The coronavirus pandemic, various stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices brought a stop to — or at least slowed down — many business activities during the past two months.
But there is no slowing down construction on the $26 million expansion at Doosan Bobcat in Litchfield.
"It's a big project, and we have deadlines to meet," said Eric Doering, third generation co-owner of Systems West Inc., the Litchfield construction firm that's building the expansion.
Preparation at the site on Aspen Drive in the city's industrial park began in mid-September last year with pouring of concrete, and steel construction started in February, with the expectation that the 130,000 square foot addition will be operational by December.
"It's not too often you get a 130,000 square foot building, especially in your backyard," Doering said of the construction project, to which the company has assigned a 12-person crew.
Doering acknowledged that the construction site serves as a "massive" billboard, of sorts, for Systems West, which does commercial construction projects in a 70-mile radius of Litchfield, in addition to agricultural construction work in a five-state region performed by its Agri-Systems branch.
But the Doosan Bobcat expansion stands out because of its sheer size, Doering said. The expansion, formally announced this past November when Scott Park, president and chief executive officer of Doosan Bobcat visited the Litchfield plant, is expected to create 200 jobs.
The expansion's dimensions are 250 feet by 775 feet, with a 150-foot clear span. It will triple the size of the Bobcat plant, which manufactures attachments for Bobcat and Doosan products, from 60,000 to about 200,000 square feet. That's an impressive number on its own, but a materials-by-the-numbers list gives a deep illustration of the project, including:
Standing between the southern portion of the expansion, now enclosed, which will house the plant's paint booth, and the northern portion of the site, Doering said the Doosan Bobcat construction project would almost certainly draw a satisfied smile from Systems West founder, Glen Doering.
"He'd be pretty proud," said Doering, who along with his brother, Mike Doering, are continuing a family business founded in the 1960s by their grandfather, Glen, as an ag construction firm. The company's footprint — and focus — grew larger under the second-generation leadership of their father, Ray Doering.
The company's growth was evident as Eric Doering stood at the Doosan Bobcat construction site and counted the Systems West projects done in Litchfield.
"Fourteen that I can see from right here," he said, "most of them since 2000."
And the latest of those represents one of the most impressive — both in terms of construction logistics and materials, and in what the finished project will mean to the customer, Doosan Bobcat, and Litchfield area.
School will end a little earlier than expected for Litchfield students this year.
Litchfield School Board voted 5-1 during a special meeting May 5 to approve a modified school calendar that makes May 22 the last day for distance learning.
The change comes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order that school districts adopt distance learning, and the logistics around students returning to the school to return their computers and pick up personal items they left in their lockers when schools were shuttered.
Though not technically a change in the school calendar, Superintendent Beckie Simenson said, the change needed approval of local school board, according to guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education.
“This has been a discussion, regarding distance learning and equity and all those things across the state,” Simenson said as she asked board members to consider the change. “We are thinking if distance learning were to be done May 22, that following week we would be able to do a number of things.”
Litchfield’s original school calendar called for the last day of school to be June 2. Device return would have happened throughout the final week of classes.
Simenson said that even with the end to distance learning on May 22, teachers will continue to maintain contact with students, as needed.
“Staff would continue to be involved with students,” Simenson said, through the daycare at the Wagner Education Center for students of Tier 1 and Tier 2 emergency and essential workers, as well as the district’s meal distribution program. “We are following the letter of the law and guidance from the governor and Commissioner (of Education Mary) Ricker.”
Simenson told the board she contacted several area school districts to inquire how they would be handling the end of the school year, and she received a mixed response. ACGC schools had their last day Tuesday, Eden Valley-Watkins will be “changing their last few days.” Annandale plans to end its distance learning May 22, followed by a week of “finals, getting in late work and turning in” their computers. Willmar school district will be allowing its students to keep their computers for the summer, she said.
With Litchfield’s last day of distance learning May 22, device turn-in will begin the following Monday. Device return will be coordinated with personal property pickup, Simenson said, which could be significant, since students didn’t know when they left school on March 18 that they would not be returning. Staff has been cleaning out lockers to prepare for that return-pickup effort.
