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Owatonna’s Kaden Nelson (7) stretches toward a loose ball against Rochester Century as fellow captain Lane Versteeg (6) looks on during a Big Nine Conference game at the Owatonna Soccer Complex on Tuesday night. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Out of fitness biz, city leases space to Wrestling Association

It has been roughly six months since the West Hills Tennis and Fitness Center closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this week the city made its first step toward re-purposing the cardio and weight areas as it moves away from the exercise business.

“When the fitness side first started up, we didn’t have businesses that had gymnasiums and weights and all that,” said Troy Klecker, the city’s community development director who has also served as the interim Parks and Recreation director since 2018. “It was a true community need at the time that we started, and it continued to be for many years, but now the fitness side of it directly competes against a couple of private businesses we have in the community.”

During Tuesday’s Owatonna City Council meeting, the council unanimously approved an agreement with the Owatonna Wrestling Association, allowing the group to utilize the gymnasium and weight room area for practice, camps and clinics during the upcoming year. Klecker said the association was running into obstacles with its current space and allowing for proper social distancing during COVID-19, and that this would allow the city to fill a community need while the it assesses how the facility can be used in the long term.

The decision to keep the fitness center permanently closed was made on an administrative level in June followed by the reimbursement of prepaid memberships, according to Klecker. While the city had been contemplating the future of the fitness center for a while, Klecker said when COVID-19 came along it seemed like the time to close the doors permanently

“When the orders came that we could open the facilities back up again, we saw that it was going to take a lot to get it up and going again from a staffing standpoint,” Klecker said. “At the same time, the private gyms were able to open again at 25-50% and as they were struggling to get going it didn’t make sense for us to open up and compete with them.”

According to Klecker, reopening the fitness center and potentially taking business away from privately owned gyms during a trying time for business didn’t fit “philosophically” with what the city’s Park and Recreation Department tries to do.

“We are trying to provide opportunities that the community does not have,” Klecker said. “This was one we did need, but now we don’t and businesses were struggling. On top of that, we subsidize our programming and we should not be using taxpayer dollars to subsidize that. All of this played into our decisions to discontinue the weights and fitness portion of our center.”

Staffing expenses also contributed to the decision to close the fitness center, according to Klecker. He said not having to staff the fitness side will help control the city’s costs.

While the cardio and weight equipment will be removed within the next month, Klecker said the gymnasium and pool will continue to be utilized in the future for city programming. At this time, however, Klecker said city staff is hesitant to start new programs in the facility as the public health pandemic continues.

“We want to focus on what sort of other amenities or programs the community does not have that we could provide in this facility,” Klecker said. “With COVID-19, it’s going to take a little while to ramp up programming and have people comfortable enough to come, so regardless there is going to be a delay. Allowing the Wrestling Association to use the space for a year while we look at what we want to use that space for long term makes sense.”

The city will receive $6,000 from the Wrestling Association for use of the facility until Aug. 31, 2021.

No changes have been made to the Tennis Center at this time.

Pandemic exposes weaknesses in City Hall infrastructure

As local governments move forward with navigating online or partially online public meetings, the Owatonna City Council is taking steps to ensure that while the public may not always like what they hear at council meetings, at least they’ll be able to hear them.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every aspect of life, including everyday government processes, data recording and tuning in to council meetings. With the use of CARES Act dollars from the federal government, the city will be able to take major steps to rectifying these issues and concerns.

One designation for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars, which was approved during the council’s Tuesday meeting, was to bring the council chambers’ audio and video system up to standards for conducting virtual meetings. City Administrator Kris Busse said when government bodies were unable to conduct in-person meetings due to the pandemic, it became apparent that the present system was inadequate.

The council unanimously approved using $126,900 in CARES Act funding to install audio and video equipment inside the council chambers that will allow anyone to fully participate in a meeting remotely through Tierney Inc.

Also at the meeting, Finance Director Rhonda Moen asked the council to approve a contract for advisory services software to be provided by Government Finance Officers Association related to enterprise resource planning. The contract, which the council unanimously approved, will consume $49,500 of the city’s portion of the CARES Act. The remaining $28,500 cost will be paid through capital projects funds.

“We found ourselves with a closed City Hall and trying to convert everything to a paperless process,” Moen said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It became apparent that we had several hiccups and obstacles to overcomes in order to efficiently and effectively provide services to the citizens of Owatonna.”

Moen said the city had already planned on replacing its current financial software in 2021, so COVID-19 and the CARES Act provides an opportune time to have a thorough review of all the city’s business processes as they move forward toward the city’s strategic goal of being an “efficient, effective and economical government.”

The software package will encompass all the city’s processes and involves every city department in addressing their software needs, according to Moen.

