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ECONOMIC

IMPACT in Kandiyohi County and beyond | 2021


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Welcome to

IMPACT 2021

Table of contents 06 09 12 14 16 18 20 24 26 30 34 36 40 43 46 49 50 52 56 58 60

Investing in Willmar’s future The train project that could Shrimp is a jumbo business Revolutionizing shrimp processing Go Set Ready for coffee in Benson School districts to offer distance learning School construction projects near finish line Built with more than just students in mind Building community through art Lucky Duck lands in the city on the pond Rockin’ the island, paving the way Taking a walk down Main Streets Housing needs take center stage A vision of four lanes from corner to corner Bethesda opens new senior living facility Montevideo veterans home under construction Talking Waters marches onward Conforming to changing standards The rural renaissance starts here A diverse crop of entrepreneurs Elevating future business owners

Stories and photos by Tom Cherveny / reporter Shelby Lindrud / reporter Carolyn Lange / reporter Tim Speier / reporter Linda Vanderwerf / reporter Mark Wasson / reporter Erica Dischino / photographer PUBLISHER: Steve Ammermann EDITOR: Kelly Boldan MAGAZINE EDITOR: Kit Grode MAGAZINE DESIGNER: Mollie Burlingame AD MANAGER: Christie Steffel A publication of West Central Tribune, OCTOBER 2021 2208 W. Trott Ave, Willmar MN www.wctrib.com

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impact

im·​pact | \ ‘im-,pakt \

Definition of impact

1a: to have a direct effect or impact on Merriam-Webster Dictionary

2: to have a strong effect on someone or something. Oxford Languages

The world has changed, and so have the communities we live in. Progress never stops, or so the saying goes. Our communities change as we do, growing and shrinking, adapting to the shifting wants and needs of our populations over time. New businesses open up shop, old businesses close their doors, and new opportunities arise from every angle. In the past few years, communities both large and small in west central Minnesota have seen their populations shift, and with that comes new wants, needs and desires. Whether it be a coffee shop, an agricultural development, an innovative technology or new performing arts facilities, each of these changes requires an investment from the community, whether that be time, funding or patronage. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a community formed alone. Investing in one’s community creates an economic IMPACT, no matter how large or small, and the West Central Tribune has chosen to highlight a sampling of those stories of progress.


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Construction on most of the Invest in Willmar local option sales tax projects began over the summer. As weeks have gone by, the projects are starting to take shape. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Local option sales tax projects an investment in Willmar’s future BY SHELBY LINDRUD West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — In a few short years the entire recreation landscape in Willmar has been turned on its head, thanks to the tireless effort of a group of residents, the city council and staff, as well as the residents themselves. Matt Dawson, Anthony Amon and Jon Konold first approached the Willmar City Council in May 2018 about bringing a $30 million, 13-year local option sales tax question to voters. The money raised by the proposed .5% increase in the city’s sales tax would pay for six projects: a recreation and event center, new and upgraded athletic fields, improvements

at both Robbins Island Regional Park and Swansson Field Recreation Complex, a project at the community center and stormwater improvements across the city. Dawson said he and the other founders of the Invest in Willmar sales tax program were tired of comparing Willmar’s old or lacking recreation facilities to what could be found in other regional centers and decided to act. “We want nice things for our kids. Anytime you have nice facilities it helps get kids and people excited,” Dawson said.

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By November 2018, the Invest in Willmar local option sales tax group was formed and the tax was approved by 60% of the city’s voters. Revenue collection began in October 2019, after the sales tax increase was given final approval by the state legislature. Construction on the recreation projects began in fall 2020. “It is nice to see some progress,” Dawson said, especially when one throws in the unplanned pandemic and the impact it had on the timeline. Robbins Island was the first project to reach the construction stage. The $3 million project — split into two


The Willmar Recreation and Event Center is scheduled to be completed in fall 2024 and will offer the city more space for events and recreation. LSE Architects

phases — included a new road and parking lots, an improved water main, rebuilt and remodeled park shelters, landscaping and lights around the park, including along the walking path that winds around the park. “We were fortunate that the project came way under budget,” which allowed for the additional shelter and light work to be done, said Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation director.

Construction on the local option sales tax projects really took off in July 2021, with dirt moved at Swansson Field and ground broken at the Willmar Civic Center where the new recreation/event center and athletic fields will call home. The Swansson Field improvements, with a budget of $2 million, will turn Elsie Klemmetson Field into a stadium with new bleachers, concession building, press

box, a turf infield and improved drainage throughout the playing surface. “It is one of those facilities that needed to be updated,” Baumgarn said. Blue Field will also be getting an upgrade. It will be a designated 90-foot regulation baseball field with upgraded dugouts and a grass infield. Most of the construction on the fields is scheduled to be completed by October,

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Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune The groundbreaking for the second phase of the Robbins Island Local Option Sales Tax project took place on June 22. The park’s shelters are undergoing massive remodels.

but depending on when the grass seed can be laid, play might not take place until late summer 2022 at the earliest. That could also be true for the new softball/baseball fields being built on the south side of the civic center as part of the larger athletic fields project there. “We will have a pinwheel complex in town,” available for tournament play, Baumgarn said. The fields will also have a concession stand, bathrooms, dugouts and irrigation. Other improvements could also be on the horizon, budget willing. “Our goal is to host more baseball and youth softball tournaments there,” Baumgarn said. North of the civic center will be two large athletic fields that can be used for a variety of sports, such as football, soccer and baseball. The fields will be covered in artificial turf, making them available for longer seasons. “We can be out on those fields earlier and later; when it rains we can be out on those fields sooner,” Baumgarn said. “We’ve never had that in Willmar.” The combined field improvements will cost approximately $6 million and the bid contracts came in very close to that. The master plan for the fields include a dome, track and bleachers. Baumgarn said there is already talk about community

fundraising, and he has the dome in the Willmar Parks and Recreation department capital improvement plan. Connected to the civic center will be the new recreation/event center, which began construction in July. Baumgarn said the facility should be open by fall 2022. “It will give the civic center a yearround heartbeat,” Baumgarn said. The center, with a budget of $10 million, will have an indoor two-court recreation floor, which will be used for a wide variety of activities from tennis, basketball and pickleball to dinners, meetings and conventions. “It opens the door for us to have more programs,” Baumgarn said. The center will also have additional meeting rooms, a catering kitchen to allow food to be brought in for events, an outdoor space and an indoor playground for kids. “They’ll be able to climb, crawl and slide,” Baumgarn said. Baumgarn is excited for what all of these improvements, plus the proposed curling facility being planned by Glacial Ridge Curling Club, will bring to the civic center. It will create a nearly one-stop shop for most of the city’s recreation wants and needs. “This is going to be one heck of a complex when it is done,” Baumgarn said.

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With all the new recreation facilities being built across the city, thanks to the local option sales tax, Baumgarn said Parks and Rec will be able to greatly increase its programing offerings. It will be a lot of work to find the right combination of programs and times to hold them, but worth it. “It is very exciting because of the potential we can have,” Baumgarn said. Dawson said some of the benefits the Invest in Willmar group hope will come with the finished projects not only include increased recreation options, but perhaps even economic development for the city with more people and businesses wanting to move to Willmar. “We want to be a destination, where people want to come,” Dawson said. And probably more important than anything else is bringing all the community together in these new facilities for a friendly ball game or an outdoor concert. “It just builds community. You get to know people, it’s a social thing,” Dawson said. “Hopefully that makes your community even more attractive, building relationships between community members.” You may contact the author at slindrud@wctrib.com.


The Willmar Wye: The train project that could BY SHELBY LINDRUD West Central Tribune

The new rail track, which will connect the BNSF Marshal and Morris subdivision tracks, will travel underneath the new overpass bridges constructed on U.S. Highway 12 (pictured) and State Highway 40. Minnesota Department of Transportation

WILLMAR — It has been a long time in coming, but the end is finally in sight for the Willmar Connector and Industrial Access Project, better known as the Willmar Wye. The road construction portion of the $48 million project was substantially completed in July and the rail portion of the project is set to begin this fall. By fall 2022, trains should be running on the new track, directing rail traffic between the BNSF Railway Morris and Marshall subdivisions, as vehicle traffic travels along the new U.S. Highway 12, over new bridges and around roundabouts. The Willmar Wye project has existed in some form or another since at least 2011.

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The road construction portion of the project took about two years, and included the construction of new overpass bridges and roundabouts, and a realignment of U.S. Highway 12. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

The Willmar Connector and Industrial Access project, known as the Willmar Wye, will have benefits for both trains and vehicles. Minnesota Department of Transportation

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“BNSF approached MnDOT, the county and the city of Willmar,” said Paul Rasmussen, Willmar Wye project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8. BNSF had started the process to secure federal stimulus money for the project in 2011 but withdrew its application due to financial concerns. A few years later, the project would be back. In 2014, the project failed to receive a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, but several months later, everything changed. On Oct. 27, 2015, it was announced that the Wye project had successfully secured a $10 million TIGER grant. With the grant in hand, other funding for the project also fell into place. Each player in the public-private partnership would pitch in something to make the project possible. BNSF contributed $16 million to the project and MnDOT gave another $17.5 million. Kandiyohi County committed $459,000 while the city of Willmar committed $336,000 worth of right of way. Local Road Improvement Program funding of $3.77 million from the state went to the project and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission spent $35,000 for economic development. Planning and design development for the Willmar Wye kicked into high gear once the funding was figured out. MnDOT first started with the environmental studies and acquiring the needed land for the project and then turned to the actual construction plan. “It went fairly quickly for a project this size,” Rasmussen said. As is normal for a major road construction project, MnDOT engineers came up with several ideas and alternatives before landing on the final design. “We come to the conclusion


of what the best alternative is,” Rasmussen said. For the Willmar Wye, this included rerouting Highway 12 to the south and east, construction of two highway overpass bridges on Highway 12 and state Highway 40, installing two roundabouts for efficient traffic movement and the creation of an access road to businesses located on First Avenue West, which eliminated an at-grade rail crossing. “We did quite a bit of research on that to figure out what the best solution was,” Rasmussen said. “At-grade crossings are always a safety issue.” Road construction took two years to complete. While there were a few weather delays, overall construction finished with few issues. “For a project of this size and this complexity, it went quite well,” Rasmussen said. One of the main challenges of the Wye has been the unique partnership between both public and private entities. It took a bit longer to approve the master agreement between all the players, Rasmussen said, as each one operates just a bit differently from everyone else. In the end though, the agreement was a success and construction was able to move forward. “It was something we haven’t dealt with before,” Rasmussen said. “Getting all of that to mesh was difficult and interesting.” The partners hope the finished project will bring multiple benefits to all. For BNSF it will mean more efficient movement of trains, especially those which will no longer need to travel into the downtown Willmar railyard before heading to Morris or Marshall. This will also mean fewer trains blocking road crossings and horns blaring at all hours.

“We get the nuisance trains out of downtown,” Rasmussen said. Fewer trains also mean fewer chances for dangerous interactions between trains and vehicles. The new rail track, when completed, will offer the opportunity to connect with the Willmar Industrial Park. This could mean even more business options in the park. “That should make the Industrial Park much more marketable,” Rasmussen said. The Wye is also looking like it will benefit the wider transportation network as well. “As we started working on this project — the county, us and the city — it spurred us to look at the area as a whole,” Rasmussen said. “What else needs to be done out in this area to facilitate the traffic on the west side of Willmar?” The county decided to install a roundabout at the intersection of Kandiyohi County Road 5 and 19th Avenue Southwest and has been working on redesigning the area around the intersection of County Road 5 and state Highway 23. MnDOT is also making plans for that area, including constructing the four access ramps at the Highway 23 intersection. “Those projects spurred from, it started with the Willmar Wye,” Rasmussen said. The Willmar Wye might have taken longer than anyone wanted, but despite the delays and challenges, the hope is the Wye will end up being everything the partners hope for. “I do think it is a good project and I am happy to be a part of it,” Rasmussen said. “I appreciate everybody’s patience while it was being built.” You may contact the author at slindrud@wctrib.com.

