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A variety of food trucks, including the ever-popular Kona Ice, lined Central Park in Owatonna last summer. Food truck events have grown popular throughout the state in recent years and Janesville could be come the next community to have such events. (County News file photo)

Waseca approves letter of intent for new Birds Eye plant

The Waseca City Council held a special meeting Monday to discuss a non-binding letter of intent from Conagra, the parent company of Birds Eye Foods, to build a new facility south of the former Quad Graphics building.

The council met in conjunction with the Waseca Economic Development Authority and unanimously approved signing a letter of intent. The letter includes a number of requests by Conagra in order to build a new 220,000-square foot facility on 47 acres to replace the current facility, which is set to close in 2021. The city authorized annexing 120 acres from St. Mary Township July 7. Conagra will use the remaining 73 acres as agricultural spray fields and will be classified for agricultural use for property taxes.

Birds Eye Foods employs 179 full-time workers and an additional 250 seasonal workers. The new plant will initially employ 119 full-time workers and 250 seasonal workers. Conagra anticipates adding new product lines which will help make up the loss of 60 full-time jobs.

The facility will operate as a fresh-pack vegetable processing plant. It’s believed the plant will process peas and corn. Construction is expected to begin in the fall and the plant will open in 2022. The site improvements, plant and equipment is budgeted at $200 million, according to an application for a Greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure grant through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Waseca Economic Development Authority filed.

Conagra already contracts around 5,000 acres in Waseca County and the new plant is expected to continue to have a positive impact on farmers in the county.

The Waseca County Planning Commission on July 2 approved an amendment to city ordinance, and the county board approved it at its meeting Tuesday. Food processing plants connected to municipal water, sewer or waste treatment facility were not included among permitted uses in the general industrial district.

The city of Waseca released a letter of intent dated July 9 from Conagra Monday that outlines Conagra’s requests from the city and county. Chief among them is a tax abatement that would last between 15-20 years. The abatement could be between 50 to 65% of the expected property taxes with the city. The county accessor determined the property to have a value of $12.4 million and it’s anticipated that the county portion of the abatement would be 65 percent. The county would anticipate receiving around $100,000 in tax revenue and the city would receive around $200,000 annually.

The city would receive a larger share of the revenue, according to Waseca City Manager Lee Mattson. Conagra also asked the county for funding or future tax abatement for a water tower to serve the facility. Under an abatement, Conagra would pay the taxes but get between 50-65 percent of it back from the city and county.

Constructing a 16-inch water main remains a big hurdle for the city to clear in order for the project to take off. The city is expected to pay for the main but needs to secure funding for half of it. The city plans on seeking grants, but getting money from the state remains in question after a bonding bill failed to pass in the state legislature. The water main is essential to the project to provide the proper water pressure and flow rate, Mattson said.

The city applied for a Greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure grant through DEED to cover half the cost of the water main project, which is estimated at $1.2 million.

Conagra anticipates it will need to use between 120-150 million gallons or more of water each year and wants a new water tower built by 2026. The company’s said its willing to help secure federal and state funding through lobbying, though Mattson said the water tower is more of an aspirational goal for the company.

Conagra also included a request for a license agreement to use airport property and water service agreements. Conagra wants access to Airport Farm Field No. 5 to use to excavate soil for the proposed building site since the site is lower in elevation than the surrounding area. In addition to the airport site, Conagra wants access to a 20-acre property along 14th Avenue in Woodville Township to excavate soil.

Conagra requested a five-year lease of Airport Farm Field No. 5 to also use for irrigation and land application of vegetable processing wastewater. The five-year lease would be renewable for five-year periods with a total length of 30 years. License payments of $300 an acre annually or $9,900 a year, to the city would begin in November.

Conagra also proposes to transfer a 10.75-acre, a .75-acre lot and 5.1-acre site near the wastewater treatment facility to the city. The company will also decommission the 1947 lagoon near the wastewater treatment facility.

