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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD 

Owatonna’s Dexter Leer connects with a pitch against the Pine Island Pioneers on Wednesday night at Dartts Park. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Crazy Days kicks off Thursday with sales, shopping, and even slime

OWATONNA—Crazy Days 2019 kicked off Thursday with sales on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Owatonna, as well as various community fitness sessions, musical performances, and even pickleball demonstrations.

“It’s refreshing to see such large participation this year up and down the street,” said Jerry Besser, Tone Music proprietor. Besser has been in his downtown spot for nearly three decades, so he’s witnessed firsthand the vicissitudes of downtown commerce.

“I remember the old days,” when it “was a madhouse” during sales events like Crazy Days, he said. As some retailers closed or moved, Owatonna’s downtown, like “a lot of downtowns,” experienced “a down period.”

Fortunately, “new blood and interest,” including the stewardship of the Owatonna Business Partnership, has “revitalized” Crazy Days, he said. “That’s good” for everyone.

Among the new vendors Thursday was Create, a party-crafts business operated by Jennifer Martin and Niki Nechanicky. In addition to examples of their creations, such as welcome signs, they offered youth a chance to make slime, and both Nechanicky and Martin picked up slime tips from their daughters prior to Thursday.

“My daughter, Samantha, has her own slime room at home,” Nechanicky said with a chuckle. “She’s a professional.”

Sawyer Wobig, 3, was among those who made slime at the booth Thursday morning.

“She’s been asking to create slime for a long time, and we just” recently procured the ingredients for slime, said Sawyer’s mother, Kayla. When they noticed the Create booth Thursday, though, “we thought we’d try it here, first.”

Even more attractive to Kayla was the fact that all proceeds from Thursday’s slime-making are going to be donated to We All Play, the organization committed to raise funds to construct an inclusive playground and miracle league field in Owatonna, she said. “This is a perfect opportunity” to support We All Play.

Martin has attended We All Play meetings, and she’s long considered ways to succor the organization, she said. She decided this month to donate 10% of the proceeds from her photography business, as well as all the money from Thursday’s slime workshop, to We All Play.

Both Martin and Nechanicky have made it a priority to involve youth with their burgeoning business, doing crafts with children during the summer’s first Downtown Thursday and having youth-create nights at Hat Chic Clothing Company, so Thursday’s slime adventure was another logical step, Martin said. “It’s something for kids to do while their parents are shopping” at Crazy Days.

Tanya Henson, owner/operator of Hat Chic Clothing Company, “has been a great supporter of ours” as Martin and Nechanicky continue building Create, Martin said. “We’ve worked a lot with” Hat Chic Clothing Company, and “that’s been really fun.”

With Create, Martin and Nechanicky “do a little bit of everything,” Martin said. “Whatever people request, we’ll try to make it for them.”

Those who missed Martin and Nechanicky Thursday will have another chance next week, Martin said. They plan to set up their Create booth at the summer’s final Downtown Thursday.

Also drawing a crowd Thursday morning was the Owatonna Pickleball Association’s pickleball demonstration and practicum for children and adults.

“We want to give them an opportunity to know what it feels like, what the (sport) is like,” said OPA member Edith Schauble, who started playing pickleball a handful of years ago. “We’re trying to increase our membership and get more interest in the community.”

“We have our own courts” for pickleball, four in Morehouse Park and two near Lincoln Elementary, and “we play inside during the winter,” Schauble said. “It’s great exercise, fun, and social.”

Pickleball is “the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.,” and the OPA has nearly 200 members, she said. “It’s a blast.”

Crazy Days continues Friday, with retail stores and vendors opening at 8 a.m. The annual kid’s parade begins at 10 a.m., a three-on-three basketball tournament tips at 2 p.m., and the band In a Bind will perform in the park starting at 5 p.m.

Survey results on OHS, taxes, and bond referendum presented to school board

OWATONNA—During a work session of Owatonna’s school board this week, Morris Leatherman’s chief executive officer Peter Leatherman presented results from a survey completed earlier this month regarding a bond referendum for a new Owatonna High School, and the message from those who opposed May’s vote is clear: “it’s taxes.”

For those who voted “No” on the issue in May, “the macro issue is property tax hostility,” Leatherman explained Tuesday night. “The key factor is taxes.”

Of those surveyed earlier this month 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.”

The perception on property taxes by those surveyed this month “has changed considerably” from Morris Leatherman’s fall survey, Leatherman said. While only 12% called their total taxes “very high” last year, 26% deemed their total taxes “very high” this month.

However, the feelings on school taxes, specifically, moved only slightly, with 16% calling their school taxes “very high” this month, up from 13% who felt that way in the fall.

