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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Blooming Prairie’s Jenna Krell fires the ball across the diamond during the Class A state championship game against New Life Academy in North Mankato on Friday, June 7, 2013. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press, file)

spotlight centerpiece
Owatonna woman brightens sidewalks with intricate chalk art

“I didn’t expect to like it,” laughed Jess Smoll as she kneeled over her cobalt blue cat made of sidewalk chalk and began blending details with her fingertips.

Just outside of her Owatonna home on Broadway Street neighboring the old Washington Elementary School, Smoll has been creating visual masterpieces over the last month, using simple sidewalk chalk.

“I don’t like chalk,” she said. “It’s messy, it’s dry, it gets everywhere.”

When the stay-at-home order first began, Smoll said she needed to find an outlet to get her out of the house. Her roommate had suggested doing drawings on the sidewalk for a local chalk art initiative through the chamber, but Smoll admits that she at first resisted due to her distaste for the medium. That was until her roommate surprised her with an accidentally elaborate gift.

“She was really excited because she thought she ordered me chalk, but it was actually art pastels,” Smoll said. “But that really turned in to a happy accident.”

Because of the generous gift, Smoll finally decided to give chalk art a try. Her first drawing was a rainbow unicorn, allowing her to utilize most of the colors that came in the gift from her roommate.

“It really was a happy accident, because most children’s chalk doesn’t come with a large variety of colors,” Smoll said. “At first this was just a way to get me out of the house, but now I just want to be outside and color the sidewalk.”

Since that first unicorn, Smoll has created six larger than life drawings that stretch along the sidewalk in front of her house and in the front of her driveway. Her pieces have ranged from mythical creatures like dragons to flowers sharing a hopeful message to critters that remind her of the pets she owns. On average, she believes each drawing takes her roughly two-and-a-half hours.

Smoll says she has been creating art for as long as she can remember, though never in a way that allowed her to have a large and public audience.

“I’ve always been very protective of my art,” she said, explaining that she typically would keep her paintings or drawings to herself in a sketch pad or in her room. “Now my art is right outside my bedroom window, and I can see people walking by and looking at it. It’s kind of a secret joy of mine to see them enjoying it.”

Another thing that the sidewalk chalk has forced Smoll to confront with her art is the impermanence that comes with it. With the temperamental nature of Minnesota springs, Smoll said it can be a little heartbreaking to see one of her creations be washed away by rain, sometimes in the same day that it is created.

“At some point, when the weather finally decides to stabilize, I’d like to pack everything up and go somewhere like Dartts Park or Lake Kohlmier,” Smoll said. “I won’t be able to see it always, but it will give the drawings a larger audience.”

In total, Smoll believes she has spent less than $40 on her chalk art materials – excluding the gift of pastels from her roommate. She uses basic sidewalk chalk for the base of her drawings and eventually incorporates the pastels for finer details. As far as where the inspiration comes from, Smoll said it ranges from requests by friends to her own imagination.

“Look, during COVID-19, there are no rules,” she laughed. “If you want to draw a fire-breathing dragon on your sidewalk, go for it.”

Facing financial strain, over 500 area child care providers receive emergency grants

Difficulties facing southern Minnesota child care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic are varied — many are seeing decreasing enrollment and revenues, while others are taking on more school-age children and needing to expand their capacities.

Across the board, the pandemic has brought financial strain for both home- and center-based care settings, prompting the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and its counterparts statewide to launch the Emergency Child Care Grant Program.

After taking in a wave of applications — and eventually cutting them off due to funding limitations — SMIF distributed nearly $255,000 this month to providers across its 20-county region caring for the children of emergency and essential workers. Steele County received the third-highest dollar amount, with just over $20,000 going directly to 43 providers; in terms of funding, it came in behind only Blue Earth and Olmsted counties, which respectively include Mankato and Rochester.

Nearby Goodhue County received $14,700 for 29 providers, Rice County received $11,450 for 23 providers and Waseca County received $6,300 for 14 providers. Every home-based care provider received $450; every center received $1,000.

In total, grants were distributed between 491 home-based providers and 34 centers, with the only requirement being that they provide care for children of emergency or essential workers — a criterion that Rae Jean Hansen, vice president of early childhood at SMIF, said most were already naturally meeting.

“I talked to a couple hundred providers within a four-day period, just listening to their stories and their hardships,” she added. “I certainly heard from center providers, but I heard from a lot of family providers just because there are so many in our region.”

Hansen said the specific financial burdens facing homes and centers varied wildly. In one instance, a provider needed to upgrade her internet capabilities in order to accommodate the relevant distance-learning opportunities for school-age children. Another saw an increase in enrollment and needed to start purchasing more food for meals and snacks.

Operating with reduced enrollment

At Kid’s Korner Educare Center in Owatonna, Executive Director Daniel Buck is having the opposite problem — trying to make up for a sharp drop in enrollment following the arrival of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

“We had about 205 kids enrolled prior to this all starting, and we lost roughly 15% right off the bat. Boom. Gone,” he said. “We’re currently serving about 130 participants a day, so we’re still doing really, really well compared to a lot of day cares.”

In total, he estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of the center’s families had their employment impacted by COVID-19, whether through having hours cut or being laid off entirely. Buck said he’s trying to work with families as much as possible, adjusting rates for loss of income on a case-by-case basis, while also trying to maintain a staff of 55 employees.

