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Local construction industry experiencing uncertainty, slowdown amidst outbreak

Northfield-based developer Steve Schmidt had been looking forward to what was sure to be a busy construction season. Now he, along with fellow area construction industry employees, are facing an uncertain time in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Schmidt, president of Schmidt Homes, said the outbreak has already “immensely” impacted construction, postponing construction of a couple of large homes. In addition, the development of 23 residential lots in the last phase of The Hills of Spring Creek development, in southeast Northfield, off of Jefferson Parkway with Erie Drive connecting to the north, has been delayed. “It’s a huge concern,” he said. Part of the problem for Schmidt is he is unsure how long the COVID-19 will impact business. The longer it lasts, the longer he expects it will take the construction industry to fully recover. Prior to the outbreak, Schmidt was expecting a banner construction year. He was looking for employees and carpenters, but the pandemic has caused him to halt planning. “I’m not concerned,” Schmidt said of the ability of his business to make it through the pandemic. “We’re in a good position.” Despite the problems residential construction faces, Schmidt expects commercial building will continue unless the pandemic worsens to the extent that all aspects of the country have to be closed. ‘I’m not too worried about it’ Faribault-based Valentyn Builders owner Andy Valentyn said he’s had a couple customers cancel jobs, but described the impact so far as “just minor.” His business does roofing and siding additions and other design work. “I’m not too worried about it,” he said of the pandemic’s current impact on the construction industry. Valentyn said after the Great Recession, he understood that a future construction downtown was likely, although he hadn’t anticipated it would come in this form. The six months prior to the pandemic had been “insanely busy,” he said, and he had figured that uptick would last through the year. Valentyn said he would be concerned if the pandemic lasts a full year because he anticipates the downturn would have a trickle effect, with people losing jobs and retirees seeing diminishing money possibly being unable to undertake construction projects. Northfield Construction Co. Senior Project Manager Craig Vold also said the outbreak has delayed/postponed residential construction projects and slowed commercial work. Other projects are underway. With residential work, some customers have opted not to have construction workers in their homes, following the guidance of health professionals. “Once we get through this I think things will be back to normal,” Vold said. He is aware that most of the economy is in a holding pattern waiting to see how the pandemic progresses. Despite the slowdown, Vold said scheduled projects are in place because of the growth of the economy, and he doesn’t see that expansion going away in the long term. Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said Faribault is seeing construction continue through the pandemic. She added the Hillside Apartments project is moving forward, and other apartment projects are at different stages of the approval process in preparation for construction later this year. “In addition, just last week the City Council and County Board held a joint public hearing to support a consolidation/expansion project for an existing company,” Kuennen said. “This project involves the construction of a 20,000 square foot addition on an existing industrial building which is planned to be complete by the end of the year.” The Building Division continues to receive building permit applications for commercial/industrial projects. Kuennen noted, however, that permit applications for smaller scale residential projects (remodels, decks, other work) have slowed. “The city of Faribault is doing our part to support economic activity,” she said. “Municipal inspections are considered essential services – and we continue to perform these services on commercial projects following safe practices.”

Northfield-based developer Steve Schmidt had been looking forward to what was sure to be a busy construction season.

Now he, along with fellow area construction industry employees, are facing an uncertain time in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schmidt, president of Schmidt Homes, said the outbreak has already “immensely” impacted construction, postponing construction of a couple of large homes. In addition, the development of 23 residential lots in the last phase of The Hills of Spring Creek development, in southeast Northfield, off of Jefferson Parkway with Erie Drive connecting to the north, has been delayed.

“It’s a huge concern,” he said.

Part of the problem for Schmidt is he is unsure how long the COVID-19 will impact business. The longer it lasts, the longer he expects it will take the construction industry to fully recover.

Prior to the outbreak, Schmidt was expecting a banner construction year. He was looking for employees and carpenters, but the pandemic has caused him to halt planning.

“I’m not concerned,” Schmidt said of the ability of his business to make it through the pandemic. “We’re in a good position.”

Despite the problems residential construction faces, Schmidt expects commercial building will continue unless the pandemic worsens to the extent that all aspects of the country have to be closed.

‘I’m not too worried about it’

Faribault-based Valentyn Builders owner Andy Valentyn said he’s had a couple customers cancel jobs, but described the impact so far as “just minor.” His business does roofing and siding additions and other design work.

“I’m not too worried about it,” he said of the pandemic’s current impact on the construction industry.

Valentyn said after the Great Recession, he understood that a future construction downtown was likely, although he hadn’t anticipated it would come in this form. The six months prior to the pandemic had been “insanely busy,” he said, and he had figured that uptick would last through the year.

Valentyn said he would be concerned if the pandemic lasts a full year because he anticipates the downturn would have a trickle effect, with people losing jobs and retirees seeing diminishing money possibly being unable to undertake construction projects.

Northfield Construction Co. Senior Project Manager Craig Vold also said the outbreak has delayed/postponed residential construction projects and slowed commercial work. Other projects are underway.

With residential work, some customers have opted not to have construction workers in their homes, following the guidance of health professionals.

