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Area mayors share issues with Sen. Klobuchar

FAIRMONT– On Wednesday, Senator Amy Klobuchar held a virtual roundtable southern Minnesota county tour to discuss infrastructure needs. Mayors from the cities of Marshall, Jackson, Blue Earth and Fairmont participated.

While the purpose of the meeting was to hear about issues in these areas, Klobuchar first told the area mayors that the bipartisan infrastructure laws are still an incredible source of funding for rural Minnesota.

“I led the broadband part, in part, because having been in your counties, I knew the problem we still had, and really highlighted in the pandemic; 144,000 rural Minnesotans that didn’t have high-speed access to internet,” Klobuchar said.

In addition to broadband issues in southern Minnesota, Klobuchar said she’s aware of issues with rural roads and bridges, as well as childcare and workforce issues.

Speaking of the later, Klobuchar said students need to be trained for the jobs we have now.

“As I’ve often said, we’re not going to have a shortage of sports marketing degrees. We’re going to have a shortage of electricians and plumbers and people in healthcare,” Klobuchar said.

She asked the mayors what the priorities are in their respective communities. Many of them shared an overlap of issues.

First, Marshall Mayor, Bob Byrnes acknowledged that all four of the mayors represented the larger cities in their region. He also said they all have infrastructure needs. He spoke about funding available but said the problem is the ability to access the funds.

“That’s why I’m doing this call. You can boast about passing bills, but if it doesn’t get implemented, what good is it?” Klobuchar said.

Byrnes echoed what Klobuchar said in acknowledging that Minnesota has a low unemployment rate; however, he said southern Minnesota has an even lower unemployment rate. He said workforce is a challenge which limits the availability for economic expansion.

Jackson Mayor Wayne Walter next shared some issues specific to their region. Walter said they’ve tackled some infrastructure streets in town, but the industrial and retail area toward the interstate needs help.

“In the town there’s so many streets we need to work on, but we’re short of money. There’s money designated for it but we don’t even seem to hear about how to get it,” said Walter.

Klobuchar said there’s federal money that’s gone to the state, and that it would be great infrastructure money with the bonding bill.

Klobuchar then asked specifically about AGCO. Walter said they’re doing well but with Covid they’re often shorts on parts and struggle to get them, like any other manufacturer.

Walter said they’re also struggling to get workforce housing in Jackson. He said said they’re working with a company that seems interested in coming in to build some with land provided by the city.

“It’s always bothered me that so many of you have such major, stable employers, and the fact that they won’t build the housing makes no sense to me,” Klobuchar said.

Fairmont Mayor Deb Foster then spoke with Klobuchar about some issues in Fairmont.

“I’d like to share something positive that happened here in the last two weeks. Our council approved the defederalization of some revolving loan funds for our Economic Development Authority to meet some of the needs we need directly here in the city,” Foster said.

She said it was unanimous vote of the council and now the EDA, the experts who are seeing the needs here, can use the funds as they see fit.

Foster then shared that Fairmont is facing many of the same issues as was previously discussed, including infrastructure, workforce and housing. She also brought up the issue of childcare.

“We actually have families in our community that are growing their family depending on the daycare openings. It’s so unfortunate that it’s gotten there,” Foster said.

She then shared some information about Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center. Foster detailed how, as Lakeview was renovating, it set aside space for a childcare facility, but ran out of money during Covid-induced cost increases.

“It’s a perfect site. But there’s no money,” Foster said.

She brought up the fact that non-profits seem to have a good deal of money available but when it’s a for-profit business, there’s limited access to funds to help them.

Foster switched gears and said there’s no additional space to put a new workforce.

“We’re kind of on our own little island where we’re at. We’re 60 miles from a city that’s relatively our size and it’s difficult to get contractors to come down to this area because they can’t branch out into different areas,” Foster said.

Foster ended her discussion with Klobuchar by saying, “we’d appreciate any help youcan continue to give us. We are very grateful.”

Finally, Mayor Rick Scholtes of Blue Earth said they’re facing issues similar to the other communities. He did say a specific issue Faribault County is facing is a shortage of veterinarians.

“Blue Earth and other small communities are facing what will become a crisis due to the lack of available large animal veterinarians,” Scholtes said.

He said Dr. Robert Bogan is a 75-year-old veterinarian and he’s currently the only vet for both large and small animals in all of Faribault County. Both the city and the EDA have been working with Bogan for over five years to help recruit a vet to take over the practice.

“Recent graduates from vet school cite rising student loan debt, work-life balance, more competitive wage offers… with less on-call work requirements and the option to be not the business owner,” Scholtes said.

He pointed out that this puts rural Minnesota and agriculture-based communities at a disadvantage as there’s no one to care for animals. He said they’re struggling to find incentives to recruit people to take over these positions.

Klobuchar said the issue is both getting people who are already here into a certain occupation, and finding incentives to recruit people to these areas.

Scholtes also said affordable housing is an issue, especially in Blue Earth. He said they received some federal funding through a state program for lower-end housing, but that the prevailing wage can add 30 percent to the cost of building a single family home.

“Our local contractors all of a sudden are making more money than they were and that pushes the cost of the house from a $150,000 home to a $250,000 home,” Scholtes said.

Klobuchar thanked the mayors for their time and input. She said she plans to visit each town in the coming year and will be able to talk to them more then.

“My takeaways from this are the specific infrastructure projects, the need to unleash that funding from the state and encourage that immediately. The childcare issue… and also funding and the expansions. We also talked about housing…. a lot of it is pushing these companies and figuring out incentives for them to build in your communities,” Klobuchar said.

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