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City purchases Econofoods for $650,000

Hutchinson may soon be the owner of the former Econofoods building and site. The City Council on Tuesday approved a purchase agreement with Erickson’s, the current owner of the lot, and if all goes as planned it will be the site of the city’s new police station.

After months of negotiations, the city will pay $650,000 for the site and building that were originally listed for $1.9 million, according to City Administrator Matt Jaunich.

“I am happy with the price,” he said.

With the City Council’s vote Tuesday, the process of purchasing the site will begin, which includes an earnest payment of $10,000.

As part of the negotiation, the city has agreed to purchase the building and site as is, but that also includes a 90-day inspection period. During that period, the city will conduct a survey and check for environmental concerns. If anything objectionable is found, the city may walk away from the deal and the down payment would be returned.

“We’ll do some environmental testing and just kind of check to make sure the site, the building, everything is acceptable to purchase,” Jaunich said. “The last thing you want to do is purchase something and find out it’s on a well or something. We don’t have any concerns. I’m assuming that would have popped up when they built the Econofoods building, but you still want to do your due diligence to make sure the site is clean.”

Following the 90-day period, and assuming there are no issues, the city expects to close on the purchase around April 15, 2020.

The city has been considering the former Econofoods lot as a potential site for a new police station since 2017, following a master facilities plan that identified the current police station, which was built in 1989, as an issue.

“It was identified that the current police station is simply not adequate on many different fronts,” Jaunich said. “For one, the size does not meet the needs of the current police department, and two, we’ve got three different locations that our police department is in. Right now our investigative unit is not even in the same building as the rest of the officers.

“If you think back to when that building was obtained and what’s now all a part of what goes on in terms of equipment, we’ve essentially outgrown the current facility we’re in.”

With a purchase agreement now complete, the city will begin the work of planning the design, financing and site layout for the police station. Jaunich expects that to take between six and nine months.

“Now that we most likely have the site, we need to start looking at doing some design work for the new police station, and probably start having conversations on that lot,” he said. “Are we going to keep the whole lot for the police department, are we going to subdivide some of that out? … I’m assuming some of that will play hand in hand as we look at building the plans for the police station. And all along, too, we’ll continue to look at financing and budgets and where do we want that to line up with the city and where are we comfortable at.”

The plan, Jaunich said, is to raze the Econofoods building and construct a new police department facility on the site. Along with the police station, there have also been preliminary conversations about moving the DMV to that site as well. That will likely be part of the discussion during this planning phase, Jaunich said.

Assuming the city completes the purchase agreement and develops plans for the site, the city would then look to bid out the project. Jaunich said construction could begin as early as fall 2020, but more likely spring 2021.

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Propane shortage causes more ag problems

As one problem snowballs into another, Minnesota farmers, propane dealers and many residents are caught in a balancing act.

A wet spring pushed planting back further than usual and harvest to late October and November. With moisture levels breaking records in Minnesota this year, farmers need more propane to warm crops, and unseasonably cold weather more than 10 degrees lower than usual makes the demand all the higher. Meanwhile, propane is needed to heat homes and barns more than usual as low temperatures matched or beat records around the state following a cold snap early this week.

Temperatures were consistently below freezing in McLeod County through midweek, dipping nearly to 0 degrees early Tuesday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Brian Thalmann, a Plato farmer and the past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association Board, said propane is usually used to bring moisture levels down in corn from the high teens to the lower teens. He’s heard reports this harvest of moisture levels in the mid 20s.

While some fear the possibility of propane outages in the state, Mike Conner of the Hutchinson Co-op says the propane dealer is making it work by putting in more hours, making more trips and making sure everyone has just enough to get by.

“I don’t think we’re going to let people get cold,” he said. “We’re rationing it.”

Thalmann said farmers expect they may have to continue waiting a few more weeks to finish harvest.

“There has been a slowdown in harvest for a lot of people,” he said.

Russell Rueckert, operations manager for Litchfield Oil & Propane, said last week for a day he was out of propane. His company houses two 30,000-gallon and 18,000-gallon propane tanks. Currently, one of the 30,000-gallon tank and 18,000-gallon tank are empty.

“I believe at this moment we have 10 percent in the 30,000-gallon tank,” Rueckert said. “If we don’t get more, that’ll be gone by the end of the day.”