“Once we get through this I think things will be back to normal,” Vold said. He is aware that most of the economy is in a holding pattern waiting to see how the pandemic progresses. Despite the slowdown, Vold said scheduled projects are in place because of the growth of the economy, and he doesn’t see that expansion going away in the long term.

Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said Faribault is seeing construction continue through the pandemic. She added the Hillside Apartments project is moving forward, and other apartment projects are at different stages of the approval process in preparation for construction later this year.

“In addition, just last week the City Council and County Board held a joint public hearing to support a consolidation/expansion project for an existing company,” Kuennen said. “This project involves the construction of a 20,000 square foot addition on an existing industrial building which is planned to be complete by the end of the year.”

The Building Division continues to receive building permit applications for commercial/industrial projects. Kuennen noted, however, that permit applications for smaller scale residential projects (remodels, decks, other work) have slowed.

“The city of Faribault is doing our part to support economic activity,” she said. “Municipal inspections are considered essential services – and we continue to perform these services on commercial projects following safe practices.”


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As Easter approaches, Christians find strength in their faith

For Christians, Palm Sunday, observed April 5 this year, began the most important week in the liturgical calendar, but as the spread of COVID-19 continues, most churches remain shuttered.

It’s a difficult time for Christians, who’ve spent 40 days preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the centerpiece of their faith.

Heather Olson, a member of Hauge Lutheran Church, is sharing links sent by her pastor, the Rev. Gideon Johnson, while connecting online with the churches of her friends — from California to Czechoslovakia.

“Without my faith, I know that I would be very self-involved and discouraged during this time,” said Olson, a counselor at a Plymouth-based Bible college.

Although she admits feeling isolated at times, Olson said her faith allows her to look beyond herself, to Jesus Christ and how he is working during this time. She believes the pandemic is a good time for the church to reach out to people to show them how God has spoken to them.

“Without that, I would be very discouraged, very feeling alone and in this isolation and not probably willing to reach out to other people doing the same thing,” Olson said.

One of her favorite biblical passages is in Corinthians, in which God is described as saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly in my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest in me.”

‘We’re living, breathing, we’re working together’

Like so many of faith leaders, Episcopal priest, the Rev. Henry Doyle, is leading services without a congregation; believers view the Mass on Facebook or listen to recorded sermons. Services, now shortened, include a liturgy of the word but not the Eucharist. As many as 200 people stream church services online, and Doyle shares the Mass with his thousands of Facebook friends, who sometimes leave comments thanking him for doing so.

The Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, where Doyle works in alumni relations and outreach, will remain closed for Easter services. He also serves as a father at Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault.

But that hasn’t discouraged Doyle, who shared a message he recently received explaining that in-person church services are only a small portion of the work of the church.

“The church has always been the people who gather together to do the work of compassion and mercy and love and justice, regardless of where they gather,” he said. “They are living, breathing, animated sanctuaries who house divinity. In these terrifying, draining, disorienting moments, the church is doing what it was always supposed to do.”

To Doyle, examples of the church’s message can be seen in exhausted health care workers on the front lines, courageous first responders caring for others on a daily basis, grocery store employees constantly working to fill ever-emptied shelves, and the efforts of parents, teachers, and nonprofit and charity workers.

“We’re living, breathing, we’re working together,” he said. “The church is being the church outside of that physical space where we come to worship together.”

‘The Lord will bring us

through this time’

Johnson, Hauge Lutheran pastor, says he’s received notes thanking him for sharing hope-filled messages. He is planning for congregants to send in Easter greetings stating, “He is risen,” so parishioners tuning in to his online service Easter Sunday can see the messages of hope.

“The Lord will bring us through this time,” he said.

Johnson cannot track the number of people who watch online, but he is aware of the number of views the videos receive. There were approximately 80 views on March 22. That number swelled to around 175 March 29, a larger audience than he typically has for in-person services. The number of views, he believes, shows people are hungry to share a Christian message with others.

“To me, it’s very encouraging to know that the church has a passion for sharing those things,” he said.

To Johnson, Kenyon’s faith community is similar to those around the world in that there is a sense of devotion amongst church-goers. He said although he hasn’t seen a lot of people in-person due to social distancing measures, he’s noticing a stronger pull to churches during the pandemic.

A unique approach

For the first time in his 46 years of ministry, the Rev. Denny Labat of the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter observed Mass privately due to the pandemic. The Diocese of New Ulm recently stipulated there would be no public masses through at least April 13.

This week, Diocese of New Ulm Bishop John M. LeVoir will post a video of him privately celebrating the Mass on the diocese website. The diocese will also post videos of services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The bishops of the dioceses of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Winona Rochester have also granted a parishioners a dispensation from their obligation to attend Mass.

To Labat, the church must focus on older parishioners who could already be facing isolation and others who might question God during this difficult time. He said people need to be reassured that they are still spiritually connected and pray for each other, doing what they can by making a phone call, or establishing contact in other ways. Church staff have been using the Zoom app mid-day to pray together.

