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Co-op provides canvas, students the labor for mural depicting city's history, diversity
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A public art project that has been two years in the making is finally taking shape at the Just Foods Co-Op in downtown Northfield.

The project features an impressive and colorful building-length mural on the north exterior wall of the Just Food Co-Op, which features the history and natural highlights of Northfield.

The mural’s inception in 2019 was led by local community group Rice County Neighbors United and a committee that included Neighbors United’s Mar Valdecantos and Olivia Frey, middle school art teacher Rafael Estrella, Union of Youth Art Coordinator Marie Fischer and then Northfield High School student Roberto Ochoa. Former Just Foods Co-Op general manager Sherri Meyers also played a key role in the initial stages of the project.

Thanks to grant funding from Northfield Shares, the project’s foundation was able to begin two years ago but was put on hold due to a remodeling project at the Water Street co-op and then furthered delayed by the COVID pandemic. Work on this unique addition to the area’s public art roster was finally able to get underway in September 2021.

“The project was delayed because of two factors,” Valdecantos said. “First, we had to wait for the full remodeling of the store, and then, when that project was done, we hit the pandemic — so we had to put a stop to the project for a long time. We were also waiting for vaccinations to happen, so that we could make everybody involved with the project safe.”

With the project finally given a green light in September, much of the mural’s initial layout design has been painted on the wall next to the Just Foods parking lot. The cold weather has currently halted the projected for the winter but the mural’s final details and features are slated to be completed in the spring once temperatures allow for more painting.

“Sometimes people will walk by and think it is already finished, and in my view it is very beautiful already, but it is just the layout and we will keep applying more details in the spring,” Valdecantos said.

“We had to stop when it got cooler. When the temperature falls below 50 degrees the paint doesn’t adhere to the wall well, so we had to stop at that point.”

The concept of the mural was driven by a desire to highlight the community’s history, diversity and acknowledge its location on former lands of the Dakota people. Valdecantos also believes a mural will help showcase the strength of the community and make Northfield a more welcoming place for everybody.

“I thought that was a project that has to be led by community members and especially with students,” Valdecantos said.

Once the gears were set in motion to move forward with the project, Valdecantos needed to find an appropriate ‘canvas’ for this work of public art in Northfield.

“I was just brainstorming different places around town and then it occurred to me that Just Foods Co-Op has this huge wall,” Valdecantos said. “I called the manager at the time, Sheri Meyers, and Sheri said ‘oh my, a mural is exactly what we are thinking about having.’

“It was just a marriage of two ideas coming together. They (Just Foods Co-Op) was looking for exactly this type of work and I was offering what we could do on our end … and then we just teamed up.”

Just Foods Co-Op’s marketing specialist Jim Gehrke added, “It kind of worked really well. We were doing the remodeling project and Mar Valdecantos approached the Co-Op at that time about whether we would be interested in this being the canvas for this artwork … and the Co-Op was thrilled by that.

“We are thrilled by the transformation that is underway on the north side of the building. First of all, we appreciate that art for its own sake, but more importantly as a Co-Op, we are quite literally a grocery store of the people, by the people and for the people. So it is very gratifying that we are able to provide the canvas for their grass roots effort to celebrate the history and diversity of the area.”

In addition to finding a location, Valdecantos also assembled a leadership team that included Fischer and Estrella, who both brought with them experience in working on these types of murals and their connection with local youth. Ochoa added an additional connection to area students and all three helped recruit help for the mural.

Students from Northfield’s middle school, high school and recent grads have assisted with the mural’s progress, along with college students from St. Olaf and Winona State. Over 30 individuals have helped with the project so far, and typically there are 10-15 people at a time that helped on Sunday afternoons this fall when the painting work was done.

“It is a very open group of people and everyone was welcome to help, and that was the intention,” Valdecantos said. “It is a community project. It takes longer this way rather than having an artist come up with an idea and doing the project. The project might take longer this way, but in our view it is very beautiful having all those people coming together to work on it.”

The design of the mural is the result of work done by students with guidance from the adults on the team.

“The adults were making things happen and helping the process along but the mural’s design was made by the students and that was done through many brainstorming sessions with them … it is very much the project of the students,” Valdecantos said.

“The adults on the team had technical expertise to pass on to the students but the students themselves come with a lot of artistic skills. Many of them are very skilled, so that is something they bring to the project.”

The mural’s design was based upon the history of the community and Northfield’s location on Dakota land.

“We had extensive meetings talking about how we are on Dakota land and we talked about the land acknowledgement that we now have in place in town,” Valdecantos said. “We brought all those themes together and how grateful we are for what nature has provided us over the passage of time and that we are on Dakota land … all those things merged together in creating the mural.”