To ensure he has enough propane for drying his crops, Tom Haag's supplier has had to travel to states as far as North Carolina. But for the most part Haag, who operates a 1,600 acres of soybean and corn farmland in the Eden Valley area, has been lucky.

"As of right now, we have been able to get enough propane to continue to stay dry,” Haag, board member for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said Monday. "But I know it has affected some other areas in the state and in other states. They were there this morning to fill us up again. So things are getting a little better, but it’s still tight.”

Minnesota isn’t the only Midwest state facing a propane shortage, leading governors to issue orders lifting shipping regulations. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz made such a declaration Oct. 30, hoping to allow drivers and carriers to haul more propane where it is needed.

“This has been a stressful year for Minnesota farmers,” he said. “The recent wet weather has only exacerbated these challenges to create the unprecedented crisis we now face, with crops sitting unharvested in soaked fields and truckloads of product that can’t be brought to market.”

The Minnesota Propane Association reported shipping record amounts of propane so far this November. Usually 190 loads of propane are shipped per day. This year, that amount is up to nearly 300.

“We are warming up 2-degree corn and 2-degree air to 200 degrees,” Conner said. “Normally when this is done the second week of October, we have ambient air of about 60 degrees, and have corn at about 60 degrees. It takes up to 25 percent more (propane) to do the same job.”

But the problem, he said, has many more facets.

In 2014, pipeline operator Kinder Morgan halted propane shipments from Canada to Minnesota to ship a new product after 35 years of delivery to terminals in Benson. The pipeline hauled 40 percent of the state’s propane, and the change put a greater emphasis on other delivery methods, namely by train.

“They bring propane by rail cars and unload,” Conner said. “That becomes the major distribution points for companies like (Hutchinson Co-op).”

The closest is Rockville, which is west of St. Cloud.

“Even when those rail terminals work at peak efficiency, it’s like a hundredth of what you can push through a pipeline,” Conner said. “There is a limit to how many rail cars you can load in a day. So on years like this, the system is always going to have a breakdown. We can’t replace those lost gallons.”

Trucks driving further to St. Paul, Mankato or Benson to load propane from pipelines have other problems to deal with as well. Nebraska and Iowa are ahead of Minnesota on pipelines, and those states have had record fall yields.

“They are taking all the gas,” Conner said. “The pipe for the past week has been operating slowly on line pressure. There is very little gas making it up.”

He said that under the best conditions, each location might be able to fill six trucks in an hour. Now two terminals might collectively fill four or five in an hour. Meanwhile, trucks from businesses that sell primarily for home use and agriculture use compete for a place in line.

Timing has added to the tension of competing needs.

“Moneys for fuel assistance are not released until Nov. 1 each year, so it creates another ‘harvest,’” Conner said. “It’s filling homes of low-income people that have been waiting probably with near empty tanks or empty tanks for assistance to kick in. Normally you don’t have that overlap. Normally corn harvest is wrapped up by Halloween.”

Hutchinson Co-op is anticipating another few weeks of continued high demand between agricultural needs, and the need to stay on top of dangerous overnight temperatures. In the meantime, it is keeping careful track of propane in each tank it services, and instead of filling the tanks it makes sure to resupply enough to maintain each need. But that approach takes more trips and more work.

“Each trip costs us money,” Conner said. “It costs us man hours, it costs us fuel, wear and tear. So there is going to be an efficiency drain on a small dealer like Hutchinson Co-op. … We are effectively filling their daily consumption, we are keeping them running.”

For many farmers, the shortage is just one more problem added onto a year of uncooperative weather, low commodity prices and rising costs.

“Every time we turn around there is another problem or trade or markets,” Thalmann said. “It’s one hit after another.”

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What does Hutchinson Public Schools do with its farmland?

What’s going on with the agriculture land Hutchinson Public Schools owns?

With school property a common topic of late — namely with the passage of a bond referendum to fund elementary school renovations — the question has cropped up a few times. The answer provides a glimpse at what district leaders were thinking 20 years ago, and at educational opportunities available for students attending Hutchinson High School. In question is an 80-acre plot of land southwest of the intersection of School Road and South Grade Road.

“This is before my time, before I was here,” said Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden. “Based on files I’ve reviewed, the way I understand it is the district purchased it in October of 1999. They purchased it from Carl and Elaine Rickeman. The land that the middle school is on was also owned by Carl and Elaine Rickeman.”

