After nearly eight months of talk, plans and anticipation, the work to bring a hotel to downtown Owatonna officially begins Thursday.
It will be a celebration, too, as the groundbreaking ceremony for three major downtown projects will coincide with the first Downtown Thursday event of the year.
Downtown Thursday is a monthly summer event that brings a night market to the streets of downtown Owatonna, featuring food, music, shopping and art on the first Thursday of every summer month. In the past, the event closes off a few blocks of Cedar Avenue to allow vendors and businesses to set up along the street and bring a “boulevard feel” to the event. The inaugural Downtown Thursday partnered with the 11@7 concert series in August 2018 and was such a success that the Owatonna MainStreet program decided to make it permanent.
MainStreet Director Shirley Schultz said following the success of the 2018 event she received an enormous amount of praise and gratitude that the community finally had something like this to offer and attract people to the downtown district. After taking a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Schultz said they are ready to come back bigger and better than ever.
“People are excited to come out,” Schultz said. “Everywhere you go these days you see people who say this is their first time going out again, and this event I think will be a good one to bring people back to normal.”
To try to help get back to normal, Schultz said Steele County Public Health will be partnering with HyVee to provide both the Johnson and Johnson and the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines at the event, allowing people to select which shot they would prefer. The tent will be set up around Central Park.
Typically occurring at Central Park and the 100 and 200 blocks of Cedar Avenue, Downtown Thursday will be working around the streetscape construction that is set to begin this month. Though they will not know for sure how the construction will impact the July and August events until after the city awards a bid, Schultz said event organizers are feeling pretty confident that they will have at least the 100 blocks available all summer.
“That talk has been that it takes about 45 days to finish one block,” Schultz said, adding that the city ensures the construction will go in phases and only one block will be worked on at a time. “They are starting with the 300 block in mid-June and they will go to the 200 block after that. Once we get to the 100 block it will likely be into the fall already.”
Schultz said the worst case scenario will simply mean they have to put things a little tighter around the park.
The first Downtown Thursday event will include the groundbreaking of the streetscape project, as well as the hotel project and apartment complex project on Pearl Street. Schultz said that following the 5 p.m. ceremony, those heading up each project will be available for questions from the public.
“I’m not sure if they’ll be there the whole time or not, but they will hang around for a while and I’m sure stay as long as people are asking questions,” Schultz said. “All of this is for downtown revitalization — to draw people back downtown and make them fall back in love with Owatonna.”
The streetscape project will consist of a total reconstruction for the 100-300 blocks of Cedar that will include widening the boulevard, increasing accessibility, updating ADA requirements and sewer utility replacement. The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million.
City Engineer Kyle Skov said the streetscape’s timeline will be for construction to begin in June, and for all the street service and sidewalks to be completed by the end of 2021. He added that amenities such as lighting, benches and landscaping will be completed in spring 2022.
Developer Mac Hamilton, CEO of Hamilton Real Estate Group, will be constructing a 106-unit Marriott Courtyard hotel that will redevelop the 200 block of Cedar. The project includes the total renovation of the buildings south of the alley that contain Old Town Bagels and the former Jerry’s building, as well as the demolition of the Flooring Frenzy building, the former Bishman Insurance building and a triplex on Pearl Street.
In tandem with the hotel project, Hamilton will also be developing a 43-unit market rate apartment complex on the 100 block of East Pearl Street. Hamilton said he anticipates both projects will be completed and open to the public by June 2022.
When Mackenzie Snow first volunteered to be one of the leaders representing her pharmacy with the United Way of Olmsted County, the young pharmacy technician didn’t realize she would be tapping in to an unknown passion.
“I did a lot of random work,” Snow laughed. “I helped with backpack drives, fundraisers, really anything they needed me to do I was ready to help.”
After a handful of years of coordinating fundraisers and connecting community members with helpful resources, Snow was hired at the end of March as the new program coordinator for the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition, a partnership with the local United Way. Deep down, Snow believes this is where she was meant to land in her career.
