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Demolition on hold: HPC postpones decision on Archer House pending 'more information'
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Three hours of presentations, testimony, questions and discussion last Thursday evening in the Northfield city council chambers culminated with the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) voting to postpone its decision on whether or not to approve Manawa Inc., LLC’s request for a Certificate of Appropriateness to demolish what remains of the Archer House.

Despite a recommendation from City Planner Mikayla Schmidt to approve the certificate, which the ownership group requested Sept. 15, the full slate of HPC members decided they needed more detailed information about costs, and the feasibility of preserving the building’s 1877 portion, before making a final decision.

“Significant” was the word of the night; “significant investment;” “significant structural damage;” “significant historical value;” “significant cost;” “significant demolition;” “significant loss.”

All in all, what remains of the historic Archer House is more than just another brick wall.

Weighing history and progress

Following the calamitous fire of Nov. 12, 2020, Manawa LLC was left in a heartbreaking bind.

“2020 was a tough year for everyone, especially those in the hospitality business,” testified Todd Byhre, representing the ownership group and Rebound Hospitality.

“We have a long history with the building [from 1997 to present] and in fact are the longest continuous owners in the Archer House’s 140+-years.”

Since 2009 alone, Manawa invested over $1 million to improve and shore up the Archer House, and in the first portion of 2020, over $100,000 was infused to enhance the river inn’s lobby, breakfast room, bar and guest rooms.

“We were really excited about where we had gotten during the pandemic [shutdown], and we put a lot of time, energy and money into making the Archer House something special, so the loss is particularly devastating to us,” said Byhre.

“We certainly would never have envisioned making those investments over more than 12 years only to see it destroyed in a 24-hour fire.”

Anticipating a question that many residents have pondered, and which HPC Commissioner Alice Thomas later posed, Scott Koester of Rebound Real Estate stressed that the ownership group was expressly prohibited from disturbing anything within the structure from the time of the fire until nearly April 2021.

“The state fire investigators and the insurance companies controlled the building through March 2021,” said Koester.

“The damage was severe, and no one wanted to believe that demolition of the Archer House was the next step.”

Still, with nearly 2 million gallons of water dumped on the building during the fire-fighting process and months of rain, snow and wintry freeze/thaw cycles inflicting further harm—including dangerous mold growth and structural damage beyond what the fire inflicted—two building experts spoke to the extreme challenges and likely fruitlessness of trying to resurrect the iconic inn.

Jude Hallamek of Nile Architects and Jeremy Baer of TEKTON Engineers provided their professional assessments of the property.

Besides referencing the fire and subsequent weather impacts, Hallamek pointed out the code issues that would affect any efforts to rehab or restore the Archer House.

“Standards have changed since the 1890s,” Hallamek said.

“If it could be saved, it would then trigger the need to correct other deficiencies — the stairwells are too narrow for building occupancy, the inappropriate height and graspability of the handrails, the four-story open stairwell — and the transitions in floor levels with strange slopes made to meet up with the old structure.

“In light of all these things, I made the unfortunate recommendation to the owners it is not a viable candidate for rehabilitation and preservation.”

Baer, a structural engineer and Northfield resident, concurred.

“Like everyone else, we were hoping against hope there was something that could be done to save this building that forms a huge part of Northfield’s downtown character,” said Baer, whose engineering firm has contributed to preservation projects including the Northfield train depot, the Armory, Tanzenwald Brewery and the Ames Mill, among several others in the area.

“We have a strong interest in wanting to preserve historic structures where we think that is technically possible and economically feasible.”

But despite expert testimony and the surprise that only two people took advantage of the public hearing to offer brief commentary — both in favor of it, however regrettably — about the proposed demolition, the HPC members were unconvinced that all avenues to preserving at least the most iconic 1877 portion of the building had been exhausted.

“There was a lot of comment about economic risk, but we are obligated to attend to the historic value,” said Commissioner Thomas.

