With well over $200,000 in federal CARES Act funding still available, the city of St. Peter is again aiming to help businesses.
The Economic Development Authority recommended and the City Council approved a new loan and grant program for businesses in the hospitality industry, plus the reopening of a loan program for other small businesses in the community.
The COVID-19 Hospitality Assistance Program will provide $10,000 0% interest loans plus $6,500 grants to eligible St. Peter restaurants, bars, clubs/lodges, fitness/health clubs and places of public assembly. Most other small businesses can qualify for the second edition of the COVID-19 Micro Loan Program, which offers just the $10,000 0% interest loans.
“We’re doing our best to offer what we can,” said Brad DeVos, who sits on both the EDA and council.
In the late spring and early summer, when the city first opened its COVID-19 micro loan program, a number of businesses immediately jumped on board, taking the $10,000 emergency loans, with payment deferred until 2021. The program was popular enough, in fact, that the EDA and council agreed to expand it to include more businesses … twice.
In the end, $491,652 was taken from the EDA’s revolving loan fund and distributed to businesses through the program. The city then received over $900,000 through federal CARES Act funding for pandemic-related expenses, and it used those funds to convert the micro loans into grants.
The loans-turned-grants were a boon to local businesses, many of which have been struggling.
“Yeah, that definitely helped,” said Eber Noe Juarez, owner of El Agave in St. Peter and Fairmont. “Anything helps, you know, and that helped a lot. We put that money into anything that counts as payment — paying employees especially, because we have to keep them on.”
Juarez said the city of Fairmont has not yet offered anything similar. And now the city of St. Peter is offering a second helping hand. As a restaurant, El Agave qualifies for the new COVID-19 Hospitality Assistance Program, and Juarez didn’t need a second to think about whether his business will participate: “Yes,” he said.
Gov. Tim Walz issued Executive Order No. 20-99 on Wednesday, Nov. 18, and effective Nov. 20, the hospitality industry closed its doors, leaving just takeout and/or delivery options for restaurants and bars. The executive order, which came after a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state, is in place until at least Dec. 18.
El Agave is offering takeout and, when it can, delivery, but that’s not enough to make up for the in-person dining business lost. Juarez said the restaurant is doing about 25% of its normal business.
“Things are very, very slow,” he said. “We keep open, not to make a profit, but just to keep our employees working. If we’re going to reopen normally in the future, we have to have employees. In this industry, it’s already hard to find employees, so we can’t lose them.”
He continued, “You know, I think it’s scary more than anything else, because the restaurant industry is already tough in regular times, then add all of this in. It can be a good business, and we found a way to make our business profitable, but now, there is none of that.”
The new loan and grant program then will offer some needed reprieve for hospitality businesses in St. Peter, like El Agave. The restaurant, along with approximately 30 other businesses in town, is eligible to receive a maximum $10,000 loan with 0% interest and with payment deferred until Jan. 1, 2022. On top of that loan, the hospitality businesses are then eligible for a grant at 65% of the loan amount.
About 50 other businesses, meanwhile, will be eligible for the second edition of the COVID-19 Micro Loan Program, which offers just the $10,000 loans, with the same parameters as the hospitality program loans.
The hospitality program grant funds will come out of the city’s remaining CARES Act funding. The loans for both programs come from the EDA’s revolving loan fund. It’s possible the loans could convert to grants, like they did the first time, if the city received more federal relief dollars, but there is no guarantee on that.
After the council voted 6-0 to approve both programs Dec. 7, Community Development Director Russ Wille said he expected to open both programs to applicants by later in the week. Check the city of St. Peter website and Facebook page for the latest information.
Kwik Trip has its eyes on a second St. Peter location, Hy-Vee is considering adding a convenience store, and McDonald’s might reconstruct in the coming years. While none of these projects are guaranteed, all of this could be taking place in one area of town, and city staff sees an opportunity.
“It may be of advantage for the city to establish a new redevelopment tax increment district in that area to capture some of those new tax dollars for public works uses,” Community Development Director Russ Wille told the St. Peter City Council at a work session Dec. 7.
Essentially, if the city establishes a new redevelopment tax increment district in the area, it would be able to benefit from any development within the district, taking the increased tax dollars and using them for public works projects in the district.
For instance, say, hypothetically, that one property in the redevelopment district is paying $50,000 in real estate taxes right now, but then makes an improvement and starts paying $70,000. The original $50,000 would still be split between the county, school district and city. But since the city established the redevelopment district, the additional $20,000 in taxes after the improvement could be taken by the city to be used for street projects, sewer, water, etc. in that district.
As its Dec. 7 meeting, the City Council seemed to be in favor of the move, feeling there was little to lose. The main drawback of establishing the district would be taking away those tax dollars from the county or school district, but the redevelopment district would not be permanent (can go up to 25 years), and Wille said Nicollet County and St. Peter Public Schools have typically been supportive of the city’s “judicious use of tax increment dollars.”
