As businesses throughout the state begin to slowly reopen per Gov. Tim Walz’s plan, stores and shops in Owatonna are starting to look at what reopening will look like for them.
“Our members are worried,” said Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “They are worried that when they open, will their customers come back? There is no real guarantee of that, but there are things they can do to reassure folks that they have done all things possible to make them safe.”
To help aid their fellow businesses once it is time to reopen, the staff at Tri M Graphics in Owatonna has collaborated with the chamber and the Owatonna Business Partnership to help promote the “safe” areas for the community to shop. Mike Jensen, president of Tri M, said that his crew has printed posters, table tents and stickers that will be distributed to area businesses this week.
“We were all talking and trying to come up with an idea or concept on how to let the community know that these retail businesses are stepping up and putting safe practices into effect to create safe environment for their retail partners,” Jensen said.
The signs read, “Now Open! Safe Shop Zone” and are accompanied with table tents and stickers that can be placed on hand sanitizers and cleaning products that will help alert the public that the particular business is following guidelines that help ensure that shopping can be done safely. Meier said that the guidelines are a bit “flexible” solely because each store operates a bit differently from the next, changing what it will mean to keep the area “safe” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“We are providing guidelines and best practices that we have compiled from the CDC, the Minnesota Chamber and the Minnesota Retailers Association,” Meier said. “What we have pulled together is fairly straightforward. We are trying to make sure that it’s something that we can live up to and show that there is a standard behind these safe zones.”
The criteria to be labeled a “Safe Shop Zone” in the Owatonna area includes, but is not limited to:
• Limiting the number of individuals in the business based on square footage.
• Installation of hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the store.
• Sanitizing fitting rooms between customers.
• Following social distancing recommendations throughout the store, including check-out areas.
• Following guidance regarding cleaning and sanitization for both routine cleaning and frequently touched surfaces.
• Making face masks available to store employees.
• Posting a reminder that high-risk populations should stay home.
Meier said that all Safe Shop Zone businesses are also encouraged to review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which the chamber will provide to each of its member,s as well as other best practices for operating safely within their business.
“This is all coming at a really good time because we are anticipating that the governor will be opening up small retail,” Meier said. “It is time for those businesses to really put their best foot forward as they are opening their doors, so we’re helping them make that game plan.”
Jensen said that it is important for there to be a sense of synergy throughout the business community to help the public feel confident that it is indeed safe to shop local once again, which is why he asked Tri M to donate the marketing materials.
“When businesses put these signs on their doors or have the table tents out, it will be a good indication to the general public that this is a safe place to shops and all the precautions are in place the best that they can,” Jensen said. “Certainly we have a commitment to the community – they have been very good to us – so this is a way for us to give back and do what we can to help everyone out.”
A new radio-controlled car track will undergo a trial period in Blooming Prairie this summer, having received an interim conditional use permit at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
During a virtual public hearing, City Administrator Andrew Langholz shared feedback that he had received from residents in writing prior to the meeting — which was closed to an in-person audience and instead streamed online due to COVID-19. He said he had seen seven letters in favor of the track and four from residents opposed. He added that a petition had also come in in opposition, with 44 signatures said to be from the east side of town where the track is slated to be located.
“Their concerns mainly mirrored the council’s,” said Langholz. “Overall, all the letters that I got written out fully said they liked the idea of the track, they just weren’t sure about the location. They were concerned about hours and days of operation, possible noise, additional traffic and then the last one was cleanliness of the site.”
Messages in support of the track valued the proposal as an additional recreational activity for Blooming Prairie youth. Ultimately, the council voted 3-1 in favor of a six-month permit. Council member Brad Clark was the lone “no” vote. At the April 13 meeting where the track was first discussed, he cited noise concerns from neighboring residences for his hesitation.
After the six-month period, the permit will be back up for review by elected officials. It can also be rescinded if the track violates any of the conditions placed on it by the city. These include a 6-foot tall panel or wooden plank fence along the north and east property lines to reduce noise pollution, a minimum of seven on-site parking spots and signage indicating the track is for private use.
The track will be built at 124 Mill Ave. S., on the east side of town directly across Highway 218 from City Hall. The site is bordered by industrial land to the south, residential properties to the north and east. It’s also zoned industrial, which is part of the reason a special permit is necessary.
Property owner Jim O’Connor is working with former race car driver and Blooming Prairie resident Nathan Schumacher on planning for the facility. The latter started racing radio-controlled cars last summer as an affordable and accessible activity to do with his son.
“A lot of Blooming Prairie is centered around racing, it’s a big racing community … [O’Connor’s] thought on the track is that it’s something the kids can do with their parents that’s low-cost, fun to watch and fun to take part in,” said Schumacher. “Now, the nearest race track is in Clarks Grove, but there used to be a lot of them in eastern Minnesota.”
While he and O’Connor have yet to hammer down an exact timeline, in large part because they were waiting on permit approval, Schumacher said he wants to get started on construction as soon as possible. They’re currently looking at a yearly membership model, although Schumacher said they have yet to set an exact price.
Members would be able to come and use the track during its operating hours, which are set to be from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.
Near half of all business surveyed by the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism says they’re unsure whether their business will survive the impacts of the coronavirus.
The closing of many segments of the economy coupled with the governor’s stay-at-home order was predictably identified as the main issues for local businesses. That, Chamber President Brad Meier says has dramatically impacted small independent businesses in Owatonna.
