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Mother and daughter Mary Cameron-Crone and Emily Crone evaluate products for sale Saturday at the Winter Solstice. They bought sausage, salmon and other food items at the market. (Sam Wilmes/Northfield News)

Year in Review: The biggest Northfield stories in 2019

2019 was a year of action in Northfield.

This year, public and private organizations in the city announced important initiatives on climate, health care and housing, all subjects that have been at the forefront of local discussion for years.

Here’s what grabbed the headlines throughout the year

1. Hospital expansion OK’d, Benedictine Living Community of Northfield opens

The year included major health care stories that will change the scope of the industry in Northfield.

In July, the Northfield Hospital and Clinics Board of Directors approved a $14.7 million expansion of the birth center to allow for four new labor and delivery rooms, three new postpartum rooms, a dedicated C-section room, new triage space, an expanded nursery and new waiting area. There will be 7,640 square feet of shelled space on the ground level that could be used for future development.

The Benedictine Living Community of Northfield opened in early December and has seen a steady stream of residents move in.

The building, at 2030 North Ave., is across from Northfield Hospital and Clinics and features 48 independent living, 24 assisted living and 25 memory care apartments. The facility includes chef-prepared meals made to order in a restaurant-style dining room, housekeeping and laundry services, a club room to enjoy cocktails, a beauty/barber shop and other amenities. The building also includes washers and dryers in apartments. Assisted living comes with meal packages, laundry and health care assistance.

The Family Residence, a 12-bed memory care facility that opened in August near the Northfield Area YMCA, offers four private bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and eight bedrooms with shared bathrooms. The home is locked and fully-staffed and secure 24/7.

2. Several housing developments underway

Although more housing is still needed to combat a shortage, several projects announced this year are helping to address the problem.

The largest project includes a $14.2 million, 79-unit apartment complex in downtown Northfield restaurant. Plans announced in June call for the complex to be built on the southeast corner of Fifth and Washington streets, on the opposite side of the block from Reunion, which opened the prior month.

On a different project, Spring Creek Townhomes, the Minnesota Housing Financing Agency awarded $11.64 million to aid in the construction of a 32-unit, two-, three- and four-bedroom townhome complex in southeast Northfield. Construction is expected to take place next August and be completed by spring 2021.

In Dundas, development of a 39-unit market-rate apartment building was announced in June. The facility is expected to be on private property at 100 West Ave. and 80 West Ave., on the city’s southwest side, and include 40 parking garages for tenants.

And local organizers hope the first year of a dedicated collaboration between faith groups and Rice County Habitat for Humanity will enable the construction of two fourplexes in Northfield within the next few years.

3. Greenvale Park Elementary, Bridgewater construction moves along

After a $41 million bond referendum in November 2018 was approved to pay for a new Greenvale Park Elementary School, conduct construction work at Sibley and Bridgewater elementary schools and smaller district projects, progress has continued.

The Northfield School Board in August approved more than $21.3 million in construction contracts for the new school, and a groundbreaking ceremony took place in September. Construction has been ongoing since this fall and is planned for completion by next August.

The two-story building will have a fully-secure entrance and be built to hold 16% more students to accommodate the district’s increasing enrollment. The building will replace the original, which was constructed in 1971. The new school is expected to take up a smaller footprint than the current building and contain a mix of large and small instructional spaces in many modern schools.”

The older building will house an early childhood center.

The Northfield School Board in October approved nearly two dozen contracts for a $7.38 million Sibley Elementary School construction project. Included in the work, expected to be complete next August, is the media center expanding into the cafeteria next door, and a new cafeteria being built at the edge of the building. A small addition is planned for the music wing.

At Bridgewater Elementary project work on a 4,000-square-foot addition, creating new offices at the front of the building, was completed in October. The current office will be completely remodeled by next month.

4. Climate Action Plan passes, Northfield pledges to be carbon-free by 2040

Addressing climate change took center stage in 2019 in Northfield.

The City Council this fall passed a Climate Action Plan this fall and in it expressed its support to be carbon free within approximately 20 years. The plan is broad. In it, Northfield commits to seeking deep energy-efficiency retrofits for nearly all buildings and facilities, switching energy sources from fossil fuels to clean electricity in buildings and travel, reducing the miles people drive by promoting and expanding public transit, biking and walking, eliminating waste that enters a landfill or resource recovery facility and accelerating tree plantings and sustainable land ag practices.

The plan also calls for the city to provide 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030.

The need to address climate change was the focal point of a packed September rally at Bridge Square during which activists spoke of the need to combat the issue for future generations.

