It was a not-so-typical fall weekend with bright sunshine and beautiful weather, perfect for the Owatonna Public Library to present its first ever StoryWalk Project event.
Created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the StoryWalk project is an innovative way for families to enjoy reading and being outdoors at the same time by scattering pages from a children’s book along a path or trail. In Owatonna on Saturday, the library set up a StoryWalk alongside the path at Lake Kohlmier to present “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff. The program had activities coordinating with each page along the walk, and was set up again on Sunday in Blooming Prairie.
“This is something libraries have been doing for a while that we discussed back in the beginning of planning for our summer reading program – which starts in February,” said Library Director Mark Blando. “When COVID hit everything kind of went sideways, but we revisited the idea a couple months ago to see if there was a way we could make it work and see it in person.”
Blando said the event was a hit at both locations, seeing a range from infants to brand new readers to preteens and everything in between come out and enjoy the experience. After a great reception from the participants, Blando said the StoryWalk is definitely something that could be returning to the library programs.
“We already have a couple ideas in the fire,” Blando said. “Our librarian hearts swelled those days, everything really came together well.”
The Blooming Prairie Branch Library is a branch of the Owatonna Public Library, which is a member of the SELCO Regional Library System.
See more photos on page 8A.
With thread, needles and thousands of seed beads, Sue Peoples of Owatonna strings tiny beads onto a strand, pulling the strings through each other and weaving the glass pieces together to create one-of-a-kind jewelry.
“I just like to do unique things and something that is a little bit different,” Peoples said.
In addition, the beadweaver makes her own glass beads. She carefully chooses colored glass rods, about the diameter of a pencil, to create a handmade bead to match the style and color of the corresponding seed beads. Creating beads is Peoples favorite part of the jewelry-making process.
“Because that’s just one small part of the finished piece, because then I have to find coordinating beads and accent beads and figure out what I’m going to make it into,” Peoples said.
Using a torch, Peoples pushes the glass rod into the flame, melting it onto a stainless steel mething rod. Layer upon layer she adds more glass, building up the bead, shaping it and giving it texture. The bead then goes into the kiln to anneal, effectively taking the stress out of the glass, according to Peoples. The following day the bead comes out, is cleaned and ready to be designed into jewelry.
“The thing about the bead stuff is if you don’t like it you could take it apart and make something new with the beads,” Peoples said.
Some of her pieces take several hours to make, others take days, some even up to a month, Peoples says. Although it’s hard to say exactly how long it takes, as Peoples will often work on her seed bead creations a little at a time.
Peoples is a planner. She typically starts off with a color palette in mind. It’s obvious through her work that Peoples loves bright colors. She adds shapes and textures, creating bumps and divots in her handmade beads, using various tools from her studio. Other times Peoples strategically avoids melting the glass all the way through, keeping some raised edges as embellishment.
“I usually go down into my studio with something in mind when I’m going to my torch,” Peoples said.
Although she admits things don’t always go as planned and plans can change rather quickly. However, when a piece doesn’t turn out how she desires (and she’s too stubborn to throw it out) she’ll come up with a new idea.
“Many times something completely different comes out, you never know when you are layering glass,” Peoples said.
Peoples entered the bead world after taking a simple earring-making class 23 years ago, where she discovered her love for making jewelry. She had always been a crafty person, dabbling in knitting, crocheting, quilting and more recently making over 1,200 masks. Since taking that first class, her obsession with beading grew. She started travelling to take beading classes, picking up tricks and techniques from some advanced beadmakers, eventually honing her craft. The passion even spread to her daughter, who Peoples says is also a beadmaker.
“She grew up with me making beads and she thought everybody’s mom just did that,” Peoples said.
Peoples usually sells most of her work at art fairs throughout the summer, but because of the pandemic many shows were canceled. Instead, Peoples took the summer off and focused on uploading more of her pieces to her website to sell.
Peoples work is currently up at the Owatonna Arts Center as part of “The Escape Artist” exhibit. Like other artists currently featured, she too has gone on Escape Artist retreats, bringing her beading supplies to spend some time creating with other artists. As previously reported in the Owatonna People’s Press, The Escape Artists is a collective of local and regional artists who attend art retreats together to create and collaborate.
“We used to go away every year and have so much fun,” Peoples said. “And that’s another really great way to get ideas from the other artists, but they are working with a whole different medium, but you can kind of apply it to your medium which is nice.”
Owatonna mayoral and city council candidates discussed economic development and housing, city staff turnover and city government transparency in a forum on Monday.
The event was the second in a series of candidate forums to be held by the Owatonna Country Club over the coming weeks. The forums are sponsored by the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Rotary Clubs of Owatonna and the Owatonna People’s Press.
Originally, the state legislature candidates’ forum was scheduled for this week, but a special session called by Gov. Tim Walz called for change in dates and the city city candidates switched with the legislative candidates for Monday’s forum. Due to the schedule change, Councilmember Greg Schultz was unable to attend the forum. Schultz represents the second ward and is running unopposed. Minnesota Senate and House candidates will participate in the next forum instead.
Those in attendance for the forum Monday included Mayor Tom Kuntz and his opponent Ethan Cords, Councilor-at-Large Doug Voss and his opponent Matt Durand, and Councilor Kevin Raney of the fourth ward, who is running unopposed.
Economic development & housing
Economic development was heavily discussed during the forum, with nearly every candidate saying it’s one of the top two priorities the city should have moving forward.
