Though local officials have a list of priorities on their 2021 agendas, the No. 1 issue on their minds continues to be the COVID-19 pandemic.
City to address COVID-19, recently passed initiatives
Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig credited the federal government with helping local governments achieve financial stability for the new year, including allocating $1.53 million in COVID-19 relief funding to city of Northfield to help the city navigate difficult economic conditions. With that money, the council has agreed to spend $120,000 to make police officers’ work stations meet public health requirements. The city has also allocated $500,000 for local businesses and nonprofits. In early September, the council allocated $300,000 in business grants and $200,000 for nonprofit grants.
Martig added that the city will work to bring two new city councilors, Jami Reister and George Zuccolotto, up to speed. He is also preparing to continue the process of updating the city’s three-year strategic plan. Martig said he has “seen a lot of value” in having the strategic plan in place as guided by the council and implemented on the administrative side.
Economic development is expected to also be a top priority, both in the private sector and the 32-unit Spring Creek development, a project that could start in 2021.
The Community Action Center is planning for construction to start this year on a $4.7 million project, called Hillcrest Village, to include three emergency housing units, six for transitional housing and eight set aside for affordable housing on the 2½-acre site of the former Manger Inn on the north side of Hwy. 3.
Martig expects the city’s racial equity action plan, passed by the City Council last year, to lead to more strategic partnerships and help identify implicit biases and structural racism.
The city is transitioning street funding from assessments to franchise fees. Martig also expects the revenue transition to provide flexibility in closing pedestrian and biking access gaps and includes climate action goals such as energy efficiency measures like on-site solar arrays and other ideas.
Martig mentioned the Riverfront Action Plan, an initiative that the council approved last month. He expects the city to more broadly explore improvements to the riverfront and its entire parks system. The city hopes to construct a new transit hub by late this year. It received state funding for the new building.
The Northfield City Council has instituted a citizen-led police task force to discuss policies highlighted during recent calls for police reform following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. Martig expects the committee to come forward with recommendations on updating police policies in the coming 12 months. Also, he sees the committee as providing the chance to discuss police operations, community policing and how that translates. The City Council will consider whether to implement body cameras.
The Northfield Public Library will work with a new director as Teresa Jensen steps away from the leading role. The council last month appointed Virginia-based library official Natalie Draper to the position. She is slated to begin in her role next month.
NPS: Distance learning lessons to guide approach
Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the district’s No. 1 focus this year is continually managing the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated impacts the virus is having on the school district.
Students have been learning in a distanced model since late November, but K-2 children return Jan. 19. Older students are set to come back early next month.
Upon return, staff will need to wear face shields and face masks. Students must wear face masks even when physically exerting themselves. Hillmann said he is confident school buildings will be as safe “as practicable,” given the lessons staff learned last fall and ongoing mitigation measures.
Hillmann said he expects those precautions to last until a vaccine brings statewide numbers down, calling the introduction of the treatments “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Other priorities Hillmann described include making the district antiracist by opening up conversations on helping people adopt the concept before influencing the entire community, to ensure “true inclusion” takes place. To him, part of that process will include immediately speaking out when racially insensitive comments are made, or as more explicit forms of discrimination and race-based targeting take place.
Also, Hillmann expects school leaders to leverage the lessons they have learned during the pandemic to ensure students reap long-term benefits. Staff has become more adept at using online learning, and officials have said that option could be beneficial for students who learn better in such a format. He said the district will also consider how to design instruction in a less time-dependent way by creating models to leverage in-person learning for tasks that can only be done in such a format and using technology for students to access on their own. Ssuch an option could allow students to take classes that school staff isn’t licensed to teach.
Hillmann added the district is likely facing budget cuts for the 2021-22 school year and will conduct another strategic planning process, steps that will include lessons gleaned from remote teaching and learning during the pandemic. Community participation is expected to align investments with public priorities.
CEO Underdahl: Restrictions to continue through at least 1st quarter
Northfield Hospital President/CEO Steve Underdahl also expects the first half of the year to be dominated by responding to the pandemic and its continuing impact on individuals and businesses, including continued restrictions and public health measures through at least the first quarter of 2021.
However, the development of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines gives him hope that better days are ahead. To him, without the expedited release of the vaccines, American life could have been impacted throughout 2021 as well. Still, he called for people to stay vigilant and not succumb to temptation to break health guidelines related to social distancing and mask wearing, or by assuming that you are free to break those requirements once you have been vaccinated.
“It’s going to get incrementally better over the next six months,” he said.
Underdahl said it is difficult to decipher whether Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will extend his ban on indoor dining and restrictions on numerous other recreation activities beyond Jan. 11, adding that a spike in infections could come after the Christmas season when some families gathered for the holidays. He expects the virus to randomly spike and diminish in different areas of the country until the vaccine is widely used.
The city of Dundas could begin a sidewalk project at the intersection of County Road 1 and Hwy. 3 and complete the portion of a park area near the Mill Towns Trail trailhead. Administrator Jenelle Teppen said she hopes to see continuing development of single-family housing in Bridgewater Heights. Twenty six single-family building permits were issued for the development in 2020.
