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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Kaitlyn Madole was a fixture in the middle of the order for the Owatonna softball team during her sophomore and junior seasons and plans on continuing her career at NCAA Division III UW-Eau Claire next season. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

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Housing proposal to move site from eyesore to apartments

Two new proposals will help reduce Owatonna’s housing crunch.

A project known as Eastgate Apartments last week received almost $139,000 from Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The money is to be used for asbestos abatement, demolition, soil stabilization and infrastructure improvements on the 1.25-acre site currently occupied by two single-family homes and a former bus garage at on Cherry Street.

Once that work is completed, construction of a 36-unit apartment building will begin and marketed as workforce affordable housing. 

A second 36-unit apartment building was proposed earlier this week, slated to go at 660 Mound Avenue SW, behind the commercial building that houses Starbucks and Papa Murphy’s Pizza on West Bridge Street. These apartments will be market-rate.

Troy Klecker, Owatonna’s community development director, said during Tuesday City Council meeting that the apartments will help the city fill the current demand for market-rate housing. Housing projects currently underway won’t meet the pent up demand, he said.

“The last housing study we did was three years ago and currently indicates a higher need than what we’ve put up,” Klecker said, adding that a new city housing study is currently begin done. “We will have the first draft of the new study in the next couple of weeks, but our need for apartment housing is going to be much more than the previous study we are using, but we still haven’t hit those demand numbers in the previous one.”

Klecker added that despite that state of the economy during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, multi-family housing like apartments and single family homes are still being “snapped up” immediately after the hit they become available.

“The housing demand is definitely there,” Klecker said. “The new housing study will give us a good indication of exactly how high of a demand is out there.”

During the meeting, the council set a public hearing date to establish a tax increment financing – or TIF – district for the project on Mound Avenue. The project is being proposed by Schrom Construction and the developer is requesting the use of TIF to help with the costs of demolition of the existing building and sit development costs for the project. The garage building is currently occupied by RK&T Construction.

The public hearing is set for June 16. The project is anticipated to create one job and increase the tax base by $28,082.

These are the second and third apartment complex projects brought to light in the last two weeks.

In April, the council approved a new design plan for a 71-unit apartment complex in a 6-1 vote. The project will be phase one of a three-phase development plan that will add up to 235 unites to the city, ranging from market-rate multi-family apartments to senior living. The developments will be constructed along Lemond Road and Riverwood Drive.

District website gets a mobile-friendly makeover

An updated Owatonna Public Schools website went live late Tuesday morning, hosted on a new platform and with a layout that administrators hope will make it easier to navigate from both computers and mobile devices.

After discussions about a new site began in October, the district sent out a survey to gather feedback from families, students and community members on what they liked about the existing site and what they hoped to see come out of a redesign.

When it came to what people visited the website for, the district’s Director of Technology and Innovation Mike Halverson said three key areas emerged from the roughly 1,000 responses. People were most often looking for information on high school activities, lunch menus and employment opportunities within the district.

On the new home page, “Careers” and “Calendars” tabs are featured prominently along the top, with a “Menus” icon located just below. Another significant change is the “Our Schools” page, which now brings visitors to a list of all buildings — complete with hours of operation and relevant phone numbers.

Noting that over 80% of website traffic comes from mobile devices, namely smart phones, Halverson added that it was important to have a layout that could translate better to the smaller screen. In doing the redesign, the district also switched to a different website provider, moving from rSchoolToday to Finalsite.

The latter had a variety of themes to choose from, and it was up to staff to select a theme and place information within it. With the change in companies, Halverson estimated the district will spend around $500 less per year for the domain.

Technology specialist Kelly Johnson, who helped lead the redesign, said she hoped the new layout would make information more accessible and possibly lessen the number of calls to building secretaries.

“There’s a lot of information that they are getting calls for on a daily basis,” she added. “Those were really important things for us to have in an easy-to-find location — the simple questions that they get every day, ‘What are the school hours?’ or ‘How do I put money in my student’s lunch account?’”

Building secretaries and department heads also worked closely with the technology department on the new website — taking information from the old version, cleaning and updating it to be put back into the redesign. Johnson added that a lot of information which pertains only to staff members was removed and put into a separate Google site, linked on the new website and accessible only by educators.

