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Owatonna freshman Mya Dutton will make her first ever appearance in the Class AA Girls Swimming and Diving meet. (file photo/southernminn.com)

Winter production at LTO full of familiar faces
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The Little Theatre of Owatonna is getting into the Christmas spirit, to put it mildly.

The winter production of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” is proving to be special in various ways for members of the cast and crew.

The story follows three actors as they grapple over which holiday classic they’re going to perform. Over the course of the show, they decide to delve into all of the Christmas tales from around the world. From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to “The Gift of the Magi” to dances from the “Nutcracker,” there’s some holiday spirit for everyone according to Director Zack Knapton.

Knapton has been interested in theater for as long as he can remember. He has spent time on stage and backstage and everywhere in between. This production, for him, is unique and special because he is able to direct his mentor, Jeffrey Jackson.

“I worked under Jeffrey as an apprentice director while he directed ‘The Odd Couple,’” Knapton said. “Now I get to direct him on stage and it has been so fun and unique for me.”

Jackson has graced the director’s chair for 10 or so productions since his arrival to Owatonna in 2004, but this is his first time on stage in a main role for several years. Now that he is retired, Jackson hopes to be able to both direct and act at least once per season. He admits it’s been difficult for him at times to not be a “backseat driver” when it comes to the production.

“Going from director to actor is difficult,” Jackson laughed. “ I’ve had to apologize to Zack on more than one occasion.”

Knapton said the production is a collaborative effort with everyone and having an experienced actor and director to offer guidance has been beneficial.

“Jeffrey has done better at being an actor instead of a director better than he thinks he has,” Knapton said.

Matt Jessop is also taking the stage at the Little Theatre for the second time since 2018. This production is special for him because his son is part of the crew. He discussed how being in productions together has been great for some father-son bonding.

“My first play was ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ which was nice because it was set as a radio play so our scripts were in hand,” Jessop said. “This has been such a fun one to be involved in, especially because my son will be a part of the crew. Being able to have this experience together makes it that much more fun as a dad.”

David Philips rounds out the trio of actors for this production.

All three men agree that they identify with their characters on many levels. Jackson joked that they all had been typecast, especially him because he describes his character as a bit of a “curmudgeon,” which he can relate to.

Philips said he’s excited to have a main part in this production. He’s been in several shows, but this is the biggest part he’s had, which has been both a challenge and fun.

“I think I play the comic relief,” Philips said. “It’s been really fun to connect with the character and with Jeffrey and Matt because we play well off of each other.”

The cast and crew are about three weeks into rehearsal, with opening night being Friday, Dec. 3. Tickets for Little Theatre of Owatonna members are available now. General public will be able to purchase their tickets as early as next week.

Public safety officials urge winter hazard awareness as season changes
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With night temperatures dropping below freezing and the season’s first snow fall already come and gone, Steele County residents once again face the joys of winter — and the dangers.

With blizzard conditions, icy roads and subzero temperatures fast approaching, Kristen Sailer, emergency management director for Steele County, wants to remind residents this Winter Hazard Awareness Week how they can stay safe for another southern Minnesota winter.

Much of the danger winter poses involves the frigid weather that afflict people across the state and nation, with its risk of frostbite, hypothermia and other conditions that require further medical attention — though those more extreme temperatures typically don’t arrive until January or February.

What sets southern Minnesota apart, to some degree, Sailer said, is how frequently it experiences blizzards. The resulting slippery roads and “whiteout” loss of visibility can cause car accidents.

“We’re living in Minnesota — everyone thinks that they can get through the snow,” she said. “But it’s not always true … so they cause issues by getting stuck or stranded out on the roads and then first responders have to get called and go save them.”

Avoiding this situation, she said, is really quite simple: heed the warnings of public safety departments, check weather advisories and road conditions ahead of time and consider staying home when those conditions pose a legitimate risk to travelers. Having appropriate equipment and warm clothing stored in vehicles is also an important step to ensuring safety during the winter’s more dangerous moments.

Local residents are also likely to experience inconveniences like road closures when blizzard conditions — high wind and snowfall — make highways like Interstate 35 and Interstate 90 too dangerous to drive on.

Another key risk residents face during the colder months is not the risk of cold at all, but the risk of fire. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DPS-HSEM), most home fires occur during the winter, peaking in January. In 2013, 10% of home fires across the state were specifically caused by heating devices such as space heaters. This past February, the Owatonna Fire Department battled a house fire in subzero temperatures that started in the fireplace. The fire resulted in a total loss of the 4,100-square-foot home.

