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Samuel Perkins, 6, builds lava land with Legos, as his father, Paul Perkins, helps him.

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Litchfield City Council approves initial wellness/recreation center plan

The vision of a wellness/recreation center began to take shape for the Litchfield City Council Monday, even if in its most basic form.

The Council approved during a special meeting a schematic drawing and fact sheet that will be used to explain the city’s plans for a wellness center when the Minnesota House of Representatives Bonding Committee visits next week.

The basic plan, created by Oertel Architects in collaboration with City Administrator David Cziok and City Engineer Chuck DeWolf, features a walking track, multipurpose sports floor, pickleball/activity rooms, fitness area, meeting rooms and office.

The drawing also includes an aquatics feature, which is separate from the city’s effort and dependent on Litchfield Public Schools voters approving an $11 million bond for a swimming pool that will be part of a referendum on Nov. 5, but could be included as part of the total wellness center plan.

“We wanted to identify (a swimming pool) here on the map so everyone can understand that we are still working with the school,” Cziok said.

He explained that architects worked within the constraints of a $10 million budget, and therefore “every area we look at this thing is too small. We had to make a lot of tough decisions just to get the number of rooms on this drawing that we did. Is there (enough) room? That’s the next level of conversation we need to have. We’re really trying to focus on financing at this stage.

“But I hope the vision’s there,” Cziok added. “That’s what we’re looking for from you guys tonight.”

With the Bonding Committee visiting Litchfield Oct. 8, Cziok wanted the City Council to sign off on a basic plan that could be presented to legislators in hopes of gaining their support for including funding — $5 million or more — for the city’s wellness/recreation center in the state bonding bill.

The city also will seek approval from the state to hold a referendum on a local option sales tax that would provide the additional $5 million.

Along with the special City Council meeting Monday, Cziok organized a group of community leaders, including representatives of the city, business community, Litchfield School District, and past recreation center advocates, that met Tuesday to plot a strategy for the presentation to the bonding committee.

The presentation will include a fact sheet that breaks down programming and activities, facility amenities, and the financial details of what, for now, is known as Litchfield Area Wellness/Recreation Center. Also included in the fact sheet is a small map showing three possible sites for the center, though Cziok was quick to point out that the facility could end up somewhere else completely. The map was included simply to show how a facility of the specified size might fit on sites in the high school/middle school and civic arena area.

City Council members asked several questions about programming and structure expandability, but Cziok said those things were intentionally not addressed as the initial plan was created.

“As the architects were asking us questions, we had a lot of ‘I don’t know’ answers to their questions,” Cziok said. “They did a really good job of providing us space that we can fill later. We can figure out the usage as we go.”

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Finding common ground: St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter visits Rep. Dean Urdahl in Litchfield

It might have seemed an odd pairing to some who saw St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter tour Litchfield with state Rep. Dean Urdahl last week.

Big city mayor. Rural legislator. Democrat. Republican.

But to the two men who spent the better part of the day together, it was a worthwhile opportunity.

“You listen to people in some places, and they’ll tell you that a community like Litchfield and a community like St. Paul not only have nothing in common, but we should be working against each other,” Carter said during a stop in downtown. “One of the things I’ve learned … is the extent to which we’re really all up against many of the same things.”

Carter’s visit, which included breakfast at Swan’s Café, followed by stops at the G.A.R. Hall, Litchfield Opera House, Litchfield City Hall, First District Association and Litchfield High School, was prompted by a request from the mayor’s staff to Urdahl several weeks ago.

Urdahl said he wasn’t sure at the time exactly what the purpose of Carter’s visit might be, but it wasn’t all that unusual. Several years ago, he performed the same tour guide duties for then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

“I’m equally opportunity,” Urdahl quipped. “People want to come here, I’ll show them around.”

The visit, Urdahl said, could help promote better understanding between different regions and philosophies of the state.

And the former social studies teacher also found an ardent supporter of the civics education bill he has been promoting for a number of years.

“His championship for our students to receive a high quality civics education — that couldn’t be more important,” Carter said. “We teach our kids, you know, who signed what documents in what year, but don’t teach them how to use government and how government is relevant in our lives today. I often feel like that would be similar to going to driver’s ed and reading Henry Ford’s biography, you know, but never learning how to parallel park.”

