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Blooming Prairie native returns for second season of popular Disney show
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America is the land of dreams, and one local man continues showcase his in everyone’s living rooms.

In his 20 year professional acting career, Blooming Prairie native Josh Braaten has played sitcom boyfriends, criminals, a basketball player and more. For the last two years, though, he has donned the title of Disney star … sort of.

Braaten stars as Ben Campbell in the Disney series “Secrets of Sulphur Springs,” a mystery drama series that involves time-travel and premiered in Jan. 2021. Excitement is mounting with season two of the show premiering Friday.

“One of the things I really like about my character is he’s not a perfect guy,” Braaten said. “He’s a little bossy and kind of mean with his kids sometimes when they are telling him about the weird stuff happening, but that’s how real parents are, and it’s fun.”

Season one concluded with a cliffhanger ending, leaving viewers eager to find out what happens next. Braaten said audiences can expect the second season to pick up where they left off.

“Harper is trying to leave Tremont and she encounters someone who looks exactly like her,” Braaten said. “So she’s wondering what is going on, and then it cuts to black.”

When season two begins, we learn that the mysterious look-alike is (spoiler alert) Harper’s great-grandmother, Daisy. Due to a malfunction with the time portal, Harper is stuck some 90 years in the past, which brings a whole new set of problems throughout the season, and the Tremont Hotel almost becomes its own character with a backstory waiting to be discovered.

“My young sources say the show looks a little more spooky this year than last season. It’s a fun vibe, and spooky, but it’s almost realistic. But of course my character says to the kids it’s just the wind or leaky pipes, go do your homework,” Braaten laughed.

Throughout his career, this is his first job where many of his fellow cast members are kids. He said one of his favorite things about working with them is they keep work light and fun, and they don’t get stressed out or nervous in front of the camera.

“They’re annoying sometimes actually, because memorizing lines is so easy for them,” Braaten laughed. “They just practice really quick and walk through the scene once and they get it. Whereas me, Kelly, and Diandra and the other adult actors are cramming our lines and going over the scene multiple times together.”

Also being around the younger generation, Braaten has realized he is not as hip and cool as he may have once been.

“They like to let me know I’m not cool anymore,” Braaten said. “I may have been cool when people said things like ‘rad’ and ‘tubular,’ but that’s not cool anymore, but I’ve still learned a lot from them. I think I’ve probably learned more from the kids than they’ve learned from me. We find teachers everywhere.”

Braaten went on to say that the farm outside of New Orleans where parts of the show are filmed heavily reminds him of southeastern Minnesota.

“The sets outside of Tremont and the springs and woods at the summer camp remind me of Blooming Prairie,” Braaten said. “Outside of town, down by the river, with the fields and oak trees. It was a fun place to be because it reminded me so much of home. However, if I ever got the offer to film in Hawaii again, I would do it without hesitation.”

Though Hollywood has been home to the actor for many years, Braaten said he gets back to Minnesota as often as he can.

“Minnesota will always feel like home,” Braaten said. “If I could continue to be an actor and live in Rochester or St. Paul, I would. Last time I was back, we looked at places in St. Paul. So maybe someday I’ll have a place to call home in Minnesota, too.”

Along with season two of “Secrets of Sulphur Springs” premiering this week, Braaten also has a role in an upcoming Netflix mini-series “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”, where he plays a young version of Lionel Dahmer, the infamous serial killer’s father. The series is set to be released in Spring of 2022.

Southern Minnesota assessors report increases to home valuations

(Neal E. Johnson/Unsplash)

While the numbers won’t be finalized for some time, local county assessors, including those in Steele, Rice and Le Sueur counties, say that the incredibly strong housing market could lead to historic increases in single family home valuations in 2022.

While housing prices have been on the rise locally for close to a decade, Le Sueur County Assessor Shayne Bender said that 2021’s jump is likely to be on a different scale, with average valuations for single-family homes likely to be up as much as 25% to 30% this year.

“It’s the biggest jump I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been here,” Bender said. “It seems to be countywide and statewide.”

Bender attributed the sharp jump to a variety of factors, including a strong economy, low interest rates and limited supply. Rice County Assessor Josh Schoen said he was somewhat surprised to see the scale of the increase even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

“With interest rates so low, it’s been a good time to buy,” Schoen said. “We’ve seen a record number of sales in Rice County.”