Conagra wants a right turn lane for the property onto eastbound Brown Avenue. The road would have to be restriped to include the turn lane, which the county would pay for.

It’s anticipated that the Conagra Board of Directors will decide on the project at its meeting next week. Should Conagra decide to move forward with the project, the city would hold a public hearing Aug. 18 on the proposed tax abatement.

Waseca County Sheriff's deputy back on the job after long recovery

After more than eight months away, Waseca County Sheriff’s deputy Josh Langr is back at work. In many ways, he’s lucky to be alive.

While responding to a fatal car crash Oct. 23 on County Road 4 Langr was electrocuted by a downed power line. For nearly the next three weeks he stayed at Hennepin County Medical Center as doctors treated his burns and a baseball-sized hole in his head from where the power line struck him. The dangling power line sent 14,000 volts through his body, burning the back of his calf and his feet.

A green Ford Ranger pickup truck had hit a power pole around 9:30 p.m. Oct. 23, ejecting and killing 15-year-old Alexus Tiegs. A 16-year-old male driver was transported to a Mankato hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Langr, who suffered third-degree burns, was airlifted to HCMC to treat his injuries.

Waseca Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Rands arrived first on the scene, followed by Langr shortly after. Rands helped treat Tiegs at the scene and first heard about Langr’s injury when he heard, “Officer down,” on the radio. At first Rands thought a car had tried to drive through the crash scene and struck Langr.

“He’s very fortunate,” Rands said. “It was very likely and possible we could have had a double fatal at that accident.”

The truck struck the power pole and the pole slanted. Those on the scene knew the wire was down, hanging over the shoulder, but seeing it amid the flashing lights wasn’t easy.

“There were a lot of emergency vehicles,” Rands said. “There were people all over the place. It was a pretty chaotic scene to start with.”

Langr, a Waseca native, has returned to light duty work with the Sheriff’s Department, meaning he remains at his desk, catching up on training and other work after eight months away. It’s been a long journey and Langr has the scars to show.

Following the initial hospitalization, Langr returned home with an open wound on his head. Doctors sent him home with a wound vacuum that he wore until June when he returned to the hospital to seal the wound. The wound vacuum is a negative pressure system that helps a wound heal faster.

“It was very much a ball and chain,” Langr said of the wound vacuum. “When people want to unload a dishwasher or something, they put their purse down. I have to pick mine up to go unload the dishwasher. I have to pick my purse up to get off the couch. I had to put my purse on to go mow the lawn. It was a pain in the butt.”

If it got bumped it could be extremely painful.

Langr has two boys, Everett, 4, and Elliott, 2, with his wife Kelly. One day while doing laundry in the basement, Elliott came down to see what Langr was doing. Elliott tripped, bumped into the door, which slammed into Langr’s head.

“I definitely saw stars after that,” he said.

Langr had a doctor’s visit scheduled for March 24 to prepare for surgery but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his procedure was deemed non-essential, which pushed the surgery back to June 1. When he did finally get into surgery, it lasted for seven hours as two doctors worked two procedures to take part of his arm that has veins and arteries and attach that to his head. A second procedure took a skin graft from one of his quadriceps to cover the hole in his arm.

He remained in the hospital until June 5 and will likely have another procedure in the future to help contour his head.

The community rallied behind Langr following his injury and helped raise more than $10,000 through a gofundme page. Kelly had to take time away from work to care for the boys and Langr.

“Everybody’s been super, super supportive,” Langr said. “I get support everywhere.”

The support made Langr want to get back to the job even more. He received so many get wells card that he ran out of room on his hospital windowsill during his first stint in the hospital.

Langr, who originally attended Minnesota State University, Mankato to study electrical engineering, has worked with the Sheriff’s Department since 2002 when he began in corrections. He continued to attend MSU while working in corrections and decided he didn’t like Calculus II and felt pulled toward law enforcement. He became a deputy in 2012 after working with the Janesville Police Department part-time. His presence in the office is a welcome sight for co-workers.

“He’s in good spirits,” Rands said. “He’s happy to be back working. We are super happy that he’s able to come back.”

