Litchfield High School juniors and seniors enjoyed a “Starlit Fantasy” Saturday.
Eighty-eight couples participated in 2021 prom grand march in the Litchfield High School gym where the lights — and attire — sparkled in fitting tribute to the prom’s “Starlit Fantasy” theme.
Though attendance was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, the crowd that gathered to see couples parade through the gym offered enthusiastic review. For those who could not get a ticket, organizers offered a livestream of the grand march, with video of the couples making stops in front of the cameras at three different spots along a path that wound from an east entrance to the west side of the gym.
After prom was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, couples and audience alike seemed just happy to have the event this year.
Following grand march, couples could enjoy horse drawn carriage rides and food from a food truck outside the school. They returned later in the evening to participate in a variety of activities and for an opportunity to win prizes donated by local merchants.
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Striking a balance between encouragement and enforcement with downtown building owners has proven challenging for Litchfield City Council members.
But on Monday, the Council agreed to have city staff send a letter to all downtown building owners telling them they might be eligible for a grant to improve their buildings while reminding them to take care of possible code violations at their buildings.
The façade grant program provides up to $8,000 in matching funding for downtown building owners over the next three years. Funding requests are retroactive to Jan. 1 this year, and the program will run through Dec. 31, 2023.
A building improvement program has been available in some form since at least 2013. The city offered up to $1,000 in matching grant dollars for buildings within the Downtown Historic Commercial District from 2013 to 2016, and an Exterior Building Improvement Grant offered up to $5,000 in matching dollars from 2017 to 2019.
Getting to the current approach of grants with code compliance took some time, as Council members engaged in a debate that included almost as many divergent philosophies as there were participants.
The one common thread, however, was the idea that downtown buildings and their surrounding property needed some attention.
That idea was supported by a two-page handout that listed 36 downtown properties, all of them with at least some cosmetic or safety issue — from minor brick deterioration, to broken windows and lights, to weeds, junk vehicles and tires. City Administrator Dave Cziok explained the list was compiled by two city staff members who spent an afternoon walking main street and the alleys behind main street to observe and record “building issues” or “other issues.” Many of the items listed would qualify as city code violations and could incur fines, Cziok said.
The topic arose two weeks ago as the City Council discussed a façade grant program that would provide up to $8,000 to owners who made qualifying improvements to the exteriors of their buildings. It would be a renewal of a past façade grant program that offered $5,000 in matching funds for similar downtown building improvements.
However, Cziok expressed discomfort and uncertainty about having city staff award the grants because of some negative feedback he received under the previous program, after grants were awarded for improvements but there remained code violations or unsightliness at properties that received the grants.
That brought the review of the downtown state of affairs by the two city staff members, and their the two-page report that Cziok shared Monday.
Given his understanding of the previous discussion, Cziok said, if any of the owners on the list applied for a façade grant they would not receive the funding until issues on the list were addressed.
Mayor Keith Johnson said he didn’t think that went far enough. While such an approach might get some properties — those that applied for grants — cleaned up and repaired, it could potentially leave many problems unaddressed by building owners who did not seek a grant.
“If someone wants to be funded … we’re only going to worry about those buildings?” Johnson said. “Why aren’t we worried about all buildings downtown? It shouldn’t be only the ones that want (a grant). If we ignore the ones that don’t go for a COA (grant), what good is it going to do us?”
Johnson suggested that all building owners on the property review list receive a letter explaining their potential code violation and directing them to clean up their property. But that approach drew concern from Council member Ron Dingmann.
“We have ordinance violations throughout this entire community,” Dingmann said. “I have a problem with just picking on property owners in downtown.”
Rather than sending letters only to downtown businesses, it would be more fair to send them to every property owner in the city who violated city code, which would be a “monumental task,” Dingmann added.
“This is a way we can prove to the community that we are concerned about nuisance issues,” Johnson replied.