But there are many issues beyond civics education where the two politicians with seeming disparate backgrounds and views can find common ground, Carter added. Urdahl is a member of the House bonding committee, and he and Carter have talked frequently.

Carter also complimented Urdahl on being an example of a legislator who works across the political divide.

“We were talking about that earlier,” Carter said. “We’ve gotten a chance to build a relationship and to sit together and have conversations about the investments that are necessary in our state and how we make those investments, frankly, statewide. Because one of the things we were chatting about over breakfast is the extent to which people who live in Litchfield might work in St. Paul, or the extent to which the people who live in St. Paul might come out to a cabin in Litchfield.”

This connection was echoed during a conversation at Litchfield City Hall earlier in the day, Carter said, when Mayor Keith Johnson explained the need for increased school funding, an investment in stormwater system, the drive for a wellness-recreation center, and the struggle to create affordable housing.

“I joked with (Johnson) that it sound like he was describing St. Paul,” Carter said. “Our ability to understand Litchfield and the ability to understand the work that’s going on in Litchfield helps us approach the work we have to do in St. Paul. And specifically, I have to say Rep. Urdahl and I get a chance to work together quite a bit in the Capitol, particularly through the bonding committee.”

Because of people’s mobility these days, he added, “it really doesn’t make any sense for us to just approach (issues) on a city-by-city basis …. We’re making the case for regional and statewide housing and regional and statewide infrastructure investments. Those aren’t things that just St. Paul needs, and they’re not things that just St. Paul and Lithcfield need, they’re things we all need.”

Those things should mean that no matter the differences — and maybe sometimes because of those differences — cities and politicians should be able to find a way to work together, Carter said.

“We’re not really on team Democrat or team Republican, or team metro or team greater Minnesota, we should all be on team Minnesota,” he said. “As we talk to our neighbors in St. Paul or as we talk to our neighbors in Litchfield, I would imagine they wouldn’t necessarily speak up first to articulate a preference of who is in the majority. What they tell you is, we need health care, we need housing, we need jobs that we can feed our families with, and we need to send our kids to schools that can prepare them for the future, and I consider myself a teammate along with anybody who’s working for those things.”

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Making the connection: Meeker Co-op dedicates Vibrant Broadband

Meeker Cooperative’s big move to making its Vibrant Broadband internet service available to its customers throughout the county received praise Thursday from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

The governor attended a “ribbon cutting” ceremony at the cooperative’s headquarters in Litchfield during which he and other speakers said that internet connectivity today is as important as electricity was 80-some years ago when rural electric cooperatives began supplying that service.

“To the entire board of Meeker Cooperative, you embody what community means,” Walz said. “This harkens back to a time when running that final mile of power line was a big undertaking. There wasn’t an economy of scale that made sense, but what did make sense was the understanding of the economic engine that we could turn loose.”

That theme — that broadband internet’s importance is as important today as electricity was to rural residents decades ago — echoed throughout the dedication ceremony.

Meeker Cooperative CEO Tim Mergen said the cooperative began looking at the broadband project back in 2016, and credited the board of directors for backing it.

“They’re the ones that took the big risk to go ahead and say, ‘yeah, let’s go ahead and move this project forward,’” Mergen said. “They did what the board of directors did 84 years ago when the co-op was formed to bring electricity out to the area we now serve electricity to. it was a great big leap of faith then, it was a leap of faith now.”

Mergen told the crowd of co-op members, employees and dignitaries that when President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated a new electric cooperative on Aug. 11, 1938, in Barnesville, Georgia, he told the assembled crowd, “Electricity is a modern necessity of life and ought to be found in every village, every home, and on every farm in every part of the United States. Now, 81 years later, let’s simply put the words, broadband internet in for electricity. Broadband internet is a modern necessity of life and ought to be found in every village, every home, and on every farm in every part of the United States.

“Sort of remarkable how 81 years later those same exact words could be used to describe the need for high speed internet,” Mergen said.

The lack of high-speed internet is an issue in many areas of the state, with some surveys indicating that one in five rural homes lack access to the service.

