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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Owatonna VFW shortstop Jacob Meiners (11) fields a high bounce on a ground ball against Rochester Century at Dartts Park. Post 3723 plays its first game in the state tournament on Thursday morning against Forest Lake in Brainerd. (Photos by Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)


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Former Awesome Blossom dies in one-vehicle crash

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — A 2016 Blooming Prairie High School graduate and sports stand-out died in a single-vehicle crash Monday near the Bethel University campus in St. Paul.

Anthony Lee Nelson, a senior at Bethel double majoring in accounting and finance, was returning to campus around 10:45 p.m. Monday when the vehicle he was driving went into a ditch along Old Snelling Avenue, according to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. Nelson is the son of Brian and Lois Nelson.

The vehicle struck a tree and a utility pole and knocked down power lines that sparked on top of the car. Members of the Lake Johanna Fire Department extracted him, administered CPR, and took him to the Hennepin County Medical Center where he later died.

“Please keep Anthony’s family and friends in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” said an email sent to students by William Washington, vice president for student life at Bethel. “A time for prayer and worship will be held early in the fall semester in memory of Anthony.”

According to his obituary, Nelson had a job lined up after graduation in 2020. He was involved in the Bethel Business and Economics Association and led Bible studies on campus. He also enjoyed biking, cooking, and reading books while lying in his hammock.

Nelson played football and basketball at Bethel, two of the three sports he excelled in as an Awesome Blossom. Throughout his high school career, Nelson ran track, racked up more than 1,000 points on the basketball court, and was able to play in the state football championship in 2014 as a junior. Assistant Varsity Football Coach Elliot Herdina said that Nelson was not only a dynamic athlete, but an unforgettable person.

“The amazing thing about Anthony is that he was twice the young man character-wise as he was an athlete,” Herdina said. “And he was a phenomenal athlete.”

Herdina, who coached Nelson as a wide receiver and defensive back for the Awesome Blossoms football team, stated that former star was a quiet leader who led by example.

“From the moment he was able to put on varsity pads and on through his senior year, kids looked up to him,” Herdina added. “I looked up to him as his coach. He was the kind of kid you want all your kids to grow up to be.”

It has been a tough year for Blooming Prairie as elementary teacher Rachel Harberts and her 8-year-old daughter Emerson died in a car crash in September and former Blooming Prairie cross country runner Hannah (Vogt) Lager died in a car wreck in Kansas in April. While losing these individuals much too soon has been trying on the community, Herdina asserted that if any town could persevere it would be Blooming Prairie.

“You don’t wish anything like these events on anybody or any community, but I trust the community we have,” Herdina said. “I know that everyone is looking out for each other during the hard times, no matter where they happen or who they happen to. The endless support that the Nelson family is getting – I just hope that it can help them pull through this difficult time.”

In 2016, Nelson was named one of the top five senior athletes by the People’s Press. In an interview, Nelson said that the coach who had the biggest impact on him throughout his life was his father, Brian Nelson, who was able to give him a strong foundation growing up.

“No matter what aspect of life, Anthony pretty much excelled in it,” Herdina said. “He was definitely a one-of-a-kind kid who we’ll forever be grateful for. The world is truly going to miss him.”

Funeral services for Nelson will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3 at Cornerstone Church in Austin. Visitation will be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. prior to the service on Saturday at the church.


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Service dog a much-welcome addition to local family

OWATONNA — An Owatonna family added a new, four-legged member to their household this summer, Deborah, a service dog courtesy of Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, and “this whole program has been really great,” said Angela Barber, the family’s matriarch.

Deborah, a black lab who will turn 3 in November, is meant to assist Skyler Kopecky and help her be more independent, because, “right now, she has zero independence,” said Barber, Kopecky’s mother. Deborah’s the product of a long and at times frustrating search for Barber, as she tried numerous other outlets and organizations without success until alighting upon SDWR, an organization willing to provide a dog — and the attendant training — who could respond to Skyler’s seizures, as well as accommodate her autism.