Bender expects that rising and shifting property values could have significant impacts on local budgets. In addition to providing more money for counties and cities to spend without raising taxes, it could shift the tax burden towards homeowners and renters.

While the housing market is tight nationwide, Minnesota appears to be particularly affected. According to a September report from the Minnesota Population Center, the Twin Cities has the second lowest housing vacancy rate of the nation’s 75 largest metro areas.

According to an analysis produced earlier this year by the Minnesota Housing Partnership, meeting the demand produced by projected job growth and population growth will mean adding an additional 10,000 housing units per year each year for the next decade.

The MHP’s report highlighted lean housing production following the “Great Recession” of 2008-09 as the main culprit in leaving the state with inadequate housing supply, which has in turn led housing costs to be increasingly burdensome for many Minnesotans.

Over the last decade, the MHP’s report shows that home values have already increased at four times the rate of homeowner income. The latest increases could add to that gap, even as significant wage growth has been reported amid a tight labor market.

While the single family housing market may be seeing an especially sharp rise in values, local assessors said that property values are up across the board. That includes an increase in apartment values, though Steele County Assessor Bill Effertz said that robust construction has helped to limit the increase to a relatively modest 7%.

Effertz noted that business at local industrial parks has been brisk, which has been a major driver in boosting the need for housing and thus boosting local valuations. Similarly, agricultural land has enjoyed an increase of around 8% in valuation.

Effertz did note that local office and commercial spaces have been an unfortunate outlier, at least in Steele County. He attributed slower sales and flat valuations in that area to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased interest in working from home.

Another factor likely damaging commercial sales has been COVID’s devastating impact on the local hospitality industry. Driven by the region’s leading tourist attraction, Cabela’s in Owatonna, Steele County has traditionally had a robust hospitality industry.

Still, Effertz noted that the commercial and office market has been stronger in select areas, such as Owatonna’s Central Business District, which has seen a significant amount of new housing development as well.

“Any time you’re speaking in generalities, there’s going to be exceptions,” he said.


Owatonna wrestling alum Peyton Robb (left) has emerged as one of the top wrestlers in collegiate wrestling since joining the Nebraska wrestling program. (Photo courtesy of Ben Solomon, Nebraska Sports Information Department)

Mandatory masks return, for now, to Owatonna schools
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COVID-19 and the Influenza virus have been running rampant across the Owatonna Public School District.

On Tuesday, it was decided that a mask mandate would be put into effect in all Owatonna schools beginning Wednesday, Jan. 12, and ending Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Up until this point, masking in all schools has been recommended, but not required, and social distancing guidelines have been in place where possible.

According to Superintendent Jeff Elstad, in the last week, schools have seen a surge of influenza and positive COVID-19 cases. Nearly 10% of students and staff across the district are out with either illness, and a confirmed 110 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. He said numbers have nearly quadrupled in the last couple of days.

“We are trying our best to avoid distance learning and closing our schools,” Elstad said. “We will monitor things on a daily basis for the next two weeks and see where we can go from there.”

The mitigation protocol for the districts Safe Learning Plan states in the event the positivity rate for COVID-19 in any one of the schools reaches 5%, masks will be required for all students and staff for a period of 14 days.

If positive cases are still being reported in that time frame, a longer masking period may be required.

If staff or students are experiencing any symptoms associated with influenza or COVID-19 including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, headache, muscle paint and more, they are encouraged to get tested. At-home saliva test kits are available through the school district.

In light of the staff and substitute teacher shortages seen not only in the Owatonna School District, but across the state and nation as well, administrators and teachers alike are scrambling to keep doors open for students.

All things considered, Elstad said the district is pretty well staffed. Not nearly as well as before the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but everyone with a teaching license is stepping in where needed. Elstad is among many administrators who have had to step up and fill in to teach students in various grade levels, most recently helping in a middle school classroom.

“We are all trying to do what it takes to make things work as smoothly as possible,” Elstad said. “At this point it’s all hands on deck.”

Additional information about the districts resources and responses related to COVID-19 can be found on the website at