Meeker Cooperative looked to change that in its service area, which includes Meeker and parts of McLeod, Kandiyohi, Stearns, Wright and Renville counties, when it announced in November that it had begun installing a fiber optic backbone, connecting its 14 substations throughout the county to provide Vibrant Broadband.

Darwin and Dassel were the first towns in the service area to receive the new technology on July 1. Mergen wrote in a column for the Meeker Pioneer — the cooperative’s monthly newsletter — that it would take about two years to complete countywide connections.

But it’s the start that many have been looking for – not just in Meeker County, but throughout the state, and even the nation.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, in an interview after the dedication, said the Legislature has been working on broadband connectivity for a few years. But Meeker Cooperative’s decision not to wait for the Legislature to lead the way, and to begin building out the internet infrastructure on its own is impressive — but perhaps not all that unusual given the co-op’s history.

“They are pioneers in this type of development,” Urdahl said. “The first all-electric farm in the country was here. This again plays up the forward-thinking people here and people connected with Meeker Co-op.”

Walz took the same congratulatory tone during his remarks Thursday.

Currently, the state and country have “the haves and have nots based on accessibility to broadband,” Walz said. “The state of Minnesota …made a commitment (to get) everybody connected. We are finding creative ways to do this. We’re not going to do it all through state government. It’s going to be private sector investment where it makes sense. It’s going to be cooperatives like Meeker Cooperative finding unique situations. It’s going to be federal government funding.”

Ken Johnson, former administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, who in 2018 approved Meeker Cooperative Light & Power’s plan to build out the fiber optic “backbone” that laid the groundwork for Vibrant Broadband, praised the cooperative’s work – which will benefit both the organization and its members.

“You’re beginning to feel the momentum,” Johnson said. “You are changing your members’ lives the way that electricity did 80-some years ago. As you look back you’ll see how important today was for the future of your members when it comes to connectivity, as well as the health and wellness of the electric co-op.”

ACGC Board proposes 3.7 percent increase in levy

As it does every September, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board has certified its estimate for what will be needed next year from local taxpayers.

This fall, the numbers were $107,059 higher than last year, a 3.7 percent increase, bringing the local levy to slightly over $3 million. The board can decrease that amount prior to certifying the final levy in December, but it cannot increase it.

The increase was caused by a 14.7 percent hike in the debt service portion of the levy, driven by renovations slated to occur during the 2020 construction season. In fact, the portion of the levy going to referendums, general education and community education declined by 8.6, 2.8, and 9.8 percent, respectively.

In other financial action at its Sept. 23 meeting, the ACGC Board decided to add a relatively small new construction project to its 2020 platter — renovating the district’s parking lots. Because parking facilities are used by the public for access, the board decided, after conducting a public hearing on the matter, to pay for this $264,000 parking lot project over five years through a funding mechanism known as an abatement bond. This gives local school boards the ability to bond for parking and driveway projects through board action. Since other health and safety improvement projects may be funded through board-authorized bonds, the board also began the process of issuing slightly more than $3.8 million in 20-year facilities maintenance bonds.

At the meeting, Business Manager Kathryn Haase distributed information indicating that, through the combination of a lower interest rates from the sale of bonds approved in the 2018 referendum, and recent legislative changes, the district could add the parking lot ($3) and other health and safety improvements ($5) for a total of $8 more per year from owners of a $100,000 house.

Farmland owners would actually save money. The pre-referendum estimate had been $1.26 per acre valued at $5,000 per acre, Haase explained. But thanks to the 2019 legislature increasing the Ag2School tax credit and the favorable bond sale rates, it was brought down to 93 cents acre. Even with the additional bonds authorized by ACGC’s school board, farmers would pay seven cents less than the $1.26 original estimate on homestead ag land and 15 cents less on non-homestead land, she added.

The district’s financial advisers, Ehlers & Associates, had presented this alternative to the board in August. After a mid-September workshop session, a public hearing and much discussion, the board unanimously adopted a resolution supporting this funding mechanism.

The net result contributed to the proposed 3.7 percent increase in next year’s local levy. District property owners will receive notice later this fall about the specific impact of this proposed levy on their taxes. A public hearing on the levy will take place Dec. 16, prior to the board’s regular meeting that evening.