Teppen said she has been told by the developer of the 39-unit market apartment building, on West Avenue east of the railroad tracks, that construction could start this spring.
Dundas has also welcomes two new councilors this year, Luke La Croix and Luke Swartwood. La Croix, co-owner of CarTime Auto Center in Dundas, received 410 votes and Swartwood had 352 votes to gain their spots. Teppen said she anticipates a lot of time will be spent ensuring they become acclimated to their new jobs.
Dundas is expected to launch a new city website late this month. Teppen noted the new site, which includes the refining and addition of information, should improve communication with residents and businesses. Residents can subscribe to receive City Council agendas and packets and emergency notifications. Dundas is expected to continue encouraging residents to use its online utility bill payment system instituted last year.
Teppen said COVID-19 will continue to be another focus area for the city, whether the city opts to try to be a vaccination site for the area or if budgets are impacted by the continuing pandemic.
Northfield Public Schools nurses, service providers who are in close contact with students and personal care attendants will begin to receive COVID-19 vaccinations next week, shortly after K-2 students return to in-person instruction.
Superintendent Matt Hillmann announced the rollout during Monday’s School Board meeting. He said the district believes 37 employees qualify for the initial rollout.
Hillmann said the Minnesota Department of Health has said workers designated to receive vaccinations in phase 1a will be inoculated by the end of January, with remaining school staff being vaccinated beginning by next month. He and School Board Chair Julie Pritchard credited Northfield Hospital & Clinics and its work in allocating the vaccine to the district. NH+C received vaccine shipments last month.
“The light of the tunnel is getting here,” he said.
“The beginning of a vaccine is a really important step toward coming out of the pandemic.”
Still, Hillmann said Northfielders still share an obligation to continue to practice social distancing, mask-wearing and other preventative steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 until the pandemic concludes.
K-2 students to return Wednesday
Under the district’s plan, distance learning for K-2 students lasts until Wednesday, Jan. 13. After that, no school is scheduled the following two days so teachers can prepare for the return of the students. Students in third to fifth grades are scheduled to return to exclusively in-person learning Feb. 1. Students in those grades won’t have school from Jan. 27-29 so those teachers can prepare.
The district announced last month that preschoolers and K-2 students are slated to return to in-person learning Monday, Jan. 19, with older youth expected in a hybrid option by early February.
Northfield Public Schools had been operating in a distance learning format since late November after there were significant increases in virus numbers locally and throughout Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Education is requiring students to wear face masks while participating in physical education. Staff will have the chance to take a free COVID-19 test every two weeks.
The district’s decision came after Gov. Tim Walz prioritized the return of elementary children in submitting a similar plan for schools across the state. Any learning model changes, based in part on county COVID-19 infection numbers, no longer pertain to elementary schools.
Northfield Middle School, High School and Area Learning Center students are preliminary slated to continue distance learning from Jan. 4-28 before resuming hybrid learning Feb. 2. However, those plans also rest on the progression of the virus as measured by Rice County Public Health. The state recommends exclusive distance learning for school districts with infection rates above 50 per 10,000 residents. Rice County’s infection rate per 10,000 residents from Dec. 13 to 26 was 77.70.
For Northfield Community Education, facility rentals resumed Jan. 4 for local youth athletic associations who have existing safety plans on file. That return has been phased with smaller groups. In-person recreation programs also resumed Jan. 4. In-person enrichment programs are set to begin Feb. 1.
The Northfield City Council has unanimously approved the rezoning of nine parcels to make way for a major St. Olaf project, it’s still apprehensive about the school’s plans to increase parking.
The nine parcels, west of Lincoln Street North and on the north and south sides of St. Olaf College, were rezoned Jan. 5 from residential use to college development. The council approved the first reading of the proposed zoning changes Tuesday, Dec. 1.
The proposed development includes a 300-bed residential hall designed as four separate houses with interconnected hallways and lounges. Another 140 beds would be added in 14 townhouses along St. Olaf Avenue near the college’s west entrance. All units are intended for college juniors and seniors.
The townhouses would replace aging residences, ranging from 78 to more than 110 years old, that the college has acquired over the years. The more than $60 million development is expected to come on the land west of Lincoln Avenue that used to hold the school’s Honor Houses and the President’s House.
Plans call for construction to start next year, with occupancy by fall 2022.
Councilor Suzie Nakasian said though she was mindful of the merits of the project, she said Northfield must remember that any St. Olaf approval would likely need to be considered in any future proposed development for Carleton.
In also expressing support for the project, Mayor Rhonda Pownell said the council should not solely consider land ownership as the factor behind rezoning, noting the limited land available for development on the city’s west side.