HELPING GENEROUS PEOPLE CHANGE LIVES AND COMMUNITIES THROUGH PHILANTHROPY. In 2020-2021 the Willmar Area Community Foundation granted almost $300,000 back into Kandiyohi County to support programs and initiatives that address the opportunity gap for our youth, increase community connections, welcome diverse populations and support productive aging in addition to providing local relief efforts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

By donating to the Willmar Area Community Foundation (WACF), I have the opportunity to make an undeniable impact to many of my favorite charitable causes. The Foundation is at the forefront and knows what the immediate needs are in the area. I trust the Foundation to put the dollars in the right places, knowing I am making a difference locally and in real time. I am grateful for WACF and the work they do to help meet the needs of our community.

-WACF DONOR

• for more information visit www.communitygiving.org/WACF or contact us at 320-235-4380 or wacf@communitygiving.org • to donate visit www.communitygiving.org/donate and select “WACF Foundation Builders Campaign” WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021 | 11


Becky Bruns stands next to new equipment she installed this past summer at her Shrimp Shack business in rural Danube. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Shrimp is a jumbo business in west central Minnesota BY CAROLYN LANGE West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — A unique working relationship between a former dairy farmer from Blomkest, two former poultry farmers from Danube and a hightech engineering company in Willmar could produce the first commercial-scale saltwater shrimp to be born, raised and processed in Minnesota. There are some moving pieces to the puzzle to fit together yet, but the picture looks promising. “Everyone’s watching to see what happens,” said Becky Bruns, who is nearly done upgrading equipment at her farmraised shrimp business, Shrimp Shop, in rural Danube. “We’re just having fun,” said Paul Damhof, who started growing and selling shrimp in his converted dairy barn in 2017 at his wildly successful business, Simply Shrimp. Although it’s been shut down since COVID, Damhof is planning to build a new shrimp-growing operation next year and intends to install equipment recently developed by Nova-Tech

Engineering in Willmar that can remove the veins, heads, legs and shells from fresh, market-ready shrimp. But Damhof is also knee-deep in research with his business partner, Barb Frank, to breed shrimp and sell the babies to shrimp farmers around the globe to help meet a growing demand for 21-dayold baby shrimp that farmers raise to market weight. To make things more interesting, Barb Frank is Becky Brun’s mother. The two raised commercial poultry for 40 years before the 2015 avian influenza pandemic knocked the wind out of their business and they looked for new options in agriculture. Bruns now operates the Shrimp Shop, and Frank teamed up with Damhof to create the shrimp hatchery, called Minnesota Shrimp, which is on the cusp of becoming operational with the capacity to produce at least 100 million baby shrimp every year. Frank thinks it’s closer to 200 million.

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If all goes well, the shrimp hatched in Blomkest will not only be raised at the Shrimp Shop and Simply Shrimp but at shrimp farms all over the United States and Canada and beyond. And — if all goes according to plan — equipment developed by Nova-Tech will be used to process shrimp raised in Minnesota and around the world. Nova-Tech CEO Jim Sieben said the ShrimpWorks equipment, which uses patented, automated technology to process fresh shrimp, will be marketed to shrimp farms worldwide — much like Nova-Tech’s equipment that’s used in 600 poultry hatcheries in 58 countries on six continents. This type of ingenuity, imagination, hard work, partnerships and willingness to take risks could put land-locked west central Minnesota on the saltwater shrimp map. The fact that this is happening amid corn, soybean and traditional livestock farms absolutely thrills Damhof.


Beginning with babies

Damhof and Bruns were going great guns raising saltwater shrimp at their individual farms; everything they raised was netted fresh that day and sold live to on-the-farm customers. But a persistent problem was finding sources for the tiny baby shrimp, called post larval shrimp, or PLs for short. Most of the time these PLs, which are the size of an eyelash, were shipped from Florida to the Minnesota shrimp-growing farms in a supply-and-demand see-saw. Frustrated with relying on out-ofstate companies that sometimes left them without new PLs to grow to market weight to sell to hungry local consumers, Damhof and Frank began researching how to raise baby shrimp in Minnesota. When COVID-19 hit, the PL pipeline was shut down countrywide. With no baby shrimp to be found, Damhof shut down Simply Shrimp and Bruns shut down the Shrimp Shop. Bruns used the downtime to upgrade her equipment and Frank and Damhof used the time to ramp up the Minnesota Shrimp hatchery at Damhof’s farm, where they’re working to create the correct environment for adult shrimp to mate and

to fine-tune the man-made ocean water needed for baby shrimp to survive. “It’s a steep learning curve,” said Damhof, in reference to getting shrimp larvae, which are three-fourths the size of a mosquito larva, to survive for 21 days so they can be moved to grow-out farms. “We thought growing the algae was going to be the hardest,” said Frank. “But raising the babies has turned into the hardest piece.” They’re learning by trial and error and getting close to launching the hatchery, which may take 1 ½ years to reach capacity.

Where the magic happens

Minnesota Shrimp has 200 adult shrimp – 100 females and 100 males – that were imported from Hawaii. Everyday around 10 a.m. the lights go low, which triggers the mating scene in the six tanks where the pairs of shrimp are housed. “That’s when the magic happens,” said Frank. A couple hours later, using a bigbeamed flashlight, Damhof and Frank can spot females that have mated because the bright orange eggs can be seen through the shrimp’s shell.

The female is moved to a spawning tank and within a couple hours she releases her eggs, which are no bigger than a barely visible dot in the water. The tens of thousands of eggs released by that one female are moved to a new tank with pristine water that’s balanced with colorful saltwater algae that grow in 5-foot-tall containers housed in a sterile room. Helping the new hatches thrive has been challenging as the Minnesota Shrimp team performs a strict feeding schedule, tests the water and examines tiny PLs under the microscope. There are no how-to manuals for raising PLs inland and Damhof said he and Frank have relied on academic journals, past successes and new “ah-ha moments.”

Shrimp raceways

Fed a gourmet diet that includes squid, bloodworms and krill, the shrimp in the breeding tanks are huge – about 100 grams – compared to the typical market weight of 22-25 grams. Unlike other livestock farms that can raise their own pigs or cows as replacement brood stock, Minnesota Shrimp is not allowed to do that because the breeding pairs they purchase from

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Paul Damhof and Barb Frank, who have experience growing farm-raised shrimp from baby shrimp imported from Florida, have teamed up to create Minnesota Shrimp, a new company in rural Blomkest that will be the area’s first shrimp hatchery. Once fully operational, Minnesota Shrimp could provide baby shrimp to shrimp growers around the country. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Hawaii have patented genetics. So every 4-6 months, Minnesota Shrimp must purchase new pairs of breeding stock. Currently, the tiny PLs grow in a small nursery tank during this research phase, but once the process is perfected, the baby shrimp will grow in six brandnew gleaming white raceway tanks. Measuring about 25 by 15 feet, each tank – which Damhof calls a “lazy river” – holds 4,500 gallons of water. After 21 days the PLs will be bagged up and sent to shrimp farms to grow to market weight. When they reach full capacity, it’s expected that about 10% of the PLs raised by Minnesota Shrimp will be used by the Shrimp Shop and Simply Shrimp. The rest of the PLs will be sold. “There’s a worldwide shortage of babies,” said Damhof. “Getting rid of the babies will not be a problem.” Future dreams “I say I raise water and the shrimp are the by-product,” said Bruns, hinting at the complexity of creating the right environment for shrimp. The new, larger tanks and water and air filtration system she installed will help her produce about three times as many market-ready shrimp than she

could in her old system. Bruns said she’ll hit the ground running with her new setup as soon as she gets PLs from up the road in Blomkest, which will be a big improvement from waiting for them to be shipped from Florida. Damhof has building plans ready to go for his new growing facility, where he also intends to use PLs born on his farm. When they reach market weight, he intends to process the fresh shrimp with equipment developed and made in Willmar. When it comes to bringing the shrimp industry to west central Minnesota farm country, Frank gives all the credit to Damhof and his family. “He did a heck of a lot of research for raising shrimp,” she said. Their mutual dream now is to help other displaced livestock farmers who may have empty dairy or poultry barns turn that unused space into shrimp farms. In the future, she said they may write a handbook to help guide others into the field of raising shrimp in Minnesota to help diversify local agriculture. You may contact the author at clange@wctrib.com.

Nova-Tech’s ShrimpWorks equipment poised to revolutionize shrimp processing business BY CAROLYN LANGE West Central Tribune

Designed and built at Nova-Tech Engineering in Willmar, the multifaceted ShrimpWorks automated platform may change the way fresh shrimp is processed for the consumer market. ShrimpWorks

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WILLMAR — Giving customers “revolutionary solutions” to help them “feed the world” was the driving force that engineers at Nova-Tech Engineering in Willmar used to develop an all-in-one piece of equipment that performs multiple tasks to prepare fresh shrimp for market. The automated platform, called ShrimpWorks, has the potential to dramatically change how fresh shrimp are processed here in west central Minnesota’s burgeoning shrimp industry and in countries around the world — including those that rely on manual labor. After nearly five years

and several million dollars invested in the research and development stage, this year Nova-Tech launched ShrimpWorks, a customizable automated platform that can measure, sort, devein, peel and remove heads and legs from fresh shrimp. Clients can choose which functions they want performed on their shrimp. That flexibility allows the end-consumers, such as restaurants and grocery stores, to customize the products they sell and serve. Shrimp farmers can program the ShrimpWorks platform “to do whatever they want it to do,” said Nova-Tech CEO Jim Sieben, during a presentation


in July at the Partners in Ag Innovation conference in Willmar. Sieben said ShrimpWorks has several unique features, including the ability to measure a shrimp before removing the head. He said typical equipment on the market cuts off heads based on the average size of a shrimp, which can mean lost shrimp meat when too much is cut off of large shrimp. The ShrimpWorks machine moves to the “exact spot where the head is,” said Sieben. Another patented component of ShrimpWorks is that shrimp can be deveined without splitting the back. Sieben acknowledges not having the “butterfly” look to a shrimp may take a while for customers to adjust to, but he said the quality of the shrimp meat is improved by removing the vein without splitting it open. He said once major grocery stores start carrying shrimp without a split back, customers will adapt and seek it out. Manon Claux-Conway, a product branding manager with ShrimpWorks, said because 90% of shrimp consumed in the U.S. comes from Asia, where labor is cheap, it’s important to find economical ways for domestic shrimp farmers to process their product in order to compete with imported product. Using the same type of arrangement that Nova-Tech uses for its poultry equipment employed in 600 hatcheries

worldwide, Nova-Tech will install and maintain the ShrimpWorks equipment and customers will lease it and pay for each function that it performs on each shrimp. Nova-Tech has currently secured contracts to install ShrimpWorks at five different customer locations in North America and the European Union by this January and is targeting Latin America after that, according to Emily Field, a product branding manager at ShrimpWorks in Willmar. Every week the company is seeing “an increase in demand” from potential clients who want to know more about ShrimpWorks, she said. “Everybody we talk to is just really excited for such a revolutionary product in the industry.” In August, the ShrimpWorks marketing team attended an aquaculture conference in San Antonio, Texas, to introduce the new technology to vendors, including shrimp producers. In September the team planned to attend food supply shows, where big names like Costco and Whole Foods were expected, to introduce the look of shrimp processed with ShrimpWorks. ShrimpWorks has added employees and is leasing a separate building on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar for production and continued research of future services and improvements to the equipment, said ClauxConway. You may contact the author at clange@wctrib.com.

