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Rushford sees big changes

Fri, Jan 22nd, 2010
Posted in Progress Edition

Rushfords Himlie Business Park Community Center project location. Submitted by Peggi Redalen

A bevy of at least eight projects seemed to wrap up Rushford's year, many of which also seemed to draw a considerable amount of media attention and some controversy at times.

The 2009 Street and Utility Improvement Project, geared at updating rapidly aging infrastructure, procured a fair amount of the attention. The plan, which will be ongoing for a number of years, is intended to systematically repair a series of selected areas. While some of the work is due to the 2007 flood, most were simply revealed by the disaster.

Throughout the year, the predictions and estimations fluctuated, at least to some degree, as the city tried to nail down a course of action, financing options, and possible FEMA and grant assistance. By mid-summer, the first public hearing had been conducted, a proposed assessment policy had been discussed, and the plan had been whittled down to one contract, bid as separate schedules and varying alternatives. Eventually, a path was chosen, amid some council division, to proceed with Schedule A and Schedule B, alternative 1. Schedule A is comprised of the water and sanitary system replacement, a $2,405,773.90 cost. Schedule B, alternative 1 encompasses the full Himilie Addition project and Pine Meadows North at a cost of $809,348.39.

Paying for a portion of the project, the city chose to refinance $2.73 million in bonds. The end result, including principal and interest, will be an amount of $4.173 million paid over 20 years. This, too, drew mixed reactions.

As the year progressed, so did the drive for a hotel and community center in Himlie Business Park. While a notable effort was made by a group of citizens and businesses to secure a site and financing for a downtown motel, the effort fell short of its goal. In the end, an agreement was reached between the city and F&L Development, Inc. for the purpose of construction of both a 22-unit motel and community center on the north end of town. Both are slated to be completed by the end of 2010 or sooner should weather permit.

Another proposed city project which drew some speculation and arguments was a new city center facility adjoining the cramped public library and city hall. It was clear from some community comments that while the need for library improvements is beyond obvious, most property owners felt that it was not the time to be beginning another large-ticket item. In contrast, those who'd worked on the initiative for a new library, with or without a city hall combination, were adamant that the 10-plus years put into the planning, the hiring of a professional consulting firm, and an available city-owned parcel were the indications of the time to move forward. Currently, no major decisions have been made regarding the library with the exception of the 2009 council's decision to allow planning to continue.

Some projects are optional, some are mandatory. The recertification of the levee system certainly falls under the latter category. Restored to its pre-flood condition, the levee system has hit several roadblocks as new FEMA standards have imposed their will on the city, hindering the achievement of recertification. Rapidly counting down to an August 25th, 2011, deadline, the city was made aware that without recertification, a vast majority of the community will be reclassified as a flood plain. Detrimental to the city and its property owners, the city must instead find a way to fund a predicted $1,140,695 to make the system compliant with the new FEMA standards. Significant funding possibilities exist, but it remains to be seen what the city will be ultimately responsible for financially.

As a levy increase, electric service changes, and new wastewater facility improvements rounded out the year's more cumbersome projects. Coupled with a predicted $97,112 in cuts to Local Government Aid from the state, community displeasure in the direction the city was moving became gradually louder.

In January, councilor Laura Deering announced her resignation. A series of decisions, including the somewhat controversial selection and appointment of replacement Jim Wolter by two councilors and City Administrator Windy Block, only garnered further attention.

By November, following a first-ever public candidate forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the buzz, including negative press for the community, had become near deafening. When Election Day came and went, the results were quite surprising to some, not so to others. Incumbent Mayor Les Ladewig and councilors Nancy Benson and Jim Wolter did not receive re-election. Instead, first-time candidate Chris Hallum was voted mayor; challengers Vern Bunke and Mark Honsey were chosen for two, four-year terms; and challenger Ted Roberton was elected to one, two-year term. The only remaining 2009 council member is Robert Dahl who was not up for re-election.

At the November 23rd council meeting, an impromptu resolution by the outgoing Wolter brought the council controversy to a head. The intention was to have the city enter into a new contract with City Administrator Windy Block. Citing performance evaluation, termination, and severance pay portions of the contract, a special representation, including council member Nancy Benson and Mayor Ladewig, revised the contract with City Attorney Scott Springer. At the December 14th meeting, the contract was officially amended.

While all of the swirling comments and opinions highlighted a good share of the year, Rushford was not without moments of absolute unity and decidedly positive growth.

In May, during a rainy five-day period, citizens and volunteers alike geared up to rebuild Rushford's landmark Creekside Park Playground. The structure, which was damaged beyond repair in the flood, was completely redesigned and rebuilt. FEMA funding, fundraising dollars, and random donations, as well as old-fashioned hard work resulted in a new, magnificent structure which is once again one of Rushford's "must see" destinations.

Several businesses opened their doors, revamped their current facility, or expanded their operations in 2009. Of these, especially notable was the completed renovation of Rushford's historic Hoiland Mill on the banks of the Rush Creek.

In the latter half of 2009, Rushford was designated as the statewide Community Conservationist of the Year by the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Rushford was especially recognized for its role as a leading advocate of identifying and sealing private wells within wellhead protection areas while working relentlessly to resolve flood-related issues. Also honored was Rushford-Peterson teacher Craig Colbenson as teacher of the year.

Even though the new year has just begun, a series of projects and goals have already positioned themselves as prudent measures for the community's future.

The city has applied for a Legacy Grant from the Department of Natural Resources. The funding, which ranges from $20,000 to $500,000, requires only a 25 percent local match with the state picking up the remaining 75 percent. The city is looking at the opportunity to tie local recreation trails into existing state trails. It also has its sights on the potential use of the levee system as a trail site. The plan would eventually incorporate both Creekside Park and the historic mill along the route to the state trails.

The Tri-City Initiative, bringing together the benefits of Rushford, Rushford Village, and Peterson, is moving forward. The city was presented with a possible canoe launch project aimed at making better use of the city's natural resources and bolstering tourism. A Scenic Byway Grant has been applied for to assist in the project, should it move forward.

The need for housing, particularly apartment or transitional type housing, will also likely be a topic of 2010. Both businesses and the Economic Development Authority have noted a serious need to accommodate new local employees.

Both the fire department and the municipal airport will see changes in the coming year. Plans are currently in place for the expansion of the Rushford Fire Department building. The space is needed for the storage of equipment, such as a light tower, flat bottom boat, canoe, and a future all-terrain rescue vehicle. The estimated cost of the addition is $10,975. Only $3,975 is required from the city, which had already budgeted $5,000 for 2010 building expenses at the department. A majority of the construction work will be done by the volunteer fire department force.

Plans are also in place at the municipal airport for the construction of a 6-unit T-hangar project. The city plans to continue with engineering of the project, with the seeking of bids occurring at a later time. Using this timeline, the city can take advantage of federal funding, thus avoiding having to self-fund the project.

As the perception of Rushford, its future and unity may have wavered to both those within the city and those watching from the sidelines, it's clear from the community that the city will keep moving forward. There will always be disagreements, but community pride and tradition will always keep the best intentions at heart.

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