It was a cool Thursday morning when Illinois-based artist Brett Whitacre continued spray painting the west exterior wall of the downtown Domino’s pizza building.
The wind whipping all around him, Whitacre wasn’t sure how long he could continue, or whether he would be able to return home the following day. He had fallen behind schedule on the project.
However, Whitacre, who has earned a living through different art mediums over the last two decades, knows his work will be successful in two ways: As an expression of love in downtown Northfield and that that it will serve as a beautiful presence — especially during the winter as snow envelops the city.
A community project
The owner of the building, David Aase, approached city staff last year with the idea of creating the mural. Aase had seen Whitacre’s work and wanted him to provide the art.
The concept is floral. The entire space inside the word “Love” features different colors, and everything outside of the spaces within the word is in black and white.
“It’s gotta be interesting,” Whitacre said of his design. “It’s a design choice.”
“There’s a lot of Zen in it, there’s a lot of meditation in it,” he added.
In creating the piece, Whitacre said he wanted his work to be bright and positive in a way that resonates with the public. His piece could be seen as holding special importance during this time of racial tension and political polarization throughout the U.S.
“It’s even worse when people are shutting their doors,” Whitacre said. “It boils down to on the streets, I like to put up things that are positive. I am in the business of doing murals.”
Northfield Public Library Director Teresa Jensen said Northfield could use more murals and art — particularly within downtown, “where people can see it.”
“Maybe it’s the message of love,” she said of the importance of the piece to the community. “We also think that it’s a landmark for Northfield.”
Along with money being invested by Aase and another person, the city is paying $3,000 for the work. The money comes from a fund generated by 1% of revenue reserved for public art from eligible city capital projects. The revenue has been used for past projects like the art information kiosk downtown. The under-construction roundabout at the intersection of Minnesota Hwy. 246 and Jefferson Parkway will have four murals in the underpasses by next year. And, a sculpture is being installed over a downtown walkway.
“For us, a $3,000 art mural is incredibly cost-beneficial,” Jensen said. “It’s not much for a mural.”
A winding career
A professional artist, Whitacre’s medium has shifted over the years. Approximately 20 years ago, he began as a studio artist. He had always found garage sales and rummaging through older items to be interesting, and at that time people were placing well worn hand-held TVs and hard-shelled luggage into alleys across Chicago.
His breakthrough work was spray painting the back of pieces of glass removed from homes as the city experienced gentrification. Within five years, Whitacre had sold hundreds to thousands of the pieces in art shows.
Then, a few years later, Whitacre became a drummer for Legendary Shack Shakers, a Paducah, Kentucky-based rockabilly/blues band that toured throughout the U.S. and around the world. His journey resulted in a 10-year odyssey and a temporary delay in his work. Still, he drew inspiration from the places he visited, and money he earned through the band, which opened on one tour for former Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, giving him enough financing to focus full time on his studio work when he returned in 2015.
After rthat Whitacre continued showing his work at art fairs and established relationships with ongoing customers.
Then, 2½ years ago, Whitacre transitioned into mural projects and started seeing requests once he posted his work in Chicago neighborhoods on Facebook. Since then, he has created murals in Milwaukee, Cookeville, Tennessee, Norwalk, Connecticut, Rockford, Illinois, other Chicago suburbs and the entire side of a 62-foot building in Nashville.
Whitacre enjoys the exposure and “going big with art.” However, he said his Northfield work is unlike any project he has undertaken so far. Floral has become a recent interest for him as he continues to develop as an artist.
“You accidentally do something well, you are going to be asked again,” he said.
“I want ‘Oohs and aahs,’” Whitacre added of what he wants people to say of the mural.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, patients deferred care and health care providers across the state and U.S. cut back on hospital services and furloughed staff to prepare for an expected surge of patients and prevent the spread of the virus.