“Animus on property taxes is not directed at the school district, which is good news, but the bad news is the only opportunity to vote against property tax increases is with school” referendums, Leatherman said. “You’re bound by 55%” of those surveyed saying “their taxes are too high” in general.

“City taxes went up 7% last year,” but the school district is the entity that has to ask for money, and do so in a “tax-hostile environment,” said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. “People don’t want to part with a lot of money,” which is understandable, but, in this case, “that puts our students at a real disadvantage.”

In the fall, 61% of those surveyed were persuadable regarding a tax increase for the school district, but that figure is now down to 47%. While 19% were against any tax increase last year, that number has risen to 25%; on the other hand, though, only 20% were for any tax increase to benefit the school district in 2018, but that figure has increased to 27%.

“More than half have made up their minds,” Leatherman said. “More have gone to positions” for or against a tax increase.

This survey “tell us people are more (adamant) in support or opposition,” Elstad concurred. “It appears to me more people are out of the ‘unsure’ category.”

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.

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.

In this month’s survey, 42% said they’d pay absolutely nothing in terms of a tax increase for a bond referendum, while 47% indicated they would pay, but support decreased as the amount elevated, which one would expect, Leatherman said. “A plurality will pay something, but it depends on what that ‘something’ is.”

For an additional $8 on a monthly tax bill, 17% granted support in the survey, and 13% were accepting of a $16 per month increase, but that figure dropped to 11% for a $24 per month increase. However, possible alterations to previously-presented plans for a new high school either made no impact on those surveyed, or actually shed votes, with the exception of a smaller high school.

If a building for 1,600 students were constructed, as opposed to an edifice for 1,700 students, 22% of those surveyed said they were more likely to vote for it, while 12% indicated they were less likely, Leatherman said. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, however, said it would make no difference in their vote.

If asked to support a bond referendum this November, 48% of those surveyed this month indicated they would, and 47% were opposed, results within the margin of error. Of those who voted in May, 49% expressed bond support, and 47% were opposed, but, again, those results are within the margin of error.

The Morris Leatherman Company completed a similar survey of local residents this fall, and Leatherman presented to the board during a November meeting. Morris Leatherman has been doing surveys for the district—and throughout Minnesota—for years, so Leatherman can compare and contrast results from this latest survey with historical Owatonna surveys, as well as juxtapose them with results from around the state.

In the fall, 400 random households were surveyed, but Leatherman increased that number to 500 this time, because he wanted to guarantee responses from at least 300 people who voted in May, he said. Interviews, which averaged 18 minutes, were conducted between July 9 and July 18, the non-response level was 5%, and the margin of error was 4.5%.

Of those surveyed in the fall, 24% had lived in the district 10 years or fewer, 21% lived here 11-20 years, 23% lived here for 21-30 years, and 32% lived here for more than three decades. This month, those figures were 25%, 23%, 22%, and 30%, respectively.

There was a virtually even split between self-described Democrats and Republicans in this survey, but 43% called themselves political conservatives, 27% classified as moderates, and 24% identified as liberals. A quarter had high school educations or less, a third had college experience, and 42% were college graduates.

The age ranges were virtually even splits. Roughly a fifth were 18-34, a fifth 35-44, a fifth 45-54, a fifth 55-64, and a fifth 65 or older.

While only a third of respondents called themselves “financially stressed” in the fall survey, that figure increased to 39% this time, and that follows a statewide trend of economic anxiety creeping upward, Leatherman said. “We’re seeing this grow across the state.”

Of those surveyed earlier this month, 64% voted in May, while 36% did not. For those who didn’t vote, 45% said they would have supported the referendum, while 35% said they would have opposed it.

For that 36% who declined to vote, half cited “no time/busy/forgot” as their reason for not voting, Leatherman said. Of parents who didn’t vote, 70% said it was because of lack of time, too busy, or they forgot.

For 59% of those surveyed, the Owatonna People’s Press was a major source of information about the referendum, and 24% considered it a minor source. Direct mailings from the district were a major source for 49% and a minor source for 41%.

However, friends/neighbors were a major or minor source for 77% of voters surveyed, so “the grapevine was alive, lush, and vibrant,” Leatherman said. Additionally, “if the grapevine was a major source for people,” which it was for 40% of those surveyed, “they opposed the referendum.”

In the aftermath of May’s narrow failure, some second-guessed how the district presented information to the community, but two-thirds of those surveyed this month said there was nothing the district could have done to better inform voters. Perhaps related, nearly half of those surveyed said they had made up their minds about the vote before the decision to run a referendum was even announced by the school board.

“We’ve seen this across the state over the past decade, and it’s the same here,” Leatherman said. “Almost half of the people had their minds made up before the referendum was announced.”