“In spite of the stay-at-home order of the governor and just our needing to abide by that, we still need to maintain contact with family and friends and our faith community,” Labat said. “And we are encouraging our parishioners to make a point of going out of our way to call people, just to touch base with them.”

Despite the hectic current state of affairs, Labat believes there will be better days.

“We will be stronger, and I think as much as you don’t want to go through difficult times or struggles, it does strengthen a person, it does strengthen a community,” he said.

Parishioners raise more than $28,000 for those in need

Parishioners at The Church of St. Dominic in Northfield have raised more than $28,000 to loan those needing help paying for housing or other necessities during the pandemic. Donors are aware there is no guarantee they’ll get their money back. Borrowers do so with no expectation of repayment.

“If they can, fine,” said the church’s parochial administrator, the Rev. Bob Hart. “If they cannot, we understand.”

The church livestreams daily Mass at 10 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and continues recording Saturday evening services. Hart added he has heard a lot of appreciative comments from community members regarding their online services.

To Hart, having faith in Christ is essential in these times.

“It’s kind of what’s going to keep them all sane,” he said. “It would be easy to step away from what’s important, because there’s so many distractions. That’s the one thing that people can be assured of.”

Hart shares that faith deeply.

“As people of faith and a community and country, we’re going to come out stronger,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to come out on the other side.”


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Area farmers: COVID-19 could result in permanent damage

Area farmers on Monday predicted that COVID-19 could further hamper their industry and put a good many agriculture producers out of business.

The comments came during an hour-long conference call with 2nd Congressional District Rep. Angie Craig, DFL-Minnesota. The conversation included representatives from hospitals and service agencies within the district.

Randy Hanson, a Rice County farmer, also farmed during the 1980s farming crisis, but said the current situation is worse. Back then, he said crop farming was subpar but livestock and dairy pulled other ag producers through. Now, there is no money to make anywhere, and in most places agriculture has become a hobby, something people pay to do.

Hanson predicted that if nothing changes, this will be the last year many farmers will operate due to continued revenue losses, leading to a loss of real estate taxes relied on by the state and local governments. He noted COVID-19 became widespread shortly after the U.S. signed a trade agreement with China Jan. 15. The agreement was supposed to ease problems the trade standoff posed to the ag industry.

He suggested the government mandate 15% ethanol in gasoline to help reduce the burden, noting ethanol is currently priced at about .82 cents per gallon. Hanson expects the move will stop the ongoing closure of ethanol plants.

Steven Read, farmer and president of Rice County Farmers Union, said its focus is on specialty growers based whose businesses are struggling due to the coronavirus.

He noted farmers were struggling prior to the onset of COVID-19, and that the recent economic downtown has further hampered the ag industry. Read predicted many farmers won’t be able to make it through the pandemic if ag lenders are unable to ease some lending requirements.

Craig raised the possibility of re-opening the 2018 farm bill because she believes the current farm safety net is insufficient for producers. She said the beleaguered dairy market has to be helped.

CEO: More funding needed for health care

In the conference call, Northfield Hospital and Clinics President and CEO Steve Underdahl said the hospital system is “doing OK for the moment,” and has a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment. He noted, however, that COVID-19 is posing a major financial impact.

He added that the city-owned hospital is down about $1 million per week between lost revenue and COVID-19 related expenses. In data tracked by the Minnesota Hospital Association, Minnesota hospitals are losing approximately $31 million in revenue per day due to the elimination of elective surgery, and focus on capacity and supplies for the COVID-19 response.

Despite sufficient reserves, Underdahl said health care systems across the country could eventually face an existential crisis if they don’t receive more outside funding.

Concerns for drivers

Acting Director of Hiawathaland Transit Jenny Larson, who also serves as executive director of Three Rivers Community Action Program, said Hiawathaland is fully staffed and is trying to keep employees on board. Ridership is “way down,” she added, but the organization continues providing daily rides for people who need to make necessary trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and other places.

Larson

To keep riders healthy, Hiawathaland has switched to a dial-a-ride only format only. Despite that effort, Larson said drivers are nervous because they have no personal protective equipment care items and are getting close to riders in wheelchairs. She expressed concern this could exacerbate an already existing driver shortage and result in a ride reduction, which would have an impact on customers who have no other means of transportation.

Volunteers are making masks, but Larson believes professionally made ones are needed.

Larson said she’s concerned that federal transportation funding could be at risk with any long-term disruption. Funding is determined in part by revenue, which is down due to decreased ridership.

More coverage on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting local farmers — 4B


Longtime theatrical supply and costume rental manager Laura Lehner said her industry served as a kind of barometer for the layoffs that are now sweeping the state, as orders dried up for the Le Sueur resident’s company in early March. With many area residents now out of work — some permanently — agencies are promoting temporary assistance as well as job training for those interested in exploring other fields. (Metro Creative Images)


Hunter Koep finished his sophomore season in 2019 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 pitching appearances, to go along with a .236/.317/.509 slash line at the plate. In September, he needed to undergo Tommy John surgery. (Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University)