In addition to saving lives and personal property, preventing these home fires also saves some agonizing trips for the firefighters who are called upon to put out winter fires.

“From a firefighter’s standpoint, it’s always harder when it’s freezing cold out,” said Ed Hoffman, Owatonna’s fire chief. “We got all of our water, fire trucks and stuff — makes it a little bit more challenging.”

Aside from good fire prevention habits, Hoffman also emphasized the importance of checking carbon monoxide detectors — that they’re operational, tested and within 10 feet of every sleeping room. This is especially important in the winter months when all the windows are closed to keep heat from escaping.

“Running gas appliances with the house all closed up, you can get carbon monoxide building up in the house a little bit easier,” Hoffman said.

And with the holiday season fast approaching, revelers and others full of Christmas cheer might want to avoid adding to the 250 home fires involving Christmas trees every year in the United States, as well as the additional 170 involving holiday lighting, according to DPS-HSEM. These can be avoided by keeping Christmas trees away from heat sources and throwing out holiday lights that show significant signs of wear.

Awesome Blossoms take on nation’s capital

Roughly 50 students from Blooming Prairie High School arrived in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday as a part of a special trip to the nation’s capital. The Blossoms have been taking similar trips for a number of years, but had to cancel the 2020 trip due to COVID-19. Many of the students scheduled to go on last year’s trip were able to participate this year. (Photo courtesy of Blooming Prairie Public Schools)

Plans for Kaplan's Crossing in development

As the busy season for the city’s trail system winds down to a close, the Parks and Recreation Department is starting the important work to make those same trails even better.

During the Owatonna City Council meeting Tuesday night, councilors unanimously approved entering into an agreement with WSB to pull together the design and specifications for the Kaplan’s Crossing trail connection project, scheduled to take place next year. Parks and Rec Director Jenna Tuma said the connection is a vital step in achieving the city’s long-term master plan to a fully connected trail system.

“This portion is less than a quarter-mile, but what a significant improvement it will be,” Tuma said. The project will connect the Kaplan’s Woods Parkway and 18th Street trails.

The project is able to come to fruition thanks to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Local Trail Connections grant the city was awarded in July. The grant, which the city applied for twice before being selected, totals $99,650. Tuma said the total project cost is $132,867, and the remaining dollars will come from the parks department capital improvement projects budget.

“This project has really been two-years in the works,” Tuma said, noting that Mary Jo Knudson, the city’s recreation supervisor, was the one who secured the grant during the second round of applications this year.

While there are multiple places throughout Owatonna where the trails do not connect, this specific location near Lake Kohlmier was targeted by the city, due to its high traffic volume as well as the high traffic along 18th Street, where trail users have to cross in order to get to the next portion of trail. A previous user count done by the city shows that the two trails average 12 to 17 users per hour, while an average of 725 cars travel by the park entrance daily.

And while safety is a big priority for the city, the project will also help make the trail system more accessible for all users.

“All state DNR grants make ADA accessibility a requirement,” Knudson said. “They get really specific in what needs to be compliant.”

One example of how the trail will need to be compliant is in any slopes, Tuma said, as well as the grade of the pavement, which has to be 3% or less.

“You might not think 3% is much, but when you’re pushing something up hill anything greater than that you can really feel it,” said Tuma.

Because of the restrictive guidelines to be ADA compliant, Tuma said it makes it all that more important to have a good engineering firm to assist in the plans and specifications for the connections.

“We are given good guidelines on how to build this stuff, so now we have to figure out how to actually lay it in there and tie it all together,” Tuma said. “These professional services will allow us to get those designs and specs in place so that we can get out to bid and have the summer to work on the project.”

The connection, which will be named Kaplan’s Crossing, is expected to be completed next fall.

Once the project is complete, Tuma said there are a number of other gaps in the trail system the city will target next. These areas include the north end of the city along 26th Street, a gap near Maple Creek, and more areas along 18th Street.

“We are definitely looking at [18th Street] so that we can dive in and make connections with the new high school coming,” Tuma said. “If we could get those all done it would provide some real improvements for folks to be able to make loops on the trails and be able to access other trails safely. They’re expensive projects, but we are making progress.”