Cases of autism in American children jumped 150% from 2000 to 2014 and 15% from 2012 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 3.5 million Americans have autism-spectrum disorder, and autism can coincide with other challenges, such as seizures, anxiety, and ADHD.

SDWR offers a lifetime guarantee on training, so, when Deborah arrived in Owatonna in late June, so, too, did trainer Ivan Petersel. Deborah joined her new family June 17, and Petersel spent three days with the family training both the dog and members of the family.

“A lot of the work is for us, training us,” said Barber. Deborah is “primed, but we need to learn this.”

In fact, Deborah began demonstrating her value on the very first day, when Skyler “wasn’t feeling well,” Barber said. Even without prompting, Deborah climbed onto Skyler’s bed and placed her head in her lap, because “she knew something was going on.”

Petersel will actually return eight times over the next 12-18 months to continue training, she said. “We’ll just keep progressing further and further.”

“Engagement is the foundation of all dog training,” Petersel said. “It’s all about engagement and bonding.”

“All the best things and most exciting things have to come from Skyler,” including Skyler tossing a toy into the water for Deborah to fetch at Lake Chase Dog Park June 19, the third day they were together, he said. “Clear communication” is paramount in training and bonding with Deborah.

SDWR, a non-profit founded by Dan Warren in 2010, aids individuals with disabilities like autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and seizure disorders. Since its founding, the organization has placed more than 500 service dogs worldwide.

In late May, Skyler underwent a responsive neurostimulation procedure, the first pediatric patient in Minnesota to receive that treatment, which acts “kind of like a defibrillator, but for seizures,” Barber said. Unfortunately, it can take as long as seven years to reach peak effectiveness, so Deborah will assist Skyler at least that long.

Responsive neurostimulation (RNS) is an epilepsy treatment that doesn’t require the surgical removal of brain tissue, according to the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. RNS uses an implanted device to help prevent seizures before they begin, similar to how a pacemaker detects and treats abnormal heart rhythms.

Patients treated with RNS continue to take epilepsy medication, but their seizures may be better controlled than with medication alone, according to the UCSF. Because no brain tissue is removed, RNS poses less risk to the patient than other surgical treatments

Adults are with Skyler constantly, in case she has a seizure — she averages three or four per week — and Skyler is highly-anxious about having a seizure, so she prefers to stay home, where her family and medications are close at hand, Barber said. “The goal, eventually, would be that she could go places on her own” without an adult but with Deborah.

In addition to barking to alert individuals of a seizure for Skyler, Deborah also carries a medical pack and health information, Barber said. With a bar code, any health care professional can scan it to quickly see her medical chart.

Deborah will also be trained to jump into and out of an ambulance with Skyler, if necessary, Barber said. “They are not to be separated.”

When in public, it’s paramount for bystanders to not engage with Deborah, or any other service dog, as it can interfere with their jobs, Petersel said. “No touch, no talk, no eye contact are the three most-important things.”

Of course, when she’s “off the clock,” Deborah is “a normal dog,” Barber said. When given the “free” and “undress” commands, “she loves tennis balls, running, and being super goofy.”

Deborah “slipped in easily” with all the other dogs in the household, she said. Barber actually tried to train them over the years to assist Skyler, but they’re “too old.”

Deborah and her training cost in excess of $20,000, but the family received numerous generous donations — many online — as well as from Skyler’s grandparents, Barber said. Skyler also raised funds herself by selling “puppy packs” containing homemade toys and treats at both of Owatonna’s farmers markets.

Petersel has trained dogs for years, and he has no doubt Skyler and her family got “a great one” in Deborah, he said. “She’s amazing.”


Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON jjackson@owatonna.com 

Anthony Nelson of Blooming Prairie was a three-sport athlete during his high school career, excelling as a wide receiver for the Awesome Blossoms and helping bring the football team to the state championship in 2014. Nelson died Monday after a one-vehicle crash in St. Paul. (Press file photo)


aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND agranlund@owatonna.com 

Plaza Morena Owner Maria Martinez (left) is joining forces with the United Way of Steele County and Women United to raise money for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that her granddaughter Karina (middle) has benefited from. Martinez helped make this fundraiser a reality with the help of her friend Deb Ensley (right), who is a member of Women United. (Contributed photo)


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Owatonna school district poised to bring OHS bond referendum back to community

OWATONNA — Owatonna school district administrators and board of education members have used the time since a bond referendum for a new high school narrowly failed in May to examine options, convene listening sessions, and, most recently, peruse results from a July survey by The Morris Leatherman Company; based on that information, the board decided in a work session Thursday night to empower Superintendent Jeff Elstad to bring a proposal to them later this month for another referendum.

The board will convene a special meeting Aug. 12 to vote on a proposal for a $104 million bond for a new high school, which would be on the ballot Nov. 5. The board also indicated it would be in favor of a second question on that ballot to give the community a chance to devote funds to salvage some of the current Owatonna High School site.

“My job is to provide students with the education they need and deserve,” Elstad said Thursday. “I serve students of this district, so I have to bring these items forward.”

It was clear to Elstad from his interactions with the public, listening sessions, and the Morris Leatherman survey that “lowering the tax impact was the strongest message,” he said. Consequently, his proposal would lower the tax impact from May’s bond, partially by reducing square footage.

If a building for 1,600 students were constructed, as opposed to an edifice for 1,700 students, 22% of those surveyed by Morris Leatherman said they were more likely to vote for the bond, while 12% indicated they were less likely.

Of those surveyed by Morris Leatherman who opposed the May referendum, half said it was because their taxes are too high. On another question, 94% said the bond would have increased their taxes too much, with 76% calling it a “major factor” and 18% citing it as a “minor factor.”

Elstad’s latest proposal for a new high school also saves money by not having to pay for new land. In the May referendum, the district allotted $2 million to purchase land for a new building.

However, recently “we have been approached by a business partner who offered to purchase the land for the district,” Elstad said.

That site has yet to be determined, nor, naturally, has the exact cost of the land.

Cost estimates

The district has long worked with Wold Architects and Engineers, including on this project and the successful 2015 bond referendum that addressed what is now Owatonna Middle School, as well as improving the district’s four elementary buildings, but Elstad got a second opinion from Kraus-Anderson, perhaps the state’s leading school construction company, and presented that information Thursday.

Kraus-Anderson assumed a 1,600-student high school, rather than the 1,700 in May’s referendum, for their estimates for both remodeling the current edifice and constructing new, Elstad said. “I feel confident” that a building for 1,600, rather than 1,700, “would not comprise the integrity of our facility.”

Kraus-Anderson estimated a new high school at $126 million, including “soft costs” of $24 million, Elstad said. That price also includes $7 million for a multi-purpose sports stadium, as well as expanding to four-courts-worth of gym space.

The total cost to taxpayers would be only $104 million, however, as local corporations “have generously decided to stay with us” and contribute $22 million to the project, as they promised for the May bond proposal, he said. At $104 million, a household with a domicile assessed at $175,000 would pay an extra $238 per year, $19.83 per month, over 20 years, or $192 per year, $16 per month, over 25 years.

The 20-year plan naturally brings with it “less financing costs” but a higher impact on taxpayers monthly and yearly, said Amanda Heilman, the district’s director of finance. However, stretching the bond over 25 years means another $30 million in interest.

Ultimately, the board reached accord on 25 years, instead of 20, in order to save taxpayers money on a monthly and yearly basis.

“I’m hearing fairly clearly” a preference for 25 years, said Mark Sebring, chairman of the school board.

A remodeling effort would require at least three years, more likely four, Elstad said. During that time, students would naturally have to be relocated, and costs associated with that — such as portable classrooms — were not included in the Kraus-Anderson remodeling proposal.

Even without accounting for those expenses, a remodel would cost roughly $99 million, including $19 million in “soft costs (that) go into any project,” such as building permits, furniture, technology, and equipment, and sewer and water charges, and $7 million for a stadium renovation, Elstad said. The gym would be expanded to four courts, “64 classrooms need a total gut,” and there would be no additional on-site parking.

