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County, United Way to provide financial support to local nonprofits


Amid the never-ending list of challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, area nonprofit agencies have been barely treading water as the needs for their services increase during a fundraising drought.

“Nonprofits are in place because there are always going to be people who have a need,” said Annette Duncan, president of the United Way of Steele County. “And this year we see that need more than ever — people who have never had to utilize these services have needed to because of the pandemic. Without having this safety net of services, our community would be in a really bad place right now.”

This week, Duncan and Steele County announced separate funds to help local nonprofits. County dollars are also available to small businesses in Steele’s unincorporated areas.

Across the state, nearly 15% of the workforce is employed in one of the more than 30,000 Minnesota-based nonprofits. Many of those nonprofits are dealing with challenges similar to those faced by small businesses: declining revenue and stubborn costs.

Duncan said most if not all of the nonprofits located in Steele County have had little to no funding coming in throughout the pandemic, adding that community support is needed not more than ever.

“We have been focused on ensuring [nonprofit agencies] have what they need,” Duncan said. “It’s not enough for them to just do their services and do them well; they also have to make the money to be able to provide those services. It is really important that all of us pull together and do whatever we need to do so these agencies can continue.”

In response to the need among area nonprofits, specifically those providing human services, the United Way will be implementing a COVID Relief Fund Grant, providing up to $2,000 per approved application. The dollars come from a grant the United Way received from the Minnesota Council of Foundations in the amount of $20,000, according to Duncan. She said the goal is to get it into the hands of as many nonprofits as possible.

“The purpose is to provide a different funding source for any 501-3© nonprofit that services Steele County with human services and has had COVID-related obstacles,” Duncan said. “While the max we can give is $2,000, we are asking the nonprofits to let us know what they actually need because we’re continuously looking for opportunities and partnerships to fill that greater need.”

One of those partnerships came at perfect timing, as Steele County announced this week that $1.1 million of their Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars has been earmarked to help nonprofits. The funds will be allocated through grants of up to $10,000.

“This money was intended to help local governments with costs they incurred during COVID-19 and help them pay some of these unexpected costs in emergency responses,” said County Administrator Scott Golberg. “We wanted to first identify as much as we could of our own internal costs, but that was only one bucket we needed to fill. Community, business and nonprofit relief are all priorities of the county.”

Duncan said United Way will provide support to the county by helping them reach area nonprofits and making them aware of the grant program. Golberg said he anticipates hearing about increased expenses in 2020 compared to the year prior as one of the obvious areas nonprofits are feeling a need.

“Lack of fundraising can also be taken into consideration, but lost revenue areas is one of the areas that CARES funding cannot be used for,” Golberg said. “However, if they show they lost revenue or haven’t been able to fundraise and the demand for their services has continued, that’s where we can step in to help with payroll, utilities and other costs they have been incurring on less revenue. It is sort of a backdoor way of helping with that.”

Duncan said this type of collaboration between the United Way, nonprofits and the county is exactly what is needed to keep the agencies alive and well during an unprecedented time. In addition, she said community support will also help determine the fate of some Steele County nonprofits.

“We are very fortunate in Steele County to have a strong community that is very supportive of each other, however, there’s just some situations that have made it next to impossible for some organizations to survive,” Duncan said. “We haven’t seen the misfortune of losing a nonprofit that other communities have yet, we are not to that point, but some of them are hanging on by a thread.”

“We have to do this together,” she continued. “No more of the silos — they have to be broken down. Otherwise we won’t get anything accomplished. Our job is not done yet.”

Scholarship available for creative local students

As the pandemic takes a toll on the economy and many financial resources have become uncertain, some college students are feeling the strain. The Owatonna Arts Center wants to ease that burden for a deserving art student.

The Silvan Durben scholarship is accepting applications for the 2020-21 school year. The $1,000 scholarship supports high school graduates of Steele County who are majoring in the arts and already have at a minimum of one semester worth of post secondary credits in an accredited program, according to the application website.

“The really wonderful thing is it’s a commitment to individuals who are going to go on with their journey in the arts to learn, because that is so important to have the arts grow and become vital well into the future,” Durben said.

