One might expect an unanticipated three-month closure would be detrimental to a small arts organization, but for the Arts Center of Saint Peter, it was hardly a dent in the armor.
The nonprofit lost its annual Souper Bowl fundraiser to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has lost a few months of revenue from art sales and gallery showings, but over the years, it has learned to be flexible, light on its feet. Executive Director Ann Rosenquist Fee said that lessons learned during the 1998 tornado, which destroyed the previous Arts Center building, are still useful today.
“The Arts Center has a history of being a nimble organization, so we’re able to pivot pretty quickly,” Rosenquist Fee said. “Closing our facility and putting classes online and then developing online classes for the summer. It’s something we needed to do right away, but it’s also something we needed in place for going forward. This is growth that feels like it’s useful in the long run.”
The center’s leadership decided it was more important for staff to focus on other parts of their lives, including, for some, working frontline jobs. The Arts Center closed in March and leaders haven’t offered up any complaints for their circumstances, instead opting to see the positives.
“We were fortunate to receive payroll protection plan assistance pretty quickly, thanks to a local banker and our insurance agent working quickly,” Rosenquist Fee said. “And again, we’re nimble and we were able to cut back on a lot of expenses.”
The organization didn’t feel the need to go out asking for fundraising dollars. In fact, instead of sending out the normal round of membership renewal requests, the Arts Center sent out free membership offers to those lucky enough to be up for renewal.
“All of this was unplanned and unprecedented, and we did the best we could,” Rosenquist Fee.
Now, the Arts Center is opening its gallery shop with just two staff watching over and social distancing restrictions in place. They’ll use the period as a trial to see how customers and users respond, before loosening restrictions in line with the rest of the St. Peter retail community.
It all leads up to a July 3 member exhibition, which will run through the 25th, displaying the work of the center’s members. The center is accepting work from June 17-28 during gallery hours. It’s a non-juried show, but Rosenquist Fee expects to see some strong voices, inspired by the contemplative times of the pandemic and the recent social unrest.
“Now, everyone is feeling very in touch with current events and the need to respond,” she said. “So many artists in our community have been quarantined for so long, and yeah, maybe they had more time to make art, but it’s more about the opportunity to be reflective, and people thinking about the pandemic and economy and social justice.”
Right now, the Arts Center is offering online classes to keep artists active and connected. The class topics include writing, weaving, embroidery, knitting and clay.
One of the courses is called “Writing Like A Reader: A 12-Week Course In Herman Melville.” Nate LeBoutillier, a local author, musician and teacher, is the class instructor, his first with the Arts Center. Maureen Gustafson, who has been involved in arts and culture in the area for many years and is an Arts Center board member, is one of the students taking the course.
“It’s kind of a combination writing and reading course,” said LeBoutillier. “We’re reading some of the works of Melville, including ‘Moby Dick.’ The second half is that we’re writing pieces and talking about them, based on the readings. Hopefully, someone will read some chapters on ‘Moby Dick’ and that will inspire them to write something. Perhaps it could be on whaling or boating, or maybe it would just be a theme, like revenge.”
He’s been happy with the outcome of the course thus far.
“I had thought of doing a course like this for a number of years, so to get an opportunity to actually hold it, I was just hoping a few would sign up,” he said. “We got to the maximum number of people, and it’s been great.”
Gustafson, meanwhile, was looking for a way to connect with art and practice some freeform writing. She had always wanted an excuse to actually sit down and read “Moby Dick.” She was 102 pages in, as of June 9, and said she was enjoying the book. But more so, she is enjoying the class. The first 90-minute Zoom session was on June 3.
“It was very enjoyable,” Gustafson said. “We did a fun activity, where Nate read us an excerpt of “Moby Dick” in Norwegian. And just from his tone and the structure of his sentences, we had to determine what we thought he was saying. It was a very great way to think differently and be creative.”
She added, “And just the kindness. Everyone was very encouraging and thoughtful in their response to one another’s writing.”
While certainly anyone in the class could read the book on their own, there are benefits to doing so together.
“You get to hear other perspectives. You can see things thought other people’s eyes — something you might’ve missed or not thought about,” Gustafson said. “Reading is such a solitary activity that when you share thoughts with like-minded people, it just enhances the experience.”
Art, in general, is an outlet during trying times.
“It happens to be more important and essential than ever,” LeBoutillier said. “We’ve heard a lot about essential work and what that means. As a writer, I think it can mean many things. But I think that art is more essential than ever. I think it’s the one thing that can transport your mind to another place.”
The last few months presented countless unknowns for frontline workers, especially health care workers, as a pandemic changed, at least temporarily, the way the world works. So having something assured can mean a lot.
That’s the purpose of the new Kids Edge daycare at River’s Edge Hospital and Clinic in St. Peter.
The daycare is specifically for workers at the organization, who may need the service, as they work odd and frequent hours, especially during the pandemic. The immediate and potentially temporary nature of the daycare meant it had to be set up more expediently than usual.
“When the schools closed, employees did get a little nervous,” said River’s Edge Chief Resources Officer Jackie Kimmet. “The question became what is considered essential. And then later we got into ‘Some daycares are closing.’ And some employees had family members watching their children. That’s what started it, and as we continued to think about it, and we thought ‘What if daycares close?’ We need our employees’ families to be safe and healthy, so we can take care of our patients.”
Since starting in May, the daycare, which is free for employees to utilize, has grown to seven kids. It started out open 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the intention of expanding hours to whatever might be needed. It’s located in what was designed, during recent renovations at the hospital, to be a conference room; it was previously a pharmacy.