Last week, Minnesota Hospital Association President and CEO Rahul Koranne told the Northfield Hospital and Clinics Board of Directors the decisions caused “a lot of suffering” in communities across the state.
Despite local hospitals not filling to capacity and deaths from the virus below initial state projections to this point, local health officials say based on the knowledge they had at the time, the cutbacks were needed to ensure public safety.
‘The logical and responsible thing to do’
In early April, Northfield Hospital & Clinics announced its senior staff and directors would take a 10% pay cut and some staff would be placed on temporary leaves of absence to manage losses brought on by the pandemic.
“Based on what we knew and also what we didn’t know at the time, shutting down nonessential services was the logical and responsible thing to do,” said NH+C President and CEO Steve Underdahl.
“It’s always difficult to quantify the impact of health services not received,” he added. “What we do know is there were people living with pain, lack of mobility, or other limitations due to postponed surgeries as a result of the pandemic. Of course, emergency surgeries continued and serious conditions were treated safely. Individuals who were able to postpone services did so. NH+C, along with many other hospitals around the state, worked to create safe environments so that elective surgeries could be reinstated.”
To Underdahl, NH+C now has “a much better understanding of how to care for COVID-19 patients, how to interpret the COVID-19 data and how to keep our staff and our guests safe for whatever care they need.”
He added NH+C staff has reached out to people whose procedures were delayed to help them reschedule, and address concerns they might have on returning to the medical center. The health system has also used its website and other communication tools as a way to tell the public of the steps NH+C has taken to ensure their safety at their facilities.
At River’s Edge Hospital and Clinic in St. Peter, a health care facility that didn’t furlough staff once the pandemic began, Chief Experience Officer Stephanie Holden also said the decision by health care providers to trim staff and expenses in anticipation of a surge was the right move at the time because providers were working with the best information they had and didn’t know what to expect.
The Urgent Care Department at River’s Edge experienced a 24% decrease in visits in March compared to the previous month. In addition, the health care provider received a 65% decline the following month. Since April, however, Urgent Care visits are on the rise, and July’s numbers ended comparatively to past trends. For the Emergency Department, visits declined 11% in March and remained lower than normal in April and May. Like Urgent Care, however, June and July visits were near average visit numbers.
Koranne: State “has a firm handle” on COVID-19 data
During his Thursday presentation, Koranne described the leadup to the state response to the virus, including early projections of what a surge could look like. He said officials believed in early February the financial cost and toll of the virus in terms of human lives would both be “pretty large.” The Minnesota Hospital Association met with Walz and legislators, repeatedly testifying as to what the surge would look like and ensuring that physicians had sufficient personal protective equipment, established a website showing how many masks they must order for physicians and surgeons, and listed ICU occupancy and the number of positive cases across the state.
Koranne added he expects the virus to continue to ebb and flow until a sufficient number of Minnesotans receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
According to a Star Tribune article in late March, Gov. Tim Walz, in issuing a stay-at-home order that lasted until May, relied on a model predicting 74,000 deaths in Minnesota over the course of the pandemic if no preventative steps were taken. Under the strategy taken at the time, the model still projected 50,000 to 55,000 deaths. As of Monday, 1,865 Minnesotans had died from COVID-19.
To Koranne, the state “has a firm handle on the dial” in treating COVID-19 and will shift its approach to accommodate any changes in the course of the pandemic.
“We feel that we are prepared enough where we don’t have to delay patients any time-sensitive surgeries,” he said.
The portion of Water Street from Bridge Square to the Fourth Street Bridge will soon close temporarily once again.
In opting to transfer $2,600 from the Capital Reserve Fund to do so during a Sept. 1 meeting, the Northfield City Council opted to close the portion until Nov. 15 unless early winter weather forces an early closure. The council closed the portion of the road earlier this summer and implemented walkways on the Fourth Street Bridge to accommodate the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Council inaction during a meeting early last month temporarily opened the intersection.
