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95-year-old rides horse again thanks to 'Dare to Dream' program
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Joan Villwock, 95, was surprised when her daughter and son-in-law from Rochester visited her at Milestone Senior Living to take her for a ride. Little did she know that a vehicle wasn’t the only mode of transportation they had in mind.

As part of the Dare to Dream program through Milestone Senior Living, staff coordinated with Villwock’s family and Dakota Stables in Northfield to give Villwock the chance to revisit her lifelong passion: horseback riding.

“I’ll be 96 next month, and that was the most fun surprise I’ve ever had,” Villwock said.

With the help of resident assistants, Joan Villwock was able to ride a horse around Dakota Stables April 14. (Photo courtesy of Milestone Senior Living)

Growing up near Nerstrand and Dennison, Villwock remembers her dad giving her pony rides from the time she was 3 or 4 years old. In those days, she said everyone either walked or rode horseback. She raised purebred Arabian horses on a hobby farm north of Morristown and showed them at the Steele County Fair, where they took the grand champion prize every year for 19 years. Villwock fed the horses, groomed them, colored their hooves and played with them.

“Then, when we had our sale and the horses went out on the trucks, I stood there in the doorway and cried,” Villwock recalled. “But you can only handle [horses] so long in your life.”

It had been 15 to 20 years since Villwock last rode a horse, and having lost much of her eyesight and hearing, she didn’t think riding was an option anymore. But the staff at Milestone knew it was possible.

As a Jaybird Senior Living facility, Milestone commits to not only providing health care for residents but also getting to know each individual on a personal level. For the Dare to Dream program, staff members listen for clues from each resident to figure out a possible surprise for at least one resident each month. In Villwock’s case, her fond memories of riding horses inspired the staff’s decision to connect with Dakota Stables.

Resident Assistants Siriana Paulson and Madesen Voegele were key players in arranging Villwock’s outing. Paulson connected with her sister-in-law, Amber Paulson, who is a trainer at Dakota Stables. They, along with Life Enrichment Coordinator Anne Pleskonko, Assistant Life Enrichment Coordinator Courtney Malecha and Registered Nurse Health Care Coordinator Sharon Bexell met Villwock and her family at the stables on April 14.

Villwock said she “didn’t have a clue” the staff was keeping a secret from her. Malecha arranged for her to have a hair appointment before the trip to the stables, and the hairdresser kept her lips sealed. Villwock was told she needed to eat in her room for lunch that day and wondered, as she left the facility with her daughter and son-in-law, why the other residents were gathered in the dining room as usual.

Linda and Fred Lust, Villwock’s daughter and her husband, knew about the plan as they drove away with Villwock in tow. As Fred started following a white car out into the country, Villwock grew suspicious and she asked him if he knew where they were going. When Fred admitted to his mother-in-law that he didn’t actually know, Villwock thought, “Oh, are we in trouble.”

Even after arriving at Dakota Stables and seeing the Milestone staff on site, Villwock thought maybe a picnic was in store. Instead, the staff introduced Villwock to Walter, the horse she was scheduled to ride.

Joan Villwock reaches out to pet Walter, the first horse she was able to ride in over a decade. (Photo courtesy of Milestone Senior Living)

Even after years away from horses, she said, “I wasn’t scared one bit.” It wasn’t like old times because she needed a boost to climb on Walter’s back and the resident assistants took hold of the reins, but Villwock said, “It felt wonderful.”

“I wished I could go back and ride him some more,” Villwock said. “If he was out [at Milestone] I’d get on him tomorrow.”

Before Villwock’s visit, Malecha said the oldest person to ride a horse at Dakota Stables had been 65 — 30 years younger than Villwock.

Milestone Senior Living resident Joan Villwock, 95, poses for a photo with Assistant Life Enrichment Coordinator Courtney Malecha, who was one of several staff members to help her ride a horse again. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

“It was a true magical moment, and it was all worth the planning and organizing with Siriana and Madison and Dakota Stables,” Pleskonko said.

