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Local leaders advocate for need to reopen Owatonna’s workforce center

With the rapid economic boom Owatonna has experienced in recent years, hundreds of jobs have been created. While this is a positive in many ways, it is leaving employers in a state of panic as they struggle to find the skilled workers they need to fill these positions.

“Often times we hear about unemployment, but we don’t always look at unemployment versus the jobs available – there’s a real mismatch there,” said Rep. John Petersburg (R-Waseca) during a Tuesday meeting of the state House Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee. “We have a surplus of employees who don’t have the skills to grow into the jobs available, something I often refer to as ‘underemployment.’”

On Feb. 8, Petersburg and a group of local leaders from the Owatonna area testified to the committee to consider including Petersburg’s bill, House File 410, in the upcoming omnibus bill that would provide the appropriate funding to reopen the shuttered doors of Owatonna’s Minnesota Workforce Center. The details of the bill would include $275,000 a year for the next two years that would help the center reopen and reinstate all of its programs.

The center, a facility of Workforce Development Incorporated (WDI) that abruptly closed its doors in April 2018, enrolled 464 individuals during the last year it was open, including in the Dislocated Worker program, the Steele County Out of School Youth program, the Steele County In-School Youth program, and the job club attendees.

That number does not included those who walked in to use the resource area, which included meeting with a counselor, looking at job postings, getting assistance with resumes, speaking to an intake specialist, and using computers to apply for jobs online or file for unemployment benefits.

Since the closing of the center in Owatonna, Steele County residents have had to use the services at other area workforce centers, specifically in Faribault. This was the position Tracy Bjerke found herself in a year ago when she was unexpectedly laid off from her job as the local Hy-Vee dietician.

“I found myself unemployed and wondering, what are my options?” Bjerke said. “My position was completely cut across a majority of the business, so it wasn’t as if I could still do anything with them. I didn’t know what jobs were even available in the area for a dietician.”

In the back of her mind, Bjerke knew that having her own private practice was her long-term career goal and she wondered if this was “a message from whoever” that now may be the time to pursue that dream. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and put much of the world on pause, however, figuring out exactly how to make her dream a reality was leaving Bjerke in the unknown.

“I have a dietician friend who had utilized the CLIMB program herself, which is the Converting Layoffs Into Minnesota Businesses program that is held within the Dislocated Worker program,” Bjerke said. “I needed those resources I received through Workforce Development at the center in Faribault. They helped me through the process and without them I think it would have been much more difficult.”

After spending many hours using the resources available in Faribault, Bjerke was able to open her own private practice, Bjerke Nutrition and Wellness, to provide nutrition counseling using weight-inclusive, anti-diet approaches.

Though Bjerke’s story had a happily ever after, she admits she was both shocked to learn that she would have to go to Faribault to receive the help she desperately needed in order to develop her business plan and navigate the unemployment option that allowed her to focus her efforts on starting her own business.

“I was really surprised Owatonna didn’t have a workforce center and honestly I was disappointed,” Bjerke said. “Yes, I have the privilege and the means to get to Faribault, but not having somewhere local to go – especially in the middle of a pandemic – and being unable to work with someone locally who knew the Owatonna community a little bit more, I just think that would have been beneficial.”

Additionally, Bjerke said she cannot imagine the obstacle of not having a workforce center in Steele County is creating for others who find themselves not only without a job, but in need of training and resources to qualify for the many available jobs in the area.

Bjerke is not alone with her surprise. According to Jinny Rietmann, the executive director of WDI, Owatonna is the only Minnesota community of its size that does not have a workforce center available for the community. During the committee testimonies last week, Rietmann said that half of the workforce centers in the state serve communities with populations with only 25% or less of the population seen in Owatonna.

“With the closure of the Owatonna location we were able to continue to provide services with a skeleton crew and through our community partners, but those services are vastly disproportionate,” Rietmann said. “It is imperative that our career seekers have access to these resources and that businesses have an ally in programming that will help fill the skill sets they need.”

