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Just 22, American poet Amanda Gorman read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during Wednesday’s Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Read her words online at bit.ly/2LPEUX6.

Diversity groups merge together to celebrate culture and educate others

Two Owatonna groups focused on cultural inclusion and diversity advocacy have been working behind the scenes to join forces.

Now with the help of two grants awarded this month, the group is ready for the public debut as one entity working toward their dream: an Owatonna community enriched in cultural understanding.

The Alliance for Greater Equity is the brainchild of those who headed up the Cultural Diversity Network of Owatonna, which brought the community the CulturFest event for 20 years, and the Better Together Committee, a sponsor of several community engagement events since 2019. Rebecca Moore with the Better Together planning committee said she was approached about collaborating with the Cultural Diversity Network following the conclusion of the successful Better Together Community Reading Circles, an effort to highlight issues of race and race relations in the community ignited by the ripple effect of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in 2020.

“The person who suggested it just pointed out that the Cultural Diversity Network and Better Together were really doing similar work and instead of being separate, why not join forces and use that entire energy and resources to revitalize this work in Owatonna,” Moore said. “I talked to the two boards to ask if this could be a possibility and the resounding answer was yes, we really wanted this.”

While the Better Together events had been greatly attended, Moore admitted at the end of each event there was always a question of where they were going next to continue their efforts. The Cultural Diversity Network had been facing similar questions, especially following the discontinuation of their popular CulturFest after the 2018 event.

“We had the same team for 10 to 15 years doing the work to put on the festival and we were losing a few of our members,” said Mandy Young, Alliance treasurer and former treasurer for the network. “The amount of energy it took was just too much for us to continue, so we decided we had to take a step back and find some other projects to do.”

While the group was able to put together the Owatonna Now website, a virtual welcome hub that launched in 2019 to provide a one-stop-shop for new residents and visitors to the area, Young said they were left “looking for their next place.”

“Bringing our groups together and adding diversity to the board – which we had both struggled to get and maintain diverse perspectives on our boards – we felt like we had this new life and enthusiasm,” said Moore, who is now serving as the vice-chair of the alliance. “We are so thrilled to add members of color to our board and we want them to be leading the decision making on how we focus our work. These are people who are not only passionate about what we want to do, but who bring a broad array of perspectives for what we need to be doing in this community.”

The new organization is made up of a hybrid of Better Together committee members, Cultural Diversity Network board members, and a handful of new board members unique to the alliance and the work they will be pursuing moving forward. The group of roughly 25 people consists of educators, business professionals, diversity professionals, nonprofit workers, faith leaders, people of color, people who represent multi-racial families and people who have immigrated here — just to name a few descriptors.

Kicking off the new year with a bang, the alliance was also awarded two grants to help them pursue four projects they have identified as priorities in the community.

The group was included in $20,000 of awards handed out to area organizations advancing racial equity by the Mayo Clinic Health System. The alliance received $5,000 for what they labeled their “Bridging the Equity Divide: Four Pathways to Increased Equity and Inclusion” program. Moore was quoted in a press release from Mayo that the grant money will be critical to their projects that focus on education, mentoring and celebration of diversity, all intending to “eliminate racism and create a more united community.”

Two days later, it was announced the alliance was also granted $12,250 to put toward the same projects from Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and their Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grants program.

The projects the money will be allocated to will support the four pillars the alliance has identified for their organization: educate, celebrate, advocate and integrate. The projects will include a racial education series for the alliance board, a mentoring program focused on leadership within the local communities of color, and mentoring program focused on career and college readiness for area youth, and collaboration with the youth group Mixed Roots, who put together a smaller version of the popular CulturFest.

“Our children are our asset,” said Khadra Muhidin, alliance board member and success coach for Owatonna Public Schools. “So many of us came here empty handed, but we have our children. To educate and empower them and give them the tools they need that will lead them to their future – our future – that is why I wanted to be a part of this board.”

Ashlan Zurbriggen, another newcomer to the board, said the racial climate in Minnesota and the local community over the last year is what ignited her desire to join the board, stating there is no better time than now to begin community engagement.

“We all have so much to learn, but we have this amazing group with various backgrounds and education that are ready to collaborate with our students and the community,” said Zurbriggen. “We have got to start this work right now.”