“We’re in the middle of an expansion project, and space is precious, but with COVID-19, we’re not doing a lot of face-to-face,” Kimmet said. “Without the meetings and all that, we were able to have this space available.”
The room is filled with toys and activity items, either from the hospital or donated.
While the organizers made it look easy, setting up a brand new daycare on such short notice isn’t generally a simple task.
“Usually it takes a couple of months,” said Melony Ramsey, who is a childcare director in St. Peter.
Ramsey was brought into the process by Brad DeVos, a city councilor who City Administrator Todd Prafke recommended to River’s Edge as a consultant for the daycare startup. DeVos had previously been on the board of the St. Peter Community Childcare Center with Ramsey.
The two were able to work together with Kimmet to quickly move through licensure, hiring and training hurdles.
“I didn’t think there was any way it would start this quickly, but that’s where bringing the right people together made it work,” DeVos said. “It was just a need. I enjoyed working with Melony again. When you know work well with someone and know the goal, it makes it fun.”
All involved felt, regardless of how many hospital and clinic workers the daycare ends up benefiting, it was important to get this done.
“I think it’s very exciting that River’s Edge is doing this,” Ramsey said. “It’s very proactive. It’s just a positive thing for the community. To be able to provide care for these employees helps the whole community. It’s really amazing.”
Kimmet added, “I almost got a little emotional when I saw it in action, like, ‘Oh, this is so fun.’”
The future of the daycare is unknown, much like the pandemic. While there have been 11 deaths related to COVID-19 in Nicollet County, River’s Edge has not reported an influx in cases, but it also used the shutdown time to cross train staff, and leaders remain vigilant for whatever might come.
If it decided it wanted to, the hospital could continue the daycare, utilizing the current license, but that wasn’t the original intent.
“The licensure is not temporary, but we’re looking at the daycare being temporary,” Kimmet said. “We’ll look at need and decide as we go. We’d give a month’s notice if we decided to discontinue.”
Firefighters and law enforcement were on scene June 4 at around 1 p.m., as Ell-Mar Apartments, off North Washington Avenue in St. Peter, caught fire.
One firefighter sustained a minor injury, which was treated on scene, and there were no other injuries, according to a news release, but there was damage to the building. One resident had to escape from the third floor by climbing down a St. Peter Fire Department ladder from the balcony.
“Heavy fire was located on the northeast side of the building,” the release said. “Firefighters battled through extremely hot conditions. Fire attack teams were able to battle the fire from the exterior and interior of the building, as search teams swept through the building to facilitate evacuations of each floor, unit-by-unit. All residents were evacuated.”
On scene, residents shared what they saw. Mary Ferguson was inside the four-story complex when she noticed smoke coming outside of the building.
“When I came outside, at the top, there was barely anything, but on the third floor, the flames were just coming out,” she said. “And then all of a sudden, the second floor got it, then our apartment on the first floor got it.”
Jennifer Haberman also lives in the complex with her husband. She and her daughter were returning home as the flames erupted.
“We were just on our way to Mankato, and someone told us our place was on fire, and so I pulled back in, and I ran upstairs and the whole thing was engulfed in flames, and our neighbor was trying to break out the fire extinguisher to use that,” she said. “I ran and grabbed my dogs, but I have a new kitty, and she had jumped out of the cage, so I’m worried about her.”
Everyone looking on was hopeful that all would be safe, as the firefighters attempted to quell the flames.
“That’s kind of what we’re hoping,” Haberman said, “that everyone is safe.”
The news release noted that “Apartment fires are notoriously dangerous with high potential for casualties. Today, we are reminded of the importance of operable fire protection systems (especially smoke detectors), and previously discussed emergency escape plans. It was fortunate no resident was injured in the blaze.”
The building management company, Lloyd Management, secured temporary housing for all occupants needing it after the fire.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for those displaced by the apartment fire.
The page, which has a goal of raising $11,000, had raised over $2,000 in just over a day, as of June 10 morning. Set up by Lloyd Management, all funds will be directed to the residents looking for long-term housing.
The fire left the 12-unit complex uninhabitable, according to the management company. Eleven households were displaced. The fire did not result in any deaths, and the only minor injury was to a firefighter, but all households are seeking long-term housing and have lost a variety of belongings due to fire and smoke damage.
According to the GoFundMe organizers, a large number of community members and businesses quickly reached out, inquiring about donations for these families. “Therefore, we felt a GoFundMe site made the most sense,” the page states.
It continues, “There are many ways you can help. Money, is of course, the most effective support we can offer now as these households are currently seeking new homes and may not have a place to store physical items. Cash also offers the most flexibility for each household to purchase what they need most. However, other types of donations are welcome, and we are collecting gift cards (ex: groceries, housewares), new personal care items, and, potentially, gently used furniture and household supplies. In addition, a few households had pets, so gift cards to pet stores or dog/cat items would be appreciated. At this time, we are not able to accept clothing donations due to the variety of people we are trying to help.”
“There is a lot to do! But this is a strong, resilient community and we are pooling our strengths to support the most vulnerable among us.”
In addition to the GoFundMe site, cash donations and gift cards will be accepted by mail at Ell Mar Donations, PO Box 1000, Mankato, MN 56002-1000. Anyone with physical donations can reach out to Lloyd Management at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of the campaign, money will be withdrawn and checks will be submitted to each household.