5. Bridgewater Township contemplates, steps away from incorporation

After contemplating over whether to petition for incorporation for months, Bridgewater Township opted to sign a three-year annexation agreement with Northfield.

The agreement means the township cannot seek incorporation until the agreement expires or one of the two entities withdraws from the agreement. A six-month notice must be give before withdrawal.

The agreement includes quarterly meetings between the two boards to discuss a possible new annexation agreement for joint planning and zoning, which could include a provision that Bridgewater can use the city’s zoning authority in the township.

The agreement came after months of discussion between Bridgewater, the city of Northfield and the city of Dundas, two cities afraid of having limited growth potential if Bridgewater incorporated. Litigation against the township was discussed, but proved unnecessary.

6. More than $3 million fire station renovation complete

Cramped quarters became more spacious thanks to a 4,600-square-foot addition on the south side of the Northfield Area Fire Rescue Services building. The renovations allow five more trucks to be stored on-site. As part of the project, the number of sleeping rooms increased from four to five and living space, including the kitchen day room, was remodeled and updated.

The project’s cost came in slightly under the $3.5 million budget. The station not only serves Northfield, but also Dundas and the rural fire district; Dundas and rural fire each have been reimbursing its share of the project cost to Northfield.

7. Malt-O-Meal brand marks 100 years

Two major brands synonymous with Northfield celebrated anniversaries in 2019. The Malt-O-Meal brand marked 100 years and its parent company, Post Consumer Brands, had its 125th anniversary.

An event commemorating the anniversaries took place in mid-October.

The company, founded by John Campbell in Owatonna in 1919, moved to Northfield in 1927. Campbell’s product, Malt-O-Meal, was considered revolutionary. Along with C.W. Post’s grain-based beverage, Postum, launched in 1895, and what in 1897 was considered a “sweet” cereal, Grape Nuts, the products made breakfast quicker and more affordable for Americans in the early part of the 20th century.

Each year, the Campbell Mill on Hwy. 3, Northfield’s largest employer, produces 300 million pounds of cereal.

8. New administrator takes the reins in Dundas

The man at the center of a chapter of significant growth in the city of Dundas stepped aside this year, and the torch was passed to a Northfield woman with significant public sector experience.

Retired Administrator John McCarthy had served as a jack of all trades for the city as administrator, serving as position services administrator, city clerk, city treasurer, zoning official, EDA director, data practices officer and ex-officio Northfield Area Fire Rescue Service (NAFRS) board member.

McCarthy helped see the city through the development of Bridgewater Heights, off County Road 1 and Highland Parkway, and smoothed out the city’s budget process.

Councilors unanimously approved entering into contract negotiations in May with Jenelle Teppen, formerly deputy director of Public Services and Revenue for Dakota County, for the position. She previously worked as Le Sueur city administrator, and for 16 years as assistant city administrator for Inver Grove Heights.

9. Northfield bank robbery

For the third time in three years and second in the last three months, robbers struck Premier Bank on Jan. 12.

Deandre Dontal McGowan and an unknown accomplice were shown in security footage brandishing a firearm at employees and a customer, and ordering them to lie down while McGowan bound their hands behind their backs with plastic zip ties. McGowan then ordered one of the employees to fill his backpack with $100 bills.

McGowan who was arrested Jan. 16 in Bloomington in connection with the robbery, was sentenced in U.S. District Court earlier this month to seven years in federal prison for bank robbery.

As part of the plea agreement, McGowan was not prosecuted for two other bank robberies — including the same bank Oct. 27, 2018. and at the New Market Bank in Lakeville Dec. 22, 2018. Premier Bank now plans to move to the Fairfield Inn site on Highway 3, a more prominent location in town.

10. Northfield marks Gun Violence Awareness Days

For a Northfield gun violence awareness group, education is the key to action.

The group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, took their message to Bridge Square June 8, holding a community gathering on Bridge Square.

About 25 people attended the gathering, as part of a larger Wear Orange weekend with similar events planned nationwide. Orange is the color of many gun violence awareness groups, a movement started in the memory of Hadiya Pendelton, who was killed at age 15 in Chicago weeks after performing at President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade in 2013.

The goal of the gathering was to educate the public about the impact of gun violence in America — on average, 100 people are killed by gun violence each day, said Beth Hagemeister of Moms Demand Action for Gun Violence in America.

“We are not anti-gun,” she said. “We are anti-gun violence. We respect the Second Amendment. We believe respecting rights and protecting people go hand-in-hand.”