“You said the 1877 portion of the building suffered only moderate damage from the fire, as opposed to the 1895 section, which you recommended for full demolition. Have you done an analysis of what it would cost to restore only the 1877 [portion of the] building?”

Commissioner Michael Meehan put it this way: “What sticks in my mind is that it might be feasible to salvage the 1877 building,” said Meehan. “With reasonable means though? I don’t know that.

“Without a doubt it would be more complicated to save it, and it makes a messy site for redevelopment, but demolition is permanent — and I don’t want to demolish a historic asset if it’s possible to save it.”

Added Thomas, “We need some financial information as to what it would cost to renovate, restore or rebuild the 1877 portion.”

Commissioner Cliff Clark said, “I’m very sympathetic to the owners, having lived in this town for a half century and watched how that building has changed … and it’s a very complicated case.

“This is one of the most iconic Northfield buildings from a historic point of view … if I were given the choice to preserve the facade and get rid of the rest, I’d be okay with that; that’s the iconic part of it.”

Commissioner Menard pointed to the ongoing challenges toward that end.

“The building is gutted, completely exposed to the elements,” said Menard.

“It will continue to deteriorate while we discuss — and what is the likelihood that, even if they had infinite resources and were 100% committed to doing this, we could beat the building falling down?

“We could ask for the moon, but if it falls down, we’re left with a collapsed building.”

Ultimately, the HPC voted unanimously to postpone a vote on the Certificate of Appropriateness, requesting that Manawa provide further information about the feasibility and cost to preserve the facade and/or interior of the 1877 building portion.

Brent Nystrom, spokesperson for the ownership group, admitted they were disappointed at the outcome.

“We believed we presented a strong case for demolition,” said Nystrom.

“We’ll be assessing our next steps and deciding how to move forward from here.”

The next meeting of the HPC is scheduled for Nov. 9.

Ernst's love of agriculture helps him grow a business
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A local high school student has been the driving force behind two successful area farm stands that provide a bounty of vegetables, sweet corn, squash and pumpkins for area residents.

A senior at Northfield High School, Kaden Ernst is wrapping up another growing season this fall that has supplied products for his two farm stands located on Hwy. 3, just south of Dundas, and also on County Road 1 by the roundabout, just west of I-35 on the way to Millersburg.

Ernst’s passion for agriculture started as a backyard hobby and has grown into a thriving business over the past few summers. He originally started growing vegetables in a small plot on his family’s property, and then was presented with an opportunity to increase his growing space thanks to a connection through his church.

“Two years ago, I started growing vegetables and sweet corn for sale,” Ernst said. “With the sweet corn, I got started with that when a farmer from my church, who grows corn and soybeans, approached me wondering if I wanted to do sweet corn.

“I started that year with about an acre of sweet corn and the farmer (Kasey Bechtold) I did this with let me use his equipment to get started. Along with the sweet corn, I also did the vegetables. I’ve always grown a vegetable garden as a hobby, and that year I grew it to start selling the vegetables.”

Ernst began that first summer selling his goods at the farm stand on Hwy. 3. He also started selling some of his produce to local caterer Ruth’s on Stafford in Dundas. Prior to this “official” start in the farming business, Ernst sold vegetables from his garden on a door-to-door basis to neighbors as a 14-year old.

Fast forward two years and Ernst used money earned from his produce sales to expand his business with the purchase of his own tractor and a four row planter. Last year, Ernst added a second stand for his produce on County Road 1.

“I have just picked up more ground with the sweet corn each year, and this summer I did about 3 acres of sweet corn and a half acre of vegetables,” Ernst said.

He also worked with the Betzolds to plant almost 4 acres of pumpkins and squash to harvest this fall. Throughout the summer his primary list of vegetables and herbs cultivated are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, basil and parsley along with plenty of sweet corn and pumpkins.

“Between the two stands this summer, I sold over 2,000 dozen ears of corn,” Ernst noted.