“Where we may have had some out-of-date information in the past, everything was cleaned up and gone through — this isn’t a conversion from one site to a new site, you rebuild,” said Halverson. “All of our pages are completely rebuilt to look the way they are now.”

The new site went live Tuesday morning, starting at about 9 a.m. and becoming visible to most users around 11 a.m. Although the district now has a new domain name, www.isd761.org, users who go to the old domain will be automatically redirected. Even on launch day, Halverson said traffic looked pretty typical.

“We’ve let our staff and students know, but our families and community members are finding out as they’re logging in,” he added.

Going forward, Johnson said building secretaries and department heads have been trained on how to create new content and will be doing the bulk of the work maintaining the website from here on out.

“It goes into their hands now, and we’re here to support them if they need us,” she added. “It’s the district site for all those departments and all those buildings to do what they want and what they need to do with it.”

Nurse Lindsay Stewart demonstrates donning and doffing PPE inside of Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on March 26. In an executive order Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz lifted the temporary ban that he imposed seven weeks ago, which was part of an effort to save scarce masks and gowns for the COVID-19 fight. (Evan Frost/MPR News file)

County's free clinic offeri patients telemedicine services

After a doing weeks of outreach during what Limhi “Lee” Vela considered to be an unusually quiet time, things are starting to ramp up again at the Free Clinic of Steele County.

Vela, the director of the Free Clinic, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic most patients were unaware if services were still being provided or how to access them. So he began reaching out to its list of patients – all Steele County residents who are underinsured or uninsured and living at the 200% poverty level or below – and simply leaving them messages about the clinic’s new telemedicine operation.

“The Mayo Clinic here in Owatonna has been gracious enough to loan out their program and allow us to use their interpreter services, which really helps,” Vela said. “It’s been quite efficient, and other than simply needing an interpreter it has all gone smoothly.”

Aside from Vela and the clinic’s dental services coordinator, the clinic is entirely staffed by volunteer health care professionals from the community. This includes doctors, nurses, dentists, hygienists and technicians, as well as those who help with administrative duties.

“The telemedicine has been in important to keep providing out services while keeping our volunteers safe,” Vela said. “We are a completely volunteer-driven organization as well as a United Way agency.”

Now that more people are aware the services are still being provided by the Free Clinic through telemedicine, Vela said that his days are again becoming busier with returning phone calls and scheduling appointments. He added that some of the situations the have come to light since the stay-at-home order was put in place ranges from things as simple as refilling a prescription or supplying additional bandages for more serious cases such as dental emergencies.

“We are trying to keep people from going to the emergency room for something small that we can help with and treat,” Vela said, adding that with the pandemic people haven’t been calling in like they would normally and instead are seeking help at the emergency room. Since the pandemic, the Free Clinic has had to make three referrals for dental emergencies to oral surgeons, which is free for its patient.

One of the most common misconceptions that accompany the Free Clinic is that it is solely for Spanish-speaking individuals. The clinic serves Steele County adults who live at or below the 200% poverty level. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, a household of one that is taking in $2,127 a month is at the 200% poverty level via federal guidelines. For a household of four, the household would be taking in $4,367 a month or less.

“A lot of these people are essential workers,” Vela said. “We see people that work in supermarkets full time or part time but they can’t make ends meet. We are seeing small business owners who are going through a hard time due to the pandemic. And we see people who are simply caught between a rock and a hard place because they may be homeless or recently unemployed.”

Vela said that they Free Clinic’s Board of Directors is discussing reopening the medical clinic May 19 for in-person appointments, though nothing is set in stone. He added that in-person dental services will take longer to reopen due to the higher risk of exposure for those volunteers.

“We are hoping to get dental appointments started sometime in June, but that is going to look completely different,” Vela said. “Dental is a bit more invasive as the dentist is getting in the person’s mouth, meaning that our volunteers will need a lot more [personal protective equipment].”

In the meantime, Vela hopes that the uninsured and underinsured people of Steele County will recognize that telemedicine is an effective and accessible way to get health care as the pandemic continues to unfold. The Free Clinic has Spanish and Somali interpreters, and can use both video calls and telephone calls to provide the telemedicine service.

“This isn’t important just for their physical health, but for their emotional health and mental well-being,” Vela said. “This is a huge step in their health.”