Added Malecha: “It just embodied what we wanted to do, and the minute [Joan] got on the horse, I started crying.”

Proposed changes to Northfield rental licensing would create tiered system for landlords
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Draft Northfield rental licensing code updates unveiled this week call for the introduction of a four-tier licensing system and are intended to include more renter protections.

The draft, unveiled during an April 27 Housing and Redevelopment Authority meeting, is reportedly intended to help renters who live in buildings with repeated code violations. Perhaps the most prevalent in Northfield has been Northfield Estates, which has incurred relatively frequent code violations and therefore been subject to more inspections.

The tiers

According to the draft changes, introduced by Alissa Harrington with Flaherty & Hood, landlords in the first tier are considered those with minimal complaints and violations and are licensed for two years. Second tier licenses are for one year with more frequent inspections and are intended for new landlords who are trying to learn the ropes of overseeing property, or former first-tier landlords who the city deems need to improve their properties due to property/nuisance code violations. The intention would be for the landlords in this tier to have an action plan with “active steps” to improve.

The third tier would be for six months with even more frequent inspections and would include landlords who have property with more frequent violations. Landlords in the third tier would need to immediately fix problems. If the landlord does not repair their problems, the city could then deem the property a nuisance, triggering administrative code violations and possible suspension/revocation of rental licenses.

In many cities, Harrington noted building officials, sworn police officers and the city administrator have the authority to issue administrative citations for violating rental codes, a step she said would ease the pressure on city staff. Such violations are considered civil rather than criminal. Administrative citations would include an appeals process for landlords. She said the proposed changes also creates a paper trail of evidence when a landlord’s rental license is revoked. However, Harrington added that landlords will still be able to be charged criminally in certain situations.

Under the current code, there are two types of rental licensing: Two-year licenses and those authorized on a short-term basis of less than 30 days, considered specific when the landlord is trying to sell a house.

Community Development Director Mitzi Baker noted that only a “small minority” of rentals create most of the challenges while many more comply. Harrington noted rental housing is licensed because of the considerable power difference between renters and the landlords they rely on for basic necessities.

Harrington stressed the changes were crafted with the understanding that renters are now considered more prominent, invested members of society who are less transient than when previous rental licensing codes were introduced. She added the updates came after community feedback was gathered and to ensure that staff would be able to focus on enforcing rental codes with better tools to prevent already problematic rental situations from worsening.

Before, Harrington said, despite the chance the city could threaten to suspend rental licenses, there seemed to be a lack of enforcement tools to protect tenants. Another goal she saw to revamping the codes was removing outdated or redundant provisions in the current system.

Baker noted during the meeting that Northfield, like many other cities, suspended in-home inspections for occupied units following the onset of COVID-19. She said the pace of pre-pandemic rental inspections has not returned since.

HRA Board member George Zuccolotto, a Northfield city councilor, asked why the city couldn’t waive the rule that rental housing be limited to 20% in R-1 and R-2 districts to ease Northfield’s near-zero vacancy rate and introduce more rentals. Baker called the question one with a “fairly significant community interest” that would likely need to be introduced in another debate to prevent the code changes from being bogged down.

The Northfield City Council is expected to discuss the proposed license updates next month before taking final action at a future meeting.

COVID's trajectory keeps 2021 DJJD in limbo
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The status of the 2021 Defeat of Jesse James Days is in limbo as celebration leaders remain uncertain of the future status of COVID-19 and associated restrictions.

In an online message last week, DJJD General Chair Galen Malecha said leaders “are working closely with city officials, the county Public Health Department and public safety personnel to gauge all of our options.”

DJJD, a four-day celebration the weekend after Labor Day, is considered one of the largest community celebrations in Minnesota and draws 200,000 people to Northfield annually the weekend after Labor Day. Events include re-enactors portraying the 1876 First National Bank robbery, car show, live music, and other activities. Malecha said individual events are being evaluated, and leaders “are continuing planning based on their ability to practice social distancing, host virtually or follow capacity restrictions while still being viable. However, we recognize that this continues to be a fluid situation and we are prepared to change course as necessary.”

