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Workers installed 192 glittering Waterford crystal triangles on Times Square’s New Year’s Eve ball Sunday in preparation for a pandemic-limited celebration that will lack the usual tightly packed crowds of revelers. The ball is a 12-foot geodesic sphere covered with 2,688 crystal triangles of various sizes. 

Advocate for good roads and fiscal prudence, Gillen wraps Rice County board tenure
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After four election victories and more than a decade and a half of service, Rice County’s longest tenured commissioner is saying goodbye.

Jake Gillen, whose District 1 includes a portion of the city of Northfield, the cities of Nerstrand and Dundas and numerous rural townships in eastern Rice County, attended his final meeting as a member of the board Tuesday. First elected in 2004 and re-elected three more times, the retired dairy farmer was known for his strong work ethic, fiscally cautious approach and commitment to improving the county’s infrastructure.

While Gillen represented the rural eastern part of the county, the rural western part has been represented by District 5 Commissioner Jeff Docken since 2008. As the only other farmer on the board, Docken said he always enjoyed working with Gillen.

“He was very dedicated to the job and he was not a person to miss meetings,” Docken said. “Some of his (committee) meetings would be half day meetings, and he’d have to go to Rochester or St. Paul, but he took that obligation very seriously.”

As one of two heavily rural districts, Gillen’s seat included plenty of miles of well-traveled roads. The commissioner is particularly proud of his success in delivering needed road repairs and improvements.

“I got practically every blacktop road in my district resurfaced, including the state highways from Faribault to Northfield to Nerstrand,” he said.

County Engineer Dennis Luebbe said the Highway Department has managed to achieve an impressive amount over Gillen’s 16 years on the board — in large part, due to revenue increases Gillen backed during his tenure.

A fiscal conservative who was loath to increase property taxes, Gillen instead looked elsewhere for the revenue needed to improve roads in his district. Among the initiatives he backed were a wheelage tax, a gravel tax and a half-cent sales tax.

“He’s been a great commissioner to work with over the years,” Luebbe said. “He has been extremely dedicated to advancing key Rice County initiatives.”

In order to deliver funding for roads and other key county services, Gillen deviated slightly from his fiscally conservative approach — but only slightly. While careful with the taxpayer dollar, he wasn’t wedded to maintaining Rice County’s position as the lowest taxed county in the state.

Gillen said that approach made him somewhat different from a few of his colleagues, notably former Commissioner Milt Plaisance. The longtime commissioner, who represented a Faribault centered district from 1988-2012, always liked to keep taxes the lowest in the state.

“I used to say, how much more money is available to the county being 84th or 85th (in tax revenues) compared to 87th?” Gillen asked. “It doesn’t make any sense of being there, when it gives you a lot more money being down two or three notches on the totem pole.”

While his approach to taxes and spending may have differed slightly, Plaisance praised Gillen, saying he used a “common sense” approach and was focused on making sure that every taxpayer dollar was spent wisely.

“Jake used good common sense, tried to be honest and do the right thing,” Plaisance said. “He was always concerned about the taxpayers and making sure they got their bang for a buck.”

Gillen was also the longest serving member of the Southeast Minnesota Emergency Communications Board. The board, which includes 11 southeast Minnesota counties and the city of Rochester, is responsible for all local improvements to local public safety radio. For his service to the board, Gillen was presented with a Distinguished Service Award. On hand to deliver it were Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, County Administrator Sara Folsted and the Administrator of Steele County’s 911 call center, Jill Bondhus.

Thanks in part to Gillen’s leadership, Dunn noted that the region became a leader in making the switch to an 800 MHz system for public safety radio, improving communication between law enforcement and other public safety officials.

Longtime Commissioner Galen Malecha said that Gillen was effective because he was always willing to keep an open mind and listen. Even though they didn’t always come to the same conclusion, Malecha came to have great respect for his fellow commissioner.

“Jake always said if he didn’t know about something he asked a question and would go and get the information needed to find out,” he said.

Holiday shoppers provide crucial boost to small local businesses
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Despite fears that cash-strapped, pandemic-conscious holiday shoppers would turn to online retailers, small local businesses are reporting robust sales over the holiday season.

While December is always a crucial time of year for small businesses, it was seen as even more pivotal this year, given that the effects of the pandemic and associated restrictions have often fallen squarely on their shoulders.

At first, the pandemic sent Todd Lundgren of Owatonna’s Country Goods into a panic. After being forced to close the doors, the longtime business owner not only dipped deep into savings, but even took a job at a grocery store just to make ends meet. When the Country Goods did manage to reopen, Lundgren experienced an increase in sales that has continued through the holiday season. He believes much of that boost has occurred at the expense of industries that have seen business even more sharply curtailed.