“Uncertainty and stress – that’s the overall feeling,” said Brad Meier. “All of this is adding a lot of stress to an already stressful thing – running and owning your own business.”
A total of 70 business throughout the city took part in the survey. Meier said that a range of businesses responded. The largest sector of responding business were professional services — such as insurance and accounting — followed by retail. He added that there were four bars/restaurants, four manufacturers, seven real estate, five nonprofits and a handful of other businesses that participated in the survey as well.
According to the survey results, other impacts include the uncertainty of the future of the economy, inability to meet with customers face-to-face and interdependence between businesses that are open or closed.
“The pure uncertainty of the situation, coupled with a continued extension of the stay-at-home order has created enormous challenges for small business,” said Nathan Dotson, chair of the chamber board and member of the Owatonna City Council. Dotson is also the owner of Dotson Woodworking, of Owatonna.
In addition to the survey results, 68% of respondents from the Owatonna business community have applied for either the Paycheck Protection Program or the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program through the federal government. As of May 1, 33% of those that applied have received those funds.
“The federal stimulus dollars are helpful, but what our businesses want is to reopen their stores,” said Dotson. “They are already making changes and can do it safely.”
Meier said survey results have helped the chamber know what directions to move in to help businesses both survive and prepare to reopen. He said that the Chamber Foundation is currently putting together a “Jump Start Owatonna” program that will help connect businesses with grant dollars and in-kind resources to help navigate the new way of running business.
“It’s about getting businesses the proper PPE, getting their facility ready, and other guidance that they may need as far as marketing or IT support,” Meier said. “We’re trying to basically create this resource hub.”
Meier said that the chamber will also continue to prioritize educating both businesses and the public on how to remain safe through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a variety of resources that aid businesses during this time.
Filing opens next week for federal and state offices, and all four of Steele County’s Republican incumbents have declared their intention to seek re-election.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota DFL announced its endorsed candidates for state Legislature Tuesday morning, with set challengers to Reps. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea and Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, as well as Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault. There has so far been no Democratic challenger to Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, in District 24A.
Bennett has already secured her party’s endorsement for District 27A, which includes a small corner of Steele County around Blooming Prairie. In Senate District 24, which covers the rest of the county, Republicans are scheduled to host a virtual convention on May 26 but say so far there has been no challenge for party endorsements.
Pam Seaser, co-chair of the Steele County Republicans, said her party is set to endorse Jasinski, as well as Petersburg and Daniels — who represent Districts 24A and 24B, respectively.
“We are not aware of any other Republicans seeking the endorsement, so far these three are unopposed,” said Seaser. “That doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t show up before May 26 — but as of today, there are none.”
Thomas Martinez, a DFLer out of Hayward, announced this winter that he will run a second time for the District 27A seat against Bennett, according to a Feb. 13 report from the Albert Lea Tribune. Against Daniels, DFLers have endorsed Ashley Martinez-Perez, a Faribault activist and first-time candidate. Longtime agricultural educator and businessman Roger Steinkamp, of Faribault, got the nod against Jasinski.
On the Republican side, Seaser said the party initially wanted to postpone and try to have the endorsement event in person — when it became clear that couldn’t happen due to the pandemic, organizers settled on hosting the event virtually later this month. Another impact that COVID-19 is having on election filing is that, for the first time, candidates can do so electronically instead of reporting in person.
For state and federal offices, candidates have from May 19 to June 2 to file. In addition to choosing state lawmakers, Minnesotans this November will elect a U.S. senator and members of Congress. Former Rep. Jason Lewis is the likely Republican challenger to incumbent U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
For U.S. Congress, the 1st District — which includes almost all of southern Minnesota — is likely to see a rematch between incumbent Rep. Jim Hagedorn and North Mankato DFLer Dan Feehan. Though the district heavily favored President Trump in 2016, it was one of the nation’s closest Congressional races in 2018.
When filing, candidates are required to pay a fee. This can range from just $2 on the low end for school board candidates to a hefty $400 fee for U.S. Senate candidates.
As for partisan offices, only four political parties in Minnesota have automatic ballot access — Republican, DFL, Legal Weed Now and Grassroots — Legalize Cannabis. Minor party candidates must submit a petition to gain ballot access. As with fees, petitions for statewide office require more signatures than those for more local offices.
According to the Steele County Auditor’s Office, candidates for both the Steele County Board and the Soil and Water Conservation District will also need to file between May 19 and June 2. The three first-term commissioners for Steele County are all up for re-election; while Commissioner Rick Gnemi of district three announced earlier this year that he intended to run again, Jim Abbe of district four and Greg Krueger of district five said they were undecided.
In Owatonna, Mayor Tom Kuntz — who was first elected in 2004 — has said he intends to seek re-election “one more time.” Council members Greg Schultz, Kevin Raney and Doug Voss also have terms coming up this year, and have all said they plan to file again.
Three seats on the Owatonna Public School Board will also be up this year. Incumbents Christina Ingvaldson, Timothy Jensen and Eric Schuster have all announced plans to run again, with multiple citing construction of the new high school as a reason they’d like to continue their involvement in the district.
Because there will be no primary, candidates for both city council and school board will file later for this year’s race — submitting their names between July 28 and Aug. 11. The general election is set for Tuesday, Nov. 3.