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Todd and Leslie Widseth, far left, started roasting coffee beans in 2015. Starting out with 250 pounds a month, they have since moved up to roasting 1800 pounds per month and bought a shop in Benson. Here, they’re joined by Stefanie Peterson and Greta Szczur. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

Go Set Ready: Benson coffee shop gets town up and ready for the day BY MARK WASSON West Central Tribune

BENSON — During the week Todd Widseth gets up around 5 a.m. before making his way downstairs to the coffee shop — Go Set Ready Coffee, that he and his wife, Leslie, own on Church Street — to start preparing for the store’s standard 6:30 a.m. opening. Some days a customer arrives around 6 a.m. and Todd has a dark roast coffee ready for him. From there, the day is a steady stream of people stopping in for a variety of drinks and conversation. “It’s more than you walking in the door,” Todd said. “We’ve actually set up the business where it’s Leslie or I working in the front and somebody in the back making the drinks and you’ll have that five minutes of time to strike up that conversation. You can speak a lot of life into people in that little bit of span that you get to talk to them.” In 2015, Todd and Leslie decided they wanted to get into the coffee business. After reading “The Circle Maker” by Mark Batterson, they both made dream boards to see what it was they wanted to do. Both of them wrote down “coffee,” so they decided to do something about it. At that point, Todd, a former aircraft mechanic, and Leslie, a former office manager, bought a roaster from Mill City

Roasters in Minneapolis and Todd enrolled in classes to learn how to roast coffee. The couple set up the roastery in their house for the first year, but when they got their beans into SuperValu, that had to change. The Widseths set up shop at their location in Benson in February of 2016. At the same time, the couple moved from about two miles out of town to live upstairs from the shop. “I love it,” Todd said, adding that, while the hours are long, he can’t imagine working for someone else. When they first started, Todd said, they were roasting about 250 pounds of beans a month. Five years later, that’s increased to about 1,800 pounds a month. And while the pandemic certainly had an effect on the economy, Go Set Ready was doing so well that the Widseths actually didn’t qualify for any federal pandemic relief loans. It seemed to be a good problem to have, in their minds. The shop currently has three employees in addition to Todd and Leslie, who often put their own twist on drinks. Both Todd and Leslie said that God has played a big role in their success and, in fact, both of them prayed before buying their current building, asking for the building at half cost. A day later, without

16 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

talking to the seller, they got an offer for just that. “If you ask, we’ll pray with you when you’re here,” Todd said. He said they try not to work on Sundays. “It doesn’t always happen.” They both attend church at Assembly of God in Benson. Looking to the future, Todd said the plan is to install a K-Cup machine at a cost of $20,000 to help make production more efficient. Right now, making the K-Cups is done by hand. “It’s really hard to bite the bullet on that,” Todd said. Todd also said they’re thinking of putting in a drive-thru, but it’s in the “dream phase” right now. As for the Widseths themselves, after setting up their business, remodeling their upstairs apartment and moving out of their house, they have finally started to think about getting out and enjoying life, be it golfing, playing tennis or heading up to Baxter for the weekend. “Now, we’re somewhere in this kind of resting phase,” Todd said, adding that there’s always something to do at their business so it’s important to take breaks when you can. You may contact the author at mwasson@wctrib.com.


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School districts work with service cooperative to offer distance learning BY LINDA VANDERWERF West Central Tribune

Stephanie Strenge

Teaching and learning program administrator for Southwest West Central service cooperative

Carrie Thomas

Willmar Director of Teaching and Learning

Bill Adams

New London-Spicer Superintendent

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Jeff Holm

Willmar Superintendent

Minnesota required every public school district to offer a distance learning option for its students during the first full school year of the pandemic. When schools opened this fall for in-person learning, they were no longer required to offer an off-site option. Though some families still wanted it, many school districts were not equipped to offer distance learning to a potentially small number of students. A distance learning program needs approval from the Minnesota Department of Education, which can be a long process. An alternative for families might have been an online school, but the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative is helping area school districts find a middle ground. SWWC offers STARRS Online Academy, a K-12 program that 39 school districts are using this school year. The co-op offers education and administrative services to school districts and communities in 18 counties in southwestern Minnesota. STARRS stands for Students Together Achieving Responsibility, Respect, Safety. The program also offers other educational programs for a number of districts. The online academy is a supplemental program and doesn’t award a diploma, said Stephanie Strenge, teaching and learning program administrator. Students in the program are counted in their home districts’ enrollment, and the districts receive state aid for them. Schools pay a fee based on students’ credits. Classes are taught by certified teachers to meet state standards. “Originally, it was to help offer classes that smaller districts weren’t able to offer within their district,” Strenge said. “Now it has grown, and we’re working with districts and families that want to continue distance learning,” she added. “Our mission and our goal is to help support our member districts,” she said. “We’re supplemental in nature, so that requires a partnership with the home district.”


The program started in 2017 offering classes for grades 7-12. Last year, the co-op heard from districts looking for ongoing distance learning options, Strenge said. The state granted approval for a K-12 program late last spring. At each grade level, classes are offered in four core subject areas of English, math, science and social studies. They are also offered electives — a few for elementary students and more for older students, including world languages and computer applications. STARRS began the school year with nearly 200 students, and enrollment was continuing to grow. “We explored setting up our own system,” said Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm. But getting state approval takes time, and scheduling and staffing for a distance learning program would have been a challenge. “When the co-op decided to offer it across the region, it seemed like a much more efficient way to do it,” he said. Willmar started the school year with 33 students in grades K-12 attending the online academy, said Carrie Thomas,

director of teaching and learning for the district. It’s a good alternative for families that want their children to continue distance learning, she said, and it provides an education to state standards by statecertified teachers. “We very much still consider these students our students,” Holm said. “It’s just that we’ve contracted with them for instruction.” School districts work with the program on issues like attendance, and the districts provide students’ electronic devices. All K-12 students in Willmar Public Schools are issued an iPad. Middle school and high school students have had iPads for some time. Pandemic relief aid helped the district provide them for elementary students, too, to aid in distance learning in the past school year. At New London-Spicer Public Schools, pandemic aid helped the district issue chromebooks to all students. The district had not had one-to-one devices before that. There were some “hiccups and bumps”

in the transition, said Superintendent Bill Adams, “but we were able to get through those things successfully.” Adams said he feels the district is on a road into the future with the added devices. “We saved a lot on printing costs,” he said. “Long-term, we need to continue to make that transition to going fully digital in all our work.” The district is committed to preparing students for a digital future, he said. “If we’re going to fully embrace this transition, we need to put in practices that will help kids in the future,” he said. NLS has one student attending STARRS Academy. While it’s a good option for people who have a need, Adams doesn’t see it becoming a future trend. After more than a year of experiencing distance or hybrid learning, “mostly there’s a yearning to be in person, with their classmates,” he said. Even students who would rather stay home are probably aided by returning to in-person school when possible. You may contact the author at lvanderwerf@wctrib.com.

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School bonding projects bring flurry of economic activity to communities BY LINDA VANDERWERF West Central Tribune

Since 2015, voters in west central Minnesota have approved more than $230 million in school construction projects. New buildings, additions and remodeling are under construction or have been finished in the Willmar, New London-Spicer, Litchfield, MACCRAY, Paynesville Area, Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City and other districts. The projects have brought with them economic activity during construction, and should have long-term effects on the school districts and their communities.

Patronizing businesses throughout the district

The final side panel was set in place Aug. 2 for the three-station gymnasium under construction for the MACCRAY schools in Clara City. Contributed

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One such project is under construction in Clara City for MACCRAY Public Schools. The district is building a preK-5 elementary school on the high school campus in Clara City. The existing secondary school will get an auditorium, two new gyms and a career technology center. It will be remodeled to develop a middle school for grades 6-8. Chad Forkrud, president of Citizens Alliance Bank of Clara City, said the MACCRAY project has generated lots of activity in Clara City since it started.


Sherri Broderius

Janell Bullard

Superintendent, MACCRAY Schools

Superintendent, Paynesville Area Schools

Aaron Backman

Ken Warner

Executive Director, Willmar/Kandiyohi County Economic Development

“It brings traffic to town,” he said. “I would say a new school is good for all the towns.” MACCRAY, a consolidation of the former Maynard, Clara City and Raymond schools, will close older elementary schools in Maynard and Raymond when the project is complete. MACCRAY Superintendent Sherri Broderius said people working on the project have patronized businesses throughout the district, not just in Clara City. “I hear a lot about great meals being eaten,” she said. One worker rented an apartment in one of the communities for the duration of the project. In August, a foreman spent the weekend in the area, attending the Maynard Rodeo and the Raymond Harvest Festival, she said. She doesn’t have a way to

President, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce

gauge the financial impact, she said, “but when I see them in town doing business, I’m happy.” Broderius said local companies have done subcontracting on the project, and some companies have employees who live in the district. Appliances for the school’s family and consumer sciences classroom kitchen were ordered from Sweep Hardware in Clara City. Broderius said she enjoyed introducing an electrical foreman, a MACCRAY graduate, to the staff the first day they were back. The project has provided a chance for students to learn about potential careers, too. A girl interested in being an architect and a boy interested in welding were able to jobshadow professionals working on the building. The pros spent time with the students,

Contributed MACCRAY senior Noah Strassberg, right, listens to welders from Spartan Steel of St. Bonifacius explain their work. Noah, who is interested in becoming a welder, was able to do a job shadow at the school construction site in Clara City in August.

Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune A sign in the hallway outside the revamped career and technical education classrooms at Paynesville Area Schools during an open house Aug. 12.

answering questions and letting them observe. The long-term impact for the community will be big, Broderius said. With more gym space, the school will be able to host sports tournaments. “We’ll have enough space so our families don’t always have to drive,” she said. The school will have an

auditorium, and “we’re hoping that brings everybody together to enjoy concerts, Veterans Day programs, plays.” Students will be able to perform on a stage instead of a gym floor, “to be able to have the right acoustics, quality microphones, so people can hear what the kids are doing,” she said.

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Paynesville High School Principal Dave Oehrlein speaks with Harland and Kristi Leusink of Paynesville in the updated career and technical education area during an open house in August to celebrate the completion of a construction and remodeling project at the school. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Forward-thinking vision for future students, residents Paynesville Area Schools opened a remodeling and expansion project at the beginning of the school year. Superintendent Janell Bullard, who joined the district last summer, said she couldn’t take credit for the project. However, she appreciates “the forward-thinking vision, and I know it can meet the needs of the community in the future and right now.” The project includes a community center, which gives the school and the community more room for athletic tournaments and community events. There’s a new wrestling room, a walking track and an expanded fitness center with some on-demand space for the public. An updated career and technical education area integrates current technology in welding, carpentry and automotive areas. The school has a room equipped for teaching a

certified nursing assistant course. A coffee shop will be run by students, who will staff the shop, order supplies and fill orders. “It gives kids the opportunity to understand marketing and the finance of business,” Bullard said. Work on indoor air quality will continue this year at Paynesville Area Elementary School.