Langr’s personality helped make the recovery process easy for friends and family, Rands said.

“His personality and sense of humor kept things pretty light from the get-go,” Rands said. “He was able to make the best of it. He’s Josh.”

Disability service providers look to state for help

With many of Minnesota’s adult daycare providers on the brink of financial ruin, several local legislators are calling on the state to provide a lifeline.

In a June 8 letter, state Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, joined representatives John Petersburg, R-Waseca, and Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, in asking Gov. Tim Walz to support legislation that would provide some $30 million in COVID-19 retention grants for service providers.

A bill to do just that was sponsored by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and passed by the Senate in the year’s first special session by a unanimous vote. However, it lacked a companion bill in the House and subsequently died.

“(Our disability service providers) haven’t been taken care of as other businesses have been,” Petersburg said. “I think they just got missed in the legislation… certainly they qualify for help, but everything has to be appropriated and spent through the state.”

Disabled Americans have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adult daycare centers were quick to close in March, which makes sense given that many disabled Americans have health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to COVID.

However, while some disabled Americans do have access to government programs, others have a much more difficult time because they rely heavily on the money they make by working at organizations now closed due to the pandemic.

Since the pandemic hit, funding that normally comes in from state and federal agencies to compensate has been lost. While a majority of states have sought waivers from the federal government to keep dollars flowing during the closure, Minnesota has not.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services finally allowed adult day care centers to provide services to group home residents, who make up most of their clients. Previously, only individuals who live in private homes could receive services.

Still, Cedar Valley Services’s Rich Pavek said that many of its clients will not be returning, either because their health condition obviously makes it too much of a risk or because their family or caregivers opt not to send them back.

Pavek said that Cedar Valley has a rigorous COVID preparedness plan that is designed to reduce the risk of transmission. Under state regulations, clients can only participate in in-house programming for up to three hours a day, though the limit doesn’t apply to jobs. The region’s largest service provider, Cedar Valley has roughly 250 staff members and 350 clients, with offices in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna. Because of its size, Cedar Valley’s opportunity to access programs intended to aid small businesses has been limited.

Meanwhile, the organization doesn’t pay into the state unemployment system, so it must pay benefits out of its own pocket. Most staff have continued to come to work in order to fulfill contracts Cedar Valley has with local businesses.

Pavek said that the organization’s reserves have left it better equipped to deal with the “rainy day” than smaller disability service providers. In addition, revenue from those existing business contracts has helped.

The region’s two other biggest disability service providers are Waseca-based Jobs Plus and Le Sueur County Developmental Services. All three programs are designed to help the disabled maximize their skills and talents.

While work forms the core of the services provided by all three local community organizations, it is just one part of a holistic approach to helping the disabled live fulfilling lives, along with socialization and community building activities.

Jobs Plus’s Katie Neegard said that she’s been in close contact with legislators on the topic. Without funding, she warned that programs providing essential services for adults with disabilities could face permanent closure.

“This is kind of like our lifeline,” she said. “If it doesn’t get approved, our programs will start closing, leaving hundreds of people without disability services.”

St. Peter legislator Brand said that the biggest roadblock may be the state’s fiscal situation. With the economy reeling from COVID-related fallout, legislators watched a $1.5 billion projected surplus turn into a $2.5 billion deficit practically overnight.

Instead of looking to state funding, Brand said the Legislature may have to use funding from its CARES Act allocation. Regardless, he insisted that the funding be a priority, arguing that saving providers now would provide immense benefit over the long term.

“As a DFLer, I feel like my job is to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and I can’t think of anyone who fits that description more than people with disabilities,” he said. “$30 million might not go that far, but without that funding, I don’t know how they’re going to make it.”

Waseca’s Erik Simmons tries to beat out a rundown Wednesday against Pine Island at Tink Larson Community Field. The Braves escaped with an 8-7 win. (Nick Gerhardt/Waseca County News)

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, more than half of the waters in southern Minnesota fail to the meet swimmable or fishable standards. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)