Memos suggest the couple wanted to get out of farming and contacted the district to see if it wanted to purchase 80 acres. Its proximity to the school caught the attention of administrators. Ultimately, a price of $600,000 was settled on, paid over six years with interest.

“When they purchased it (20 years ago), they had serious intentions of building a high school on that property,” VanderHeiden said. “At one time they were going to take our current high school and convert it to an elementary school and vacate Park Elementary.”

At one point the school also considered turning the property into green space, and the land was considered in past bond referendums, but ultimately it was decided to be cost prohibitive.

The school has no current plans for additional expansions, but the land does go to use. Every three years, the school bids 67 of the 80 acres for agricultural use at about $260 per acre. The school takes in $17,420 each year from the property, and it paid $4,436 in taxes for 2019. The remaining 13 acres is used for education, and includes fields for planting and space for a greenhouse and other projects.

“The greenhouse is used to teach horticulture class,” said Scott Marshall, an agriscience teacher at Hutchinson High School. “We go out there and we raise plants. I also use it for other classes. I have a floriculture class. Right now we are raising flowers out there so we can have one final bouquet at the end of the year.”

The land is also used for the Farm to School program.

“It encourages districts to raise food they can use in their own cafeterias,” Marshall said. “We have an experiment going out there to see if it is viable in the fall to raise things in the greenhouse. Right now we’re raising lettuce. We have cucumbers and potatoes. We want to see if that’s something we can continue.”

The FFA uses the greenhouse to raise plants for its annual plant sale fundraiser. The animal science class has a grant to build a chicken coop so students can raise chickens.

“That way they can talk about things in class and have a hands-on example,” Marshall said.

Chickens are ideal, as they can be raised, worked with and sold within a reasonable time period for a class. It would be nice to bring other animals onto the property, Marshall said, but a lot of work will need to be done to see if it is logistically possible.

Seven acres on the corner of the property is used as an FFA test plot. Seed dealers and cooperatives have donated seed to be planted so students can see the difference in yield and moisture content. Local farmers help with field work and harvest, and talk to students about the process. Corn harvested is used in an FFA fundraiser. This year, the University of Minnesota approached the school to use part of the plot to compare variety and moisture from different portions of the state.

“We didn’t do it this past year, but for the previous three summers we took part of those acres and planted a big garden,” Marshall said. “The FFA kids would come in and pick all the produce and they took it to the food bank. One year they took 550 pounds of food from the garden. It’s a good experience for kids to come out and know they are doing a community service.”

Portions of the land is also used for landscaping practice. One FFA member used the land for a project that called for the cultivation of a bee hive.

Going forward, VanderHeiden said, the school will likely hold on to the land. Though there are no short-term plans for it, as Hutchinson moves southward it will likely become harder for the school to purchase property nearby its campuses.

“The most important thing is it’s so close,” he said.

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Faith, hope and resistance to fear

It’s not every day you see your life played out on the big screen with actress Sienna Miller playing your role, but that’s what happened to Taya Kyle.

The year was 2014 and the movie was “American Sniper,” which was loosely based on the war memoir written by her husband, Chris, titled “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.”

Kyle was in Hutchinson Wednesday night as the featured speaker at the Saluting Community Heroes event at the Hutchinson Event Center. The nonprofit organization founded by Shad and Melissa Ketcher celebrates the selfless heroism of veterans and raises funds for organizations that provide direct services to the veteran community.

The Fort Worth resident spoke to a sold-out crowd of 450 people. She shared her story with the hope that it will help others.

“I want people to know they’re not alone,” she said. “I want to provide a sense of hope and resistance to fear.”

These are characteristics Kyle is well-acquainted with. She was the wife of a Navy SEAL who served four tours in the Iraq war, so separation was part of their marriage. As a military wife, she faced fear of the unknown during his absences. Kyle drew upon her faith in God and personal resilience when he was shot and killed at the Rough Creek Lodge shooting range in 2013. She unexpectedly found herself a widow and single mom of two children at age 38.

Kyle is the author of “American Wife: Love, War, Faith and Renewal” and “American Spirit: Profiles in Resilience, Courage and Faith.” She also has a couple of TV projects in the works.

“I love writing,” she said.

The activist criss-crosses the country two to three times a month sharing her story. She also is the founder and executive director of the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation. Its mission is to deliver life-changing programs and services to support military and first-responder families across the nation.

“I do the best I can with what I have,” Kyle said.