Investments now pay dividends down the road Investments in schools can pay dividends for a school district and the community, said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Willmar/ Kandiyohi County Economic Development. If local contractors are involved in the work, the money they and their employees are paid circulates several times throughout the community. “I pass by Lakeland Elementary every day, and I think to myself how fortunate we are to have a brand-new

22 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

facility like that,” he said. Lakeland opened several years ago, the major project in Willmar’s $53 million building program approved in 2015. The project developers he works with don’t have that many questions about schools and community amenities, he said, but the employees a new business can bring to town are very interested in schools, medical facilities and basic community services. “When we’re out trying to recruit businesses, one of the first questions is ‘how is your school system,’ ... most people want to see new and improved,” said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s always a positive sign for a community when they see action, construction going on,” Warner said. “Even if it’s remodeling, it’s progress.” You may contact the author at lvanderwerf@wctrib.com.


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Constructed prior to the pandemic, Benson’s performing arts center was designed for the future with its multi-camera streaming system. With this already installed, there were only minor adjustments needed to stream its events. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune

Performing arts centers built with more than just students in mind BY TIM SPEIER West Central Tribune

As more and more people look to leave their houses, the Benson and New London-Spicer communities hope to bring those who are eager for entertainment into their performing arts centers. After both school districts found themselves without a sustainable way for their students to perform or for their districts to host events, they proposed buildings that would not only suit the needs of their students but also the needs of their communities. The New London-Spicer School District, not having an auditorium at the school, was using its gym and a community theater, the Little Theatre in New London,

for performances and gatherings. In 1993, the idea of building a performing arts center was conceived. Although it took some time and a few changes to the proposals, the center was completed and first used during the 20172018 school year. In 2017, the Benson School District found itself in limbo, needing to make a choice after the auditorium roof collapsed — whether to repair the outdated auditorium or build a new one. Benson Superintendent Dennis Laumeyer spoke about how the 1928-vintage auditorium lacked many of the essentials the district wanted for its

24 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

students and the community. “There was a need for the school to have something,” said Laumeyer, “but it was definitely community-driven, and community-supported.” Both districts heard from and worked with their communities to not only provide a space that students would be proud to perform on, but also one that could be utilized by the community. The New London-Spicer Performing Arts Center has hosted community meetings, banquets and political roundtables, said Paula Prill, the facility manager and an NLS teacher. “Our rental rates are very, very


The performance of “Cyclops” the puppet show was created by Steve Ackermann as the artist in residence at the New London Little Theatre in 2021. Tim Speier West Central Tribune

reasonable,” said Prill, “which is intentional to cater to the community.” Laumeyer said Benson, besides the proms, concerts and graduations that you would expect to see in a high school, has hosted a local company’s shareholders meeting. The county also uses the space for training. NLS has also offered its lobby area for smaller gatherings. “In addition to the inside auditorium, where there’s all the seats, there’s a lobby area that can accommodate

about 100 people,” Prill said.” So we’ve had a lot of art showings there.” Each facility is able to seat well over 600 people. “We’re looking at putting together packages each year and then people can buy memberships and things like that,” Laumeyer said. “So we have a performing arts center advisory group that’s working with our (performing arts center) manager and our community (education) director to help with who should come in, and what

ideas they have, and who do people want to see.” Although both facilities are connected to and funded by the school districts, they were designed to provide a space for the community as well as being there for the students well into the future. “We were real conscious about making sure the community understood that this performing arts center was not just for kids at school,” Prill said. “It was for the entire community.”

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The performance of “Cyclops,” the puppet show, was created by Steve Ackermann as the artist in residence at the New London Little Theatre in 2021. Contributed / New London Little Auditorium

Building community, bringing people together through art BY SHELBY LINDRUD West Central Tribune

Art is valuable, though that value can sometimes be hard to quantify. While it definitely has monetary worth, it can also be used to bring a community together or help reinvigorate it. Many communities in southwestern Minnesota have started to believe in this value of art and have engaged in art projects and programs to create community togetherness and civic engagement. “I know how hard it is to measure the impact of public art. It is insanely hard to measure connectivity, but that is what we

are doing,” said Bethany Lacktorin, artistic director of the New London Little Theatre. “We are trying to connect people.” For a month in late summer, New London played host to an artist in residence through the Small Stage Artist in Residency program. A puppet artist, Steve Ackerman of Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis, brought a puppet show to town. But it wasn’t just Ackerman who made the show a success. From the very beginning the community was involved.

26 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

They helped choose the artist, they helped prepare the theater, they hosted Ackerman in their homes and they helped create the pieces for the show. “It brings people together that normally wouldn’t be together solving problems,” Lacktorin said. Granite Falls also opened itself to an artist in residence. But, instead of an artist coming in for a short period of time for a single project, a year-long program was created to look at how art could be used as a way to engage the community.


Dani Prados, the first Granite Falls community artist in residence, said the community quickly took ownership and pride in the crosswalk creations now decorating the streets. Contributed / Dani Prados

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune A new mural in Willmar, funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield, is an illustration of the city’s Welcoming Resolution. It is an example of how the city continues to make public art a central part to downtown Willmar’s revitalization.

“This program was designed as an experiment,” said Dani Prados, the first Granite Falls community artist in residence, “to explore the value of using arts and creative processes to increase civic engagement and community inclusivity.” For the past year Prados has been working with the residents of Granite

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was a massive, community-wide project; we did this thing together.” In mid-September, the first-ever Squid Fest art festival was held. It was one of the largest of the artist-in-residency projects Prados helped create. “It has become what we imagined it could be. It has become a huge community project,” Prados said.

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Sarah Swedburg

Dani Prados

Former Willmar Main Street Coordinator

Granite Falls Community Artist in Residence

Steve Ackerman

Bethany Lacktorin

Small Stages Artist in Residence at the New London Little Theatre

New London Little Theatre Artistic Director

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune A tree along Fourth Street Southwest in downtown Willmar was decorated with a covering made from knitted yarn as a part of the public art project, Rainbow Trees of Willmar. The project was funded by Artists on Main Street.

28 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

The festival, and the residency program in general, wasn’t just about traditional art, like a mural on a wall or a show at a theater. Prados wanted to show the community that anything can be considered art and anyone could be an artist. “Art is not some big scary or intimidating painting on a gallery wall, but anything you put time and passion into is art,” Prados said. “We are all artists in different ways. Whether that is raising children, growing tomatoes or quilting or painting or community volunteerism.” Willmar participated in the Artists on Main Street program, which brought in funding and expertise to help the city use art to help reimagine its downtown area. “It was a unique strategy to allow us to experiment on what tapping into our creative people power meant,” said Sarah Swedburg, former Willmar Main Street coordinator. “It was a great opportunity for us to do something that was really visible.” Over three years, Willmar and its community members created various public art projects, including photography exhibitions, yarn bombing, painting activities and even a sewing group. “It is a great reminder and a great experiment, that small-scale things can have such a big impact for those who participate,” Swedberg said. Even with the Artists on Main Street program coming to a close, Willmar continues to work on ways to keep art an important part of any reinvention of downtown Willmar. Other organizations have already come forward with funds for public art projects, such as Blue Cross Blue

Shield, which provided the money for the Welcoming Resolution mural and sculpture in downtown. “There is so much potential,” Swedburg said. The organizers and communities that created and participated in these art projects hope the impacts are felt for years to come. “We get to exercise that creative collaboration,” Lacktorin said. “With the way the world is, I think we need more exercises like that, so we can get better at it. Bringing people together to make public art is the safest, easiest, most fun way I can think of doing that.” Art can be a shared experience between all people, no matter their backgrounds, politics or cultures. “Art is one of those ways we can meet each other and discover each other as human beings before falling into these notions of us versus them,” Prados said. Art can also help bridge the gap between rural and urban areas. Lacktorin said those who came to New London for the residency program left with a new way of thinking about greater Minnesota. They learned art can be done in this area and it can be successful. “Doing that kind of exchange helps break down those assumptions,” Lacktorin said. Even if the art created isn’t permanent, its creation brought people together and its completion made memories. At its most simple, that is what the impact of public art can be. “It comes down to making memories, it is that simple,” Lacktorin said. “That is the point of public art, to create those landmarks in time.” You may contact the author at slindrud@wctrib.com.


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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Jenna Bjerke and Josh Olson are co-managers of Lucky Duck, which opened this summer in New London in the former Mill Pond Mercantile building. The store is filled with games, puzzles, toys, books, hand-dipped ice cream and other treats and is quickly becoming a retail tourist destination. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Lucky Duck lands in the city on the pond Retail tourism is an asset to small towns like New London BY CAROLYN LANGE West Central Tribune

NEW LONDON — For a town known as “the city on the pond,” it’s only appropriate that a business called Lucky Duck landed in New London. Located in the former Mill Pond Mercantile building in downtown New London, the 7,500-square-foot Lucky Duck is filled floor to ceiling with shelves of games, toys, puzzles, books and opportunities for hands-on play. There’s also hand-dipped ice cream, popcorn and old-fashioned sweet treats in the twostory toy store with a mission of fun. “We want it to be not just a place where

you go to shop,” said Josh Olson, who manages the store along with his partner, Jenna Bjerke. “It’s more of an experience.” The store, which opened in June, is quickly becoming a retail shopping destination drawing people from all over the region. “It’s about coming in and having fun,” said Olson, emphasizing that the store carries “at least one item” that appeals to people ages “1 to 99.” Lucky Duck, owned by Goose Group Inc., is modeled after a store called Goose Gang, located in Perham where the

30 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

owners also operate a gift shop called Wild Goose and a kitchen and coffee shop called Nest. When the Mill Pond Mercantile closed, Goose Group purchased the building and began taking down walls, opening up the basement and creating splashes of color in the well-lit, spacious building. Using market research and past success at their Perham stores, the owners filled the shelves at Lucky Duck with new and nostalgic board games, well-built toys like Brio and Playmobil, adult and children’s puzzles, outdoor games — including a


selection of American Ninja Warrior equipment — and popular Go Pop! fidget toys that Bjerke said fly off the shelves. The response has been positive “It’s crazy every single day,” said Bjerke. “Seven days a week we are packed full, from open to close.” The store is open seven days a week — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during fall and winter months and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer. “People are knocking on the doors at 10 a.m. when we open,” said Olson. “It’s going very, very well.” They were confident in their market research, “but we didn’t realize it would work out as well as it would,” he said. While a toy store is clearly a place for kids, Bjerke said a lot of their customers are grandparents who say, “Oh my gosh, I had this when I was a kid,” while strolling through the aisles and shelves of games, puzzles and candy. As part of the tourism draw,

Lucky Duck is home to the International Duck Hall of Fame, with such celebrities as Donald Duck and the sassy Aflac duck as the original inductees. As the fall season approaches, the store will be adding Halloween and other festival activities, followed by winter toys, like sleds, snow paint and snowball making gear, before Christmas. They offer free gift wrapping year-round. The store currently has three full-time and four part-time employees. After opening up Lucky Duck, the Goose Group also purchased the Happy Sol business and building next door and are also operating that popular, high-end clothing store. Olson and Bjerke said the company is excited to be an active part of the New London community, and has heard from other businesses that they are also doing better since Lucky Duck came to town. You may contact the author at clange@wctrib.com.

Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune The Lucky Duck, which opened this summer in New London, features board games, outdoor games, puzzles, toys, books, hand-dipped ice cream and other treats. Demonstrations and hands-on opportunities to play with the toys and games is making this new store a popular destination shopping location.