Owatonna and Steele County are true economic drivers for the region, yet the available workforce does not have access to the programs necessary to create clear career pathways and fill the jobs available, Rietmann said. Top leaders with both Wenger Corporation and Viracon also testified to the committee about the urgent need for a workforce center in the area. Jim Kingsley, the senior vice president of operations and the vice president for the Workforce Board of Southeast Minnesota, said the region has a very limited pool of skilled workers which is only being accelerated by the number of businesses coming to the area.

“We have a skilled workers gap,” Kingsley said. “We are just asking for the same opportunity in Steele County that people have in other similar communities in the state. Our current access to resources for displaced workers is pretty much limited to Faribault.”

Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said the growth of the Owatonna area should be looked at as a positive thing, but that it is difficult to have more than 500 new jobs present themselves in the last year without the skilled workforce to fill them. Meier has been one of the many players involved over the last three years in the attempt to get state funding to reopen the local workforce center, including making a plea to legislators in 2019 for the same funding being requested today.

“It’s interesting to me that we have no workforce center – it is a huge oversight for a region that is on the move,” Meier said. “There has been a huge effort here to be able to have a workforce center to assist in so many more ways than we currently have today. I think it is vitally important to our growth as we have a lot going on in Steele County right now that is mostly very positive for the state and region. We are asking for the same support communities our size and smaller all around the state are receiving.”

Owatonna City Council gives new roundabout green light

The Owatonna City Council has given a new roundabout the green light while police are asking drivers to stop driving over an existing roundabout in Owatonna.

In the most recent Just the Facts newsletter from the Owatonna Police Department, law enforcement included a plea to the public that motorists cease and desist from driving over the roundabout located at Rose Street and Grove Avenue. According to OPD, the intersection has been the location of 13 vehicle crashes and the source of many traffic stops by officers for drivers traveling over the roundabout rather than around it.

City officials took it one step further and placed a barrel in the center of the roundabout to encourage compliance, but according to Public Works Director Kyle Skov, the initiative was all for naught as the barrel only lasted a single day.

So when the question of not one but two additional roundabouts came up at the Owatonna City Council meeting on Tuesday night, the board was apprehensive to pull the trigger.

The first of the two $2 million rotary traffic island projects was unanimously approved – with the exception of Councilor Jeff Okerberg who was not in attendance for the meeting – for the intersection of 18th Street and Bixby Road. This roundabout is specifically linked to the construction of the new Owatonna High School and is a joint project between the city, Steele County and Owatonna school district that is expected to take place in 2022. The county’s involvement comes from Bixby Road also being County State Aid Highway 48.

The new roundabout is expected to help control traffic when the new high school opens, but it comes with some parking restrictions along 18th Street from Hayes Avenue to Bixby Road. The restrictions will allow accommodation for the design of the future roundabout, according to Community Development Director Troy Klecker. Councilor Doug Voss questioned if it was too early to be looking at a potential roundabout at th intersection, especially considering the elimination of parking it would create for the Cornerstone Church on that stretch of road, but Klecker said the only other option the city would have is to consider widening the road.

“It all comes down to safety,” Klecker said. “That’s our main priority.”

Skov echoed Klecker, adding that a roundabout will greatly improve the safety of that intersection as young, inexperienced drivers will soon become some of the most frequent users of that roadway.

The second potential roundabout project did not get the green light from the council, but was not vetoed either. A possible roundabout at the intersection of 26th Street and State Avenue was tabled for future discussion with Skov being directed by the council to gather additional information on the cost to put permanent traffic lights at the intersection. Currently controlling the intersection are temporary traffic lights on wires, which Skov said were installed always with the intention of being temporary.

“We have had to put in a lot of maintenance and the lights have a lot of downtime,” Skov said, adding that the city pays 25% toward certain items at that intersection that runs along a county road. “Wires have been pulled down by trucks and the wind has knocked the lights out of service, we are constantly having to put up a four-way stop there. Hindsight is what it is, but these were installed as temporary from the beginning.”