A PERFECT FIT: Northfield assistant principal retires after more than 35 years

In 1983, Northfield Assistant Principal Jeff Eckhoff moved to the community with his wife, Ellen Connolly-Eckhoff, to become a Northfield High School physics and environmental studies teacher.

Thirty-six years later, Eckhoff, who initially was sure he wouldn’t live in Northfield for long, retired Thursday from the school district he loves.

For Eckhoff’s family, teaching has been a way of life. His father was an athletic director and his mother was a librarian. But the profession wasn’t always on his radar.

“I was looking for something other than teaching,” he said. “And I was into a lot of environmental stuff.”

As a third-year college student at St. Cloud State University, however, Eckhoff realized he wanted a career that centered on children.

“Teaching just seemed to be a perfect fit,” he said.

“When I was in college, physics was my most challenging subject that I was dealing with, and I think there was a little bit of an allure to that, where here’s something that was really, really difficult for me to learn.”

Perhaps what has made Eckhoff’s time at Northfield Public Schools even more enjoyable is the culture. To him, teaching in Northfield is a destination job for educators.

“Everyone here understands what their role is,” he said. “Teachers understand their role, custodians, kitchen staff. Everyone knows their job.”

To Eckhoff, what makes Northfield extraordinary is the commitment of students to get an education while maximizing involvement in athletics, fine arts and academics.

“It’s a perfect situation where you have a great community that backs education,” he said. “We’ve had tremendous leadership from superintendents to principals on down that I think really support teachers well, and then we are able to attract awesome teachers, just fantastic teachers.”

Eckhoff, who became assistant principal in 1997, coached football, basketball and track and field during his career at NHS. He was also a coach at Carleton College, where he coached basketball for approximately 10 years, mainly in the 1990s.

“It was fun,” he said. “Teaching is all about relationships. I mean, if they don’t trust what you are doing, they are not going to be engaged in the classroom. And I think that for me, doing the coaching was kind of an extension of that teaching. When you’re coaching you’re still teaching.”

As an assistant principal, Eckhoff has led ninth-graders and teachers in the orientation process along with fellow Assistant Principal Marnie Thompson, who also began her career as a science teacher.

“We team pretty well, because science is actually problem-solving,” Eckhoff said. “And I tell the kids, it’s my job to make sure the magic is happening in the classroom. And if there is something interfering with your ability to maximize what you are doing in each one of your classrooms, I’m one of the people who help.”

When Eckhoff has spoken to students with attendance or behavior issues, he still considered himself a teacher more than a disciplinarian, although he is willing to be strict when needed. His shift more than 20 years ago resulted in him transitioning from helping kids academically to teaching them necessary life skills in a more specialized instruction setting.

“It’s 100% built on relationships,” he said of his assistant principal role. “Early on it’s just having the students realize that they can trust who you are and what you do. My No. 1 interest is for their benefit. I team up with parents, I team up with teachers, and I am advocating for kids.”

Eckhoff planned to retire before the beginning of the school year but decided to delay that date until the end of the first semester as Principal Joel Leer left on sabbatical and Principal Laura Kay Allen filled in on an interim basis. Leer is returning in January. Allen will assume Eckhoff’s position until the end of the school year as the district looks to fill the position.

Eckhoff has kept long hours throughout his career and is known for sometimes arriving early in the morning and not leaving until late in the day.

“Jeff loves the students,” said Lynne Fossum, administrative assistant for Eckhoff and Thompson. “He has a passion for wanting them to do well. He wants to find ways to help them succeed. He tries to get them involved in other activities to kind of help them feel like they are making a home here at the high school.

“He has a high level of care for the students. He’s very level. He has a good sense of humor, tries to connect, keep it light, if possible, for students.”

As Eckhoff’s education career wound down earlier this week, he reflected on how he wants the students he served to view him as an educator.

“That I was caring, that I kept the best interest of the student or the athlete in mind when I was making decisions, that we were going through this journey together, and I was kind of one of the advocates that they had to help them when they were struggling,” he said.

The Eckhoffs raised their three adult children, Annie, 31; Emily, 27; and Joey, 22, in the community.

A former long-time member of the YMCA Board of Directors and the Church of St. Dominic, Eckhoff plans to fish, golf and watch birds after retiring but also wants to do some soul searching to figure out a meaningful hobby. One thing he knows is his next journey will also unfold in Northfield, the place he and his wife call home.

