After three decades teaching at St. Peter High School, Warren Peterson is leading his final Building Trades class this year. And as a reminder from the universe that you can never see it all, this year’s building project is different than ever before.
Every year, for the last about 30 years, the Building Trades class has constructed a home at St. Peter High School, before moving it to its final destination. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, partner Habitat for Humanity South Central requested the home be built on site, in case conditions changed quickly, and students could no longer go to school.
“This year, with COVID, Habitat was concerned that if schools closed down, they’d have to send volunteers to the school and then still have the expense of moving it,” Peterson said. “So we asked our insurers if we could build it on site, and so far it has worked out.”
The location of the build changes the process. Instead of moving straight to framing the house and building the floors, the class is starting with the foundation, more like a typical professional build. The floor will then be laid on the foundation and the walls constructed above that.
“It’s more the regular process now,” Peterson said.
There are some challenges to building off site, as time has to be allotted for students to travel, and weather has to be accounted for ahead of time. With the pandemic impacting the students’ schedule, Peterson works with six students in person two days, nine students the other two days, and all students distance learn on Friday.
Although it’s a strange year, the students are enjoying themselves.
“I did woodworking but never anything like this before,” said Matthew Matejcek. “I took this class for good work experience for later in life. I like this kind of work. I think it’s going pretty well.”
Finn Gibson and Brandon Mclean, who both said they intend to do work in the construction field later in life, agreed that the experience was worthwhile.
“I took it, because I’m going into construction management as a career,” Gibson said. “This is the type of thing I want to do.”
Mclean said, “My dad has his own business as a contractor, and I’ve been working with him six or seven years during the summer. I took this class to build a house and have another experience in a different job and with a different teacher. When I work with my dad, we usually do garages, not building houses start to finish, so this gives me new experience on how everything comes together, gets to where it is.”
At the beggining of Building Trades at SPHS, when Peterson started in 1990, the class built a house without an end user established, meaning the high school had to pay for the materials up front and then auction off the house, hoping to get the money back. Then the partnership with Habitat started about 25 years ago, and Peterson believes it’s been an unequivocal success.
“I think it’s fabulous,” he said. “Habitat has a family, a plan; they purchase the materials. We don’t have to worry about that. It’s also a good project for students to be working on. One of the district’s slogans was something like ‘Come to learn and leave to serve,’ and this is a service opportunity.”
Habitat is certainly appreciative of the collaboration.
“Warren has worked with Habitat for Humanity of South Central Minnesota for over two decades and has been responsible for the collaboration between the St. Peter Habitat Chapter and St. Peter High School,” Bill Heidcamp, Habitat South Central Board of Directors president. “As a teacher in the Industrial Technology Department, he has direct responsibility to supervise up to 18 students each year who build a Habitat home on site, literally from the ground up. The students also work at the final location site and are supervised by Warren as well.”
Heidcamp continued, “I have watched him work with his students on site and he is an impressive, thorough and kind teacher in every sense of the word. He exemplifies good teaching practices and works alongside each student, taking the time to instruct them in each task assigned. This has resulted in about 20 new homes in St. Peter and over 300 students introduced to the building trades. By example, Warren demonstrates his caring, lifetime work of making a home for all of these families.”
Peterson also serves on Habitat South Central’s governing board and is an active volunteer for the organization.
“Everyone enjoys working with him, and I am proud to serve alongside of him,” Peterson said. “I know I can call upon him for whatever is needed, and he will be there to help.”
For Peterson, it can be a bit nerve-racking leading a group of students in building an entire house. The group leaves the electrical, plumbing, HVAC and concrete work to professionals, but they’re still responsible for a lot, including foundation, framing, flooring, roofing and more. There are numerous potential pitfalls, related to both safety and the product being created.
“As far as safety is concerned, yeah, my heart gets beating once in a while. But we just slow the pace down and make sure everyone knows what they’re doing,” Peterson said. “I have always felt we’ve made a livable final product. I’m very proud of what the students have done. We do make mistakes, but we do also have an opportunity to correct those mistakes. I think these homes have been very well built.”
The people living in those homes have certainly appreciated them, as they worked with Habitat to secure better living conditions for themselves and their families. And in addition to helping the community’s affordable housing stock, Peterson has been helping St. Peter students try their hand in an important industry.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to get those students who like the hands-on work some opportunities,” he said. “And especially now, with the labor industry getting older and plenty opportunities to get a good living. I’m glad to get them outside a classroom and see them become good workers and blossom a bit.”
He added, “I hope they can find someone to come and replace me, because I think this is a valuable class.”
Bars and restaurants have been some of the most vulnerable businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has been no more kind to veterans service organizations, like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which often rely on food and drink service to fund their activities.
The St. Peter Legion decided to remain closed, for the time being, to remodel the club room and hallways with a fresh coat of paint and sheetrocking. Post 37 Commander Shawn Schloesser explained that the St. Peter Legion decided to take on these projects in spring, due to the uncertainty of when the establishment would be able to reopen. As the Legion is on the verge of finishing its remodeling, Schloesser said he wants to ensure that it will be safe for the community before welcoming them back.
“Those that frequented our establishment, they’re ready for us to open our doors, but we’re willing to make sure because we recognize that the majority of our community — both in staffing and in membership — meet that high risk criteria,” said Schloesser. “We want to make sure that when we open, we do so in a safe and responsible manner and make sure that everyone is healthy.”
To meet that safety criteria, Schloesser said that the Legion will make some changes upon reopening. The bar will remain closed while the Legion’s social space will be used as a bar instead. Leaders are also working with the Small Business Development Center to build an alternative business plan that will be less susceptible to a pandemic-induced closure.