With the alliance still coming together and finding its footing, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presenting obstacles of in-person gatherings, Alliance Board Chair Brian Coleman said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort, but you can’t do it by yourself,” Coleman said. “It is important that we acknowledge the work that has been done for quite a while in the community between these two former groups, and it speaks loudly in the sense of making our community a better place and utilizing resources and manpower behind it to do this kind of work. From my perspective, this honors the work done prior and the work yet to be done.”

Biden takes the helm as president: 'Democracy has prevailed'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States Wednesday, declaring that "democracy has prevailed" and summoning American resilience and unity to confront the deeply divided nation's historic confluence of crises.

Biden took the oath at a U.S. Capitol that had been battered by an insurrectionist siege just two weeks earlier. On a cold Washington morning dotted with snow flurries, the quadrennial ceremony unfolded within a circle of security forces evocative of a war zone and devoid of crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, Biden gazed out over 200,000 American flags planted on the National Mall to symbolize those who could not attend in person.

"The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We've learned again that democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed," Biden said. "This is America's day. This is democracy's day. A day in history and hope, of renewal and resolve."

History was made at his side, as Kamala Harris became the first woman to be vice president. The former U.S. senator from California is also the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency and the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the U.S. government.

Biden never mentioned his predecessor, who defied tradition and left town ahead of the ceremony, but his speech was an implicit rebuke of Donald Trump. The new president denounced "lies told for power and for profit" and was blunt about the challenges ahead.

Central among them: the surging virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, as well as economic strains and a national reckoning over race.

"We have much to do in this winter of peril, and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain," Biden said. "Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now."

Biden was eager to go big early, with an ambitious first 100 days including a push to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass a $1.9 trillion economic relief package. On Day One, as part of a push to roll back Trump administration initiatives, he signed a series of executive actions, including to re-enter the Paris Climate Accords and to mandate mask wearing on federal property.

"There's no time to start like today," Biden said as he signed the actions in the Oval Office.

The absence of Biden's predecessor from the inaugural ceremony underscored the national rift to be healed.

But a bipartisan trio of former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — were there to witness the ceremonial transfer of power. Trump, awaiting his second impeachment trial, was at his Florida resort by the time the swearing-in took place.

Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanizing a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. Four years after Trump's "American Carnage" speech painted a dark portrait of national decay, Biden warned that the fabric of the nation's democracy was tearing but expressed faith that it could be repaired.

"I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart," Biden said. "This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America."

Swearing the oath with his hand on a five-inch-thick Bible that has been in his family for 128 years, Biden came to office with a well of empathy and resolve born by personal tragedy as well as a depth of experience forged from more than four decades in Washington. At age 78, he is the oldest president inaugurated.

Both he, Harris and their spouses walked the last short part of the route to the White House after an abridged parade. Biden then strode into the Oval Office, a room he knew well as vice president, for the first time as commander in chief.

Earlier, the two were sworn in during an inauguration ceremony with few parallels. Biden, like all those in attendance, wore a face mask except when speaking. And tens of thousands of National Guard troops were on the streets to provide security precisely two weeks after a violent mob of Trump supporters, incited by the Republican president, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of Biden's victory.

"Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people," Biden said. "To stop the work of our democracy. To drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever. Not ever."

The tense atmosphere evoked the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, who was secretly transported to Washington to avoid assassins on the eve of the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural in 1945, when he opted for a small, secure ceremony at the White House in the waning months of World War II.

But Washington, all but deserted downtown and in its federal areas, was quiet. And calm also prevailed outside heavily fortified state Capitol buildings across nation after the FBI had warned of the possibility for armed demonstrations leading up to the inauguration.

The day began with a reach across the political aisle after four years of bitter partisan battles under Trump. At Biden's invitation, congressional leaders from both parties bowed their heads in prayer in the socially distanced service ja few blocks from the White House.

Biden was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts; Harris by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the Supreme Court. Vice President Mike Pence, standing in for Trump, sat nearby as Lady Gaga, holding a golden microphone, sang the National Anthem accompanied by the U.S. Marine Corps band.

