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Independentreview
Children's play space to open in Litchfield

Children from Litchfield and surrounding area have fun to look forward to in the approaching summer.

Three local mothers — Katie Luoto, Kayla Swenson and Emily Allen — plan to open Rise + Roam, a play space for children and their parents, in a former eye clinic on North Sibley Avenue.

The non-profit play space is under construction at 715 N. Sibley Ave., in the same building as Litchfield Family Dental.

“Coming here you’re going to be talking to people who live in this area,” Luoto said about ways they hope to address the sense of isolation some parents might face when new to the community. “We think the physical part of the movement is important for the kids, and then the kind of the mental health aspect of parents not being isolated at home — connecting with other people in your community, we think that’s really important.”

The new play space will include slides, post office, kitchen, grocery store and more, Luoto said.

Rise + Roam will somewhat resemble Wheel and Cog Children’s Museum of Hutchinson, or The Village Children’s Museum in Willmar, Luoto said.

“There will be like climbing structures, art things, little like dramatic playthings, little houses and stuff like that,” Luoto said.

Having an organization like Rise + Roam is “huge,” because it could attract more families to make Litchfield home, Swenson said.

“I think that Litchfield wants to be a city that helps young families, or young professionals, or whatever,” Swenson added. “It’s a town that doesn’t have as many options for young children to participate in on a year-round basis — I think (this) will make a big difference for a family seeking a place to move to see that, ‘Oh, this is something that this town can offer.’”

Young families tend to look for spaces like Rise + Roam, when they decide where to live and raise a family, Judy Hulterstrum, executive director of Litchfield Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.

Luoto, Swenson and Allen have received donations totaling $24,000 from Litchfield Area Community Foundation and other local businesses and community organizations, Luoto said.

“We are at almost 50 percent of our $50,000 fundraising goal,” she said in an email.

In addition to other activities, Rise + Roam will provide space for birthday parties, photo shoots and mini yoga activities, Luoto said.

“As we are focusing on bringing the new workforce to town, we need assets in our community to draw young families to enjoy,” Hulterstrum said, in reference to the jobs Doosan Bobcat, IRD Glass and other local businesses are expected to add in the coming years.

“This would be a great year-round activity place for young families to take part in,” she continued. “I mostly like the educational focus they have for young children. The three moms have put a lot of time and energy into planning. It is well thought through project, and I am excited to see it progress.”


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Giving hope and comfort to women and children in need

A comfortable bed is a luxury many take for granted. For people who know the feeling of not having a place to rest, a bed is more than just a place to sleep. It can be a new beginning.

That’s why last October, local philanthropy group Daughters With Purpose set out to raise money for new beds at the Place of Hope shelter in St. Cloud, which serves people from Meeker and McLeod counties.

The group hoped to raise enough money to buy 50 new beds. Last week, Tammy Rolf of Hutchinson, founder of Daughters With Purpose, announced they exceeded their goal and purchased 55 beds.

“Churches jumped in, organizations jumped in, individual families jumped in. It was fantastic,” Rolf said. “I had no idea how it would go. I just put it out there, and our community is incredibly generous.”

“Anybody having a bed to lay in instead of on the floor, in a car or on a mat is a wonderful thing,” said the Rev. Carol Smith, director at Place of Hope. “It’s just awesome that we’re able to do this. I’m so grateful. The people that we serve, one of the things they say when they come in is that they feel safe and warm and cared for when they get to come in and be on a bed.”

Each bed cost about $350, which means the group raised approximately $20,000. Not only was money raised for the beds, but new pillows, sheets and quilts were also donated.

The beds will go to the wings of the shelter that serve single women and women with children, where a shortage of beds has sometimes meant a waiting list for people to be accepted into the shelter. The wing servicing single women is named Mary Anne’s Wing in honor of Smith’s sister, Mary Anne Baker, a long-time Litchfield resident, who volunteered for many social justice causes, and hoped to work at Place of Hope during retirement. Baker died in 2012 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“We have beds that are in terrible shape and need to go,” Smith said. “We’ve been limping along, and we’ve had to wait to bring people onto that floor because we did not have a bed for rooms. So this is going to allow us to have every room accessible for people, so we can bring more people into our shelter.”

