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Cole DeGroot


Local businesses, individuals navigate pandemic with eye to future
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Communication experts believe the vast majority of human interaction is nonverbal.

Northfielder Carolyn Manderfeld, who is deaf, knows that first-hand. Lip-reading, deciphering facial expressions, gauging the emphasis behind spoken words and comprehending other body language are cues that helped Manderfeld navigate daily conversations.

That all changed last March when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz implemented a statewide mask mandate he said was needed to control the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has infected more than a half million Minnesota and is blamed for the deaths of nearly 6,800 in the state alone.

One year later, Manderfeld, who wears hearing aids in both ears, is battling severe social anxiety. She fears going out with friends for fear of communication challenges, and faces additional hurdles all while being anxious about the possibility of contracting COVID-19.

“I avoid talking to people wearing the mask in public,” she noted. “Before the pandemic, I was very social and always happily greeted them.

Now, I avoid greeting people or starting a conversation because of the frustration in communicating with them or explaining my disability. While not working, I am in social isolation.”

Despite the challenges, Manderfeld believes the pandemic and its effects will benefit the hearing impaired and society as a whole.

‘I learn to accept it’

Manderfeld, who has been deaf since birth and is a part-time Kwik Trip employee, first mastered lip-reading as a child while learning American Sign Language with a speech therapist. School staff would use sign language and helped her develop the skill she uses during everyday conversations.

Manderfeld attended the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and worked in the private sector before securing public school positions assisting students who were hard of hearing.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she noted.

Decades of mastering nonverbal communication made Manderfeld unaware of how quickly that could change until the mask mandate made reading such cues nearly impossible and placed more pressure on her eyes during daily conversations.

“I didn’t realize that it affected my communication,” she said. “It was extremely exhausting … my eyes tire very easily.”

Despite the return of students to in-person learning, Manderfeld says she won’t accept a job in education again until mask mandates are lifted. The challenges of instructing hard of hearing students while wearing a mask are just too great, she says.

“Face masks wiped out lip-reading, tone of voice, sound and facial expressions which I rely on 100% for communication,” she noted. “The eyes are the only clues that can give me but it doesn’t help much.”

Manderfeld has sometimes worn clear masks to help restore visual clues while assisting students who are deaf or hard of hearing. If mask mandates continue for too much longer, she encourages people to wear clear masks to communicate better with others.

However, she’s noticed that society is improving at recognizing the needs of the hard of hearing. During medical appointments, health care workers make sure they are looking at her while talking. Some have used their phone to communicate with her or temporarily pull down their masks if socially distanced. She appreciates Gov. Walz for what she said is his support of the deaf and American Sign Language communities, and supports his work to control the spread of the virus. Manderfeld also spoke highly of the governor’s ASL interpreter, Nic Zapko, who regularly appears with Walz during press conferences.

“It’s much better now that the media is aware,” she said.

Navigating pandemic, starting a new business

Tanya Henson, owner of downtown Owatonna retailer Hat Chic Clothing Co., was forced to close her store from last March until June 1, 2020, after it was deemed a non-essential business.

“It was very tough,” she said. “Luckily our business was able to shift online. We have a website and we were able to utilize that and the support of the community, and our shoppers kept us going, and we were able to make rent April, May and June … we were thrilled to be able to pay that.”

Henson realized how willing her customers were willing to shop online, and, with her newfound free time, she finalized a plan to start a new business in June 2020, Box Babes, which sends boxes of items to people through a monthly subscription-based system. She has undertaken the effort with Lauren Kozelka of Kottke Jewelers, Lisa Cochran of Owatonna Shoe Co. and Nicole Winter of Urban Loft. The items have sold out every month since.

The business now ships 75 boxes containing unique products from the business to a growing list of subscribers. Eighty percent of Box Babes’ subscribers have signed on either for three months, six months or one year.

“It’s been great,” Henson said.

Hat Chic maintained its presence throughout the rest of the pandemic even during the second shutdown late last year.

“People were really good about supporting small business,” Henson said.

