Waseca sometimes hits hard times, but when it comes to taking care of their own — by hook or by crook — it finds a way to help out.
This is especially the case when Christmas is on the line.
“It’s that time of the year that the community all rallies together,” said Denise Tipton, executive director of Waseca Area Neighborhood Service Center.
The Neighborhood Service Center, a nonprofit that offers resources to area residents in the form of a thrift store, a food shelf and various programs for low-income families and students, received big donations on Dec. 15 — just in time for Christmas. These included $4,000 from the Mayo Clinic Health System, $5,000 from the local VFW and $34,700 from the annual Christmas auction of the Boxcar Bar and Grill.
Proceeds from the Boxcar auction, which it holds each year, will go toward the Neighborhood Service Center’s Santa Anonymous program, which fulfills the Christmas wishes of the children of low-income families in Waseca County. This year was Boxcar’s biggest annual auction haul yet in 23 years, after not being able to hold it the previous year due to COVID-19.
“Hundreds of kids will get Christmas presents … kids that would not get Christmas,” said Todd Schmidt, owner of the Boxcar Bar and Grill.
A happy ending to a long year
The donations came at the end of a difficult year for the Neighborhood Service Center.
In the midst of an increased need locally for food and services from the Neighborhood Service Center, due in part to the economic and health consequences of the pandemic, an electrical fire on Aug. 2 shuttered the building which houses its thrift store and headquarters. While nobody was injured and the building was salvaged, it forced a closure that lasted two months, a timeline Tipton said was remarkably short due to the diligence of her staff in getting it up and running again to serve the community.
“We were scrambling,” Tipton said of those months the building was shuttered. “Then the holidays hit and we were going to rally together, and the community just stepped up.”
Tipton said she’s been “humbled” by local organizations’ and residents’ generosity and kindness in her first year at the helm of the organization.
“I’m pretty excited to be here,” she said.
The donations also came during as the Neighborhood Service Center is in the midst of an expensive transition trying to get their food shelf under the same roof as their headquarters and thrift shore. While the food shelf used to operate out of the old Eagles building across from Ace Hardware, the building was recently sold, and the food shelf has since been renting space from St. John’s Church.
By having more control over all its property under a single roof, Tipton said she hopes the Neighborhood Service Center can avoid events out of its control in the future.
“We can’t take that risk of having to shut down,” she said. “Lots and lots of people in the community utilize our food shelf and we would not want one person to go without food.”
One way residents of southern Minnesota show love for their small towns during the holiday season is by shopping local. After an especially challenging two years for retailers, many small business owners in the region said things this year are on the up and up.
Jodi Jendrysik, owner of Lilly and Rose Boutique in Owatonna, said sales are much steadier this year than last year. She attributes a lot of it to a renewed comfort spending time indoors.
“There was still a lot of fear last year,” Jendrysik said. “It’s a way different ball game this year … I feel like people are just happy. We’re trying to find a reason to celebrate.”
Shop owners in Faribault, Waseca, Northfield, St. Peter and Le Sueur all agree — the 2021 holiday shopping season is a step back toward “normal.”
Of course, things have not been entirely normal this year — at least, relative to how retail used to operate before the pandemic. For instance, Jendrysik didn’t used to have to constantly order small batches of products far ahead of time. But now, with the pandemic’s disruption to the global supply chain taking much longer than anticipated to sort itself out, it’s a necessity.
Last year was also Jendrysik’s first year in Owatonna, making it her boutique’s first holiday season in town. Despite all the pain of the pandemic, she said, she was touched by the way some Owatonna businesses have maps in their stores pointing out where other local businesses are. Rather than competing, she said, they’d decided to support one another.
“It’s a pretty beautiful thing when the downtown businesses encourage each other,” she said. “Literally every sale counts when you own a small business.”
For Deb Bauernfeind, owner of Faribault’s Weddings by Deb, a bridal shop which also caters to proms, school dances and other events, the global supply chain disruption has been oddly beneficial for her business. This is because many customers have resorted to rentals to get the sizes and types of clothes they need when there’s so little availability in the traditional clothing market.