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Headliners Big Toe and the Jam perform during the fourth annual Rockin’ Robbins event in July 2019 at Robbins Island Park in Willmar. Erica Dischino West Central Tribune

Rockin’ the island: From hopes and dreams to paving the way BY TIM SPEIER West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Two years before Rockin’ Robbins became a reality, a group of friends from the two Rotary clubs in Willmar would travel to St. Cloud for Summertime by George, a summer concert series put on by the St. Cloud Rotary Club. Joy Baker, the Willmar Rotary Club marketing coordinator for Rockin’ Robbins, said they were inspired by the success of that event and reached out to the St. Cloud Rotary Club to see if its

success could be replicated in Willmar. “The Rotary Club came up with the idea of doing this back in 2014,” Baker said. “We had been going up, several of us, and enjoying the Summertime by George free concert series up in St. Cloud and that is also put on by their local Rotary Club. So we asked them for some advice on starting our own music series, similar to what they were doing. They were really gracious about sharing and helping and getting ours

34 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

going. They came down and attended our first ones. It was just a great collaboration.” After almost two years of planning and scheduling, the Rockin’ Robbins inaugural season kicked off with two outdoor concerts in 2016. Knowing it was only the first season, the Rotary was hoping to at least raise enough money to cover the bills. They broke even and then some, raising more than $20,000.


A bouncy house was available for children at the first Rockin’ Robbins concert of the 2021 season July 13 at Robbins Island Regional Park in Willmar. Lots of activities were available for children and their families. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Above: Rockin’ Robbins has been raising money to fund improvements at Robbins Island Regional Park since 2016. These photos show the new and improved entrance to Robbins Island, left, as photographed in 2021, and its former incarnation, as photographed in 2017. Tim Speier and Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune Right: Jim Houghton, lead designer for Leather’s Associates, introduces his playground sketch to the crowd at Rockin’ Robbins in 2016. Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune

Funding improvements with concert series proceeds That year, the Rotary donated the funds to the massive community fundraising effort for the construction of the new Willmar Destination Playground on Robbins Island. After their success in 2016 and with a change in the organization’s bylaws by their governing body, the Willmar Rotary Club and the Willmar Lakes Rotary Club decided to merge, becoming the Willmar Rotary Club in July 2017. “We had so much fun working on this together — it was a joint project by both clubs — that we decided to just merge and (become) one club,” Baker said. “So

that is what we did. And that was pretty momentous for us.” That same year, Rockin’ Robbins went from having two concerts to four, raising more than $38,000 for improvements to Robbins Island Regional Park. In 2018, the Rockin’ Robbins concert series had one of its best years, raising more than $74,000. Over those two years, the Rotary funded a new entrance that included a lighted welcome sign, flagpole, tree plantings and a landscaped entrance to the park. Also in 2018, it helped sponsor the new holiday light display at Robbins

Island and continues to keep up with the growing Christmas light displays. “So this year, we donated $20,000 to the veteran Flags of Honor Memorial project,” Baker said. “And so all told, we have donated about $78,000 of our proceeds so far.” Over six years of operation, the Rockin’ Robbins concert series has raised around $301,000. Baker said the Rotary is starting to plan its biggest fundraising project to date: “Building a permanent concert stage out at the island.”

WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021 | 35


Connie Lies, Larry Ackerman and Darlene Kotelnicki, members of the Litchfield Downtown Council, stand by the vintage clock the group raised money to install on Sibley Avenue. It was the group’s first project. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

A walk down Main Street: Keeping the heart of the community vibrant BY SHELBY LINDRUD West Central Tribune

For decades, a city’s downtown or Main Street was usually its retail and commercial center. It wasn’t uncommon for even small towns to have a couple of grocery stores, clothing retailers and several restaurants. However, over the last three to four decades, as malls and big box stores have replaced the mom and pop businesses for many of life’s necessities, these same cities are having to imagine a new future for those downtown hubs.

Three regional cities are focusing on just that. They are finding new and inventive ways to reimagine, reinvigorate and restore their downtowns and Main Streets, so they once more will be the heart of life for the community.

Boosting a Willmar renaissance It is not that Willmar’s downtown is empty. Far from it. Downtown is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city, and is also home to some of Willmar’s most

36 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

treasured institutions and businesses. “Willmar is unique, we don’t have just a Main Street,” said David Ramstad, former Willmar Planning and Development director. “We have a 12-block downtown area. It is actually a place.” However, it is also the poorest census tract in Willmar and has seen very little in terms of new development over the past few decades as retail stores moved to other commercial areas, such as First Street South.


“(Downtowns) need to be repositioned and to become something else, in order to become vibrant again,” Ramstad said. “They are not going to be the active, fun, people places they once were unless they are reimagined.” In an effort to give the downtown a boost, the Willmar Planning and Development department, with approval from the Willmar Planning Commission and City Council, created the Willmar Renaissance Zone. “We are trying to make it so downtown no longer competes with First Street. That it is repositioned as an entertainment and neighborhood district,” Ramstad said. The zone offers developers a range of monetary incentives to create projects within it, including free city-owned land parcels, city permits and sewer and water connections, reduced utilities connection fees, potential grants for facade renovations and tax increment financing or tax abatement for eligible projects. “We prefer housing, with retail down below and parking,” Ramstad said. “What that is going to do, we hope, is to put 10% of Willmar’s population downtown.” The Renaissance Zone has already seen some success. Lumber One Development is planning on building a

54-unit apartment complex with parking downtown, the first Renaissance Zone project. The market-rate complex will offer residents a bit of urban living in a small town. Increasing the number of residents living downtown could mean an increase in patronage to the district’s restaurants, shops and other businesses. It could also entice other businesses to open within that 12-block section. “It will reposition downtown as this neighborhood and entertainment place where people live and have fun,” Ramstad said. “That is a unique thing for a small town like Willmar.” There has also been a push to focus more on downtown’s cultural gifts. In an effort to do so, Willmar joined the national Main Street America program. “A lot of the conversations we have had is this idea of how you convert downtown into a cultural destination,” said Willard Huyck, Willmar Main Street coordinator. Huyck wants to bring more people downtown to try the ethnic restaurants, to take in a show at the Barn Theatre and partake in the events and celebrations that take place downtown. “We look forward to making downtown a common, shared and vibrant space that

celebrates and invests in Willmar and all of its communities,” Huyck said.

Revitalizing Olivia’s city center Like Willmar, Olivia is also a Main Street city. It is also looking for ways to revitalize its city center, which over the last many years has lost much of its retail business. Recently, the city saw its two independent pharmacies, hardware store and coffee shop close their doors. The hope is that being a Main Street city will help find ways to reimagine what downtown Olivia could be. “We are definitely starting slow, slow kind of by design,” said Susie Lang, Olivia Economic Development Authority director and Main Street coordinator. “It takes a while to turn a ship.” Lang said currently she is trying to create activities downtown that are inviting and cause people to linger in the area “to change the tone a little bit.” So far, there has been some success in bringing people downtown. One event that has been successful is the Third Thursday in Olivia, a farmer and vendor market. The area is also used for the annual Corn Capital Days summer festival and Holidaze, which ushers in the holiday season.

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Dr. David Ramstad Former Willmar Planning and Development Director

Susie Lang

Olivia Main Street Coordinator and Olivia EDA Director

On the EDA side of things, Lang has been putting together a database on the available space, the costs of rents and the number and types of business that still do call downtown Olivia home. While downtown can look sort of dark and quiet, Lang said most of the buildings in the area do have businesses within them. Many of them are service-related, such as salons or lawyer’s offices. “There are opportunities here,” Lang said. Lang is also preparing to be of assistance to those existing businesses, “just making sure businesses know who to call,” as major street work will tear up DePue Avenue and a sidewalk on Ninth Street next year. Despite the gradual improvements to Olivia’s downtown area, Lang continues to be optimistic that even better things are on the horizon. New businesses are in the works, while others are being taken over by new owners. Community support is strong in Olivia, and Lang feels that will only help more as the downtown area enters into a new era. “People in this town are like die-hard Olivians. They are going to fight for their town,” Lang said. “Times are changing.”

Defending Litchfield’s historic facade

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune Top: Third Thursdays in Olivia bring a farmers market and vendors to 9th Street South in downtown Olivia. It is an opportunity to bring people downtown. Above: Willmar Main Street hopes to turn downtown Willmar into the center of the cultural life of Willmar. International restaurants and grocery stores, along with the Barn Theatre, are already assisting with that goal.

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The city of Litchfield’s commercial historic district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for 25 years, but it wasn’t until the push to save the old Opera House happened in 2007-2008 that community members really got behind defending the city’s historic facade from the ravages of time and a changing world. Two organizations have led the charge: the Litchfield Heritage

Preservation Commission and the Litchfield Downtown Council. The Litchfield Heritage Preservation Commission was formed by City Council ordinance in 2008, spurred by the success of the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association buying and saving the historic opera house. “Our purpose is to educate, promote and protect our historic resources,” said Darlene Kotelnicki, Litchfield City Council member and member of the Preservation Commission. One of the commission’s duties is to review renovation plans for the city’s historic buildings, to encourage the owners to protect and preserve the historic character of those structures. “Things have really progressed, and people have embraced the historic part,” said Connie Lies, a former council member and Preservation Commission member. The Litchfield Downtown Council Inc. started working in 2020 raising money for downtown improvements, sponsoring events and helping continue the successful downtown business environment. A restored antique jewelry clock, now proudly installed in front of Mimi’s Cafe on Sibley Avenue, was the group’s first major fundraiser. “We used it as our logo and our slogan is ‘Time to enjoy downtown Litchfield,’” said Kotelnicki. This year the group is working on getting nine benches installed along Sibley Avenue. “They are all going to be made locally,” Kotelnicki said. Events the group has sponsored include a weekly Music in Central Park during the summer,


Sibley Avenue in Litchfield is home to many historical buildings. The Heritage Preservation Commission and the Downtown Council are both working to preserve the buildings while helping existing and new businesses succeed. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Thriving Thursdays and the Downtown Cowtown fundraiser for area nonprofits. Upcoming events include Harvest Madness, Victorian Christmas and the annual Christmas Gala. The goal of these events is to bring people from not only Litchfield but the entire region into the community. The work both organizations have put into downtown Litchfield has helped the city weather the changes many downtowns and Main Streets have faced,

such as changing retail habits and aging buildings. “It all goes hand in hand. If you don’t have the infrastructure to support the downtown and you don’t have the downtown to support the infrastructure, you don’t have a city anymore,” Lies said. Larry Ackerman, owner of longtime Litchfield business Larry’s Barber and now member of the Downtown Council, has been impressed with the work the council has done.

“Things are set up, ready to go, things get done. It is a marvel,” Ackerman said. The Downtown Council is still working on its projects and events for 2022, but members are excited for the opportunities Litchfield has, thanks to all the work both council members and residents have put in. I he -“Our Litchfield Downtown Council, we MENTOR � !.-, are just getting started,” Kotelnicki said.

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Workers are shown as construction got underway in the spring of 2021 on a new apartment building in Montevideo. Photos by Tom Cherveny West Central Tribune

Housing needs take center stage for economic development The need for housing has emerged as a top priority BY TOM CHERVENY West Central Tribune

BENSON — Early census numbers show Benson’s population grew by over 7% in the last decade. The news came shortly after the community celebrated the opening of the Benson School District’s Performing Arts Center. Job numbers are up at local manufacturing plants, and the school district’s new child care center at the Northside Elementary has put the community in the enviable position of offering child care services not always

available in small towns. The presence of the full-service, Swift County - Benson Hospital and Clinic has helped attract retirees to make the town home. And, investments in broadband have played a similar role in attracting professionals who are working from their homes when their spouses take jobs elsewhere in the community. It’s all part of a forward momentum that recently brought another piece of good news to the Swift County community

40 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

of about 3,400 people. A developer announced plans to work with the city on the eventual development of 26 rental units, part of 13 one-story townhomes. The momentum helped attract the developer’s interest. “People like to be part of growth,” said Hillary Tweed, director of the city’s Economic Development Agency and Housing Authority. But, without a doubt, she said the housing development is only possible


The Thunder Hawks apartments are under construction in Montevideo. The community is working to meet housing needs as it prepares for the addition of 140 new full and part-time jobs with the opening of the new veterans home in 2023.

because of a public-private partnership. The city is working to develop a tax increment financing district to assist in the development costs for the housing project.