The tax impact on a remodel of this type for a $175,000 home — the median home price in the district — would be $226 per year, $18.83 per month, over 20 years, or $181 per year, $15.08 per month, over 25 years, he said. Of course, remodeling only “changes what’s inside our current structure,” not the physical edifice.

Considering remodeling would cost nearly as much as a new building, board members agreed they much preferred the latter option.

To remodel “just doesn’t seem fiscally responsible,” said school board member Christina Ingvaldson.

“We’re all in agreement on that,” added Eric Schuster, the school board’s clerk.

By a margin of 5,762 to 5,642, or 50.52% to 49.47%, voters defeated a bond May 14 that would have led to the construction of a new high school to replace the antiquated OHS. A volunteer community task force met several times in 2018 and ultimately recommended a new high school be built to replace the current model, which has a litany of issues due to its advanced age, including deferred maintenance needs of roughly $35 million.

Elstad vowed in the immediate aftermath of May’s defeat that “this question will be in front of our community again,” because “our kids and our community are way too important for me to give up,” and, indeed, voters will have another opportunity to support — or oppose — a new high school in November.

Under the May plan, a new OHS, which the district would’ve hoped to open in the summer of 2022, would have been roughly 342,000-square-feet, served a capacity of 1,700 students, included five courts in its gymnasium, a 900-seat auditorium with stage and support spaces for music and theater, a multi-use sports stadium with turf and seating for 3,000, and assorted modern classrooms amenities. It would’ve boasted a secure main entrance adjacent to the main office, adequate commons areas for lunch seating — the current cafeteria doesn’t have enough seats for students in any of the four lunch periods — and hosting community events, a media center, and distinct bus and parent drop-off areas for the safety of students and adults. Pledges from a number of local companies, including a promise of $20 million in cash from Federated Insurance, lowered the bill for taxpayers on the bond from $138 million to $116 million, and the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism expressed unalloyed support for referendum passage, as well.

Second question

The board also indicated Thursday their preference for a second question on the November ballot, asking voters whether or not they wish to contribute money to repurpose and save some of the current high school site. Naturally, the second question could only be put into practice if and only if the first question succeeds. There are countless possibilities for that site, and a community task force would be convened to decide how best to utilize it, but Elstad offered one possibility Thursday.

Under his plan, Owatonna Public Schools would sell the current district office on Bridge Street and its space on Rose Street and consolidate those operations into the current high school, he said. “The total cost of that would be $9 million” — $1.75 per month on a residence valued at $175,000 over 20 years, or $1.50 per month over 25 years.

Under the May referendum proposal, the district would have allotted $3 million for complete demotion of the current OHS site, if no buyer could be found by the time students moved into the new high school.

Under Elstad’s proposal, the C Plaza, constructed in 1998, would be renovated for district office use, and gym space — “which is valuable” — would be kept, as would the small group forum, which has community use, he said. The auditorium would also remain for community use, as would the auditorium entrance, with its iconic columns.

In addition, the vocational and agricultural building would be left standing for maintenance and storage space, he said. Other areas, such as the two front plazas underground, which both are afflicted with “significant (water) mitigation issues,” would be destroyed.

A second question gives voters a chance to express their desire for the current site to live on in some form, if they’re willing to pay for it, Sebring said. Ultimately, a community group “will have a huge hand in the reconfiguration” of that site, as well.

“I like that it would allow us to consolidate,” said Lori Weisenburger, vice chairwoman of the school board. “That’s always a good thing.”

Timing

Nov. 5 is the final chance in 2019 for the district to bring a high school bond proposal to voters, and “we have to finalize this,” because “the longer we wait, the higher the dollars go up,” with construction costs increasing approximately 6% annually, Elstad said. “That’s just the fact.”

“We have taken care of our elementary schools and our middle school,” said Jolayne Mohs, treasurer of the school board. “The high school is the last big (item) in the foreseeable future.”