept, which at the time was seen as forward thinking. However, that layout meant Greenvale lacked space to provide the interventions and small group work many students needed. Approximately $1 million in renovations have been completed on the former Greenvale Park building as it transitioned into Northfield Community Education Center.
8. Hospital to transfer, lay off staff to avoid projected financial loss.
Northfield Hospital & Clinics announced early this year, pre-pandemic, that it would reduce hours for some employees, transfer others within the organization and lay off another dozen workers to fend off a projected $1 million budget loss brought on by changes in the health care industry. At the time, the health system announced it would not replace six vacant positions. For 30 employees, the hospital planned to reduce working hours or reassign them within the organization.
The changes were expected to take place along with managing operating expenses and growing revenue where possible. Hospital officials traditionally strive for a 3% profit in most years but have settled for 2% in 2021, meaning they had to find $3 million in either revenue or cuts.
NH+C CEO Steve Underdahl said the changes were needed due to a decline in the number of inpatient days and some surgeries, and procedures moving to outpatient care. He added insurance company restrictions have resulted in the mandatory use of ambulatory surgery centers for some services and an aggressive prior authorizations process. He said high-deductible health plans are resulting in patients delaying or forgoing treatment, engaging in more price shopping and being saddled with an increase in bad debt. There have also been cost increases for drugs, some supplies and talent.
9. Bridgewater supervisor killed lauded for his dedication to the township, son assumes role.
Gary Ebling, a well-known Northfield area farmer, successful small business owner and township official, was killed July 4 after a piece of farm equipment he was driving appeared to have rolled over on top of him.
Rice County Sheriff’s deputies found Ebling, 71, after responding to a call that a tractor had rolled over down an embankment in the 9000 block of Albers Avenue in rural Bridgewater Township west of Northfield.
At a special meeting later that month, Bridgewater Township’s Board of Supervisors tapped Andy Ebling to fill his father’s spot. The younger Ebling was expected to serve on the township board until 2021, when four of the five supervisor positions would be up for election. Andy was selected after three other candidates stepped forward to succeed Ebling in his role: Mary Franz, Brad Pfahning and Janalee Cooper. With Supervisor Glen Castore leading the discussion, supervisors considered the candidates based on five factors: Commitment to agriculture, road experience, board experience, township experience and a willingness to make a long-term commitment to serve on the board.
Supervisors found Ebling’s ties to the township’s ag community and involvement with the community in other ways appealing.
“He has fresh ideas, but also experience,” Supervisor Kathleen Kopseng said. “I think that would be a good fit.”
10. Task Force busts two now charged with possession of $1M in meth.
Using ground and air surveillance, law enforcement agents tracked a pair of Minnesotans through several states before discovering the two with an estimated $1 million worth of methamphetamine, court records show.
Lucas Jay Madison of South St. Paul was charged with a first-degree aggravated controlled substance crime and importing a controlled substance across state borders. Katherine Byrd Campbell of Rochester was charged with aiding and abetting the importation of a controlled substance across state borders, and aiding and abetting first-degree meth possession. The pair, along with Jared William Merta, Wade Salem Salwei, Mark Oren Schorn and Brandon Earl Swanson, have since been charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in federal court in connection with the case. Madison pleaded guilty in July 2020 and was sentenced to more than 19 years in federal prison in November 2020.
Madison and Swanson were charged after Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force members, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies, conducted a traffic stop April 14 on a truck traveling north on I-35, 2 miles south of the Lyndale Avenue exit in Faribault, according to court documents. Agents, who had reportedly been tracking Madison and Campbell as they traveled from Phoenix to Minnesota, maintained surveillance on a rental vehicle they were in as they went through Iowa into Minnesota.
After four election victories and more than a decade and a half of service, Rice County’s longest tenured commissioner is saying goodbye.
Jake Gillen, whose District 1 includes a portion of the city of Northfield, the cities of Nerstrand and Dundas and numerous rural townships in eastern Rice County, attended his final meeting as a member of the board Tuesday. First elected in 2004 and re-elected three more times, the retired dairy farmer was known for his strong work ethic, fiscally cautious approach and commitment to improving the county’s infrastructure.
While Gillen represented the rural eastern part of the county, the rural western part has been represented by District 5 Commissioner Jeff Docken since 2008. As the only other farmer on the board, Docken said he always enjoyed working with Gillen.
“He was very dedicated to the job and he was not a person to miss meetings,” Docken said. “Some of his (committee) meetings would be half day meetings, and he’d have to go to Rochester or St. Paul, but he took that obligation very seriously.”
As one of two heavily rural districts, Gillen’s seat included plenty of miles of well-traveled roads. The commissioner is particularly proud of his success in delivering needed road repairs and improvements.
“I got practically every blacktop road in my district resurfaced, including the state highways from Faribault to Northfield to Nerstrand,” he said.
County Engineer Dennis Luebbe said the Highway Department has managed to achieve an impressive amount over Gillen’s 16 years on the board — in large part, due to revenue increases Gillen backed during his tenure.
A fiscal conservative who was loath to increase property taxes, Gillen instead looked elsewhere for the revenue needed to improve roads in his district. Among the initiatives he backed were a wheelage tax, a gravel tax and a half-cent sales tax.
“He’s been a great commissioner to work with over the years,” Luebbe said. “He has been extremely dedicated to advancing key Rice County initiatives.”
