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Strong young women seek to empower others through school club
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Last year a new group called Girls United was started for girls by girls (and their allies) at the Owatonna High School. This year, membership has doubled and they’ve been able to meet in person versus remotely.

Girls United, a nonprofit club, was founded in Hopkins, Minnesota, by Jessica Melnik who was experiencing gender inequality in her Hopkins High School science classroom. In response, she started organizing small group meetings with other girls to discuss gender discrimination and inequality, as well as open discussions on ways girls could support one another. It wasn’t long before the club expanded to other schools with its vision to empower and inspire the next generation of young women.

Owatonna is one of 11 chapters throughout the state of Minnesota. One of the group’s presidents, Logan Norrid, used to attend school in Hopkins before moving to Owatonna. She said she wanted to be involved in more mature, feminist groups. That’s when she discovered Girls United.

“I reached out wanting to bring a chapter to Owatonna, we didn’t really have anything like it here,” Norrid said. “After getting the go ahead, I got a few girls together, made a board and we had our first year last year.”

During their first year, the group consisted of about 40 girls. This year, membership has double and has prompted some boys and non-binary individuals to take interest as well.

Norrid said she’s happy to see boys wanting to get involved. Many have told her that they felt there was a problem with girls and boys not being treated equally. They want to see change as much as the girls and non-binary students do.

The group meets during COMPASS time, which takes place two Wednesdays a month.

Tara Lammer, the advisor, said that she remains pretty hands-off and wants the members to be empowered to lead the group themselves. She said she mainly makes sure the club is in compliance with rules and provides direction to the student leaders.

“I am extremely proud of all they’re doing,” Lammer said. ”They talk about real issues, have good conversations with each other, and the group is full of diversity and members from different backgrounds, which has brought some unique insight to the struggles girls sometimes face.“

The girls on the board are working diligently to plan the direction they want to take the group. They’re planning fundraisers, activities and discussions for future meetings.

“We weren’t able to get together in person really last year, so for now we’re working on bonding and getting to know each other,” Norrid said. “We want all members to feel safe and supported, and then continue to build on that.

So far this year, the group has held a yoga session and learned about self-care, which members said was a lot of fun for many of the people who attended. They have done an activity involving writing letters to their future selves and had an open discussion about women in sports and the stereotypes female athletes face.

Last year, the group held a fundraiser selling sock snowman kits. Norrid said they made about $300 and hope to make at least $500 this year selling the kits.

Vice President Hailey Kjersten said they’d like to get women in the community to attend a meeting to speak about their careers, themselves, any adversities they may have experienced and more.

“Women in STEM is a big focus for the group,” Kjersten said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. “We’d like to introduce all the members to women who’ve entered those fields and speak about their experiences.”

Norrid said they are also working on having a Title IX day and would like to invite teachers and members of the community to attend to learn more.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX requires all schools to have and distribute a policy against sex discrimination, and the school must designate at least one person to coordinate compliance with Title IX. Additionally, every school must have a known avenue for students to file sex discrimination complaints.

“We have a lot of ideas on what we want to do as a group,” Norrid said. “Membership is not required to attend our activities and events, but it would be great to see the group grow every year and gain more attention. We and the girls who will come after us deserve it.”

Moonlighters making final push to bring Veterans Memorial to town

It has been six years since a local service club started making plans to appropriately recognize the rich presence of veterans in Owatonna, and now they are hoping to turn those plans into a reality next year.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

As a special Veterans Day presentation, Mike Pierce with the Moonlighters Exchange Club of Owatonna gives an update on the Owatonna Veterans Memorial project. The club is hoping to build the memorial near the Steele County History Center along 18th Street. (Annie Granlung/southernminn.com)

During a special Veterans Day presentation at the Steele County History Center, members of the Moonlighters Exchange Club of Owatonna updated the public on their plans to construct an official Owatonna Veterans Memorial on the county property near the museum. Mike Pierce presented Thursday morning to an intimate group of people, including a handful of veterans and Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, about plans to begin construction in March.

“American veterans have remained committed to our great country that remains the land of the free and surely the home of the brave,” said Pierce, who is a Vietnam War veteran. “For many in our country, today is just another day — they may be at home or at work or running errands … but for those of us here today, we know the importance of the day. We’re honoring the sacrifice of the few that afford each and every American the opportunity to live free.”

In an effort to properly pay respect to veterans in Owatonna, Pierce described the work that has gone into developing a design and finding a location for a personalized veterans memorial. While there is a small memorial on the Steele County Courthouse lawn, Pierce said the Moonlighters feel it is important to provide something as great and grand as the sacrifice itself that those who enlist in the armed services make every day.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

A small memorial honoring Steele County veterans sits on the lawn of the Steele County Courthouse. Though Mike Pierce was involved in making this memorial a reality, he is excited about the opportunity to bring a more “individualized” memorial to the south side of Owatonna. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“Having a place to show the individualized names makes it more visible,” Pierce said. “It’s history, our history, and we hope we get families who want to put their grandpa’s names up on the memorial so we can properly honor them.”

The planned memorial will be constructed property south of the history center, along 18th Street, which is county property. Pierce said the Steele County commissioners have stated they are “on board” with the project, though nothing has been finalized yet.