The final details for the mural will be put in place once the weather warms up in the spring. An official unveiling ceremony is planned when the work is completed. Valdecantos also hopes to bring other area residents into the creation process before it is completed.

“The plan is to bring community members out to draw something on the wall with guidance from the team,” Valdecantos said. “They may be able to paint a flower, leaf or something like that, so that as a community project the mural has that true community input as well.”

In addition to being the ‘canvas’ for the mural, Just Foods Co-Op has played a major role in the project’s success throughout the process. An in-store fundraising campaign help generate funds to provide supplies for the project along with food and snacks for the mural workers this fall and storage space at the store for paint and other materials.

“Being able to work this group of adults and students that are involved has been a very gratifying process for us,” Gehrke said. “They are excited about the work and they are out there having fun.

“It (the mural) has been a tremendous addition. We love it for the beauty of the art and the way it has really improved the appearance and warmth of our store.”


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A reluctant thumbs-up to demo the Archer House
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“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” —from “Closing Time” by Semisonic

One month after first entertaining a request from Manawa Inc., LLC, for a Certificate of Appropriateness to allow the demolition of the post-fire Archer House, Northfield’s Heritage Preservation Commission met Wednesday to review additional information and revisit the proposal.

Following over two hours of discussion and testimony, the HPC reluctantly approved the COA on a 5-2 vote, with HPC members Alice Thomas and Baird Jarman in the minority.

“We’re of course very pleased with the outcome,” said Brent Nystrom, spokesperson for the ownership group.

“We appreciate the time and attention the HPC gave to the process; they have a challenging role to play but it resulted in a solid 5-2 vote in favor of the unfortunate need for demolition.”

The HPC took their task seriously, thoroughly exploring whether it was possible to retain at least the 1877 building’s facade, which happened to suffer the least amount of overall damage in the Nov. 12, 2020, fire that irreparably damaged the iconic structure.

“It seems like we’re going in two pathways here,” said HPC chair Barbara Evans early in the meeting.

“One is about the actual structural integrity of it … and what it would take to rehabilitate that … and it seems like the other path … is the ‘even if—’ well, even if it is structurally yes or no, is it reasonable, cost-efficient, to actually do it.”

Structural engineer Jeremy Baer of TEKTON Engineers testified to that question.

“From a purely technical standpoint, it would be feasible to save the facade, but does that exceed a reasonable effort? And is it a really good idea?” said Baer.

“In my professional opinion, I believe Northfield would be better served by a new building.”

Scott Koester of Rebound Real Estate delivered the financial estimate of how much more it would take for Manawa to attempt that save; $1.25 to $1.3 million, or roughly 11% of the total project’s cost estimate.

“But what’s happening in saving that facade, you are also limiting any redevelopment going forward with the project, like window locations, different floor heights and limits with what you can do for covered parking,” Koester said.

“It’s just a domino effect of putting a redevelopment into a corner and not being able to come back and redevelop that site to what it best could be … we want to provide a great new asset to downtown Northfield.”

Brett Reese, managing principal of Rebound Enterprises, LLC, stepped forward to address the HPC and clarify the ownership group’s intent, noting the Manawa partners had been good stewards of the Archer House for 24 years.

“We would like nothing more than to preserve this building,” said Reese. “The fire was devastating and very emotional — it was gut-wrenching to us as owners.

“Yes, there are significant limitations if we were to preserve the facade … and in our opinion, it cannot be done. We’ve spent a lot of time, money, effort and analysis, and we would love to save the facade if we could.”

Commissioner Alice Thomas queried whether reconstruction, as in creating a replica of the former building, could be pursued.

Reese wouldn’t promise that new construction at the site would be identical to the former structure, but he and Koester assured there would be nods to distinctive architectural features that might prompt visual reminiscences of what went before.

Koester mentioned arched windows, dormers and a symmetrical facade, among other items.

“It will be done professionally and creatively,” said Koester. “We’re committed to including some memorialization details.”

Added Reese, “We will work to have something that honors the Archer House but also brings it into the 21st century so it can go on another 150 years.”

Still, Thomas balked at the idea of an 11% project increase being an insurmountable economic obstacle.

“That does not seem excessive to me,” said Thomas. “To have a historic building there would be worth $1 million to me.”

Ultimately, discussion and further information about the 1877 roof, which was deemed unsalvageable, led to the majority of the HPC members concluding the facade could not be reasonably saved.

Said commissioner Michael Meehan, “The roof is not a salvageable piece, and saving facades without roofs is not historically significant.”