Beyond the idiosyncrasies of owning a rental business, though, Bauernfeind described a similar phenomenon as Jendrysik of customers resuming normal activities put on hold the previous holiday season. While there aren’t a whole lot of winter weddings in Minnesota, she said, postponed plans for weddings this year among her customers seem to be going forward for next year.
Of course, as a local business owner subject to the whims of global forces, she’s happy her community is deciding to bring their business back to her local shop.
“We’re fortunate to have Owatonna, Faribault, all of us so close and we can bounce off each other and really create a good customer rapport,” Bauernfeind said.
Indeed, Tamie Collins, owner of Zinnias Boutique in Waseca, said she thinks sales have been much better for her this year because people are conscientious of small businesses having been hit hard by COVID-19. While canceled and delayed shipments, among other pandemic-related issues, have certainly made things difficult, she said the community’s generosity and increased comfort shopping in-person have made this a successful holiday season so far for her business.
“I’ve seen this trend actually the last few years — shopping small, shopping local, just supporting your small-town shops, and Waseca as of late has really become a destination shopping spot for women and people from all over,” Collins said. “That’s just been wonderful.”
While many local retailers described a difficult couple of years trying to claw back revenue lost to the pandemic, Dennis and Karen Vinar, owners of Northfield’s Paper and Petalum, are reminders of the risks small businesses have always faced, far before the pandemic.
The Vinars’ business was destroyed in the devastating Archer House fire of November 2020. After it happened, they thought seriously about retiring. In the end, they relocated to a spot across the street, which Karen said they actually like better than the previous location.
All in all, she said, things are definitely better this year for Paper Petalum.
“It’s going great compared to last year when everyone was suffering from COVID-19 and our shop was destroyed in the hotel fire,” she said.
For Karen, the importance of supporting local businesses — beyond, of course, enjoying an intimate shopping experience and finding unique products — lies in their vulnerability to forces beyond their control, whether they be by plague or flame.
Carol Hayes, owner of St. Peter’s Contents, a gift shop, as well as Cooks and Company, said she thinks sales are so much better this year because local business in a small-town atmosphere provide a sense of community people have been missing throughout the isolation of the pandemic.
“Considering we were closed for three months during the height of COVID, yes, it’s certainly been an improvement over the last year,” Hayes said.
Part of the improvement also has to do with the contributions of her community.
“I think people are making a really concerted effort to shop small and it’s so appreciated by all of the small businesses on every Main Street,” she said.
Steve Thaemert, owner of the Le Sueur oddity shop The 207 Curiosities, which opened in June, doesn’t have the previous holiday season to compare with this year. Since his store also constitutes somewhat of a “niche” business, he said he’s not expecting huge sales right before Christmas. That said, Thaemert has been pleasantly surprised at how much traffic he’s been getting so far given the oddness of his shop in a small town.
While Thaemert said he’s had some difficulty getting a hold of some of his wholesale product as a result of supply chain issues, he said the supply chain disruption is actually a good reason for people to shop locally.
“A lot of the stuff that you can get in these little shops, a lot of that stuff isn’t coming from China or isn’t stuck in those shipping containers — especially the boutiques with that handmade stuff,” he said.
Plus, Thaemert added, the wares of local shops are way “cooler.”
“What’s cooler than local, handmade stuff made from a local crafter?” he asked. “I mean, that’s awesome.”
Repairing roads costs money. Some residents living along the portion of Eighth Street SE to be reconstructed aren’t happy about it.
The Waseca City Council voted 6-0 after a public hearing on the project, with Councilor John Mansfield abstaining due to a conflict of interest — he lives along the portion of Eighth to be reconstructed and will have to be assessed and pay higher taxes for it — to order the reconstruction and rehabilitation project and authorize the preparation of plans and specifications for it.