“I have had family members who struggled with addiction and I have seen firsthand that devastation,” Snow said. “I was also married to an addict and even though we’re not together now, I still have always thought that if something have been done different in his youth, that things could have been different for his entire life.”
It is that realization that sticks with Snow as she gears up to reach out to the Steele County youth. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping schools mostly closed to outside resources and visitors, Snow said she hasn’t had much of a chance to implement some of the proactive elements of the program for which she is excited, but that hasn’t stopped her from staying focused on her goal.
“I want to make sure that what we do is all-inclusive for the kids,” Snow said. “I don’t want anyone to think this is just for the popular clique or for the kids who are already doing really well. What we do is for everyone and every student is welcome.”
Though Snow anticipates that most of her work will be targeted at students in middle school and older, she said it is never too early to talk to kids about making good choices when it comes to substance use. She said she plans on being a go-to resource for parents if they are wondering how to talk to their children, regardless of their age, when it comes to the topic of drugs and alcohol.
“Educating parents is a huge part of what we do,” Snow said. “I know there are some parents who may think that as kids get a certain age it’s a ‘rite of passage’ to do certain things, but we need to change that mindset. Most kids aren’t experimenting with drugs and alcohol.”
Anxious to get out in the community and connect with people, Snow’s first big project is what she is calling a “sticker shock” campaign. With this campaign, Snow is going into liquor stores and asking to place stickers on the products that remind customers not to purchase alcohol for minors. Snow said sometimes its little elements like a reminder on a sticker that can help break the stigma of underage drinking in smaller communities.
“With graduation coming up, I feel like it’s a good time to get this reminder out there,” Snow said.
In today’s climate, Snow said there are many areas she would love to focus on when it comes to substance use among youth. Certain things include vaping, meth, heroin, and the misuse of prescription pills such as Adderall.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself to just take things one chunk at a time,” Snow laughed. “But I plan on bringing with me numbers and statistics that are local. ... I’ve been busy connecting with law enforcement and other local leaders so that when this next school year starts I’m ready to hit the ground running.”
The Owatonna School Board physically opened their doors to the public last week for the first time in a while. A group of people made their way into the boardroom, filling the newly stationed chairs for residents.
Among those seated in the public section were a group of accomplished Owatonna students and their parents. Four high school students were recognized by Superintendent Jeff Elstad for their recent advancement to the state speech competition. Another group of four students were congratulated by Elstad and the board on earning music awards.
Students Elise Egbert, Samuel Buegler, Audrey Franklin and Zach Liebl have earned music awards. Julia Christenson, Megan Copeland, Jackson Hemann and Fardouza Farah advanced to the state speech competition back in late April. The students were acknowledged during the school board’s Mission Moment, a monthly opportunity to highlight inspiring work from district staff and students.
Three of the four music award winners attended Monday’s meeting. Upon inviting the three students up to the table, Elstad noted the importance of incorporating music and fine arts into a well-rounded education. Recently the Owatonna band, orchestra and choir have held in person concerts, a significant advancement after the pandemic canceled most live performances.
The John Philip Sousa award is typically given by the high school band director to a single student each year, however a tie led to both Egbert and Buegler receiving the honor. Egbert plays French horn and trumpet and Buegler plays percussion. Both plan to continue playing after high school, Buegler is planning to minor in music during college.
“This award recognizes superior musicianship, dependability, loyalty and cooperation,” Elstad said.
The National School Orchestra award is the counterpart to the Sousa award and it’s the highest honor that can be given to a member of a high school orchestra. It recognizes excellence in playing and contributions to the ensemble. This year’s award winner was Franklin, a violin player.
The Choir Director’s award honors outstanding members of the junior or senior high school chorus. The award was given to Liebl.
“We’re just so grateful to have such young budding musicians. I just hope that you continue to expand your music as you move forward because it’s kind of that love that you establish that just goes on for life. I hope all of you have plans, if it’s not at the collegiate level, that you’re performing with chamber groups, community groups because they need to hear you and hear you play your instruments, that’s for sure, or sing,” Elstad said, before further congratulating the students.