“It’s almost like conducting a great orchestra or band,” Simenson said of the effort needed to organize the return-pickup.
And the device return will be just the beginning of the effort. When devices are returned, they will be stored in a room, without ventilation for 72 hours, since the coronavirus can reportedly live on surfaces for up to 72 hours. Then the district’s technology staff will be equipped with gloves and masks to wear while completing the device return and setup for next school year.
Board member Chase Groskreutz, the only member to vote against the distance learning date change, said his vote was not about the effort of staff.
“For what we’ve had to deal with over the last couple of months, I think you’ve all worked very hard,” Groskreutz said, explaining that his vote was more about his – and others’ – opinion of many decisions made at the state level. “I know a lot of people are frustrated, but that’s just the world we’re living in right now.”
Simenson thanked Groskreutz for his praise of staff and agreed that the past several weeks has been a struggle for many.
“It has gotten to the point in the state that the mental health of our parents is really being affected by this,” she said, adding that struggle was the inspiration behind the district’s new COVID 19 Support Services web page.
While the Minnesota Legislature has been locked in a stalemate over mail balloting, the Meeker County Auditor’s Office has been preparing for 10 precincts who will vote by mail this year — and an increase in “no excuses” absentee voting.
The Legislature has debated mail balloting during its current session as fears of the coronavirus affecting both turnout and the availability of election judges have mounted. But late last week, the Senate passed a bill focused on ensuring safe elections in the August primary and November general election, but does not include a plan to hold the 2020 elections entirely by mail — a proposal opposed by Republicans.
Secretary of State Steve Simon and county auditors across the state “lobbied hard to see if we could have all mail ballots,” Meeker County Auditor Barb Loch said. “That just isn’t going to happen.”
So, Meeker County will continue with its plans as best it can, Loch said.
That means preparing mail-in ballots for the 10 county precincts at which vote-by-mail has been authorized. State law allows vote-by-mail at precincts with fewer than 400 registered voters, if the governing body adopts a resolution in favor no later than 90 days prior to the first election.
County precincts that will vote by mail this year include: Cedar Mills city, Cedar Mills Township, Cosmos city, Cosmos Township, Danielson Township, Darwin Township, Ellsworth Township, Forest City Township, Harvey Township and Kingston city.
Those precincts include 2,669 registered, nearly 20 percent of the county’s 13,647 registered voters.
Given the success of vote by mail in past elections, Loch said, switching entirely to vote-by-mail seemed a good option, because of the uncertainties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Potential rapid changes in response to the COVID-19 infectious disease (makes) planning very difficult,” Loch said.
She told the Meeker County Board during its regular meeting May 6 that she was concerned about “vulnerable polling locations” that might not have the space to spread out voters, or even to eliminate the sharing of pens used in the voting booth.
Meeker County has 14 polling locations, including one at the courthouse in Litchfield. Additionally, two churches and a fire hall are used as poll sites, with the remaining being in city or township buildings.
If the need for social distancing creates a need to expand the number of poll locations, she said, it could “cause an even greater shortage of election judges to meet requirements and additional equipment needs,” as well as voter confusion about where to vote.
Recruiting and training election judges is likely to be a special challenge this year, Loch said. Given social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions, her office may need to implement virtual training sessions for judges. And the field of potential judges could be reduced because of the fear of the coronavirus.
“No excuse” absentee voting is expanded in a Minnesota House bill, which also includes $17 million in federal funding that could be used to promote the voting method.
Loch expects increased absentee voting will put more demands on county officials to process and count ballots and to make results available in a timely manner.
Early or absentee voting in the 2018 general election was 18.6 percent of Meeker County’s registered voters, with 1,183 voters (11.4 percent) casting absentee ballots at the courthouse prior to Election Day and another 752 (7.2 percent) mailed ballots.
Statewide, Minnesota saw 24 percent of ballots cast early in the 2018 election, with nearly 78 percent of all accepted absentee ballots coming the last 14 days before Election Day. Absentee voting allows a voter to receive mailed ballots each election after a one-time application.
Secretary of State Simon hopes that through promotion the state can increase absentee balloting to 50 percent or 60 percent in this year’s elections, an effort that could alleviate the potential crowding at in-person polling sites.