“We are continuously working through different potential scenarios, while keeping in mind current health guidelines, capacity limits and recognizing the economic challenges continuing to face our local businesses and sponsors,” Malecha wrote. “At this time we are committed to hosting the celebration. However, the size, scope and duration will possibly be a scaled-down version than what we have had in the past.”

The celebration is intended to honor the community for pushing back against the robbers, and recognize bank teller Joseph Lee Heywood who died while protecting First National Bank deposits. While organizers have said they don’t have an estimate on the revenue the celebration generates for area bars, restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, food booths, retail shops, artists, craftspeople and nonprofits, the figure is substantial.

Last year, DJJD included a one-day limited event with most activities pushed online. Ongoing uncertainty around DJJD comes as other statewide celebrations also remain in limbo due to uncertainty over how long the restrictions state public health officials say are needed to combat the spread of COVID-19 will remain in place over the summer. Already, the Minnesota Street Rod Association-sponsored Back to the 50’s Weekend and Freeborn County Fair have been canceled until next year due to ongoing restrictions. A key factor they said in their decisions was the feasibility of holding reduced-capacity activities while ensuring enough revenue was generated to support the event.

However, according to the Pioneer Press, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has said he believes the Minnesota State Fair, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic, “should be a pretty close to normal event” this year. Also, he reportedly plans to loosen COVID-19 restrictions this week.

Currently, indoor social gatherings are limited to 15 people, and outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 50 people. Restaurants and bars can operate at 75% capacity indoors and outdoors, but parties of no more than six people are allowed to be within 6 feet of each other. Gym capacity remains at 50%, or 250 people. Seated indoor venues can host a maximum of 3,000 people, and unseated indoor facilities can host 1,500. Outdoor events and entertainment events can host a maximum of 10,000 people.

Bar owner who defied COVID order selling Northfield, Lakeville businesses
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Alibi at Froggy Bottoms owner Lisa Zarza, who made national headlines following her decision not to close her Lakeville establishment for in-person dining following an executive order in the deadliest stretch of the pandemic last December, is selling her Northfield and Lakeville businesses.

Zarza, who owns Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville, made the decision less than one month after the Northfield City Council denied her request to renew her liquor license by a split vote. The decision meant she cannot legally serve alcohol at her Northfield establishment. Council action came after Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott recommended not renewing the license based on her noncompliance with the governor's order and because of the preliminary suspension of her Lakeville liquor license.

“The state and their tyrannical dictatorship and overreach has destroyed both businesses,” Zarza said Monday. “The City Council should be disappointed in their actions.”

Zarza said she plans to "wait for our state to be reformed," before she decides to own another restaurant. She said she could decide to do so in another state, adding that she has been "asked to run for numerous positions, and was actually running for lieutenant governor," dropping out "due to the slanderous things that people said about me and the death threats I received." 

David Hvistendahl, who owns the Alibi at Froggy Bottoms building on Water Street, said not having a liquor license severely reduced the likelihood Zarza could remain in business since a large portion of the revenue restaurateurs make comes from alcohol sales.

Hvistendahl said he hopes a new tenant is in place by the end of May. He noted that he is looking for someone with experience in running bars and restaurants. Hvistendahl and Zarza have interviewed people interested in operating Froggy Bottoms. One applicant is reportedly working toward an agreement.

“I really want to see Froggy Bottoms open this summer,” he added.

During the April 6 council meeting, Zarza said she did not follow the executive order because she deemed it “unconstitutional,” adding she that didn’t feel the governor’s decision was based on proven evidence. She framed her argument as coming out of concern that people’s basic rights were being eviscerated.

Alibi at Froggy Bottoms was first licensed in 2019 in Northfield under the ownership of Heart of the Lion LLP with co-owners Zarza and Ricardo Baldazo. Baldazo has since been charged with attempting to kill two Burnsville police officers.

Following Zarza’s refusal to abide by the order, the state filed a lawsuit against the business. A court trial in the case is scheduled to begin July 12.