This is also true of surveys Morris Leatherman does regarding attitudes toward issues at the state or federal level, he said. “We’re divided.”

Back in the 1990s, typically only a quarter of people had their minds made up on issues, with the other 75% usually persuadable, he said. Now, however, whether it be for a school bond, a state ballot issue, or a presidential election, “people are entrenched one way or the other.”

Whether successful or not, school districts “burn political capital” when they run bond referendums, and Owatonna was no exception, Leatherman said. The percentage of those who said the district spends money effectively fell from 76% in 2018 to 59% this month—which is still higher than the state average of 52%.

This district has “always gotten high marks on engaging the community,” and that has remained true, he said. In this survey, 76% said the district did well in community involvement, down only 5% from last year.

However, only 52% of those surveyed this month said they would support a referendum to protect their investment in local schools, he said. Those figures were 71% last year and 69% in 2015.

Voters in this survey did break from the statewide results in a question about schools being adequately funded.

Only 48% of those surveyed this month in Owatonna agreed schools receive adequate funding, but across the state, that number is 60%, Leatherman said. “That’s an interesting result” for Owatonna, and “counter to what we’re seeing elsewhere.”

Tuesday’s meeting was to “digest the information” from Leatherman, but the board’s next meeting, a work session at 5:30 p.m. August 1, will be “a night to roll up our sleeves” and select “a direction we want to go,” Mark Sebring, chairman of the board, said at the conclusion of Tuesday’s work session. “That is decision night.”

If the district wants to bring a high school bond referendum to voters on the November general election ballot, the board and administration will have to move fast, Elstad said. In order to leave enough time for “review and comment” from the Minnesota Department of Education, the district would have to submit all germane documents to MDE by early-August.

Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON 

Jean Prokott makes a reliable wage as a public school teacher, but the loans are still a constant burden. (Courtesy of Jean Prokott)

Multiple proposals come in for Hope School, other county properties

STEELE COUNTY – Much to the surprise and delight of the Steele County Board of Commissioners, seven different entities submitted proposals to purchase three separate parcels of land throughout the county.

In June, the board approved a request for proposals on three properties: an empty lot in Clinton Falls, the Crane Creek School which is a lot that has a small pavilion just west of Owatonna, and the Hope School in Somerset Township. The proposals were allowed to have any combination of any two of the three parcels or could include the whole bunch.

“The reason the county board requested the proposals on the properties – particularly for Hope School and Crane Creek – is because they are essential public parks and public use areas,” explained County Administrator Scott Golberg. “The cost-benefit to maintain these properties wasn’t really meeting the demand of the public use, so the commissioners felt it would be better served is someone else managed or owned them or to even put them back on the tax roll.”

Six private parties and one community group submitted a total of 11 proposals, with five of them being for the Hope School. The Hope Businessmen’s Club submitted one of the lower bids for the school so that they could keep the former two-room schoolhouse in the community as a Community Center as well as the future site of the Hope Water Cooperative. However, Golberg said that money will only be part of the equation as a committee consisting of himself and commissioners Rick Gnemi and Jim Abbe analyze the proposals.

“The overall benefit to the county will be weight in,” Golberg said. “Big numbers will not just write off the community proposal. The board always tries to look deeper under and inbetween the numbers at what it really means and what it could mean down the road.”

That is exactly what Dale Wilker, a prominent player in keeping the Hope School for the Hope community, is banking on.

“I think that we should really consider [the Hope Businessmen’s Club proposal] as overall the best use for this building,” Wilker said. “The proposal wasn’t for the highest bidder, it was for the best use for the county.”

Wilker explained to the commissioners that there is a group of people willing to volunteer their time to replace the roof on the school. He also stated that there is an initiative to raise money for new paint in the building as well as potentially new windows.

“We checked and we qualify for the National Historical Society that will get us money for the roof and if we need windows we could get windows that would match the ones that were put in there originally,” Wilker added.

Other proposals for the Hope School, all by private parties, included turning it into a building site, remodeling the building to use as a private residence, subdividing the lot into four parcels with various uses, and remodeling the school to either rent as an event center or convert to a single family home. The highest proposal for the Hope School came in at $19,555.

Three private parties submitted proposals for the Crane Creek School lot which included converting the property to farm land, turning it into a building site, constructing a home and pole barn, or converting it to either a go-cart/UTV track or community garden. The proposals ranged from $15,000 to $27,555.

Three private parties submitted proposals for the Clinton Falls lot which included converting the property into a building site, building a single-family home and pole barn, and leaving it as is until there is future use. The proposals ranged from $5,000 to $21,000.

Golberg said that the plan is for the review committee to bring back a recommendation on the properties to the full board at the August 13 meeting.

aharman / By ANNIE HARMAN