The project involves a reconstruction of Eighth Street SE from Elm Avenue East to the north side of the railroad tracks just south of Fifth Avenue SE, as well as a rehabilitation, consisting of a “mill and overlay,” of Eighth from the south side of the railroad tracks to State Highway 13. About 1,275 feet of road would be reconstructed and 3,200 feet rehabilitated.
According to the project schedule presented at the council Nov. 16, construction should begin May 2022 and be completed September 2022.
The estimated cost of the project is $2.27 million, funded in part by a $1.25 million Local Road Improvement Program grant awarded to the city by the Minnesota Department of Transportation on June 1, as well as about $184,000 in state aid funds, since Eighth is a “state aid road” due to how heavily trafficked it is. The rest of the money comes from the city’s capital improvement street fund, sanitary sewer fund, storm water fund and special assessment fund, the last of which amounts to $350,000 and will be paid for by property owners whose parcels are located on the soon-to-be repaired road.
If the council were to change course and conduct an alternative project — for example, a mill and overlay of the entire portion of the road to be repaired — they would have to forfeit the $1.25 million grant.
According to City Engineer Nathan Willey, if bids from contractors come in favorably in February, assessment costs could decrease, but they cannot increase.
In his Nov. 16 feasibility report to the council, Willey said the reason for reconstructing one portion of the road, rather than merely rehabilitating all of it, is his department deemed it necessary to replace the sanitary sewer underneath that part of the road. If the city were to merely do a mill and overlay instead, and then collapses were to occur in the sewer system, it would have to tear up the mill and overlay and do the reconstruction anyway.
Before and during the public hearing, Mansfield expressed his opinion that the council should not proceed on a vote to authorize the project without finding out first how much it would cost the city to have city staff conduct mill and overlay repairs over the entire portion of Eighth to be repaired, removing the need for contractors and for reconstruction. As happened at the Nov. 16 City Council meeting, Srp asked other councilors if they were interested in directing city staff to look into this possibility, to which they again all said they were not.
Mayor Roy Srp said there aren’t nearly enough city staff to take on big road improvement projects by themselves, nor does the city have sufficient equipment to do reconstruction themselves. According to city staff, the city’s equipment is meant more for maintenance, while contractors’ equipment is brought in for construction. Councilor Jeremy Conrath echoed Srp, expressing concern that a portion of the road merely rehabilitated in-house when city staff are recommending a full reconstruction would lead to deteriorating roads and floods down the line, which would themselves be prohibitively expensive to confront.
Amanda Ryan, a Waseca resident who lives on Eighth Street SE, said she was against the road in front of her house being reconstructed.
”I think [the sewer] works just fine and I think it’s too much money to come up with,” Ryan said.
Jacob Dougherty, who does not live on Eighth, expressed concerns about supply chain issues causing projected repair costs to increase by more than the 10% contingency Willey built into the project budget. He also questioned why the council couldn’t just pay part-time workers or order city staff to carry out the project, rather than having contractors come in to do it. Councilor Mark Christiansen said it’s because contractors can give completion dates and be held accountable in a way part-time workers cannot, to which Dougherty claims those contractors usually miss their completion dates anyway.
In explaining why outside contractors have to be brought in for big road improvement projects such as this one, Srp said while city staff are “incredible,” they’re also “not miracle workers.”
”The days of seeing city employees, eight of them standing around a hole looking down at one person in there — those days are gone,” he said. “We don’t have enough people here to do that if we wanted to.”
Waseca resident Jason Folie said it was the least the council could do to figure out the cost of merely rehabilitating the road in-house, an option which all councilors but Mansfield expressed no interest in. He also asked Christiansen to stop rolling his eyes.
”He’s a bully up here and doesn’t let anybody talk and get out ideas,” Folie said of Christiansen.
After the public comment period was closed, Councilor Allan Rose asked Willey what MnDOT would have to say about the city of Waseca repairing Eighth Street SE in-house. Willey said because it’s a state aid road, MnDOT sets certain requirements the city may not be able to meet with the staff and equipment it has at its disposal.