MEDFORD — Heading north on the busy Interstate 35, the town of Medford can be found quietly nestled into the very northern part of Steele County. The famed oldest community in the county, Medford is home of the Medford Outlet Center, the last remaining New England-type farmsteads in the state, and only 1,284 people.
As with most small, rural communities, the people residing in Medford’s city hall wants one simple thing: to grow.
“The goal is to grow,” said Mayor Lois Nelson during one of the monthly meetings for the city council. “The problem is that in order to grow, we have these different projects that need to happen and right now it’s just a matter of what is our priority.”
Over the last handful of years, there have been three projects that have continually lurked in the shadows of the small town. These projects revolve around the reconstruction of the town’s Main Street, the expansion or redevelopment of the wastewater treatment plant, and the addition to or relocation of the main municipal building. According to City Administrator Andy Welti, each of these areas had been acknowledged and at the very least lightly discussed by the city council over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that they presented themselves with a sense of urgency.
The wastewater discussion began in 2017 when the owner of the Lazy U Community — a 165-unit mobile home community located about a mile from Medford city limits — requested a connection to the city’s wastewater and water system. After a feasibility study was conducted, along with a financial analysis to determine the impact of the Lazy U connection to the city’s system, it was revealed that the city would have to expand and upgrade the current wastewater facility to support the connection. Furthermore, it showed that even without the connection to the Lazy U, the city would still need to make upgrades to the facility within the next 10 years.
Ten years out seemed like a good timeframe, as Welti explained that the council was well aware of the need, but happy to table the discussion for further down the road. That was, however, before a third part came along and tapped into the city’s desire to grow.
“This all started when the city had some serious inquiries from developers recently,” Welti explained. “We had to examine our current capacities in waste water and water and with that assessment we found that we needed to be looking at upgrading our system in the very near future in order to accommodate some of the developers’ interests.”
In the summer of 2018, Welti and Nelson approached their neighboring city councils of Owatonna and Faribault — both cities that sport an average population roughly 20-times greater than that of Medford — to explore the possibility of a sewer connection. The other option for Medford would be to expand its own plant, which comes with a $7,080,000 price tag. In April 2019, the Medford city council agreed to pursue a potential regionalization with Faribault for $750,000. Currently, there are still several steps and analysis that will need to be completed before any agreement between the two communities would be official.
“The problem is that a couple of years ago when the city was working on our capital plan, the expansion of our wastewater or water plant in the near-term wasn’t included,” Welti stated. “But these have been serious inquiries in our area directly west of the interstate.”
According to Welti, the inquiries fall into the commercial area of Medford’s geography. The inquiries have all been along the lines of commercial, with a few “light” industrial inquiries as well.
“Way back at the beginning of the year we just asked the council, ‘Do you want to continue to plan for growth?’” Welti added. “We asked if they want to plan on future city growth of does the city want to only grow within our current capacity. The council said it wanted to continue to pursue growth, so therefore we have to look seriously at a wastewater solution.”
As the council continues to look seriously at regionalization with Faribault’s wastewater treatment plant as a potential solution to this specific problem, it is only one piece to the puzzle of a growing Medford.
It’s been over a decade since Medford first began trying to get a new municipal building project off the ground. After putting in a good fight in 2017 — including applying for state funding and a visit from state legislators — the project the would create a combined city hall and fire station has continually been left off the list of priorities at the state capital.
Just a year prior to being excluded from yet another state bonding bill, the city tried to get the project going through a November 2016 referendum, but voters turned it down have learning it would raise property taxes by 30%. The building contained 2,741 square feet for city hall, including a conference room, office space for an administrator and city clerk, restrooms, and council chambers that could have also been used as a multipurpose room for community or private gathers, and 16,403 square feet for the fire hall, including four offices for the fire chief, commanders, relief association, and gambling, as well as eight bays. The price tag at the time of the project was up to $3.95 million.
In 2018, current city council member Chad Langeslag ran his campaign for a seat at the table with developing a new fire station and city hall as a priority. He stated that the facility was too cramped for a fire department that does an “excellent job,” and that he felt the city had come to a stand-still with the previous designs that were voted down by more than 60% of the voters.
“I want to find out what the main reason is for that overwhelming no and see something continue with that,” Langeslag told the People’s Press during his campaign.
Since his time on the council, there has been limited to zero conversation on the municipal building.
That is until now, as the fire department has called on city council to once again come to the table to find a solution to what is a deteriorating, limited building and storage garage.
“I know the command staff had a workshop with the city council back in June of last year,” said Medford Fire Chief Rick Hager during the November city council meeting. “We haven’t had much conversation since.”
Hager directly presented the council with three questions that night: Does the council have plans to meet again with the fire department regarding the municipal building? Will they consider a public works building? Does council have it on their radar?