“My wife and I, when we first got here, we were going to be short-timers,” he said. “We weren’t going to stay in Northfield. We were going to get back closer to home. We both had family back there. And we learned to love it really, really quick, and after about two years, it was, ‘Nope, this is home. This is where we are going to raise a family and this is where we are going to get old.’”

Michael Hughes / By MICHAEL HUGHES mhughes@northfieldnews.com 

Northfield freshman Megan Snyder chases down a loose puck during Friday’s 3-1 loss at Lakeville South. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

All-Flex plans expansion, expects to create three dozen jobs

Northfield circuit manufacturer All Flex took major steps forward on Thursday in an expansion project slated to create approximately three dozen local jobs.

The Northfield Economic Development Authority approved a $50,000 loan and an application for $300,000 in Minnesota Investment Fund dollars for the project.

The $2.3 million, 14,500-square-foot expansion is expected to create 21 manufacturing positions as well as 10 manufacturing supervisors and seven engineering/office workers in Northfield. Work is slated to take place next year. All Flex also anticipates adding 30 to 35 positions at its Bloomington location. The expansion would come on the west side of the current manufacturing facility at 1705 Cannon Lane.

The Minnesota Investment Fund Program provides loans to businesses that create or retain high-paying, full-time permanent jobs and invest in machinery or property acquisitions or improvements. All Flex expects to make $8 million in capital equipment investments in association with the project.

All Flex was founded 25 years ago as a manufacturer of single- double- and multi-layered flexible circuits. Today, the company makes flexible circuits for the military, medical, aerospace and other industries.

The company, which employs more than 200 employees at its three Minnesota facilities, including two in Northfield and one in Bloomington, has contemplated growth plans for several years.

All Flex Circuits CFO John Fallen presented an overview of the company to the EDA Thursday morning prior to approval.

An estimated 50% of the company’s business this year has been in aerospace and engineering. About 35% has been for medical devices. The remaining 15% consists of industrial applications.

All Flex has had $35 million in sales this year, a significant increase from the $15 million in business the company conducted in 2009.

The request came as All Flex leaders said the company has reached its space capacity in Northfield. The organization raised the possibility of building in California or acquiring a company in that state because of the amount of business it does there, but leaders noted they are based in Northfield and want to expand here.

EDA Executive Director Nate Carlson said the request could be the first time the EDA asked for Minnesota Investment Fund dollars. He added the EDA would serve as an applicant, receive dollars from the state and pass that on to All Flex. Doing so is seen as important as the state agency values local investments in such requests.

One possible provision with state funding could include All Flex being required to stay in Northfield for at least the next five to 10 years.

In supporting the measure, Mayor and EDA board member Rhonda Pownell said it is important that Northfield grow its commercial and industrial sectors. To her, All Flex is a “great” company that other communities would want to have.

Northfield Hospital and Clinics facing a $1 million budget loss in 2020

Northfield Hospital and Clinics, looking at a projected $1 million loss in 2020, is evaluating ways to reduce the anticipated drop.

To help combat the loss, due to changes in the health care industry, officials are targeting $300,000 to $500,000 in savings from supplies and services. The balance is expected to come from labor or revenue or revenue growth. Officials expect to finalize a plan to close the gap by early next year. But before that, they plan to communicate with directors and employees of any changes.

Hospital officials strive for a 3% profit in most years but have settled for 2% next year, meaning they still need to find $3 million in either revenue or cuts.

“This budget was not sufficient,” CEO Steve Underdahl said Thursday night.

“This is a difficult but doable mission.”

The hospital is grappling with a $320,000 loss in operations income this year. The average length of stay in 2018 decreased from 2.42 days to 2.23. Admissions dropped from 1,942 to 1,710 and the number of inpatient days decreased from 4,707 to 3,806.

Inpatient revenue saw a significant decrease in 2018, from $56.89 million in 2017 to $47.88 million last year.

According to the hospital, it hired 35 FTE employees a few years ago when the organization was addressing an increase in demand. Today, the number of employees has remained flat while the number of inpatient days has dropped.

To combat the challenges, hospital officials are limiting expenses, seeking to negotiate better payer contracts and working with the Minnesota Hospital Association to address unfair insurance company practices.

Despite the challenges, which officials say are being felt nationally, the hospital is in a good financial condition. Cash on hand, used to measure the number of days an organization would be able to run if revenue immediately froze, has risen from 223 in December 2017 to 249 currently.

Underdahl said based on financials over the last three years, last year seems like it is closer to the new normal, forcing the hospital to build its structure around that.

“If we are going to have less heads on pillows, which is the trend nationwide … we’re going to have to think about how we are going to look as institution,” he said.