Councilors varied in their accounts of public reaction to the recent closure. Some said the change was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback. To Councilors Brad Ness and David DeLong, however, the response was mixed.
In a submitted comment to the council before the meeting, Tandem Bagels owner Marty Larson expressed support for the plan. To him, “the minor inconvenience” in closing the street was eliminated by the public learning new traffic flow habits.
“While the experiment was up in July, I noticed that every time I passed through, tables and (chairs) provided in the park were occupied,” Larson said. “Sometimes it seemed there was over-capacity happening in the park. I frequently refer customers there for a pleasant dining experience, and will continue to do so. It’s a great place to eat and observe.”
The council opted not to pursue two other alternatives to the portion of Water Street, one of which would have authorized a $14,100 budget amendment from the Capital Reserve Fund for concrete planters. The third alternative included a $4,000 transfer for curb planters and delineators in the area.
“This makes the most sense for re-use at other events,” Ness said of the first option. “The other ones I’m not thrilled about.”
“These barriers will serve us well,” added Councilor Erica Zweifel.
Councilor Jessica Peterson White said she supported implementing the barriers because they are relatively inexpensive and, despite not being physically attractive, prove useful for the public. She said she expects the space to be well-used as downtown Northfield remains an attractive trip for residents of more populous locations.
4th Street Bridge
The council on Sept. 1 opted not to enact traffic changes to the Fourth Street Bridge for at least the rest of the year. Prior to withdrawing her motion, Councilor Erica Zweifel, as a way to spark discussion, moved to implement parking bumpers and delineators on one side of the bridge. In doing so, she said such work would be similar to steps taken with the pilot Washington Street bumpout project and would prove relatively familiar for Northfield drivers.
Peterson White noted regardless of a recent study finding that the outdoor spread of COVID-19 isn’t as prevalent as once feared, the area still poses accessibility problems.
Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau uggested the council reconsider installing the walkways in 2021 if councilors deem it necessary.
In also disapproving of taking immediate action, Ness said he has heard a “huge outcry” from people over the council’s past decision to close the bridge.
“That adds to my decision,” he said.
The Northfield City Council on Sept. 1 approved allocating an additional $500,000 of federal funding for local businesses and nonprofits.
In taking action, the council allocated $300,000 in business grants. Of that, up to $10,000 is possible for each project, and $50,000 is reserved for minority owned businesses. The council also approved $200,000 for nonprofit grants, with up to $10,000 for each project and $25,000 reserved for organizations that specifically serve minority and low-income residents.
“This is a solid outline,” said Councilor Jessica Peterson White. “This is the right way.”
In being the lone no vote, Mayor Rhonda Pownell said she was concerned that the grant agreement included provisions that any business receiving funding needed to be owned by a permanent Minnesota resident and an additional stipulation that the franchise owner live within city limits. She suggested the provision be broadened to include any business owner who lives within the broader Northfield area.
“I am uncomfortable with it as proposed,” Pownell said of the resolution.
In response, City Administrator Ben Martig said the provision might have stemmed from the desire to promote local business ownership. He added home-based businesses might not have been added due to the desire to focus on brick-and-mortar establishments.
The funding is through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a $2 trillion federal bill intended to ease the economic fallout from the pandemic. After the legislation passed this spring, $150 billion was allocated to state and local governments. Gov. Tim Walz has divided $853 million of that across the state. Northfield received $1.53 million in CARES funding last month.
The council last month allocated $145,000 of CARES funding to the Community Action Center to support approximately 3,750 families. In addition, councilors in August provided $75,000 to the city for work relating to downtown outdoor furnishings and equipment for added physical spacing during the pandemic, and $40,500 to Northfield Healthy Community Initiative to facilitate distance learning, including technological improvements.
Staff could finalize further proposals and introduce them to the City Council Sept. 15.
CARES expenditures must go to cover expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities must incur costs by Sept. 15 to prevent the funds from being reallocated to the county or state.