MOVE-IN DAY

With the beds and sheets secured, Rolf is now asking the residents of Meeker and McLeod counties for another favor. The new beds will be delivered to the shelter Jan. 31, and on Feb. 1 a team of volunteers is needed to set everything up and complete other tasks at the shelter.

“We are starting at 9 a.m. and there will be a brunch served to all the volunteers at 10 a.m., and then a meal in the evening at 4:45 p.m.,” Rolf said.

Even if you’re not handy with tools and constructing beds, volunteers will help with other projects such as painting and prepping and serving the meals. People can work part of the morning or the entire day. If you’re interested in assisting with move-in day, visit daughterswithpurpose.org or call Rolf at 320-582-1017 to sign up.

“That will help us coordinate the different projects that will be worked on and also give us a head count for food,” she said.

Rolf said she’s already heard from volunteers who are interested in helping with the effort, including an entire hockey team and their families. It’s just another way people are showing they care about the members of their communities.

“It is amazing,” Rolf said, “because we are really, seriously changing people’s lives.”


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Area legislators talk bonding priorities for 2020

What projects across Minnesota should the state fund through bonds? That’s the question lawmakers traditionally debate every other year, and starting next month they’ll do so as part of the 2020 legislative session in St. Paul.

To help tackle the bonding bill, legislators spent weeks on the road this past year to learn about local needs and issues, and hear funding pitches from cities, counties and local agencies. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a roughly $2 billion package that includes numerous local projects, major projects for state buildings, water and wastewater treatment, projects on college campuses, road and bridge repairs and public safety improvements. Lawmakers mostly seem to agree on what types of things need funding aid, but disagree on how much aid to provide, and what local projects qualify for state tax dollars.

Included in the governor’s recommendations is $5 million to aid in a $10 million project to improve the civic arena and park system of Litchfield, and to construct a new wellness center/recreation facility. Also included in the governor’s recommendations is $5 million of a $10 million project to help the Dassel-Cokato Public School District construct a regional activity center that includes a walking track, field house, gymnastics facility and community center. Not included in the governor’s recommendations is a $4.5 million request from Hutchinson to improve and rehabilitate local waters for wildlife and recreation.

“We had a record number of requests for state assistance from communities across Minnesota,” Walz said in a statement. “The need is real, interest rates are low, and the best time to fix a leaky roof isn’t after your house has flooded. The time to act is now.”

The DFL has the majority in the House, but Republicans hold the majority in the Senate. Both parties will likely need to compromise as a two-thirds majority is required to pass the bonding bill.

“The state of Minnesota has never passed a bonding bill in excess of a billion dollars,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, vice chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee. “I’m thinking that in the Senate we will be looking at something between three-quarters of a billion and a billion dollars.”

The 2018 bill was $825 million. Newman said the interest on $2 billion in bonds compared to $1 billion would be too high.

“In my mind, what we spend money on is brick and mortar infrastructure type things,” he said. “Transportation would come to mind first for me, roads and bridges and treatment plants, airports, port authorities, that kind of thing.”

He said the state’s two college systems also need money to keep up with building maintenance.

“And there are local projects, some of which are very legitimate, and some of which are not,” Newman said. “We will try to help small cities with wastewater treatment problems, but things like a theater or a hockey rink, those things in my mind are local projects. ... The rule of thumb is if it’s not a state asset, it has to be of regional significance.”

Dean Urdahl, the Republican lead on the House Capital Investment Committee, is doubtful the governor’s proposal will be adopted.

“We won’t get to a $2 billion bonding bill,” he said. “There’s a lot of opposition in the Senate and House for going that high.”

While he is not aware of an official number proposed by House Democrats, he’s heard $3 billion from committee members.

“Obviously there is going to be a lot of negotiation,” Urdahl said. “But keep in mind that a bonding bill requires a super majority. The Democrats need Republicans to pass a bonding bill.”

He wants to see a bonding bill heavy on infrastructure that is geographically and politically balanced. His prioties include clean water, wastewater projects, asset preservation for the state’s two college systems and local roads and bridges.

“Also we’ll be looking at affordable housing,” Urdahl said.

He hopes the state can tackle the issue, as well as find methods to expand child care facilities in rural Minnesota, perhaps by easing regulations or seeking public/private partnerships. The issue could be tackled in the bonding bill or outside of it.