Durben is the creative director at the OAC and has dedicated over 40 years to the local art scene. The idea for the scholarship was born in 2017 at Durben’s 40th anniversary celebration. Donations in honor of Durben were collected at the celebration to start the fund. That named fund is managed by the Minnesota Community Foundation, which means there will always be monies available to offer this scholarship.

“So it isn’t going to rely on the arts center having money this year to do it and next year maybe not,” Durben said.

Applicants are asked to submit a written statement including their goals, aspirations and career-related information as well as two letters of recommendation with their completed application. Other aspects the scholarship committee looks at include the student’s academic data, art work and work history. In addition, the student’s sense of purpose, degree of self-initiative, leadership, loyalty, citizenship and community service may be considered.

The OAC is committed to supporting young artists in their educational artistic pursuits by offering this scholarship.

“It is our hope that outstanding students may be helped to achieve their potential for success in their chosen arts related fields,” the Silvan Durben Scholarship committee wrote on the application.

Since there are already many scholarships for students fresh out of high school, the OAC board of directors felt it was important to offer this scholarship to students who already had started their post secondary education.

Durben is excited this scholarship will help a student’s artistic future and says he is honored that the scholarship is named after him.

“The arts are a journey and it’s a discovery of who you are and makes us human,” Durben said. “Into the future I think the arts are going to be even more necessary and vital and a part of everyone’s life.”

Railroad crossing sign

(Metro Creative Images)

Fair Board starts planning for 2021 event despite uncertainty

Every September, the members of the Steele County Fair Board of Directors dive head first into planning for the upcoming Steele County Free Fair – despite typically having only two weeks to recover from the most recent annual event.

This year wasn’t much different, yet nothing is the same. As the fair board puts a bow on the Drive Thru Food Fest and starts prepping the grounds for winter rentals, the work into putting together a 2021 SCFF is both ongoing and up in the air.

“We are planning for a fair with everything being unknown still,” said Fair Manager Scott Kozelka. “Nobody knows what next year is going to look like; we might be planning for a fair just to have the rules still only allow 250 people.”

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leaving the world questioning when “normal” will return, events such as the local fair — the biggest annual event in Steele County with the largest economic impact at roughly $10 million — are having to move into the next year in a state of uncertainty. Kozelka said while rules and regulations are expected to continually change between now and the next fair, they are doing what they can to continue on as normal.

One of the bigger efforts seen on the fairgrounds this month is the beginning of the electrical project that has been discussed by the fair board since the 2019 fair. Earlier this week, new electrical panels started going up in Fair Square as part of a larger project that will move a majority of the electrical lines on the fairgrounds underground. State statutes require a 15-foot radius around electrical lines and boxes. During the bonding tours for the Minnesota State senators and representatives, Kozelka explained how impossible that requirement would be to meet during fair week because of the number of vendors and shows that come out each year. Thus, the decision was made to move the lines underground.

Though this year’s legislative session failed to produce a bonding bill, Kozelka said the Fair Board knew it would begin phase one of the project this fall no matter what. Within the next two weeks, Kozelka said crews from Owatonna Public Utilities will begin moving lines in Fair Square underground. Items that are being removed from Fair Square during the project will be recycled to other areas of the fairgrounds, which Kozelka said will be a drastic cost-savings on the estimated $1.5 million project.

“This is just a small part of phase one,” Kozelka said about the Fair Square work, adding that he is unsure of what the next step will be. The project is an ongoing effort and subject to change depending on state statutes. “We are going to continue to do what we can and work with our friends and partners at the county, city and OPU.”

During the fair board meeting Thursday, Kozelka told the directors that he is working with Steele County to see what Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars the fair could qualify for. Kozelka said he is confident the fair may be able to receive some funding help to implement more sanitizing stations and other personal protective equipment during fair week.

Most all acts and entertainment are booked for the 2021 fair, according to Kozelka. Many have been carried over from the canceled 2020 event.

“It’s important that people know that we are getting ready for the fair even though we still don’t know what we can do,” Kozelka said. “Hopefully we will be able to bring back the Steele County Free Fair that everyone knows and loves.”

The 2021 Steele County Free Fair is scheduled for Aug. 17-22.