Public assistance an essential element Public and private partnerships are the essential element of the housing projects being seen throughout the region, according to Chad Adams, director

of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. The public assistance helps bridge a gap that has been more than a decade in the making between the costs of construction and development and market values in rural communities. “That’s the real problem,” said Dawn Hegland, director of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, of the gap. Communities throughout the five counties served by

the commission have identified housing as among their priorities for growth. Their strategies focus on bridging that gap. Housing has become a “key” aspect of economic development, said Adams. “Crucial,” said Aaron Backman, director of the Kandiyohi County and city of Willmar Economic Development Commission. Like Benson to the west, Willmar and communities in Kandiyohi County are also taking advantage of economic growth and focusing on housing

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Aaron Backman, executive director, Willmar/ Kandiyohi County Economic Development

Jordan Zeller, economic development director, Renville County

development. He can cite a variety of examples, especially in Willmar, where publicprivate partnerships such as the 15th Street Flats are aimed at meeting housing needs. Willmar is one of the very communities that has been able to develop a Renaissance Zone on top of an existing federal Opportunity Zone to make possible local incentives for housing development, he said. Backman said that he hears directly from employers in the area about the need for housing. It’s becoming an increasingly important issue as they attempt to recruit workers, he said. Of course, he’s also wellaware of the angst that those who are looking for housing experience. He said the West Central Realtors Association reported that the number of homes for sale in Kandiyohi County during July totaled

100, as compared to 184 for the month one year earlier. New London saw its inventory of available homes drop from 30 homes on the market in July of 2020 to just eight in July of 2021.

Answering the call to fill housing gap Renville County has an aging population and census figures showed an overall population decline. Yet, the housing gap remains one of the most pressing economic development issues there as well, according to Jordan Zeller, economic development director for the county. When the county held a job fair in August, the need for housing was easily the most discussed topic, he said. “What we’re hearing from employers is ‘can you find places for employees to live?’” said Zeller. The county has developed

42 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

its own housing gap program to help answer the plea. Like other rural counties, there are a large number of older homes in the county, and a share of them are at a point where rehabilitation is needed. Zeller said the county is looking at ways to offer down-payment assistance to those willing to buy and rehabilitate the older housing stock. Taking advantage of the older housing stock is increasingly important in a period of inflationary costs for building materials, he said. Backman and others emphasized that it is a wide diversity of housing that is needed: That is, everything from rental units for single persons entering the labor market to single-family homes and maintenance-free homes for retirees. Granite Falls recently obtained state grant funds to help jumpstart the market by building new homes.

Construction is underway in Montevideo on the Thunder Hawk Apartments as part of a public and private partnership to meet rental housing needs. The city is expecting to see 140 new full- and part-time jobs with the opening of a 72-bed nursing facility for veterans in 2023. Willmar has seen its population surpass 21,000 as employers continue to add jobs. The community is one of 15 rural regional centers to see growth in the last 10 years. Of those 15, only four had bigger increases than Willmar, said Backman. “We’ve been doing some good things here,” he said. Continuing to do what it takes to meet the housing needs of the area will be critical to keep the momentum going, he added. You may contact the author at tcherveny@wctrib.com.


A vision of four lanes from one corner of the state to the other BY SHELBY LINDRUD West Central Tribune

The Highway 23 Coalition has a vision of a fourlane corridor from the far southwest corner of the state near Luverne all the way up to Hinckley, just before drivers reach the popular North Shore. It is a vision that will require a lot of time, effort and money to make a reality, but it is a job the coalition seems willing to take on. “We want the whole corridor, and we are not going to stop until we get it,” said Donna Boonstra, coalition chair.

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Transportation Construction will begin on the north gap of Highway 23 in spring 2022, while the south gap will follow in 2023. Work should be completed in 2024. Contributed / Minnesota Department of Transportation

In Minnesota, there isn’t a complete four-lane highway going from the far southwest to the northeast. The coalition feels creating such a throughfare would mean not only economic opportunities for all the communities and businesses along Highway 23, but also safer travel for all who use it. It would be more efficient, safer and shorter for truckers to take four lanes on Highway 23 than to have to travel through the Twin Cities. Boonstra said truckers could save about 54 miles, or an hour of travel, by using Highway 23. “I don’t know if you can even put a value on it,” Boonstra said. The coalition, in its current iteration, was formed in the fall of 2017. Its main goal was to expand Highway 23 to a fourlane highway from Willmar to St. Cloud. That requires two gaps to be upgraded from two to four lanes. The north gap is a nine-mile stretch between Paynesville and Richmond, while the south gap is a shorter distance of seven miles between New London and Paynesville. To fund the projects, which are estimated to cost more than $100 million, the coalition sought to secure funding through the Corridors of Commerce program. “Right away we got to work and applied,” Boonstra said. While the coalition felt Highway 23 was a perfect fit for such funding, in the end the outcome was not positive. “We were not awarded that money,” Boonstra said. That wasn’t the end, and only in

Minnesota would a road project secure funding on a fishing boat. Then-Minnesota Gov, Mark Dayton was in the Willmar Lakes Area for the 2018 Governor’s Fishing Opener. While on Green Lake fishing for walleye, Dayton’s guide Kelly Morrell talked to Dayton — as well as then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — about the Highway 23 project and told the story of a 11-year old boy who had recently died in a car accident on one of the two-lane stretches. By the time Dayton was back on dry land, Morrell had secured a pledge from the governor to fund the two gap projects. The pledge eventually became law when the Highway 23 gaps received Corridors of Commerce funding, now totaling $101.5 million, according to an update from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “It was so good,” Boonstra said. Bid letting for the north gap project is set to be done in November of this year, with construction beginning next spring. The project should be completed in 2023, according to project information from MnDOT. The south gap project will be constructed starting in spring 2023 and finished in 2024. “We will be exhilarated, we really will,” when the projects are completed, Boonstra said. Now that the gap projects are secure, the coalition is turning its attention to the next steps. This includes increasing

44 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

membership in the coalition, prioritizing next projects and finding funding to continue improving the highway. “Our focus is entirely to figure out the funding for MnDOT to make that fourlane happen,” Boonstra said. “There are so many sources of funding that you have to apply for and hope to get.” Future projects could include a traffic study for the section of highway between Foley and Milaca in hopes of making that a four-lane section. “There have been so many tragic accidents in that section of Highway 23,” Boonstra said. Boonstra feels that the success of the gap projects could help get even more communities, especially those on the northern half of the highway, interested in joining the coalition. The more members there are, the stronger a force the coalition could be when lobbying for improvements. “Once these two gaps get done in 2024, then our momentum is going to go guns blazing,” Boonstra said. Closer to home, Boonstra and the coalition feel the impacts of the improved Highway 23 will be nothing but positive, helping the area grow into even more of a regional center. “It will improve Kandiyohi County’s economic development,” Boonstra said. “You are just going to see it; it is just going to evolve.” You may contact the author at slindrud@wctrib.com.


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Located on 11 acres of woodlands near New London, the $21 million Bethesda North Pointe senior living community has 70 apartments, with half of the units designated as independent senior living and the other half for advance care and memory care. Photos by Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Bethesda opens New London location just in time to celebrate 125 years in operation BY CAROLYN LANGE West Central Tribune

NEW LONDON — Set among rolling hills covered in prairie grass and oak trees, Bethesda North Pointe, in rural New London, is the newest senior living community in Kandiyohi County. Construction of the $21 million project began in the fall of 2019 and the facility is set to begin welcoming new residents this fall — just as Bethesda launches its yearlong 125th anniversary celebration. Founded in 1897, Bethesda operates its flagship, multi-faceted senior care facility complex in Willmar, as well as an assisted living facility in Olivia. Plans to build Bethesda North Pointe began about five years ago when market analysis revealed that residents in this

region were looking for senior living options closer to home, said Michelle Haefner, CEO at Bethesda. She said they saw “a trend in the zip codes” of people being served on the Willmar Bethesda campus that indicated many were from northern Kandiyohi County, which revealed a need for services here. If people have a choice, they want to live in their home community, she said. Haefner said opening up a “brand-new building” that features a “future-thinking design” that can adapt to the emerging needs of an aging population is the perfect way to kick off the organization’s 125th year.

46 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021

She said the goal of Bethesda North Pointe is to “transform the way we look at aging in our community” and provide options in Kandiyohi County for the “highest quality of care” that helps people live well in their senior years with opportunities for social interaction and active living.

Outdoor setting Tucked in the 11-acre bucolic landscape between New London and Spicer with views of prairie and trees and room to expand for future growth, the lodge-style architecture of the 100,915-square-foot facility was designed to reflect the setting, Haefner said.


The view from practically every window, balcony, door and rooftop gathering decks at Bethesda North Pointe overlooks woods, hills and grasslands.

Michelle Haefner

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“We were looking for something that had a beautiful landscape and outdoor spaces for people to enjoy,” Haefner said, reflecting on the search for property to build Bethesda North Pointe. Outdoor space is important for their “model of care” and this site, she said. Located just down the road from the Carris Health New London Clinic, close to the Little Crow Golf Course and in between New London and Spicer on a quiet road just off of state Highway 23, the property “checked off many of the boxes,” Haefner said.

“It’s just a serene environment,” Haefner said, with plenty of green space and a “lodgy, outdoorsy-type atmosphere.” With large exposed beams in the vaulted, two-story entrance, a floor-toceiling rock fireplace, a rooftop lounge and club lounge for cocktail hour, football games and other group gatherings, Bethesda North Pointe looks like it could be a north country resort. It also features a chapel, Brothers Cafe, intergenerational play spaces, dining services, library, workshops, salon, activity center, spa,

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Levels of care

Top: Club Bethesda is equipped with a variety of exercise equipment. It’s expected that by the end of 2022 an indoor pickleball court and therapy swimming pool will be added to the wellness center. Above: The view from practically every window, balcony, door and rooftop gathering decks at Bethesda North Pointe overlooks woods, hills and grasslands.

other services available, will give Bethesda North Pointe a full range of amenities designed to meet the needs of this “senior lifestyle community,” said Haefner. The design of the building, along with a state-ofthe-art model of care, is meant to provide “purposeful living” for seniors to be as independent as long as possible, she said.

Knowing that the demographics of the country includes a growing elderly population, Haefner said communities “need to prepare for the future.” But she said it shouldn’t be just for the sake of growth, but to meet the new “needs and desires” of this generation that differs from past generations.

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Half of the apartments in the 70-unit Bethesda North Pointe are classified as independent-living and assisted-living residences. There are 18 advanced care assisted-living residences and 18 memory care assisted-living units. Haefner said the “generously sized” apartments range in size from a studio to two bedrooms/two baths with a kitchen and living room. Most apartments have access to private outdoor space, like a patio or secondfloor balcony. There is a large, heated underground parking area available for residents and the one-way, in-and-out traffic pattern will make it easy for family members to pick up residents during inclement weather. The different types of care options — including full dining, nursing, personal care, recreation schedules, wellness programming, personal training and transportation — are designed to meet a variety of needs of residents. “The goal is to stay in this community as their needs change,” said Haefner, and as those needs change, so will the services. A variety of room-size options can allow couples to stay together, even if the health needs of one person changes, or one spouse can live in a secure memory unit with their partner living in a small studio apartment nearby. While a variety of services are available, it should be noted that Bethesda North Pointe is not a traditional skilled nursing facility.