Of the three corporations considering development on St. Peter’s north side, Kwik Trip is the furthest along. The convenience store and gas station has expressed intent to take over the former Anytime Fitness location at 100 Dodd Ave., between Hwy. 169 and Old Minnesota Avenue, Real Estate Development Manager Dean George confirmed to the St. Peter Herald.
Kwik Trip has not yet entered into any development agreements with the city for the new location, as it’s still working out the details for accesses and other needs, Goerge said. However, the corporation is hopeful the project will move forward, and it’s already eyeing demolition of the current structure, as early as late January or February, or possibly the spring. It will be some time before any new structure goes up, though.
“Development is not going to occur in the summer of 2021 for sure; it will be after that,” George said.
The property, which includes four parcels, is already listed at just over $1 million in value for 2021, and the Kwik Trip development would likely increase that number significantly. The city stands to benefit.
On the south end of town, the city established a separate redevelopment TIF district, and it used some of the increased tax dollars from the Kwik Trip to pay for some of the public works projects there. Kwik Trip, for its part, could request tax increment dollars for its own expenses if a redevelopment district is established on the north side, but it would have to prove need, and the corporation did not make that request for its project on the south end of town.
Hy-Vee, meanwhile, just opened its new grocery store at 1002 Old Minnesota Ave. in St. Peter. City staff noted during the Dec. 7 meeting that the grocer is considering the redevelopment of the former Lake Washington Marine property across the road into a convenience store and/or gas station. Hy-Vee Gas is a popular addition to a number of Hy-Vee grocery stores in the region and just across the road is a seemingly sensible location for one.
Hy-Vee representatives said they had nothing to share at this time regarding any new development in St. Peter.
A third possibility for significant development along the northern St. Peter and Hwy. 169 stretch is the reconstruction of the current McDonald’s. While the corporation has not indicated any plans to do so yet, it’s a common move to update and remodel its locations. The building last underwent a significant remodel in 2004.
Tax increment dollars
With all those projects potentially looming, the city could create a redevelopment TIF district now and capture the increased taxes from all of the future projects to help with public works needs in that area.
Of most significant note, a roundabout was previously recommended for the intersection at West St. Julien Street and Old Minnesota Avenue, right by McDonald’s. The recommendation was made when the former Shopko (now Hy-Vee) first went in, but traffic levels did not rise enough to necessitate the project. But if development continues in the area, that could change.
A redevelopment district would allow increased tax dollars to go toward the roundabout.
“Our thought is ‘If the need for a roundabout is created by future additional development, then perhaps this is a way to have the development pay for the roundabout,’” Wille said.
The city can’t just establish this new district willy-nilly, though. To qualify as a redevelopment TIF district, 70% of the properties must be already occupied by structures or ground level paving. It must also be determined, following an inspection by the city’s building official, that at least 50% of the properties are considered to be structurally substandard and in need of substantial renovation or clearance.
There are several blocks between the Hy-Vee location and the potential Kwik Trip location, so to include them both in the district, while still meeting the needed criteria, Wille said staff might need to “gerrymander, in a good way,” properties in and out of the district. But he feels there are enough properties, with structures on them and needing improvement, to create a legal district.
“We’re confident that we can make it work,” Wille said.
There is also a deadline to getting it done. If the city wants to include the Kwik Trip project in the redevelopment district, then the City Council needs to vote to declare its intent to establish the district before Kwik Trip begins demolition. After declaring its intent, the city will still have time to work out the details.
City Administrator Todd Prafke said a resolution of intent would likely be brought to the council in January.
Following the high profile death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that spawned protests nationwide, advocacy groups are pushing for changes to policing practices in the St. Peter and Greater Mankato area.
Last Thursday, local advocates wrapped up a four part “Education and Action” series examining the state of policing in St. Peter, North Mankato and Mankato. The sessions included testimonies from community members who alleged that they had been racially profiled, assumed guilty and dismissed by local police as well as talks with police reform activists and city officials.
At the latest session, advocates representing the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, ACLU Mankato, NAACP Mankato, B.E.A.M., YWCA Mankato, CADA, and Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato discussed a draft of proposed reforms intended to increase local police transparency with local officials including St. Peter City Councilor Keri Johnson and Blue Earth County Commissioners Vance Stuehrenberg and Colleen Landkamer.
“It’s a starting point to improve the type of safety in our community,” said Julio Zelaya of ACLU Minnesota.
Zelaya and Yurie Hong, head of Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, presented a draft document listing proposed reforms for all three cities as well as each individual city and sought feedback from the attendees on ways to improve the proposals.
“This really is about here’s some things that came out of the series that people had concerns about and here’s some recommendations about where we might go,” said Yurie Hong, head of Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato. “It really is the responsibility of civic officials and community members engaging in these conversations going forward in 2021. These are complicated problems, there are multiple sides and multiple ways we need to mull this over.”
For all cities, the draft document recommended four policy changes. The document called for police and safety departments in St. Peter and Greater Mankato to collaborate and discuss best practices and for police departments and cities to begin collecting data on potential racial profiling by recording the perceived race of people stopped by law enforcement and conducting annual racial climate surveys.