“These are important workforce areas. It’s hard to get people to come out to Greater Minnesota to work if there is nowhere to live and no one to take care of their children,” Urdahl said. “In Litchfield there is an expansion of Bobcat potentially bringing in 200 workers, so maybe 200 families. Right now there are 21 houses available in Litchfield.”

Urdahl also named the Hutchinson waters project, Litchfield’s wellness center and the Dassel-Cokato schools project as local bonding priorities.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said his No. 1 priority in the bonding bill is to expand U.S. Highway 212 to four lanes from Cologne to Norwood Young America. Doing so will finish a four-lane connection from McLeod County to the metro area.

Most regional centers in rural Minnesota have a continuous four-lane connection to the metro area, but McLeod County, a center for manufacturing and agriculture with a large commuting population, is one of the few exceptions.

“It will be a tremendous economic benefit to this district to get this completed,” Gruenhagen said. “I’ve been working on that for six years.”

Newman, who chairs the Transportation Finance and Policy committee, also named Highway 212 improvements as a top bonding priority.

“There is no four-lane highway coming out of the metropolitan going west except I-94,” Newman said. “We need a four-lane road. That’s going to benefit all of the surrounding areas.”

Gruenhagen said that his additional bonding priorities include road and bridge work for which there is a “dire need,” and upgrades to wastewater plants and sewer lines to help small cities keep up with costly state and federal regulations. He said that when small cities have to raise taxes to meet water regulations, it can be devastating to people on fixed and low income.


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Litchfield Council continues work on tobacco ordinance

Litchfield City Council continues to wrestle with a new smoking ordinance.

But it appears closer than ever before to a resolution that will increase the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 years old, despite the fact that the first reading of an updated ordinance was pulled after members offered two amendments following the required public hearing and discussion.

Though the ordinance could have gone forward to a second reading – and final approval – with the approved amendments, City Administrator David Cziok suggested the Council instead let staff make all changes and then have a “clean” ordinance submitted for consideration.

“I wasn’t aware of the breadth of the changes Council wanted to make tonight,” Cziok said. “I would suggest at this stage that you continue the public hearing (to another meeting). This is going to delay everything by two weeks … but I’m a little apprehensive where we go the same pathway” of previous tobacco ordinance efforts.

The City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance on a 4-3 vote in September, only to reverse course and unanimously reject it when the second reading came two weeks later, after several Council members said they felt they’d not had enough time to consider the ordinance’s impacts.

A workshop session to hash out changes followed in November, and a new draft received approval on a 5-2 vote in November, setting the stage for another public hearing and first reading of the revised ordinance.

Of course, one other thing happened between that November meeting and last week’s public hearing on Litchfield municipal ordinance. President Trump signed legislation on Dec. 20 raising the federal minimum age of sale of tobacco products to 21, making it illegal for any retail to sell any tobacco product— including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes — to anyone younger than 21.

There remain some questions, however, as to how the federal law will be or has been implemented and enforced.

And that’s where the Litchfield City Council picked up Jan. 21. Two convenience store representatives whose stores sell tobacco products spoke during the public hearing, asking the Council to alter the proposed ordinance. Meanwhile, four supporters spoke in favor of the ordinance as proposed.

“We know a lot has changed in the past month at the federal level,” said Liz Heimer, a representative of the American Lung Association, who said was speaking on behalf of Brett Nelson, a public health educator with Meeker McLeod Sibley Public Health. “But I want to encourage you to continue to move forward with this ordinance. Why still do this? We know it’s good housekeeping practice for local ordinances to reflect (federal) law. Thanks for doing your due diligence.”

Rick Beecroft, a Litchfield resident and manager at Speedway convenience stores, said he applauded the federal government’s work to raise the tobacco purchase age. But he disagreed with two portions of the proposed Litchfield ordinance that restricted the age of those who sell tobacco and cigar product packaging and pricing.

In the end, the City Council voted to approve two amendments – one that removed the minimum age for selling tobacco products and the other eliminating cigar restrictions.

Those amendments will be part of the “clean” ordinance that comes back to the City Council as part of the continue public hearing on Feb. 3. At that time, the Council is expected to approve the first reading.