Economics of senior care The response to Bethesda North Pointe was quick and positive and, after just one month of construction, the 34 independent and assisted independent living units

were already reserved. “It really helped us see there was a need and that people were excited about it,” said Haefner. There are still openings for the advanced and memory care units, but Haefner said but those types of apartments are typically not requested until there is an immediate need. She said the overall occupancy so early in the project was “more than what we expected.” That response gives Haefner confidence that the economics of Bethesda North Pointe will “fall into place.” It’s expected that North Pointe will have about 55 full-time-equivalent employees, ranging from managers, nursing and culinary staff, and personal care providers to maintenance and housekeeping staff, chaplain and wellness, activities and recreation leaders. The project represents a “strong commitment to the area, a major capital investment on the part of Bethesda, and I think Bethesda has a strong story to tell,” said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, who said there continues to be a “strong demand for more housing for seniors.” People interested in learning more about Bethesda North Pointe should call the welcome center at 320-214-5643. Meanwhile, at the Bethesda Willmar campus, work is concluding on a three-phase, $5 million improvement project that began in 2017 and includes a new chapel, town center, cafe and children’s play area. The final stage of updating the residential neighborhoods will be done by the end of 2022. You may contact the author at clange@wctrib.com.


A traditional groundbreaking photography opportunity was held Aug. 23, following a ceremony and presentations at the groundbreaking for the 72-bed veterans nursing home in Montevideo. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

MONTEVIDEO — After breaking ground in August, construction is underway on a $52.8 million, 72-bed state veterans nursing home facility in Montevideo. Located on a 13.5-acre site on the city’s east side, the 95,000-square-foot skilled nursing facility has been years in the planning stages and is one of three new state veterans nursing homes being built in Minnesota. The Montevideo home is the largest of the three, in part because of a unique community center that was funded in part from local contributions. Knutson Construction will oversee the

Montevideo veterans nursing home under construction West Central Tribune

project, which is estimated to take about 18 months to complete. The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin recruiting for the nearly 140 partand full-time jobs the facility will create. Staff will be state employees and paid on state wage scales, ranging from more than $15 an hour for certified nursing assistants and housekeeping and up to $130,000 annually for the top administrative position. The need for a nursing home to serve veterans in this region was identified by a group of local residents in 2007. It took 14 years of work by the community

to win state and federal support. The state Legislature approved $12.4 million in funding in 2018, and the federal government allocated $34.3 million this year. Montevideo raised $5 million in private funds for the project. Footings for the facility are expected to be in place in January and the building’s exterior erected by May 2022. The facility should be substantially completed in May 2023 and turned over to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs in July 2023. You may contact the West Central Tribune at news@wctrib.com

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Talking Waters opened its downtown taproom in Montevideo five years ago. It has been attracting new visitors to the downtown ever since. From left are the founding partners, Nick Patton, John Skoglund and Phil Zachman. Talking Waters

Talking Waters marches onward Demand for quality craft beer stretches beyond western Minnesota BY TOM CHERVENY West Central Tribune

MONTEVIDEO — Three partners opened Talking Waters Brewing Company in 2016 to meet a need. “All three of us realized there was a lack of good beer in rural, western Minnesota,” said Nick Patton. Five years later, only one thing has changed: The demand for quality craft beer extends beyond the western Minnesota prairie they call home. Partners Phil Zachman, John Skoglund and Patton have seen steady growth in the sales of Talking Waters craft beers from the day they opened their doors in downtown Montevideo in July 2016. They’ve added vats and production capacity to grow from brewing 89 barrels of beer in the first six months of operations to a 700-barrel-a-year pace today.

They opened up with expectations that their downtown taproom would account for 95% of their sales. They’ve since discovered that the demand for their product extends as far as the metropolitan area to the east, and throughout much of western Minnesota. Today, about 50% of their product is sold off-site through restaurants, bars and liquor stores, and the remainder at the taproom. Patton said he would not be surprised to see the ratio of outside-to-taproom sales rise to 60-40, possibly 70-30 in the years ahead. Good beer explains much of the venture’s success. Talking Waters has built a solid reputation in the craft brewing industry for its beers. Along with continuing to brew their favorites, the partners continue to offer new beers on a regular basis.

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Patton and Skoglund both came into this venture as passionate home brewers, and Zachman quickly caught the fever as well. They love to research and experiment. They also credit their success to the rise in craft brewing all around the state, and the willingness of fellow brewers to share information and ideas. “It’s more collaborative than competitive,” said Patton of the craft brewing industry. “It’s like the rising tide lifts all ships,” he explained. Brewers realize the importance of quality, and know the industry will not grow if customers encounter inferior products. Talking Waters’ name is all about Montevideo’s location near Lac qui Parle Lake, which is translated from French as “the lake that speaks.”


Nick Patton mixes the mash on a new beer in the making at Talking Waters. His passion for home brewing helped launch Talking Waters Brewing Company. Talking Waters

The partners chose the name to emphasize their local ties and rural identity. It also speaks to their own appreciation for the outdoor opportunities the rural location provides. Their marketing encourages customers to enjoy outdoor adventures and to let Talking Waters be a part of them. Embracing their rural community was beneficial to the company when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the taproom. Sales of Talking Waters growlers and canned beers took off. “We couldn’t keep the fridge full,” Zachman said. “The people in our community were major supporters,” Patton said. No doubt, the customers came because they love the beers, but it was also evident that they were buying it to support Talking Waters, Zachman said. The surge in counter sales during the pandemic helped build the momentum toward a greater share of outside sales overall, they said. Sales at restaurants, bars and liquor stores elsewhere also represent some of the best advertising the business enjoys, the partners added. Talking Waters has become an

important contributor to the local economy. A staff of nine assist the partners with everything from distribution and marketing to tending the taproom. The taproom’s presence in downtown Montevideo draws traffic. It’s not just local residents discovering what downtown Montevideo has to offer. Drop by on a Saturday, and you will be surprised by how many outof-town visitors are there to enjoy the brews and friendly, taproom environment, they explained. Zachman owns Jake’s Pizza, located adjacent to the taproom. He admits that he was skeptical when Skoglund and Patton approached him about the idea of buying the current Talking Waters building and opening a taproom and brewery in Montevideo. Patton said lots of people told him that a brewery is a great idea, but not in a rural community of 5,000. Today, “people tell us we didn’t think you were going to make it, but we’re glad you did,” Patton said. “I think it happens weekly,” Zachman added. You may contact the author at tcherveny@wctrib.com.

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Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, left, and Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien pose for a photo outside of the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center in Willmar in January 2019. The police and sheriff’s departments work closely together to respond to the Willmar and area communities’ needs. Photos by Erica Dischino West Central Tribune

Conforming to changing standards

Kandiyohi County, Willmar law enforcement institute community-first policing BY MARK WASSON West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Law enforcement around the country has gone through many changes over the last five years and Kandiyohi County is no different. Throughout a particularly turbulent time, both the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office and the Willmar Police Department have sought to engage the public and address their needs while also conforming to changing standards that flow down from laws and mandates enacted by the legislative and executive branches. “I think that, right now, policing is in flux a bit. There is a fair amount of confusion in the messages that seem to trend nationally about police,” Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt wrote in an email. “Some

want less police presence and interaction. Some want more. “Legislatures struggle with things like potential legalization of controlled substances and enforcement of specific crimes. Courts and legislatures are making constant changes to offenses and sentencing that affect what and how things get enforced. Police are reactive on not only what the public does, wants and needs, but also what our lawmakers decide,” Felt wrote.

Policing strategies respond to public’s wants and needs When asked about his views on policing. Felt often speaks about Robert

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Peel, a 19th-century former British prime minister who is considered the father of modern policing. Peelian principles dictate a policing-by-consent, professional law enforcement agency that relies on new technology and well-trained officers who gain the trust of the public. This is why Felt’s department has made many technological upgrades such as the addition of body-worn cameras and drones as investigative tools. Department-owned smartphones are issued to all officers. The department has updated to lighter body armor that offers more protection and replaced some squad cars with hybrid Ford Police Interceptor SUVs. Officers have received increased


training in DNA evidence, use-of-force via simulators and there has been additional de-escalation training. “Locally, we feel that we have a much clearer view of what people in our community want from the police and the expectations of our department. We work to provide those services in a timely, professional, fair and cost-effective manner and adapt to the changes,” Felt wrote. “We continually strive to live up to our mission statement of ‘The Willmar Police Department is dedicated to providing fair and impartial police services to all members of the public through education and enforcement.’ We’ve worked hard to build community connections and trust and realize that must be continually communicated and maintained.” One part of reaching out to the community was instituting Coffee with Cops, a program that has law enforcement officers visiting various coffee shops to speak with members of the community about any questions or concerns. This type of community outreach is shared with Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien. The two departments work closely together, often sharing equipment, resources and manpower while sharing the same office building in Willmar.

Willmar Police Officer Nicole Wortham, left, and Willmar Community Service Officer and student Hana DeSchepper chat with other students at Ridgewater College in Willmar during the January 2020 Coffee with Cops event. Uniformed and non-uniformed officers had the opportunity to chat with students and staff to spark conversation about community topics and answer questions over coffee and cookies.

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Officer and Use of Force Instructor Ross Livingood holds a pistol, which has sensors that detect where the shot was aimed, used for Willmar Police Department’s simulator, in October 2017. The simulator helps to train officers in situations where they would need to conduct use of force.

The Sheriff’s Office also utilizes Facebook to get information out to the public and to be open about what the office is doing. “We want to make sure that we’re breaking down the barriers as to some of the negative connotations you see about law enforcement,” Holien said. “So we want to make sure that the public understands that there’s a small fraction of bad officers, but the large majority, we’re out there, we’re working for the community, we’re doing everything we can for them. We want them to understand that we’re not perfect, but we will try to be the best that we can be.” Holien said the Sheriff’s Office also takes advantage of additional training in cultural diversity, crisis intervention, conflict management, de-escalation and one of the newer trainings: how to respond to someone who is autistic. The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training required departments to do 16 hours of this training over the course of three years. The Sheriff’s Office did it in one. “We wanted to set the precedence for our agency (for them to) understand this is a priority, not only for the community but also for us,” Holien said. As far as addressing community needs, it can be a mixed bag, according to Felt. “Some community needs that have

been relayed to us are as specific as extra patrol in problem areas or enforcement of ordinances of specific concern. Most have been things that we felt best met the desires of the greater Willmar community such as community involvement, encouraging communication between the public and police, meeting expectations such as transparency of how we do business, investigative follow-up, crime prevention, sharing of information when possible and the like,” Felt wrote. “WPD tries to be forward thinking and proactive in investigations and developing community connections.”

An educational approach to 2020 In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest impacted the region and the world in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. While the Twin Cities saw civil unrest over the summer of 2020, Willmar and the surrounding area largely did not. Sheriff’s deputies were sent to help local law enforcement in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed in May 2020 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. And while law enforcement was put in the unique position of responding to mask mandates and business closures ordered by the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in the region, law enforcement took an educational approach, although

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executive orders signed by Gov. Tim Walz allowed arrest. Holien said in a February interview that his office had to strike a balance between public safety and ensuring everyone’s rights are protected. “It’s the first that I can remember in my lifetime that we’ve had to deal with a pandemic to this extent,” Holien said. For example, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office would pass on reports of businesses violating COVID-19 restrictions to the state but would respond to requests to remove people from businesses for violating COVID-19 restrictions. This type of community approach to enforcement was also practiced at a number of protests in the region, with sheriff’s deputies and police officers monitoring protests and rallies but never having the need to intervene.