“Perceived race is important because when we talk about racial profiling and racial discrimination, people might not be as accurate,” said Zelaya. “What’s important to understand is the power dynamic in being stopped by an officer and understanding if race is playing a role in someone being stopped, that is something you would measure by the perceived race of the person being detained.”
The draft document also called for the removal of school resource officers from local schools. Policing in schools has come under criticism from racial justice advocates that say it criminalizes behaviors that can be disciplined by school administration and that black students are more likely to be arrested at school. The drafted proposal advised that schools review and withdraw from in-school policing contracts and hire and properly train security guards for school safety.
Commissioner Stuehrenberg, a retired police officer of 27 years that served as an elementary school resource officer, pushed back at the proposal. He said that more data should be collected to see if there is a local issue with school resource officers and that, from his experience, in school police provide a beneficial service.
“I honestly think the school board and the school would be taking a step back by eliminating the school resource officers,” said Stuehrenberg. “I know the ones in the city of Mankato at this time and they are truly there to help. I’ve asked them if anyone has come up to you and complained to you about your job and they said, ‘Not a one.’”
“I was there to help the students, I read to the students, I was Santa Claus.,” said Stuehrenberg of his experience as a school resource officer. “I did all the stuff and one thing I can tell you, I worked at Franklin and I can recall when the kids came out of class they hugged me like I was Santa Claus because I was a hero to them. Now there were kids because of backgrounds that were very afraid of law enforcement and trust me, I worked with them because I didn’t want them growing up to be afraid of a cop.“
Kirstin Kronn-Mills, a North Mankato author and teacher at South Central College, suggested that schools take a first step of creating a council to hear the thoughts of students, faculty and administration on the presence of school resource officers.
“This could be a time where we listen to students who have particular thoughts and feelings and school staff and school administration” said Kronn-Mills. “I don’t know how it’s going to come out because I respect what Vance is saying, but this might be a time to make the evidence qualitative, meaning make the evidence come from the stories that students are sharing.”
Lynnea Eckhoff, a former teacher and current staff member of Gustavus Adolphus College said that in her experience as an educator, school resource officers were often poorly utilized. She pushed for more records on how school resource officers were used and more investments into mental health and academic resources for students.
“I always felt like good, bad or otherwise, they were never used appropriately,” said Eckhoff of school resource officers. “For our educators who were already overworked and administrators that should be free to work on curriculum, a lot of it was behavioral stuff and when the principals would get overwhelmed, straight to the school resource officer … The potential for the positive impact they could make was reduced because they were dealing with problems all the time that they didn’t want to do or weren’t trained to do or weren’t why they wanted to be there in the first place.”
Based on the feedback from the group, Hong believed that it would be important for each city to institute anti-racist framework that would collect data on issues related to race, policing and school resource officers and for all three cities to share this data and coordinate.
“This citywide anti-racist framework, whether it is a racial climate survey or yearly imapct report, each city would be good to have this framework that everything else could run through,” said Hong. “Mankato is already in the process of working on something like this that has a racial component in it, but isn’t only on race. The data gathering and school resource officers within this larger context would fit as something to include.”
Advocates also drafted proposals for ways each individual city could improve police transparency and accountability. One issue the activists identified as unique to St. Peter was a lack of a transparent presence on the city website and social media. The St. Peter Police Department has only one phone number on their website and does not have information on leadership and individual officers outside of the police chief.
The draft proposed that the St. Peter Police Department change its presence on the city website to include a staff directory with pictures of police officers, a display of the Police Department structure, archives of annual end-of-the-year reports and the Police Civil Service minutes and agenda, and an online complaint and submission process. Hong pointed to the North Mankato Police Department website as an example of a more transparent online presence.
Hong also proposed reforms to strengthen St. Peter’s Civil Service Commission, which oversees the hiring and promotion of police officers. The document calls for more community members on the commission, for the commission to recruit people of color, regular commission meetings and independence in the commission’s decision-making.
Currently, just three people can serve on the commission at a time according to statute, but City Councilor Keri Johnson believed that the statute does not clarify if more or less than three members can serve on the commission. Johnson said that the city is currently investigating to see if more members can be added under current statute.
“This is really a great timing for this document and I agree with a lot of these recommendations and feel like it aligns with what other council members and I have said that we want to see,” said Johnson.
Advocates also wanted to see a civil service commission established in North Mankato that would meet regularly, include community members of color and make decisions independent of the police and for a civil service commission to be re-established in Mankato. Mankato’s Joint Civil Service Commission was disbanded in 2012 and replaced with a Civilian Oversight Committee. The current committee does not have the power to review complaints, discipline or the hiring of officers — powers that Hong and Zelaya wanted to see restored.
Further recommendations in the document called for the police departments of St. Peter and North Mankato to hold community-wide sessions on local policing, to report findings from the sessions to the city and to prepare a three-year strategic plan to improve community relations.
In Mankato specifically, the draft document recommended mandatory city council approval of the purchasing of military and surveillance equipment by the police. The measure is intended to increase transparency and oversight over such purchases.
“This is just one extra step,” said Zelaya. “ If you want those toys, there is a public understanding and a city approved process to get there.”