In order to deliver funding for roads and other key county services, Gillen deviated slightly from his fiscally conservative approach — but only slightly. While careful with the taxpayer dollar, he wasn’t wedded to maintaining Rice County’s position as the lowest taxed county in the state.
Gillen said that approach made him somewhat different from a few of his colleagues, notably former Commissioner Milt Plaisance. The longtime commissioner, who represented a Faribault centered district from 1988-2012, always liked to keep taxes the lowest in the state.
“I used to say, how much more money is available to the county being 84th or 85th (in tax revenues) compared to 87th?” Gillen asked. “It doesn’t make any sense of being there, when it gives you a lot more money being down two or three notches on the totem pole.”
While his approach to taxes and spending may have differed slightly, Plaisance praised Gillen, saying he used a “common sense” approach and was focused on making sure that every taxpayer dollar was spent wisely.
“Jake used good common sense, tried to be honest and do the right thing,” Plaisance said. “He was always concerned about the taxpayers and making sure they got their bang for a buck.”
Gillen was also the longest serving member of the Southeast Minnesota Emergency Communications Board. The board, which includes 11 southeast Minnesota counties and the city of Rochester, is responsible for all local improvements to local public safety radio. For his service to the board, Gillen was presented with a Distinguished Service Award. On hand to deliver it were Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, County Administrator Sara Folsted and the Administrator of Steele County’s 911 call center, Jill Bondhus.
Thanks in part to Gillen’s leadership, Dunn noted that the region became a leader in making the switch to an 800 MHz system for public safety radio, improving communication between law enforcement and other public safety officials.
Longtime Commissioner Galen Malecha said that Gillen was effective because he was always willing to keep an open mind and listen. Even though they didn’t always come to the same conclusion, Malecha came to have great respect for his fellow commissioner.
“Jake always said if he didn’t know about something he asked a question and would go and get the information needed to find out,” he said.
Northfield Liquor Store’s revenue slightly increased in 2019, according to a report from the Minnesota State Auditor’s Office.
According to the report, filed earlier this month by State Auditor Julie Blaha, the city’s municipal had revenue of $2.91 million last year, $9,000 more than the $2.9 million the store made in 2018. The store had $143,596 in net profit and $749,311 in gross profit.
“It stayed strong,” said Liquor Operations Manager Brian Whitt. “We were up in sales and up in gross profit as well.”
Whitt noted Northfield Liquor’s 2019 profit was higher than any of the 10 other cities with municipal liquor stores in the southeast region of the state — Caledonia, Ellendale, Kasson, Kenyon, Lonsdale, Mazeppa, Medford, Plainview, Spring Grove and West Concord.
In 2019, the Liquor Store partnered with the Rotary Club on a four-way taste festival to raise money for a clean water project in Guatemala. It also held a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon event in Bridge Square to package bags of goodies for troops. Money was raised in 2019 for Northfield Area Fire Rescue Services and the Community Action Center Food Shelf.
Knowing that future sales could be impacted by nearby competition, the Northfield City Council and staff have had more of an impetus to make a decision on a potential new liquor store location. Studies have been conducted since 2002, contemplating whether the city should consider a new site. A feasibility study is underway, and an architectural firm is evaluating possible options for the Liquor Store to either remain in the same space or move to another location. Whitt said he would ideally like to stay in the downtown area, considered the center of the community, he noted there remains little space to move or expand to nearby.
A Dakota Worldwide 2015 study consisted of consultants analyzing 10 sites, finding that strongest sales would likely come along Hwy. 3, especially near Hwy. 19. In 2016, the council directed staff to focus on the Q-Block and on the south side of Econofoods. No final action has been taken.
Profits down as stores continue closing
According to Blaha’s report, municipal liquor store profits were down in Minnesota in 2019 and the overall number of municipal liquor stores continues to drop. Municipal liquor stores had a net profit of $27.9 million in 2019, which was a small decrease of $1.1 million or 3.9% from the previous year.
On-sale net profits increased by 0.1%, or $4,247, in 2019 and off-sale net profits decreased by 4.4%, or $1.1 million, according to the report. But over the last five years, net profits have increased by 11.9%.
This is the 24th consecutive year of record sales at municipal liquor stores with a total of $372.1 million. That’s an increase from 2018 of 3.3% or $11.9 million, according to the report.
Operating expenses for off-sale is rising faster than on-sale, according to Blaha. This could be due to a variety of reasons, although Blaha said they have heard multiple times about the rising costs of labor.
“That’s an important idea to think about now as we are looking at job losses,” Blaha said. “Now this might be an area that can use some more workers. So, if you are facing job loss, you might want to check in with your local municipal liquor store if that’s the kind of work you might be interested in.”
The overall number of municipal stores continues to fall, with a steeper drop this year. This is true even as Blaha is seeing an increase in profits at municipal liquor stores in 2020.
“That would suggest that one of the reasons is that when a store does not perform adequately and doesn’t meet their need, it is being closed,” she noted. “I think there is a lot of responsibility with that, the idea that local governments are saying, ‘OK, we’re going to be very careful.’”
Whitt noted COVID-19 caused changes for liquor stores in 2020 due to shutdowns, and restaurant and bar closings. He noted metro-area municipal stores were extremely busy once the pandemic hit due to panic-buying over fears that stores would close. Locally, however, he said Northfield/Dundas are different because Carleton/St. Olaf students were sent home early last spring, limiting the time when liquor was sold to students over 21. And, he noted the safety precautions the liquor store undertook to ensure customers and staff were safe. Still, he said it is too early to say what 2020 revenue and profit levels will look like.