Hiring continues to be a challenge Holien said that his office has had a hiring problem so far in 2021. “When I applied here, there was at least 70 applicants and there were times before that we were looking at 120 applicants for one position,” Holien said. “Now we have positions open and we’re lucky if we’re getting 25. The hard part is, not only are we getting lower numbers, but the quality of the applicants that we also have, we’re


Student Ayden Schuler speaks with Willmar Police Sgt. Mike Jahnke at Ridgewater College in Willmar during the January 2020 Coffee with Cops event. Uniformed and non-uniformed officers had the opportunity to chat with students and staff to spark conversation about community topics and answer questions over coffee and cookies.

looking at people that we wouldn’t look at before.” Part of the Sheriff’s Office plan to mitigate that was instituting a Sheriff’s Reserve program, which encourages college-level students to become potential applicants later and strengthen the recruitment base. The program allows volunteers to pre-train before going out on patrol by helping out with community events and assisting in traffic control. As far as the future, Holien said the pendulum is swinging toward community service right now and that historically it will swing back to enforcement before public opinion demands it swing back to community service. “What we try to do is find that balance, you got to have community service but you have to be firm,” Holien said. “So that’s that delicate balance you want and you have to be cautious and I always tell people, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ because that pendulum swinging hard in one way right now; it has the potential to swing back hard the other direction.” You may contact the author at mwasson@wctrib.com.

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Megan Ronglien, left, and Kris Shelstad are shown outside the Madison Mercantile on Aug. 27, before a new front was added onto the building. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

The rural renaissance starts here Madison Mercantile opens facility designed to house variety of small businesses BY TOM CHERVENY West Central Tribune MADISON — Kris Shelstad and Magan Ronglien are launching a rural renaissance in the shadow of the Cargill grain elevators on the south end of Madison’s commercial district, where they have plenty of room for a goal so ambitious. The Madison Mercantile has all of 15,000 square feet under its roof, and they need it. “I thought about opening a coffee house that might turn into a community center. Now, I am opening a community center that happens to have a coffee house,” said Shelstad with a laugh. The coffee house is the gateway to an expansive building that Shelstad hopes will house as many as 10 tenants. A photographer and an artist opened studios in the building in August, while work was still underway on converting the building to its new role. It was originally a lumber yard that dated to the 1880s, but more recently served as the Brehmer Hardware store. Along with the coffee house and its kitchen, the Mercantile is being partitioned to hold offices, an art gallery, community meeting and gathering spaces, a stage for live performances and more. On the economic side of things, Shelstad said she is hoping the Madison Mercantile will serve as a business incubator for some of its office tenants — a place for rural entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams. She’s expecting it will also provide office space for professionals who have

returned to their rural roots while working from home. On the community side of things, Shelstad is ready to devote much of this space for a wide range of use. Space for an art gallery is already developed. There is a stage ready for open mic nights and live entertainment at the coffee house. It will also be available for students in theater and music programs at the Lac qui Parle Valley Schools to practice and perform. An area is reserved in the back as a woodshop, or the Men’s Shed. A group of men in the community have already decided they will equip the area and perform volunteer work. Their projects will include repairing medical mobility equipment such as wheelchairs. Shelstad said they hope to become the first U.S. rural chapter of the Men’s Shed, an organization devoted to providing men a place to join and do good work. There’s also space for dance lessons, remote meetings and learning sessions, and for young people and adults to gather and visit. Shelstad is the owner/operator while Ronglien is serving as operations manager. Shelstad is a 1981 graduate of Madison High School. She completed a 30-year career with the National Guard. She and her husband were living in Texas when he died unexpectedly about three years ago. Shelstad said she decided she needed to come home and be with her people. Her mother had once operated a

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coffee shop — also known as the Madison Mercantile — in Madison’s downtown. Shelstad wanted to do the same. She was reading about the fracturing of society and how communities are lacking places for gathering and building a sense of community. She made up her mind that a coffee house could play a role in providing that place. She never anticipated buying a building so large, but she said, “it seemed just the right size.” On the advice of a friend, she turned to the community and hosted listening sessions to learn what the building should hold. Her friend had told her: “The community will reveal itself.” That has proven true, said Shelsad, as many people have come forward with ideas and support. Her service in the military also taught her that “planning is great but no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case, reality gets a vote, said Shelstad. Plans and use for the Madison Mercantile are sure to evolve. Shelstad is well-aware of what a project this ambitious requires. “I wake up in the morning thinking we’re a little crazy, but by noon I’m OK,” she said, laughing. She’s driven by the support the project has enjoyed from the community, city and county, and by hope. Her hope is it can spark a rural renaissance. “We know we can bring these things to a town,” she said. You may contact the author at tcherveny@wctrib.com.


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Scott Marquardt, far left, joins graduates of the Elevate Community Business Academy in June. From left are Marquardt, senior vice president at Southwest Initiative Foundation; Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ain-U-Shams, Inc.; Abdusalaam Hirsi, Elevate Community Business Academy instructor; and Connie Schmoll, Elevate Community Business Academy instructor. Southwest Initiative Foundation

Region grows more than corn and beans Economic developer finds region to be fertile grounds for diverse spectrum of entrepreneurs BY TOM CHERVENY West Central Tribune

HUTCHINSON — More than two decades of helping entrepreneurs get started in southwest Minnesota has taught Scott Marquardt many lessons, but perhaps none so important as these. This place grows them, and they like it here. How else to explain the Douglass brothers, Carl, Brian and Sean, and their commitment to Douglass Innovations in northern Kandiyohi County? They turn dreams into finished products on a 24-hour cycle taking advantage of advanced 3D printer technology. “They could do this anywhere,” said Marquardt, pointing out their preference to stay. Or, he said, take a look at Scott and

Teresa Lamecker, who own and operate Lamecker’s General Store in Kerkhoven. They keep the Swift County community supplied not only with all of its hardware needs, but groceries as well. It requires long hours and hard work, but they continue to believe and invest in their hometown, he said. Marquardt is a senior vice president with the Southwest Initiative Foundation. For the past 13 years he has worked helping entrepreneurs, and before that, for seven years in economic development with the city of Montevideo. Since 1986, the Southwest Initiative Foundation has invested nearly $98 million in the region through loans and grants.

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His role on the front lines of economic development makes Marquardt an optimist. For one, he points out that the region is a leader in terms of diversity. Communities such as Willmar, Worthington and Walnut Grove are leaders in the state when it comes to the numbers of businesses owned by people of color. He is seeing a continued trend of more Indigeneous people and people of color launching businesses of their own. He said another special story is the region’s large number of women-owned businesses. This region has benefited greatly as home to a large number of female entrepreneurs, he said. Marquardt credits the community banks and credit unions in the region with


playing a very important role in making this a great place to launch a business. “They are aggressive,” said Marquardt, adding that they are willing to take risks to help entrepreneurs. He said he has spoken to many of his cohorts around the country who tell him that banks don’t engage in business development as they do here. Another factor setting this region apart is the willingness of its successful entrepreneurs to invest in the next generation. What’s especially important, he said, is that they are investing right back in the region. There are a number of communities, Willmar among them, where successful entrepreneurs are willing to risk their own funds in angel investment funds to spur local growth. No less important is the willingness of economic development agencies throughout the region to work together. He said it may sound fluffy, but the truth is this:

The economic development groups in the region know one another and put their missions of helping entrepreneurs in the forefront. There is no turf competition, he said. While optimistic, Marquardt also points out that there are big challenges, no different than elsewhere. The need for child care and housing are the two top issues affecting the ability of businesses to attract workers and grow, he said. The need for improved broadband access remains another top issue that must be addressed, he added. All three of these issues have the attention of community leaders in the region, said Marquardt, which in itself is an important change. In the past, child care and housing were not considered economic development issues, but today they are getting the attention needed. You may contact the author at tcherveny@wctrib.com

Southwest Initiative Foundation Rachel Bakeberg, owner of Appleton Veterinary Clinic, has worked with the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s business finance programs. She was featured in its Women Mean Business series earlier this year.

WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021 | 59


Shopping with her mother at Amin Grocery, 4-year-old Nasra Abdullhi is intent on getting her jar of candies opened. Tim Speier / West Central Tribune

Elevating future business owners Program founded to support diverse businesses, entrepreneurs BY TIM SPEIER West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar’s Economic Development Commission began training the second Elevate class of entrepreneurs and local business owners Sept. 16. The 12-week Elevate course offers hands-on training in business planning and management while providing business education and coaching specifically tailored to underserved minority entrepreneurs in the county. The EDC partnered with the Southwest Initiative Foundation in 2017 to design and implement a Business Retention and Expansion Program for diverse businesses after a survey they had funded

found an increasing number of minorityowned businesses opening in and around Willmar. Sarah Swedburg, the EDC’s Business Development Manager, took control of the program after longtime manager Connie Schmoll retired from the EDC in May. Schmoll led the implementation of Willmar’s Elevate program before stepping down. She is currently training to become an Elevate instructor. In order to be accepted into the program, applicants must first attend one of Elevate’s information sessions. “Information sessions are a

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requirement for applying to the class for students,” Swedburg said. “I think they’re also a good opportunity for community members or supporters who have small businesses to understand and get to know a little bit more about Elevate.” If applicants decide that they would like to be considered for the program, they would then fill out the required paperwork on their current business or a business proposal. Swedburg said their target class size would be around 10 students and Elevate estimates the costs of the 12-week program to be around $3,000 per student. That fee was waived for the students


who attended the program in 2021 after Elevate received funding for its first year from the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

Looking at the graduates

Photos by Tim Speier / West Central Tribune Seeing her dreams become reality, Hteh-Hteh Hta Rue opened her store, Chaw’s Asian Market, after graduating from the inaugural Elevate class.

The program’s first class graduated in June 2021. Three of the five graduates already owned a business in Willmar; Stephanie Thompson, owner of Wings Gymnastics, had just purchased the company in January. Thompson was hesitant to take the course. “I was timid at first because I didn’t know anything about it,” said Thompson. “But I chose to do it and I’m very happy I did because I did learn a lot. I think it did add a lot of aspects to my business that I didn’t necessarily know of.” Over the summer, that inaugural class saw its fourth graduate open for business. Hteh-Hteh Hta Rue had her dream become a reality when she opened Chaw’s Asian Market. As for the three graduates who were already running

successful businesses without any formal training, Elevate works to teach its students how to better manage a small business. From marketing to inventory control, Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ainu-Shams Grocery, found that he has better control and understanding of his finances. “If you’re starting a new business, (Elevate) helps every step of the way,” Thompson said. “From getting the loans to talking to people about the building that you’re wanting to purchase. I mean, they’re willing to help you with anything. I think that’s a huge aspect of this class is being able to get everything you need and have help with it, because they’re there for you.” Elevate looks to continue giving more minority business owners the skills to succeed and looks forward to building partnerships with more community business owners. The program is currently teaching its second class and is scheduled to finish Dec. 9, with graduation at 5 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Graduating top of his class, Abdilahi Omar, owner of Ainu-Shams Grocery, found that even after running a successful business for 10 years, he was able to take what he learned at Elevate and implement it at his shop.

WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2021 | 61


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