After the discussion of future and potential roundabouts, the council asked Skov about the Rose and Grove roundabout that seems to continually cause issues in the community. Skov said he personally feels the biggest issue may lay in the compliance component – or lack thereof.

“We’ve been trying to figure it out, there has been an unacceptable amount of accidents out there,” Skov said. “You’ll see that the county has changed out some signage, they’ve added flags, but we’ve still had accidents out there. So we’re looking at more permanent options.”

Owatonna Police Sgt. Tracy DuChene said he also is at a loss as to why motorists seem unable to comply with the rules of a roundabout, but noted that he does believe the small size of this particular roundabout could be adding to some of the issues.

“Part of it I think is the size, they are having a massive issue with that small size,” DuChene said. “Say you have one coming from the west on Rose and one coming from the south, it’s the first one in and then the next one tries to get in and there just isn’t enough time. You have to have one in that roundabout at a time, maybe one and a half.”

Owatonna student joins Walz for announcement reopening schools
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Owatonna High School 12th grader Lane Versteeg shared his school experience during the COVID-19 pandemic with the state during Gov. Tim Walz’s press conference on Wednesday.

Versteeg spoke during the press conference after Walz announced a new process to get students back into the classroom. Minnesota school districts will be able to reopen their middle and high school buildings to students starting Feb. 22, Walz said during Wednesday’s press conference.

Students in those schools would be allowed to return to classrooms for hybrid or in-person learning with the expectation that all schools will offer some form of in-person learning by March 8.

“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely,” Walz said, citing progress on vaccinations along with the state’s improving pandemic metrics. “We’re on our way to ending the pandemic. We’re beating this thing.”

Following the announcement, Versteeg took the stage to share his story. Last spring, schools across the state leapt into emergency distance learning. Versteeg finished up his junior year online, hopeful that things would return to normal by the following academic year.

“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that my classmates and I would be walking the halls of our high school together this fall,” he said.

Despite the chaotic ending to his junior year and abrupt cancellation of activities, he remained hopeful.

“As COVID became more and more real, my expected return to school grew farther and farther away. By last year September, I had all but given up on my senior year, I had accepted it as a loss,” he said.

Versteeg expressed gratitude for the hard work teachers have put in to make distance and hybrid learning work, but he noted that nothing could replace the memories made with classmates and friends during high school. As he entered his senior year, he longed for one more bus ride with his teammates, one more concert performance and even the chance to experience his first prom.

According to the Governor’s Office, nearly 25% of teachers have been vaccinated so far and school staff next week will have access to more than 18,000 vaccine doses at state vaccine sites. These vaccines continue to be distributed across the state, with the goal of vaccinating the majority of educators by March 8, making the end of the pandemic feel closer than ever before.

“I’m reminded of the excitement I was experiencing 12 months ago. With the governor’s new direction, I’m eager for the opportunity to share the walls of my high school with my classmates one last time. And although the end of my senior year may not be as traditional as I had hoped, I know that my grade will get to experience it in the most important way possible ... together,” Versteeg said.

As schools begin to open across the state, full-time distancing learning will still be available for families who do not feel comfortable sending their kids to school.

Under current state guidance, middle and high school leaders must consult with local public health officials on county case rates of COVID-19 before choosing an in-person, distance or hybrid learning scenario for their students.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, Steele County’s most recent 14-day COVID-19 case rate is 29.17 per 10,000 residents. Rice County is at 43.34.

Public elementary schools are no longer required to consult with local health officials or use county case rate data before deciding whether or not to offer an in-person option for their students but they must follow safety precautions.

New federal guidelines also instruct school leaders to look at regional COVID-19 spread when determining whether to open schools for in-person learning. The CDC recommends layering safety protocols such as masking, social distancing, hand-washing and ventilation. It also urges middle and high schools in communities where viral transmission is high to remain in distance learning unless mitigation measures are “strictly” implemented.

In recent weeks, Walz has prioritized school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations; Minnesota is just one of 28 states to do so. He has also directed schools to offer on-site COVID-19 testing for their staff. According to Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann, 96% of Minnesota districts are participating in the testing program.

Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.