“For us, a typical pay period will run a little over $40,000 and our revenue is pretty much equal to that,” said Buck. Currently, he estimated that revenue is running roughly $10,000 behind the center’s costs.

In Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties, the Minnesota Prairie County Alliance is seeing most child care providers remain open while serving fewer children.

“We understand the primary reason for this is that people are working from home or are no longer employed and therefore do not need child care at this point in time,” Executive Director Jane Hardwick said in an email.

She added that a barrier for many providers when applying for unemployment insurance is that they are still working over 40 hours per week, only with decreased income due to lower enrollment.

How many will remain open?

“There was already a shortage of childcare providers; and loss of any provider from the current childcare system will exacerbate this concern and may contribute to a slowing in economic recovery,” Hardwick added.

To try and better understand the reach of this issue, Rice County is in the process of surveying all of its licensed providers at the direction of the state. So far, child care home licenser Colleen Peterson said she believes the county will be able to retain most of its providers.

“I would say, based on what we’re getting, probably 90% of providers are still operating,” she said. “But they may be at half their regular capacity because some parents are not essential workers and have been laid off. A small percentage have all essential workers and they’re operating as normal pretty much, but that’s a small percentage.”

Having connected with roughly a third of just over 100 licensees so far through the survey, Peterson said half of those had applied for some type of grant or financial assistance. Of the number who applied, she added that half had been approved.

“What the state is concerned about, and why they want us doing the survey, is to see if we will still have the same number of homes when this pandemic has cleared up or if we will have lost providers,” she added. “What I’m seeing based on the calls we’re making is, I don’t believe that’s going to happen … but it’s good to be proactive on the state’s part and be thinking about that.”

Initially, funding for the Emergency Child Care Grant program consisted of $100,000 from the Minnesota Council on Foundations and Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, as well as $50,000 from SMIF. Other support came from individual and corporate donors, as well as Goodhue County.

While the grant program is currently closed, SMIF has said it will reopen applications should additional funding become available.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, center, and Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, left, talk with Minority Leader Kurt Daudt during an early March floor session. (House Photography file photo)

Downtown businesses awarded micro grants through Main Street Minnesota

Despite the drastic impact that the ongoing pandemic has had on small businesses, six local businesses will be receiving some extra help to either keep them going or get them up and running again.

Last week, MN Main Street announced the recipients of the Rethos Main Street micro funding for small businesses located in designated Main Street Minnesota communities. Among those recipients are Old Town Bagels, Owatonna Fitness, Corporate Recognition, Kleckers Creations, Kottke Jewelers, and The Hat Chic — all businesses located in downtown Owatonna.

“Every year we get a little bit of money through Main Street Minnesota to use on projects, but this year they reached out to us and talked about doing small micro-grants instead to help businesses impacted by COVID-19,” said Shirley Schultz, the Main Street director at the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “We agreed instantly.”

Schultz said that this year, the money the local Main Street program would have received was earmarked to add lighting in some of the downtown alleyways. She explained that while this project is still important to the program, especially to enhance public safety, the obvious choice was to invest in its small business owners.

“It was an easy decision,” Schultz said. “If somebody is struggling, it just doesn’t seem appropriate to put the money somewhere else. We want all these guys to survive — we can find other funds for the lights.”

Additionally, Schutlz said that the Owatonna Economic Development Authority elected to put additional money toward the micro funding program, allowing two additional local businesses to be supported on top of what would have been only four. The Rethos Main Street Support Fund program made all of the selections.

Among those businesses selected, Pam Kubat with Corporate Recognition said that the $1,000 her business will receive is earmarked for a marketing promotion once its clients are able to reopen their doors.

“We’re going to use these dollars for marketing funds to touch our customers with promotional, welcome back to work-type packages,” Kubat said. “Just to remind them that we’re here and ready for them to get back to work and recognize their employees who have been working hard from home and making the best of a bad situation.”

During the pandemic, Corporate Recognition shifted gears to help provide necessary personal protective equipment – or PPE – as well as cleaning supplies that were in high demand to essential workers and businesses. While she explained that they were fortunate to have this to keep them busy, it has still impacted their cash flow and that they will need to get started with regular business once that resumes again.

“I foresee that there might be a break coming where we don’t have much business as everyone has to get back on track,” Kubat said. “There might be a couple of months even of everyone trying to navigate and make that switch back to normal, so these funds are going to help us stay in the forefront of our customers’ and new customers’ minds.”

Marketing efforts is listed as one of the main purposes for the Rethos Main Street funding, though Schultz said that the funds could also go toward creating an online presence, technical upgrades and new signs or storefront displays. For Reagan West, Owatonna Fitness owner, she is planning on doing a little bit of everything to make a splash in the community once she can reopen to the public.

“I’m going to run a big ‘Welcome Back’ contest between the fitness center and the Fresh Café,” West said. “We want to make sure that we get the word out to the community that our doors are ready to be back open and these funds will provide the promotional support to just really kick off the contest and thank our customers who have hung in there with us and welcome everybody back.”

Prior to the shutdowns, West said they began transitioning classes and programs to an online format. While that has provided them a good opportunity to stay connected with clients, she admits that it just hasn’t been the same.

“It’s been awesome to be able to stay connected to everybody, but it’s not the same,” she said. “We are just so excited to get back together again.”

Micro fund grants ranged from $500 to $1,000.