“People say ‘well, we can’t spend money going on a cruise or at restaurants, so we’re going to go to Country Goods and buy a couple of really good candles,” he said. “‘We can’t visit grandma face to face, so let’s give her a gift package.’”

At Fleur de Lis Gallery in Faribault, owner Jess Prill said she's seen a small decrease in sales but that customers haven't really stopped shopping at Fleur de Lis. Instead, they've tended to eschew the store's pricier items for less expensive ones.

"We've been down a tiny bit, but we’re doing OK and we’re here to stay," she said. "And we're looking forward to spring!"

To be fair, online sales saw a big increase, surging by 49% compared to 2019 according to a report from Mastercard. Over the two weeks of Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, shipment tracking firm ShipMatrix reported more than 100 million parcels delivered per day.

That local small businesses managed to post decent sales perhaps underscores Lundgren’s point. Nicole Winter of Owatonna’s Urban Loft said that many shoppers she talked to were particularly eager to support small businesses like hers.

“I noticed that people were conscious of their shopping, and wanted to shop local,” she said. “I’ve felt that in the past, but even more so this year.”

Keeping local businesses alive has a major impact on the community, particularly in areas like Rice and Steele County with a limited number of chains. According to American Express, two-thirds of every dollar spent at a local small business is then spent locally. Those dollars are then recycled as many as seven times by local business owners and workers. Many of those small businesses also invest in their community through charitable contributions, something Lundgren said is not lost on customers.

“The online stores don’t make the charitable contributions that we and local mom and pop shops do,” Lundgren said. “I hear from a lot of customers who say, ‘every time i go to a silent auction, I always see Country Goods trying to give away something.’”

In order to attract and retain customers, local businesses made unprecedented forays online. For Urban Loft, that meant maintaining a robust presence on Facebook even as most actual sales took place in-store.

Other businesses had different approaches to making the shopping experience more accessible and comfortable for the COVID-conscious. From Paffrath Jewelers in Owatonna to Ace Hardware in Faribault, businesses of all shapes and sizes embraced curbside pickup.

Even those businesses which saw sales slump a little say they managed to reach some new customers. Jerry Besser of Tone Music in Owatonna said that even though sales were “a little off,” increase in purchasing new instruments was up among the COVID-cornered.

“With people spending more time at home, we saw a lot of interest in instruments like guitars and uk(ulel)es,” he said.

Medford's 2021 budget factors in possible state aid cut
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The Medford City Council has approved a 2.4% property tax levy increase for 2021.

The council on Monday approved a total tax levy of $673,978 for 2021. Of that, $603,100 is for the general fund and the remaining amount is for items such as fire relief and the Economic Development Authority, according to the city. No one from the public spoke during the Truth and Taxation hearing prior to the council’s approval.

“The overall levy increase will fund inflation in the cost of supplies and services, provide additional funding for Fire Department repairs and capital expenses, increase reserves, fund increases in health insurance, continue the maintenance of streets and wastewater infrastructure, park improvements and putting funds into the capital project fund,” City Administrator Andy Welti said.

The council also approved a $2.28 million budget for 2021. Slightly more than $1 million is slated for general fund expenditures. Other expenditures include $369,700 from the water fund, $340,000 from the sewer fund, $441,000 from the liquor fund and $21,500 in capital projects, according to the city.

Welti cautioned that the state of Minnesota could cut local government aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the budget accounts for that reduction with little or no impact on city services.

In other news, the council declined to renew a contract with the Minnesota nonprofit Community and Economic Development Associates. The motion to renew the contract failed 3-2 with Mayor Lois Nelson and Councilor Grace Bartlett were the two supporting the motion.

CEDA provides economic development services to the city and the proposed contract would increase its work for the city to two days per month.

Councilor Matt Dempsey said he hasn’t seen enough results from CEDA to warrant the city continuing with the services.

“We haven’t had new businesses come to town. We have a dying mall,” he said.

Welti, who interned with the organization before taking the Medford administrator's job, said it’s beneficial to have a CEDA representative for Medford and the city can reevaluate the contract throughout the year. Nelson also touted CEDA’s services, although the city is still “waiting for an ‘Aha!’ blast.”

The council also accepted Welti’s resignation. His last day is Monday. Nelson noted there was “an opportunity that has come up for Andy that cannot be refused” and doesn’t have to do with his recent job evaluation, in which he met and exceeded expectations for the job.