A third inefficiency exposed at City Hall during COVID-19 was seen in the Human Resources Department in the means of how data is collected within the city. Lynn Gorski, the city HR director, requested the council approve the purchasing of Laserfiche software through CARES Act dollars to implement an online HR Infrastructure and Avante Records Management Modules.

“[Human Resources] helps the city stay lean, and these tools will continue to do that by allowing us to be efficient and effective,” Gorski said, adding the software will allow accurate workflow and filing for all records at the city. “This project creates a standardized and simplified indexing and processing while automatically filing public, private and confidential information.”

According to Gorski, the software will allow departments to have one location to organize, store, track changes and provide an audit trail of accessed data along with any legal holds and changes to the data.

The council unanimously approved utilizing $14,785 from the city’s CARES Act funding to purchase the software and modules. Ongoing expenses will amount to $1,200 a year, which Gorski said will be divided among each department to lessen the impact on budgets.

FILE — In this Aug. 7, 2020 file photo, people congregate at One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota from Aug. 7 to 16. Minnesota health officials reported Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, that a man in his 60s who attended the rally died from COVID-19. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

Woody's Reserve: Owatonna has a wild side

In a city of over 25,000, one local organization is working on a project to make the wilderness more accessible.

The Owatonna Izaak Walton League has taken on the project of converting 100-acres of donated land into a wilderness area for the public’s enjoyment. The plot of land is located at 7920 County Road 45, Owatonna.

It’s September which means the end of summer and the start of some much cooler days to spend outside. September is also National Wilderness Month and marks the anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964.

The act designated 54 areas or about 9.1 million acres of land across 13 states as wilderness areas effectively creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. The NWPS has since grown to include 803 areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Another 56 million acres of wilderness were added to the system in 1980 after the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the largest addition in a single year. Only 5% of the entire U.S. is protected as wilderness (an area slightly larger than the state of California) according to Wilderness Connect, a collaborative partnership between W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation’s Wilderness Institute at The University of Montana, the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.

In general, areas of wilderness provide habitat for flora and fauna, among many other benefits. It provides a place to camp, hike, watch wildlife and explore. Wilderness can provide inspiration and be a place to find peace, especially during a global pandemic.

Owatonna already offers a variety of parks to explore such as Mineral Springs Park and Rice Lake State Park. However a lesser known wilderness area is currently in development — Woody’s Reserve.

Land for the reserve was donated to the Ikes by the Elaine R. Wodarczak estate, after Wodarczak died in September of 2016. She lived about 8 miles south of Owatonna on a small farm, but the land wasn’t the best for growing crops. Wodarczak left the land to the wild birds and mammals in the area, insisting that no hunting be allowed on her land and wanting to keep her property as natural as possible. She listed the league as the beneficiary in her estate’s physical property, according to a biography provided by the league’s treasurer, Walt Spindler.

“There’s deer and turkeys and pheasants galore and other stuff. Lots of wild plants,” Spindler said.

Wodarczak had worked as a secretary for the Owatonna High School Assistant Principal Darrell Hill for several years, according to the biography.

Spindler is a leader on the Woody’s Reserve project alongside a committee of six or eight members who are currently making decisions about the reserve.

“It’s been quite an experience, straining at times dealing with issues that we had to deal with and yet it’s been very exciting in that she left us half a million dollar piece of land with some buildings on it,” Spindler said.

After going through the court system for a while, the land was turned over to the league in late 2018, says Spindler. The land was named “Woody’s Reserve” as many people in the area knew Wodarczak as “Woody.”

For the Owatonna Izaak Walton League the goal is to keep the land as natural as possible, although the league has a few projects in mind. They are working on creating walking trails and potentially land skiing trails for the winter. Recently, Spindler purchased a brush mower for the organization to recut some walking paths. Last year the group cut some trails to explore the area and get an idea of what they were working with. A journey out on reserve reveals a diversity of plants, some good and some not so much. Spindler says he has found some invasive plants such as buckthorn and wild parsnip.

“There’s a lot of things out there to see, so we are looking forward to opening it up to the community, we are gonna build a shed out there with some picnic tables by it for a nice quiet spot to go out and have a little picnic,” Spindler said. The league also hopes to allow local Scout groups an opportunity to camp there.

To help fund some of these projects the league sold off a 5 acre homestead. Spindler says he has spent uncountable hours cleaning up the homestead to get it ready for sale and taking care of the general finances of the land.

In mid August the league installed a “Woody’s Reserve” sign on the land.

“We put the sign up to bring some attention to the place and you know it might be sort of open for foot traffic perhaps by sometime this fall,” Spindler said.

Progress on the project has been a little slow over the last few months, as COVID-19 has made it difficult to regularly meet. The Owatonna chapter will continue to work to conserve wildlife so future generations can learn about nature and explore.

“That is our goal, is to basically provide an outdoor educational (place), we also plan to use it for the high school classes that want to come out and learn something about the outdoors and the diverse plants that are out there,” Spindler said.