“This certainly isn’t a dead project, especially because of the dire need for a public works building, but I personally think we are a year away from any kind of discussion,” Nelson responded. “We have some big price items coming up.”
Hager asserted that while an actual project regarding the municipal building may still be further down the line, it is of extreme importance to start having the discussions now and develop a plan. Through the trial and error of the 2016 vote, Hager said that they now know it’s about a nine-month process to get a well-developed referendum plan onto a ballot.
“If we wait six or nine months to have the conversation and we already know it’s another nine-month process to get the project on the ballot, we need to start getting the leg work done,” Hager urged. “The price tag already went up from $125/square foot to $225/square foot in just three years. If you wait too long for the conversation, it’s just going to hit the taxpayers harder.”
Longtime council member Marie Sexton agreed with Hager’s stance that the conversation can no longer wait until tomorrow.
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by acting like we can just ignore it,” she said. “I think we have to concurrently keep this in conversation, even with all these other things going on.”
Nelson pointed out, though, that the wastewater treatment plant isn’t the only project that is taking precedence in Medford’s journey to city growth.
Though it is not directly tied to the immediate growth of the city, the reconstruction of Owatonna’s Main Street — or County Road 45 — is already scheduled to take place in 2021. The project has been on the docket as a part of the city’s capital plan for a number of years, according to Welti.
“The project is driven by the city,” stated Steele County Engineer Greg Ilkka. “The city also has a desire to replace the water main that is underneath [the road] and replaces the services to the buildings. In order to do that, the road needs to be lowered because they’ve had some freezing issues.”
Though there is not exact estimate at this time, Ilkka said that the Main Street reconstruction project in Medford will total about $1.25 million, of which the county will pay 75% of the highway-related parts of the project.
While Ilkka said they are following the city’s lead, Welti paints a different picture. He stated that for a number of years the county has been inquiring about when the city was planning on moving forward with a reconstruction of County Road 45, becoming the main driver for the reconstruction process to be scheduled in 2021.
“Our preliminary engineering work has found that the current water mains under 45 are undersized based upon today’s current standards,” Welti said. “The city has also, in the past, had some water lines from the mains freeze. So, one benefit of this is that we will have our water mains installed at depths that will hopefully elevate some of the past freezing issues.”
Throughout the last year, Welti said that the city has taken a proactive approach in holding several opportunities for the public to provide input for the Main Street project, which he added is not always the case with most cities. He stated that the city wanted to give its citizens the chance to be heard and provide input along the way. At this point, the city will now start taking action by moving forward with the financial process.
During the most recent public meeting regarding the project, however, the council was met with boisterous opposition from some of the residents who live directly off Main. While some of the opposition was against some of the details of the plans, such as the size of the sidewalks, parking, signals, and turn lanes, there was a clear stance from some of the residents who do not feel that the project is necessary at this time.
“There is animosity between the people who live on the road versus the city and the county,” said Chad Merritt, a former Medford city council member who resides off Main Street. “When this road was first talked about with [former county engineer] Anita Benson, I asked her, ‘What if we don’t want this road until 2025?’ She stated that the county would love to see Medford say that, but that we never plan.”
“Now the county wants to do this road and everyone on the council is on board with it right now,” Merritt continued. “We have this wastewater issue, the fire hall, we need to upgrade the water tower at the mall — there are just so many moving parts and so much money that needs to be spent, and all of a sudden we’ve hitched our wagon to this county road.”
“The county is not saying this needs to be done,” Ilkka told the People’s Press. “Internally, we believe there are some different things we could do other than a full reconstruction, but if that’s what the city wants to proceed with than we will program to do that.”
Some of the options that Ilkka provided instead of a total reconstruction including cutting through the road, milling the pavement, and laying it back down within the existing cross section.
“This would let them get the work done that they want to see done without going to the expense of replacing all that infrastructure,” Ilkka said. “But their city engineer did make a compelling argument of taking out a considerable amount of curb and gutter and replacing a considerable amount. At this point, we fell we aren’t going to stand in the way of the project.”
For Merritt and others, though, they want to see the city direct their attention back to the growth of the community in the projects that will directly impact it.
“The fact is we cannot grow without this wastewater treatment facility. If the Lazy U hooks up, if we build 30 more houses, we’ll be full,” Merritt said. “The road is probably needed, but you do not need to do it all right now.”
From city hall, Welti said that the process of growing Medford is just a simple question of whether the chicken or the egg has to come first.
“It really comes down to how much can the city afford to build and in what order is the city going to build all this infrastructure,” he stated. “It’s become clear that the street project was always in the schedule to move forward in 2021, and now with the serious inquiries from developers the city has had to study the wastewater system. So that’s where our focus has been mainly this year.”
“The fire department is asking council if they also want to move forward on a municipal building, but we just haven’t made a decision on that yet,” Welti concluded.