Council member John Carlson agreed, saying that “I’m frustrated that we’re not going to tackle that monumental task. If it’s an ordinance and they don’t follow it … if we’re going to have a rule, we need to enforce it, is my mindset.”
Council member Darlene Kotelnicki seemed to try to strike a middle ground, agreeing that code violations, wherever they were, needed to be addressed, both by the city and property owners. However, when it comes to downtown property owners who might seek a façade grant, “transparency” is important, she said.
“Let’s start with what we agree on,” Kotelnicki said. “We all seem to agree they shouldn’t be getting city money when they’re out of compliance. The question is, how far do we go? We have to define the process … (and) need to notify property owners.
“I don’t want to get into a complaint basis. I don’t buy into this complaint basis,” Kotelnicki said. “We have to make them aware.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will end all statewide coronavirus restrictions by July 1 — or sooner if 70% of residents older than 16 get vaccinated, his office announced last week.
Yes, all restrictions: restaurant closing hours, church capacity, 6-foot distancing, and yes, the statewide mask mandate.
“We’re here, we’re here, we’re here,” Walz said in a statewide address, in which he outlined a three-phase plan that eased restaurant and bar rules beginning May 7 and will eliminate nearly all restrictions by Memorial Day weekend.
He and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm still cautioned that the pandemic isn’t over, Minnesotans are still getting sick and dying, and that some individuals — especially unvaccinated people — should still avoid crowded indoor spaces and continue to wear their masks.
The July 1-or-sooner date will be the final phase of the plan that began May 7 with eliminating early closing times for restaurants and bars and ending mask requirements for many outdoor events.
The changes will allow attendance to be boosted soon at Twins and Saints baseball games, although officials from both teams said Thursday morning they weren’t yet sure exactly how that would play out.
Walz and state health officials agree the rollbacks are supported by the current and projected future state of the pandemic in Minnesota, where cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all falling as vaccinations continue to rise, with those fully vaccinated surpassing the 2 million mark Wednesday. At the current pace, the state is on track to reach the 70% threshold by the end of June, Walz said.
Walz and Malcolm used the occasion to push for everyone older than 16 to get vaccinated, noting that appointments are open across the state and 473,000 more people need to get inoculated to reach the level.
To be clear: Even if Minnesota doesn’t reach the 70% vaccination threshold, the mask mandate will be lifted July 1, Walz pledged, offering to sign the date into law if lawmakers approve such a bill.
Walz said that forecasts he’s consulted, including a widely respected model by Mayo Clinic, project cases falling steadily over the next several weeks in Minnesota.
The state appears to be on the downslide of a spring surge of cases driven by the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Great Britain. Nonetheless, the virus and its variants are rampaging across parts of the globe, especially in South America and India, raising the odds of more dangerous mutations that could evade protection offered by existing vaccines.
Businesses, institutions, schools and other venues will still be allowed to continue restrictions — and many will be advised to, especially if they involve children who can’t yet be vaccinated.
Schools, for example, will continue to follow state guidelines through the end of the regular school year, in accordance with the state’s “Safe Learning Plan,” Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said. Summer school plans are being worked on, and it’s too early to tell what next fall will look like, she said.
Local jurisdictions will also be allowed to have their own restrictions. Officials with St. Paul and Minneapolis indicated Thursday that they could renew or reinstate citywide mask mandates that could extend past July 1, although neither city government has reached a decision.
But Thursday’s announcements signify an endgame — at least for now — to the most stringent requirements, which Walz, like his peers across the nation and world, has ordered with the force of law via executive fiat allowed under peacetime emergency laws.
Walz plans to extend those emergency powers next week, although he has begun talks with lawmakers on the idea of relinquishing them.
HEALTH COMMISSIONER: GET VAXXED
Malcolm sounded a note of caution in a statement urging all Minnesotans older than 16 to get vaccinated now.