Hat Chic relies on local athletic events such as fun runs, walks and the sale of golf shirts, hats and T-shirts. Those sales are still being impacted because a lot of businesses that typically purchase those products aren’t yet fully operational in-person.

Henson sees the business coming back as more fans are allowed at local sporting events and vaccinations ramp up.

“That will continue to turn things around for our business, so I have high hopes,” she said.

“People are anxious to get out and continue getting out, and the support of small business, I don’t think is going to go away soon, and that’s exciting.”

‘We feel really lucky’

The initial fear Dundas-based Keepsake Cidery owner Nate Watters faced at the beginning of the pandemic was ensuring that all staff were safe and healthy. Keepsake, along with similar establishments in the Twin Cities and Rochester, have all been severely impacted by the closing or bars and restaurants. Keepsake, which adapted to a to-go-only format, did not have the chance to benefit from sales of large quantities of beer or lower-end liquors.

“It was a really interesting time,” he said.

In June, Keepsake seated customers outside and continued that option until late fall, when COVID cases again exploded and a second round of statewide shutdowns was initiated. But by the end of 2020, Keepsake had made up enough ground revenue-wise with off-sale sales to near the prior year’s revenue.

Now, the establishment is open at 20% indoor and 50% outdoor capacity as COVID-19 cases fall, though that’s weather-dependent.

With the help of the Personal Paycheck Protection Program, along with state and county funding, Keepsake kept its three full-time and three part-time employees working to produce cider and continue working with other businesses in fostering a cohesive operation.

“We feel really lucky,” Watters said of his customers, staff and other area businesses. “It’s just incredible, this community.”

Richie Eye Clinic expands during pandemic

At Richie Eye Clinic locations in Faribault and Northfield, preventative work was not available for two months last spring following the onset of the pandemic. Richie Eye Clinic went through a COVID-19 plan at both locations to ensure proper social distancing and personal protective equipment were on-hand once the locations reopened for non-emergency services again last June.

Nine months later, Chief Operating Officer Kate Tonjum said the business is “thriving,” and seeing similar patient volumes to before the pandemic. She noted that no staff has been lost, and two additional doctors have been hired.

Richie Eye Clinic plans to open a LASIK center in May and offer such surgeries in Northfield and Faribault. Every staff member who has direct patient care has reportedly been able to receive a vaccine, and a majority have received both doses. Social distancing is still being practiced in the waiting rooms, and staff is wearing masks and scrubs and are expected to continue to do so.

“We are essential to patients’ health and having healthy outcomes with their vision,” Tonjum said.

Hundreds join nonprofit challenging planned residential development
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More than 200 Northfield residents have reportedly joined a nonprofit challenging developer plans to construct 130-140 apartment units and 20 single-family one- and two-story homes on the northwest side of town.

The group, Northfield for Sustainable Housing, Environments & Developments, says the planned development is too big for the surrounding neighborhood, and creates traffic and environmental concerns. More than 50 members reportedly recently gathered on the undeveloped 12-acre site, the former Paulson Tree Farm property, to visually demonstrate the relatively large size of the development and the dangers they say it poses for children who attend the nearby Greenvale Park Elementary School.

The proposed development, on land near Lincoln Parkway, is being initiated by Rebound Real Estate, Schmidt Homes and Stencil Group.

“We’re asking for disaster with this traffic flow,” said SHED Co-Chair Kathy Schuurman. “If you’ve experienced the traffic around the new Greenvale School in the mornings and late afternoons, you can only imagine how much congestion more than 200 additional cars will create.”

“This doesn’t seem like a typical Rebound development,” added SHED member Bob Thacker. “They are usually respectful of our city and sensitive to historic sites, which is how our group sees the Christmas tree farm. Rebound usually tries to make sure they are doing projects that will resonate with people in a good way. Our group shared ideas with Rebound/Schmidt/Stencil that would be far more inclusive, but most have been dismissed.”

Northfield-based Rebound Real Estate is a limited liability company, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Businessman Brett Reese is listed as the company’s manager.

According to Rebound and Stencil officials, the project is needed as the city has a vacancy rate of only 0.3%. An estimated 440 units of market rate and affordable housing are expected to be needed over the next five years.