While the building has been closed, it hasn’t stopped the St. Peter Legion from carrying out other activities. In addition to it’s veteran programming, the St. Peter Legion has hosted a number of curbside events, including a Fourth of July barbecue drive-thru.
For Halloween, the Legion is currently working with the city of St. Peter to see if a trick or treat event would be possible. Last year, the Legion hosted a Halloween for children with special sensory needs, like autism.
In Le Center, American Legion Post 108 has faced an uphill battle since the bar was closed until mid-June. Even though the club is now open, crowds have fallen off and those that do come aren’t staying as long. Club Chair Bob Lowe reported that revenue has dropped between 60-70%, while many expenditures, like insurance and property taxes, have remained steady.
“Those expenditures don’t go down, so you’re trying to pay the same amount of property taxes, insurance etc. as before with much less revenue,” said Lowe. “It’s been very hard.”
Those financial struggles are made more difficult by a lack of entertainment options. Ordinarily, the Legion would bring in live entertainment and music to bring in the crowds, but state restrictions under Gov. Tim Walz has made that impossible.
Smaller events are still possible like bingo, which is making its return to the Legion every Tuesday night starting in October. But making use of the space with other entertainment options is difficult while respecting social distancing.
The Legion has benefitted from a PPP loan from the federal government, but that loan can only be used to subsidize payroll costs. The Legion’s other efforts to pursue grants and relief loans have been unsuccessful.
Trying to make ends meet, the club recently turned to community fundraising, receiving $3,000 in donations to replace the kitchen’s air conditioning unit, which is broken beyond repair. The AC unit costs more than $6,500 to replace.
Some members of the Le Center community have shown their support unprompted, including a couple that donated $1,800 to the club, saying “that’s probably what we would’ve lost playing Bingo.” To keep the club up and running, Lowe said the Legion will need a lot of staff and volunteer support.
“Like most of the legions and service clubs in the state, we’re going to struggle,” said Lowe. “It’s going to take a lot of work ont he part of a lot of people including much needed volunteers to keep those clubs open and operating. We’re waiting patiently for things to get back to the new normal, but it’s going to be a very, very difficult road ahead for all of us.”
Not all veterans organizations have had to worry about their bar operations. The Le Sueur VFW does not own or operate a building, which has given the organization some flexibility in the pandemic. Even as major fundraisers, like the poppy distributions, have been delayed, the VFW still has enough funds to support its activities and scholarships.
“We can still continue on with skipping it, and that’s the thing with having a post home; we don’t have the bills that the other ones have,” said VFW Commander Shannon Frost. “Whether it’s rent or utilities or salary, we don’t have any of that to worry about, so we’ll be alright.”
Not having a building has had some drawbacks though. Whenever the VFW wants to host a meeting, a property owner has to be able to accommodate them. And in the fall season, it is too cold for outdoor meetings. Due to these factors and the aging membership, the VFW has held off on meetings during the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped the organization from serving veterans, said Frost.
“Our main purpose is taking care of veterans and that’s happening virus or not,” she said.
With $900,000 in CARES Act dollars from the federal government, the city of St. Peter intends to reimburse its own pandemic-related costs, start a utility assistance program and potentially forgive small business loans from an emergency program started in the spring.
And it might still have dollars leftover.
The City Council Oct. 5 considered its options for use of the CARES dollars, a week after approving the use of $50,000 for a utility assistance program in partnership with Minnesota Valley Action Council. Staff proposes to use about $75,000 to pay back COVID related expenses already incurred, including payroll leave and extra time, PPE costs, legal costs, IT expenses, credit card fees and a marketing project for businesses in the community.
After the utility assistance program and the expenses are paid pack, there is still about $777,000 in CARES Act funds left.
The first place those dollars might go is toward the city’s COVID emergency micro-loan program, which started in April. The city expended over $480,000 in 0% interest loans to several dozen small businesses through the program. The city encouraged any and all small businesses to take part, noting that the payback period didn’t begin until 2021, and even if a business wasn’t sure if they would use the money, they could keep it and simply give it back later.
Now, the Economic Development Authority and then the City Council will decide if the city should use its CARES dollars to forgive the loans, meaning they would become grants for those businesses that applied.
“We did say at the beginning that businesses can take the loan and hold onto it,” City Administrator Todd Prafke said, explaining why leaders felt comfortable converting the loans to grants. “We encouraged people to apply, even if they didn’t know if they’d use the dollars. Also, we did not know at that time if the CARES funding would even exist.”
If the EDA and council ultimately do approve forgiving the loans, more than half the CARES dollars would go toward that project. But the city would still have approximately $289,000 left to spend, though that will likely come down slightly, as the city continues to incur expenses related to the pandemic.
Leaders have questioned what exactly the city could do with those remaining dollars, as the CARES Act funds are intended to be spent for pandemic-related purposes. Staff had suggested dollars could go toward the city’s emergency services, but it was believed that documentation would need to be provided to indicate that those services were used for pandemic-related purposes. However, in more recent guidance from the United States Department of the Treasury, that documentation is not needed and instead there is a presumption that any money going toward emergency services would be pandemic-related.
Essentially, that means that whatever leftover CARES Act dollars the city has could go toward its emergency services budget and potentially save local taxpayers some money. Although, the CARES Act dollars are coming from federal taxes, at the end of the day. Some of the councilors, including Keri Johnson, expressed great surprise that the restrictions on spending could be so lax.
“It’s amazing to me that we were so concerned about the auditing process and being extremely careful in doing this right, and now this just blows my mind,” she said.
Beyond putting the leftover CARES dollars toward emergency services, the city could pursue other opportunities, like assisting nonprofits, expanding the utility assistance program, doing more business grants, etc. It has until the end of the year to allocate the funds.