Added commissioner Jason Menard, “The historic fabric of the building would be gone.”

Prior to the final vote, commissioner Cliff Clark clarified that it was not financially viable or feasible to preserve the property even thought it was otherwise possible.

“Because it is feasible,” said Clark. “It is just not financially viable or feasible. If you had unlimited funds, you could do it.”

Once Manawa has obtained the proper permitting, Nystrom estimates demolition may proceed before the end of the year.

Nystrom also said Manawa will be reviewing proposals from five architectural firms and that some manner of community input would be sought.

“We think it’s important to get some flavor of what the community is interested in seeing there,” said Nystrom.

“But it’s safe to say it will likely be a mixed-use building again, possibly with restaurants, retail and some kind of housing — either permanent or longer-stay hotel rooms. Those are the main ideas on the table.”

Due to the planning and construction processes, plus being alert to potential supply chain delays, Nystrom anticipates completion in the spring of 2023 or even later.

“It’s going to take awhile,” Nystrom said.

“But this is a rare opportunity and it’s very exciting,” he continued. “We will honor the legacy of the Archer House while also taking the chance to create a building that will be much more functional and yet remain a point of pride for Northfield.”


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As the holidays approach, county's COVID case rate at its highest since Dec. 2020
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With COVID cases again on the rise and a Thursday holiday that’s synonymous with being close, Deb Purfeerst is again asking residents to remain cautious.

“I think everybody was hoping this was a one-shot gig and we’re done,” she said Monday afternoon. But with a worrisome increase in coronavirus cases across the state and a Rice County case rate nearing 800 per 100,000 residents, Purfeerst, the county’s public health director, is urging residents to get back to the basics.

“It’s important for people to make wise decisions as they gather with friends and family,” she said, recommending people who are planning Thanksgiving get togethers should ask themselves three questions:

• Have we been vaccinated?

• Are we healthy?

• Do we have symptoms?

Purfeerst realizes it’s the same advice public health and healthcare leaders have espoused for nearly two years, but that’s because it works, she said.

Minnesota’s latest COVID-19 data shows a pandemic hitting new highs for 2021, putting more pressure on hospitals with no signs yet of retreat. But while the numbers are the highest seen this calendar year, they’re nowhere near as high as Thanksgiving 2020. The week of Nov. 8, 2021, Rice County recorded 298 new cases. The same week last year saw 798 cases.

The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is hovering at just under 10 percent statewide, according to MPR News calculations, about twice the rate officials find concerning.

Hospitalizations are especially concerning. Bed counts that fell below 100 in mid-July jumped in the late fall; 1,414 people were hospitalized as of Friday with COVID with 340 needing intensive care, the highest since early December.

Hospital executives across the state say COVID patients combined with other care needs are overwhelming short-staffed care centers. Hospitals in this wave are seeing more people needing treatment for other illnesses along with people who delayed getting care over the past year and a half.

Purfeerst says local hospitals are “busy,” and that some of the state’s major health care systems are considering postponing elective surgeries until this latest wave abates, a move that would help ensure beds are available for emergencies.

There’s also rising concern that schools, especially elementary schools where children have been too young to vaccinate, may be helping accelerate community spread.

Last week, Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann and Bridgewater Elementary Principal Nancy Antoine, in a letter to parents, said there was a concerning increase in COVID cases at the elementary school, with 20 laboratory-confirmed cases in the prior two weeks. The district’s COVID-19 Dashboard, updated Monday, seems to show a slowing of increase.

Faribault Public Schools haven’t experienced a similar wave. As of Friday, only Roosevelt Elementary and Faribault Middle had more than five current cases. Roosevelt had six, Faribault Middle had eight.

Both the Northfield and Faribault district require masks for everyone school age and above when they’re inside a school building.

Boosters

Anyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated should do so as soon as possible, says Purfeerst, noting that the risk of severe illness or death is 10 times higher for the unvaccinated.

Children 5 and older may now be vaccinated. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended booster shots for adults who completed the Pfizer or Moderna two-shots series at least six months ago, and a booster for adults who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two months ago.

Finding a vaccine is now easier than finding a testing site, said Purfeerst. Testing is available in Rochester and Albert Lea, but has been a challenge locally. Despite the difficulty, public health officials ask anyone who suspects they may have COVID to quarantine until they’ve received a negative test or the isolation period has passed.

While remaining vigilant after 20 months of COVID, masking and social distancing is wearing, Purfeerst asks people to continue using common sense.

“It’s always a balance,” she said, “because being around friends and family is important, but you need to be safe about it.

“If you have a fever of sniffle, get tested.”


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