In spring 2018, the club presented their plan for a memorial in this area to the Board of Commissioners. At that time, the commissioners unanimously moved to allow the construction of the memorial to take place on the parcel of land requested, pending the release of any lease agreements that may currently be in place.

According to Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg, the parcel of land the club has selected for the memorial is currently leased by the Steele County Historical Society.

“It is going to have to be a combination of all of us working together,” Golberg said. “We don’t want [the memorial] to intrude on any of the other services and needs currently being provided.”

Golberg said the Moonlighters have not been back to the county about this project since 2018.

While Pierce said the final paperwork still needs to be finalized, he believes the location is set. Over the years, the group has looked at several spots in West Hills as well as a sport near the Steele County Courthouse, though none panned out. Pierce said they were informed that the courthouse location could have jeopardized the building’s standing on the National Register of Historic Places.

This location, however, Pierce said, seems the most fitting, as they are helping honor local history.

“Every town around Owatonna has a veterans memorial … Why do we not?” Pierce asked. “We’re hoping that we can have the support of our great community in going forward with this project, a lot of time and thought has gone into it.”

According to Lori Arnold, the treasurer for the Moonlighters, the group has roughly $41,000 they have either raised or received through charitable donations to go toward the memorial. Of that money, $25,000 was recently gifted by the Owatonna VFW. Other contributions include donations from Styles of Steele and local craft vendor sales.

Pierce said they need a minimum of $200,000 before they can truly begin the project, which would largely cover the costs of ordering the stones. He said he is hoping to get some businesses on board in the near future and potentially find some individuals willing to donate in-kind services.

Memorial details

The design for the memorial, drawn up by John Heerema, of Owatonna, Granite and Monument, includes pillars that represent six branches of the military: the Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, and the Space Force. The memorial will also include two monuments that will display individual names of Owatonna service men and women, a number of benches, three flag poles and a globe in the center.

Pierce said there will be room for two additional monuments to hold names to be added in the future. Veterans must be honorably discharged to be eligible to be added to the memorial.

Plaques for the memorial can already by ordered by contacted the Moonlighters Exchange Club of Owatonna via their Facebook page or by attending one of the meetings at 5:30 p.m. on second and fourth Mondays of the month at the Owatonna VFW.

Local investors team up with Northfield group to build real estate fund

Over the last handful of years, the explosion of growth in Owatonna has been undeniable. From new companies locating to the industrial park to a major revitalization of the downtown district, the city appears to be continuing on an upward projection.

A group of people have taken notice of this trend, both locally and in nearby Northfield.

Owatonna residents Bill Cronin, Peng Olson, Scott Mohs and Darrin Stadheim recently partnered with Rebound Community Real Estate Fund, LLC, to develop a new fund specifically for Owatonna investment projects. Rebound Partners is an investment and management group based out of Northfield that has invested in multiple projects around southern Minnesota, including a recent project to relocate a bike shop and bring more housing to the former location of Bierman’s Home Furnishings and Floor Coverings in downtown Northfield.

Since the inception of the fund, the group has reached a total of $1.7 million of committed capital.

On Tuesday, the Owatonna Community Real Estate Fund went public in an effort to invite additional investors to the table. During an invitational meeting, the group explained how they were able to secure 8% ownership of the Marriott Courtyard hotel currently being constructed on the 200 block of North Cedar Avenue. The fund investment totals $320,000, but will deliver up to 12% annually for a rate of return.

“This is a venue that Owatonna hasn’t had in a long time, maybe ever,” Cronin said. “This is a great example of where these funds can go in. We’re not going to be the sole investor in a single building. If there’s projects going on and they need a little bit of catalyst, the idea is this fund could step in in some form.”

Cronin continued to explain the hotel project is ideal for this newly founded real estate fund because it will benefit the Owatonna community through the creation of jobs, an increase in the tax base, growth in tourism and enhancing downtown.

“It’s benevolent investing, investing in the future — people, housing, business, infrastructure — looking at the whole of the totality of what that investment can be, what the impact can be,” Cronin said. “We have an investment group that will look at everything that the fund might engage with.”

For the next phase of the fund, Cronin said they have a capital goal of $3-5 million. The duration of the fund would be seven years with an investment leverage ratio range of 65-80%, translating to $12-15 million in projects. A minimum investment begins at $25,000 with no maximum limit, and the target annualized rate of return is 8-12%.

Information on those investing in the fund is confidential.

During the first meeting on Tuesday, the group laid out several other potential projects, the primary one being the redevelopment of the riverside near Mineral Springs Brewery and Graif Clothing. There are also several historic buildings in the downtown district that the four Owatonna locals heading up the fund said they would like to see “reimagined” into their full potentials.

“Other people have attempted to do [these projects] and couldn’t get it launched,” Stadheim said. “This is something tangible you could invest into, to drive by these projects and think, ‘I helped build that, I own a part of that.’ You will have the opportunity to touch and feel your investments.”

Though the return on investment is a bonus for those who commit capital to the fund, the group emphasizes that it is about enhancing and impacting the Owatonna community in a variety of ways for both current and future generations.

“We are trying to make a difference in the community,” Olson said. “This is impact investing.”