When Pence, in a last act of the outgoing administration, left the Capitol, he walked through a door with badly cracked glass from the riot two weeks ago. Later, Biden, Harris and their spouses were joined by the former presidents to solemnly lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Ceremony.

High demand and limited housing supply a constant in southern Minnesota
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Even as coronavirus ravaged so much of the local and national economy, the housing shortage that has become an increasingly troublesome barrier to continued economic growth showed no sign of abating.

Yet while the numbers vary by city, it appears that the need for new single-family homes isn’t being met fully by demand. After issuing 40 permits for new residential buildings in 2019, Northfield issued just 13 in 2020. According to city records, that’s the smallest number in seven years. That lower 2020 total might be seen as something of a reversion to the mean for Northfield, since the number of permits issued in 2019 was so high. Each year between 2014 and 2018 the city issued between 23 and 29 permits, according to the Rice County Assessor’s Office.

Neighboring Dundas made up for part of that decline, thanks to a pre-planned development in the Bridgewater Heights area. 34 new housing permits were issued by the city in 2020, according to Dundas City Administrator Jenelle Teppen. That total is the highest since 2006, when 109 single-family permits were issued amid another large planned development. By contrast, Dundas issued just six single family housing permits in 2019 and 19 in 2018.

In Faribault, the number of new housing permits jumped from 17 in 2019 to 22 last year . In total, the estimated market value of that new single-family housing construction comes in at more than $4.3 million, which breaks down to just under $200,000 per house.

Most crucially though, 2020 saw the approval of three multi-family housing developments that will have a big impact on Faribault’s economy and housing market for years to come. In total, those developments will cost more than $28 million and add 203 units to the market.

Even though it’s far smaller than either Northfield or Faribault, Lonsdale continues to be a popular place to build a home. According to City Planner Ben Baker, 34 new home permits were approved in Lonsdale during 2020, with an overall value of about $8.4 million.

Though that’s significantly higher than the numbers Faribault and Northfield posted, it represents a fairly significant decline for Lonsdale. In 2019, the city issued 47 permits and the year before, it issued 46.

In Rice County’s rural townships, 44 single-family housing permits were issued, the same as in 2019. Bridgewater, Cannon City, Erin, Richland and Webster townships issued more permits than 2019, while Forest, Northfield, Shieldsville, Walcott and Wheatland issued fewer.

Steele County permits

In Owatonna, the total number of new housing permits issued was 35, according to records provided by Permit Technician Jennifer Nelson. The total estimated value of that new housing construction comes out to more than $10 million for an average of $285,714.

On the multi-family side, numbers were a bit more modest than Faribault but the city will still add 79 units between two projects. The combined value of those two developments, Eastgate Apartments and The Pointe @ Merchant Square Apartments, comes out to $10.83 million.

Other small towns in the area added but a handful of homes. In Morristown a permit for one new home was issued, in Blooming Prairie and Medford two new housing permits were issued, and in Ellendale three new housing permits were issued.

Boosting new housing construction is a priority across the region. Faribault is nearing the completion of a new housing study which will identify its market’s needs and challenges, while Owatonna completed one last year.

For those who can find one, a new house in Rice or Steele County can be appealing. The region benefits from lower property taxes and home values than metro area counties but is still in close proximity to the Twin Cities, with I-35 providing easy access.

However, lower property values are a double-edged sword because they don’t work out as well for builders as homebuyers. While home values in the Twin Cities are generally higher, the cost of building a home is comparable, so the incentive for builders is to build in the metro. The issue is compounded by the growth of local manufacturing and industrial businesses in Rice and Steele counties, along with the workforce shortage. When affordable housing isn’t available locally, it makes it much more difficult for those businesses to compete for employees.

In Faribault, the Lofts at Evergreen Knoll project at Western Avenue and Fourth Street NW will provide 76 rent-controlled apartments once complete, while the Straight River Apartments downtown will provide an additional 111 units. In addition to those two major developments, several other smaller projects are in the works.

Other ideas have been proposed to deal with the housing shortage, from a mobile home park to a relaxation of some permit fees. However, discussion is on pause until the housing study is complete, which Faribault Community Development Director Kim Clausen says could come by the end of the month.