“So long as the virus remains a threat to people anywhere it is a threat to people everywhere,” Malcolm said. “That means we need to be watchful and keep up the good work that got us to this point. If you are eligible for a vaccine and haven’t received one yet, now is a great time to get one. Your decision helps protect your family, your community, and all Minnesotans.”
She said the state anticipates some vaccines becoming approved for children age 12 to 16 within a matter of weeks.
BIZ REACTION: ‘PLEASE VISIT’
Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Tony Chesak issued the following statement in response:
“Local bars and restaurants have been desperate to fully open safely and quickly — and the end is in sight. We’re thrilled to fully open for business with minimal restrictions. Please visit your local bars and restaurants — we’ve missed you!”
It was a sentiment echoed by Steve Grove, state commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“We ask all Minnesotans to get out and shop, get out to restaurants, get out to sports games,” Grove said. “Spend money at the places we love in Minnesota.”
Minnesota Ready, a coalition of trade organizations and chambers of commerce across the state, issued the following statement:
“This announcement is a long time coming for businesses who have endured incremental dial turns while simultaneously keeping their businesses afloat and protecting employee and customer safety. The business community — local chambers and coalition members — have been steadfast in their support of employers, understanding their enormous impact on local communities and Minnesota’s economy as a whole.”
GOP REACTION: TOO LATE
Republicans, who have been predictably anti-COVID-19 restrictions since shortly after the pandemic arrived, continued their criticism of Walz on Thursday.
“My reaction today is simple: Not good enough and not soon enough,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a statement. “The emergency is over and the mandates need to end.”
Gazelka’s statement continued: “I said in January, when the vaccines were available to young, healthy people, the emergency is over. We’ve been there for weeks. It’s about time the governor recognizes that vaccinations were the key. And while Minnesota stumbled mightily out of the gate to vaccinate the most vulnerable, we now have an abundant supply and appointments.”
While the vaccines appear to have fundamentally changed the nature of the pandemic in America, Gazelka previously stated he believed the emergency was over. That was last year, shortly before Minnesota entered its deadliest surge.
The politics of Thursday’s news was not lost on anyone in state government: The state Legislature is heading toward a May 17 adjournment date. Walz, the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate must reach an agreement on the state’s two-year, roughly $50 billion state budget, or risk a state government shutdown starting July 1.
Walz’s restrictions and emergency powers have long been a sticking point for Republicans, and last week Gazelka said that Walz needed to come to the table on those issues or risk seeing the Senate agree to nothing more than a “bare-bones” budget.
How far Thursday’s announcement goes toward that end remains to be seen.
A downtown farmers market is scheduled to open this week after action by the Litchfield City Council last week.
The Council approved a new location for the farmers market in Central Park, moving it from its longtime location on the east side of the park on Marshall Avenue to the park’s north side, on Fourth Street.
Primary goal of the new location, Council member Ron Dingmann said, is safety. Dingmann, who operates an insurance agency on Marshall Avenue, across the street from the park, said he’d witnessed some close calls safety-wise when the farmers market was operating on Marshall in past years. He hoped moving it to Fourth Street, and closing off the street between Sibley Avenue and Marshall, would allow for enough room and more safety.
The entire block of Fourth Street will not be closed, however, as the city’s electric vehicle charging station is located on the western end. So, market set up will begin just east of the station.
Hours of operation for the market also will be changed after Council action, with the market allowed to operate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays.
Dingmann and Council member Betty Allen said they also hoped that the reworked location and times might bring together two farmers market factions that have operated separately for several years — one on the east side of Central Park and another in the parking lot at what is now the Muddy Cow restaurant.
“We would invite vendors from both markets to join us at this new location,” Allen and Dingmann wrote in a memo included in the Council agenda packet. “Depending on the number of vendors, we would also recommend having locations available for vendors set up along the diagonal walkways on the northeast section of Central Park if they choose.”
Vendors at the market will be asked to follow health guidelines and carry liability insurance.