Councilors express support for limiting parking
The Northfield Planning Commission last November recommended the City Council approve the project’s conditional use permit and rezone the nine parcels, but rejected the addition of more than 180 parking stalls north of the proposed development, an increase the college said is needed for overflow student and event parking. However, city staff later recommended the addition of parking stalls. Of the 189 proposed parking spaces, 161 would replace existing stalls.
Though there is no parking minimum in Northfield’s Land Development Code, councilors expressed a desire to limit that number to reduce impervious surfaces. Nakasian said she would like St. Olaf to ensure its parking plan adheres to trends showing a future less dependent on automobiles.
College officials say the number of junior and seniors who have off-campus demands complicates the idea of reducing the number of cars, adding that the percentage of students without vehicles is considered low enough that it constitutes a need.
Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau expressed concern that the plans could cause traffic to be redistributed and create too much of a burden on nearby St. Olaf Avenue and Lincoln Street. She also suggested including the school district on any conversation on the topic.
However, fellow Councilor Brad Ness predicted the plan wouldn’t substantially increase traffic to an already busy stretch.
Councilor Jessica Peterson White, who represents the area and as a downtown business owner who employs college students, said that though she acknowledges the transportation challenges some of her employees face and the need to have off-campus internships, she interprets city guiding documents and principles as not pushing for universal car ownership. She added she couldn’t remember another time when city staff had come forward with a resolution different than what had been unanimously adopted by the Planning Commission. To Peterson White, if the Planning Commission is not aware of the changes, the group should possibly be made aware of them. City Council Jami Reister agreed, admitting she felt “very conflicted” about having two different parking-related plans to consider.
However, Pownell said having the different recommendations didn’t bother her, voicing her support for allowing different city-aligned groups to have differing opinions.
“This has been an excellent process,” she said.
Neighborhood residents have expressed concern about the area of the college’s sledding hill being rezoned to college development, something they said could lead to development and further encroachment into a residential area. The college has stated it has no plans to develop that spot. Another top concern was that there would be an increase in traffic by students and service vehicles on nearby St. Olaf Avenue and adjacent streets. A possible increase in parking is seen as potentially increasing traffic, causing concern that adjacent homes would lose value.
Several said they supported St. Olaf’s right to build housing and parking that meets the needs of their students but said it must be done with consideration of the surrounding neighborhood.
The parking will likely be discussed again when the council considers a conditional use permit for the project, potentially in February.
Project back on track after COVID-19 delay
The St. Olaf Board of Regents approved the project in January 2020. Plans were temporarily paused in May due to financial uncertainty wrought by COVID-19. According to the college, the development would enable at least 100 students who are living off campus to move back. In the process, St. Olaf students say poor student behavior reported off campus would be reduced and the college would become more competitive in pursuing students seeking an on-campus residential experience. St. Olaf officials say the facilities will also allow for expanded summer conferencing.
The majority of the school’s residence halls were built between 1956-63. However, the college has reportedly faced a shortage of more than 400 on-campus beds since the 1990s as enrollment has outpaced residential development. To combat the shortage, St. Olaf has sometimes had up to three students living in the same room and allowed several hundred to live off campus. According to the college, the project is also needed for St. Olaf to compete in recruiting.
Local law enforcement are investigating the weekend deaths of two Faribault residents believed to have overdosed on counterfeit painkillers.
Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who called the deaths “tragic,” said investigators believe they’re related to another overdose, also last weekend, in Apple Valley.
In a Monday afternoon release, Faribault Police said the bodies of the two, Luis Carrillo, 28, and Amber Low, 33, were discovered Saturday when a woman arrived at a home in the 200 block of Second Street NE to pick up her child. When she entered the residence, she reportedly found Carrillo and Low dead on the floor.
The woman and her child then left the residence and she called police.
Initial investigation indicates the two died from a narcotics overdose. Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force also responded to assist Faribault Police with the investigation. The Hennepin County Medical Examiners Office is conducting the autopsies.
Pills found at the residence are reportedly consistent with those found with other overdoses nationwide also under investigation. The pills are round, white and imprinted with an “M” on one side and “30” on the other.
They appear similar to legitimate prescription Oxycodone pills, which are blue.
The suspect pills often contain fentanyl, a powerful narcotic anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.
Additionally, the pills were found in small plastic “gem bags” printed with black spades on them.
The overdoses are the latest in what’s become an all too common occurrence in southern Minnesota.
From August 2019 through December 2020, law enforcement in Steele and Rice counties responded to 43 overdoses linked to opioid abuse — nine were fatal. Access to naloxone, an over-the-counter anti-opioid medication makes it likely the number of nonfatal overdoses is far higher.
Anyone finding these pills are advised to not ingest them. They should be turned in to the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force or disposed of in the dropbox at the Rice County Sheriff’s Office.
Bohlen warned residents not to take medication of any kind unless it’s prescribed by a doctor and comes from a pharmacy, noting that otherwise there’s no way to know what’s in it.
“Unless you know what it is and it was prescribed to you,” he said, “don’t take it.”
Anyone with information about these deaths or other overdoses is asked to contact Agent Jeff Burbank at 507-334-0945.