Raney said that with the economic development Owatonna has experienced, catering to the correlating workforce should also be a priority. As the industrial industry continues to grow in Owatonna, the city needs to have a strong workforce, he said.
“With those jobs we also need to offer them leisure time activities – golf, trails, shopping experiences … I think it’s vitally important that the city recognizes that and does what it can to provide those services,” he said.
Voss emphasized the need to expand available housing in relation to economic development, noting that the demand for housing is only going to continue to grow as more companies select Owatonna as their next home.
“We need affordable housing, we need market rate housing, we need high end housing – we would love to keep some of the top executives living in town here, too,” he said.
Voss noted that redeveloping different areas in town is one of the ways the city could continue to address the housing shortage.
Kuntz echoed Voss’ emphasis on prioritizing housing in the city as it related to economic development, touching on the housing study recently concluded by the city and how the demand for housing will only continue to increase following the expansion of Highway 14.
“We’ve been very blessed over the last 10 years in economic development,” Kuntz said. “It’s called location … and being on Highway 14 and Interstate 35 proves to be a huge benefit to the city of Owatonna.”
Kuntz said he’s confident the Owatonna housing market will continue to flourish and hold strong.
Cords said he believes it’s vital for the city to work closely with state and federal governments to provide more opportunities for affordable housing projects, something both Voss and Raney said is necessary because developers are not interested in affordable housing projects due to the difficulty in turning a profit with affordable housing developments.
“The city can only do so much on its own, so we need to provide the platform for growth in the housing sector and help developers and companies find locations for their projects,” Cords said. “We need to work with the state government to provide more Section 8 housing and providing more incentive for developers since there is no profit margin.”
Durand said building costs are one of the biggest obstacles Owatonna is facing when it comes to the housing shortage, impacting the interest developers may have in certain housing projects.
“I know that these builders are facing material increases and a lot of different challenges – skilled labor is very hard to find,” said Durand, who worked in residential construction and taught construction project management at Dunwoody College of Technology and Minnesota State University, Mankato. “All of these things contribute to housing shortages and there are a lot of cooks in that kitchen … all of that led to a grassroots effort around housing that I have been a part of over the last two years.”
Durand said Steele County has been selected to be a part of the Housing Institute with the Minnesota Housing Partnership that will study the different barriers around housing and how the community can provide affordable housing in the $800-$900 rent-per-month range.
The candidates were also questioned about preventing staff turnover, specifically at the Owatonna Police Department.
While Cords claimed Owatonna is known to be a “training ground” for officers, calling for an increase in pay to make the city a more competitive place to work, Raney refuted that notion entirely.
“We’ve had people come back, not leave – we are not a training ground,” Raney said. “We did a study a couple years ago in regards to pay equity and our police are paid pretty much right in line with our friends to the north … if you look at the numbers of what we’re paying our employees I would put that up against anyone.”
Whether the OPD is considered a stepping stone didn’t matter to Durand, who said he is thankful that Police Chief Keith Hiller is a skilled trainer who brings young officers into town.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that we have a lot of young police officers that want to come here and learn from really great trainers,” Durand said. “Not every time does someone leave because they are disgruntled that they’re not paid enough … sometimes the opportunities can help you grow as an individual.”
It was only a couple years ago that the OPD did express frustration to officer turnover, but he believes it’s only a matter of time before people will see Owatonna as an ideal place to work, Voss said. He added that an officer who formerly worked in Owatonna recently left the Minneapolis Police Department to return to Owatonna.
“Owatonna looks pretty good right now compared to some of the stuff they’re dealing with up there,” he said.
Both Voss and Kuntz said emphasizing all Owatonna has to offer plays a vital role in retaining officers and other city staff. Kuntz said many residents note the local parks and trail system as one of their favorite benefits of living and working in Owatonna.
“It’s not only the dollars that we pay them, but the value that this community brings to (city employees) that’s very important,” Kuntz said. “The new high school is also really going to help in securing new officers in the future, knowing that the community is under growth.”
Transparency, and actions the city is taking to stay connected with the community, was a repeated topic throughout the forum.
Durand said transparency from the city level is vital when it comes to decisions that impact taxpayer dollars.
“I think that it’s easy to talk and look at physical things like housing and (the Economic Development Authority), but I think it’s more important to talk about transparency and trust,” Durand said. “All these decisions that are going to happen are made possible by taxpayer dollars, so let’s engage those folks, let’s make sure we’re being upfront and talking about these decisions.”
Durand also said the council is making decisions without the community being aware that they are up for discussion until after the fact, to which Voss and Raney both claim the public have more than adequate access to city council agendas and information.
“Our council agendas are up online Friday evening for our Tuesday meetings, you simply go to the city website and it’s there – you can go through the whole agenda at 2 o’clock in the morning if you want – so to make a claim that people don’t know about something until Tuesday or Wednesday I totally disagree with that,” Raney said. “We are extremely transparent with what we do.”
Cords also said transparency is vital in maintaining the good leadership Owatonna has been known for.
“Having good transparency between every group in the community and their leaders is very important,” Cords said.
For the current mayor, the transparency he wanted to emphasize is the close collaboration between city, county and school officials as they make decisions in moving the community forward. He noted that the officials meet to decide together on the priorities for each entity for the year to ensure there’s no overlap, which also leads to less financial impact on taxpayers.
“I think it’s communication and coordination with all the entities within our community to make sure we’re all looking forward for what’s best for Owatonna,” Kuntz said.