Existing housing is often selling in 30 days or less, and there is a low inventory of buildable lots. Developers say the project will also provide a property tax boost for the city and create/finish a neighborhood development.

The land is zoned for the proposed use. Because of that, Community Development Director Mitzi Baker said earlier this year that the city could face a legal challenge if the council reject sthe project.

The Northfield Planning Commission has also expressed mixed feedback on the development. During the meeting, Commissioner Will Schroeer said he was concerned about what he saw as a lack of non-motorist connectivity to and from the area.

“That’s problematic,” he said.

Project plans

The proposed multi-story apartment building, with an outlet on Lincoln Parkway, is expected to include studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Rent is expected to range from $800 to $1,600 per month. Forty percent of the units are being marketed to residents at 60% of the area’s median income. The complex is expected to include community rooms, fitness rooms, outdoor spaces like a family playground, grilling and patio areas, resident storage and surface-level garage parking.

The proposed homes are considered similar to the Hills of Spring Creek development, a mix of brick and stucco siding with a price range of $300,000 to $500,000. The land has been owned by the Paulson family since 1938 and has been home to a tree farm. The Paulsons have retired and the land is now considered overgrown.

“The proposed towering apartment design will dwarf everything around it,” said SHED member Ken Engstrom. “The size is wrong for the relatively small space of the Paulson property. Yes, it provides some affordable rental units, but we’d like to see even more truly affordable rental housing, with a smaller building. There are other sites in and around Northfield that would be ideal for an apartment complex of this size. Those other spaces should be fully explored before we lose one of our last woodlands in the city. Some of the trees are decades old and virtually all of them will be cut down.”

Phone calls placed to Rebound and Stencil were not immediately returned.

Slumberland Furniture to open in Dundas this summer
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Slumberland Furniture announced on Thursday that it will open a new franchise store in Dundas this summer. A press release states “the premier regional furniture retailer” will occupy a 23,000 square-foot space at 404 Schilling Dr. in Dundas, the former location of Kmart. The store will be locally owned and operated by Craig and Kwin Novacek, who also own Slumberland Furniture Red Wing.

“We are thrilled to announce the addition of our second Slumberland franchise location,” Craig Novacek stated in the release. “Northfield is a wonderful community that is full of life. We’re excited to join the community and offer area shoppers stylish, comfortable furniture for a great price.”

Slumberland’s Red Wing location has been in operation for 17 years, and the Novaceks have owned it since January 2020. The Northfield location will be managed by Tim Sommer, the Novaceks’ business partner, who is currently general manager at the Red Wing store. They expect to hire four-eight new employees at the Northfield location.

“We are thankful for our amazing team of talented employees who have made this possible, and are thrilled to have Tim at the helm in Northfield, He brings a significant wealth of knowledge and skill to his role and will be a tremendous asset to the Northfield community,” Novacek continued.

This will add to the 120 other corporate and franchise-owned locations Slumberland operates. Slumberland Furniture has a wide-ranging product line including a large selection of mattresses and bedding, living room furniture, recliners, tables and dining sets, bedroom furniture, home entertainment, desks, décor, and more. The company’s mattress brands include Tempur-Pedic, Sealy Posturepedic, Stearns & Foster, and Slumbercrest. Slumberland is considered America’s largest seller of La-Z-Boy products, and also specializes in power lift chairs to help seniors and those with special seating needs.

Dundas Mayor Glenn Switzer said the Northfield/Dundas stretch of Hwy. 3 is an attractive spot for businesses and developers based on its reputation of being “somewhat of a regional center” and having Menards nearby. Also, he expects the store to bring customer traffic from Lakeville and Farmington, two southern Twin Cities suburbs that have grown in recent years.

“It’s an open space that’s been open for a while, so that’s great that there’s a business that’s ... adding to Dundas,” he said.

“It brings good traffic to our area.”

Northfield senior Adison Dack hugs Northfield coach Leanne Fricke after her final vault at Saturday’s Class AA state championships at Champlin Park High School. Dack finished 11th on the vault and seventh in the all-around competition. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)