The majority of the work for the sweet corn and vegetable plots is done by Ernst, but he does hire some of his friends to help with the pumpkin and squash harvest that supplies the farm stands with those Halloween favorites.

A member of the Full of Pep 4-H Club (and the club’s current vice president), Ernst originally connected with farming through his grandparents since his dad (Greg Ernst) and mom (Kim Ernst) do not farm. His parents run an energy auditing company, but help out with their son’s farming at times.

“Probably, I found an interest from my grandparents since they both farm,” Ernst said. “It kind of gave me an interest … and I found that I just like that field of work.”

In the past, Ernst has worked at a local orchard but recently his primary source of income has been the farm stands along with helping out on the Betzolds’ farm during the spring planting and fall harvesting seasons.

As he looks ahead to his future, Ernst is looking to pursue a possible degree in agriculture business in college and continue to cultivate his farming business.

“I like the work a lot and being able to do it on my own has been kind of fun,” Ernst said of his independent farmer status. “I hope to keep growing my business each year and next year, I am hoping I can find a place — maybe in Northfield — to sell sweet corn in a parking lot or something like that.

“I am hoping to expand next year and I hope I can make a living out of it some day … that’s the goal.”

National Distinguished Principal title goes to Bridgewater's Antoine
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Nancy Antoine, principal of Northfield’s Bridgewater Elementary School since 2007, was named Minnesota’s 2021 NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) National Distinguished Principal in mid-May.

But it wasn’t until Oct. 8, at a black-tie ceremony in Washington, D.C., that Antoine was officially presented the award recognizing her professional achievements.

“This is the most prestigious honor a Minnesota elementary principal can receive,” said Dr. Matt Hillmann, ISD 659 superintendent.

“All of Northfield celebrates with Mrs. Antoine as she receives this well-deserved honor.”

Antoine, who leads a staff of 70 and a student body of approximately 550 at Bridgewater, has been active in the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association for 20 years and is a past president of that organization.

“It’s an honor to represent Northfield, my administrative colleagues, local partners and all the elementary principals in the state of Minnesota,” said Antoine.

The three-day trip to D.C., sponsored by NAESP for Antoine and the other 39 National Distinguished Principals of 2021, had many highlights, including the chance for Antoine to attend focus sessions and advocate for educators with U.S. Department of Education officials.

“That was a piece I wasn’t aware of before arriving,” said Antoine. “We were able to talk with the Deputy Secretary of Education and the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education about funding special education, teacher and substitute shortages, COVID issues and how important it is to pay teachers fairly for the work they do.

“You shouldn’t have to hold a second job to make ends meet just because you choose to be a teacher.”

Antoine recalls a $17,000 annual salary at her first teaching job in 1987, when first-year engineers were earning around $40,000.

“Today the disparity is even greater,” said Antoine. “Teachers should be recognized for their important contributions and paid accordingly.”

Now in her 15th year as Bridgewater’s principal, Antoine became an adjunct faculty member at Concordia University, St. Paul, this summer. She is teaching a graduate level class for future school administrators.

“I enjoy helping other teachers work towards administrative licensure,” said Antoine, “and this award is a reminder I need to constantly give back so the next generation of leaders is ready to take over when we retire.”

In D.C., Antoine shared copies of the children’s book “Oma Finds a Miracle” by Northfield author Patrick Mader, and illustrated by Northfield native Andrew Holmquist, with her fellow honorees.

She also met with members of the National Race and Equity Task Force and walked through the the emerging Black Lives Matter Plaza, among other meaningful activities.

“It was the experience of a lifetime, and so humbling,” said Antoine. “But none of this would have been possible without the staff, students and faculty members I’ve worked with over the years; I’ve learned so much from them.”

Said Hillmann, “Nancy is a student-centered principal who cares deeply about the success of her students, their families, and the staff who serve them. She is focused on helping every student succeed.”