UPDATE: The full text of Hutchinson House owner Tami Schluter has been added to the bottom of this story.
CORRECTION: This story has been modified to correct a statement made by Councilor John Rowan during Tuesday's meeting.
Faribault City Hall was full of activity on Tuesday night as over a dozen business owners and local residents participated in a discussion trying to get to the bottom of concerns brought forth regarding businesses downtown.
Building maintenance and inspections, rental codes, safety and loitering were all brought to the table during the city council meeting in an outcry from a number of downtown business owners for the city to take action.
First to approach the podium was Mike Ream, a bug exterminator who has been receiving an increasing number of calls from businesses recently to eradicate cockroaches from buildings downtown. Some business owners believe the problem stems from a lack of inspections and failure on the part of landlords to maintain the apartments above businesses on Central Avenue.
“The problem I know about is inside the buildings,” Ream said. “The amount of cockroach infestation is frightening and I’m a professional. Businesses are going to pack up and leave. It’s the fault of both the tenants and landlords but I personally put more responsibility on the landlords.”
According to Tami Schluter, the owner of the Historic Hutchinson House, inspections of the buildings are required only once every two years — a policy she believes is much too lax.
Schluter also feels that if the downtown tenants better understood the expectations in renting the apartments, and the process in advocating for themselves when there are problems, this may not be such an issue.
“We need to do a better job of educating incoming tenants as to our culture and our laws,” Schluter said. “Education and enforcement are the keys to success.”
Though many business owners were looking to the council to take action on the issue, Councilor John Rowan felt that the ball was in the property owners’ court.
“Either property owners need to step up and take care of their properties or we need to rezone the downtown so there are no residential properties,” Rowan said.
But other council members acknowledged that adjustments to rental codes and building ordinances could help alleviate the problem.
“Our regulations and ordinances need to change with time,” Councilor Steve Underdahl said.
Councilor Ken Walls also suggested that “maybe it’s a bigger problem than just our rental code. Maybe it’s the building code.”
Another topic of the discussion was brought forth by business owners who believe some of their customers are scared away when they see groups of Somali men standing and talking outside their storefronts.
“There is an element of fear among the kids — especially the girls,” said a Faribault resident with two daughters.
Councilor Joan VanDyke could relate to these feelings but said it has never deterred her from walking or shopping downtown.
“We’ll go for a walk at 10 o’clock at night down Central Avenue and sure there are some times (when I get nervous) but that doesn’t stop me from going downtown,” VanDyke said.
Asher Ali, who was in attendance along with several other members of the Somali community, responded to this comment, saying, “when you see me talking to friends and you feel scared, I cannot treat that problem.”
Many Somali immigrants live downtown.
While the presence of individuals from different cultural backgrounds makes some business owners and shoppers feel uncomfortable, other people view it as a positive aspect of downtown.
“Part of the reason we moved here was the historic downtown,” said an owner of a bed and breakfast near downtown. “I like seeing people moving about on the sidewalk. Many of our customers are international or come from New York or California and when they walk downtown they like the diversity. They’re used to it.”
Councilor Kay Duchene also mentioned that when she drives up and down Central Avenue she sees people of all cultures and races, not just Somali men, milling about on the sidewalks.
After addressing the council multiple times to voice her concerns, Jana Viscomi, the manager of Bernie’s Grill and owner of Finally a Gift Shop, pleaded with the council to make downtown more appealing for her customers.
“Please do something for the people I cater to,” Viscomi said. “I will keep coming back until I hear that you guys care about what’s going on downtown.”
The council decided to take some time to further research and get to the bottom of concerns regarding downtown before revisiting the topic in two weeks.
“We feel like it needs to be fair for all,” Ali said.
Full text of the statement from Tami Schluter:
"Mayor Jasinski, City Council members:
"How much longer is the Faribault city leadership going to sit back and watch the beautiful, historic downtown ruined by outdated policy? The most recent outrage is affecting a dear friends business, which as a business owner who depends on the vibrancy of the downtown, ultimately makes it my business!
"What is it . . . bugs! Not just a few, but an infestation throughout the buildings on Central Avenue!
"How do I know?
"1. My friend asked me for the name of my exterminator (who is here tonight) because her business tenant is complaining about bugs in the building.
"2. Mike treated her building, but warned her of the problem returning because the neighboring buildings are infested. Mike directly told me he has been called to several downtown businesses. In many cases, he is unable to “treat” effectively, or at all, because of current living conditions in the apartments located above the businesses lining Central Avenue.
(i.e., food items being stored in kitchen drawers without closed containers).
"3. Mike educated me on the infestation. Stating that these bugs are not indigenous to Minnesota. They are brought in on furniture, clothing and personal items.
"4. Mike also told me he alerted both city leaders and the local media to the problem with little response! However, today, my friend was contacted by the media in preparation for this meeting.
"5. Despite my friend’s efforts, the tenant has now told her she may need to relocate or close her business due to the problem!
"I will not directly name my friend for fear that she will be punished by the City, or State, for violating some ordinance that she cannot control due to neighboring properties. No amount of HER money can stop the spread of these bugs. They must be eradicated from the source!
"I personally talked to the City’s building inspector, Dave Mathews, who told me inspections were required once every two (2) years. If an infestation is discovered, all that is needed to close the issue with the City is a receipt for “proof of treatment.” No City follow-up is required!
"Are you kidding me?!
"Dave also told me that the policy currently in place can be changed by the City Council. What are you waiting for . . . the entire downtown business community to close their doors!!!!! We are here tonight to address other issues with the downtown that could be corrected with City Council action as well. I have been told that action has not been forthcoming due to a lack of complaints. Are you so myopic that you can’t see many of these business owners don’t complain due to embarrassment or fear of retribution?
"Who wants to admit their business has bugs? Complaints about other problems gets the business owner labeled as a bigot!
"The article in today’s Faribault Daily News quoted Chief Bohlen as saying “cultural awareness and education would do more to facilitate a pleasant downtown atmosphere than enforcing a loitering ordinance, as business owners have suggested.” In part, I agree with that statement. But first, we need to stop treating business owners and BUILDING OWNERS as the same group. They are two distinct and completely different entities. I suggest we educate BUILDING OWNERS who rent space as to their responsibility for their tenants and ultimately the building. If the neighboring building owners would take care of their buildings, my friend would not be having a problem.
"Second, we need to educate incoming tenants as to OUR culture and OUR laws that are already in place to protect all of us from disease and environmental hazards. What about child endangerment laws? These families are living in bug infested properties! They need to be educated on how to complain to the BUILDING OWNERS and demand better living conditions. If building owners are concerned about a particular tenant, it is then their right to remove that tenant or help to educate them on how to take care of the property.
"The downtown has major problems, but perhaps this particular issue is something we can all rally around to start moving things in a positive direction. Education and enforcement are the keys to success! Save the downtown by changing outdated policies. The health of the entire City of Faribault depends on it.
"Thank you for your attention to this matter."