Sen. Carla Nelson listens as Chatfield Superintendent Ed Harris speaks about matters that concern the School Board and staff during a legislative forum hosted by the city of Chatfield last Tuesday evening.
Sen. Carla Nelson listens as Chatfield Superintendent Ed Harris speaks about matters that concern the School Board and staff during a legislative forum hosted by the city of Chatfield last Tuesday evening. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS

Representatives of Chatfield’s administration and city departments, its school district and the Chatfield Center for the Arts, Inc., (CCA) gathered in a square last Tuesday, Nov. 21, with local and regional legislators for a roundtable discussion of items and issues that those entities feel are important to the city and to its residents.

Legislators present to hear the concerns included District 25’s Sen. Dave Senjem, Rep. Nels Pierson of 26B, Sen. Carla Nelson of District 26, and Rep. Greg Davids of District 28B.

Chatfield Mayor Russ Smith first asked for introductions of everyone facing into the square roundtable, and then Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young stated, “The point of this forum is to inform the delegation of legislators what we aspire to, the things that we would like to address in the coming year.”

Chatfield Superintendent Ed Harris took his turn speaking about property taxes and the impact that recent legislation had on the school district, namely in terms of the creation of a policy that credited ag land owners 40 percent, instead of taxing them as much when a building referendum is posed.

“I want to thank you for your service and for the ag tax credit. That’s been a pretty big deal here,” Harris added. “We’ve had a referendum for our high school…I want to thank you for your work to see that through.”

Harris inquired next how progress was being made to properly fund the Teachers’ Retirement Association (TRA), or a public pension fund that has been a point of contention as the state and local governments struggle to uphold their commitments to the people who have provided children with a public education.

Nelson outlined that some action was in the works but that it was not as encouraging as she had hoped. “The sooner we can take care of this, the better,” she commented.

Senjem took up the conversation. “The last two pension bills have been vetoed and when we left last May, there was an overall pension liability of 77 percent,” he explained. “We can’t let it slip any longer. I think the goal is to try to make this a 50-50 thing between the state and local governments. This is serious stuff that’s going to affect a lot of programmatic budgets, but we’ve got to get on it.”

Pierson added, “This is a promise that we made that they’ll be paid, and it should be taken care of.”

Chatfield Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Chris Giesen took his turn to speak, telling the legislators about development and redevelopment being done within the city.

“We want to take advantage of the growth we’re seeing. On Industrial Drive, the city is putting in roughly $1 million to open up that road for commercial use, and we also received $177,000 in Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) funds, along with a USDA loan through MiEnergy. On Twiford Street, we’ve redeveloped a plot for which we received a $230,000 grant to redevelop that land into something new. We might have to ask you for help because we have to redevelop it within five years, or we may have to repay that grant. We originally had the work started with a Family Dollar store signed up to build there, but within three weeks, there was a corporate buyout.”

He related that the city had next worked with Cobblestone Suites to garner local investors to build a 40-room hotel on the corner of Twiford, but there weren’t enough investors interested in the project, bringing the city and EDA to the present situation of seeking an agreement with another company.

“We’re trying to develop it into something, but we may ask for help because there are elevation changes there that aren’t for the faint of heart,” Giesen said. “We’re ready to go, from a city standpoint – we’ve done the site planning and want to make way for a 40-room hotel. There are lots of options.”

Giesen went on to explain how the city had used $300,000 in sales tax funds that it had received as a “good neighbor” contribution from Rochester, where quite a few pennies go toward that city’s local sales tax.

“We used it for a variety of things. I think Chatfield took an interesting path in how it used the money, such as the Twiford project, for E-Z Fabricating’s relocation, for a hotel feasibility study, for a façade improvement program and for participation in Journey to Growth (J2G),” he explained. “The fuzzy math says we got about a $1,300 return on investment, that we created 22 jobs and retained another 25 jobs, and with the façade grant, we helped seven or eight downtown business owners fix up their buildings.”

CCA, Inc., representative Carla Gallina gave her account of the acquisition of the former Chatfield Elementary School building and its transformation from a school building to a destination as an arts center.

“In 2010, the city took over this property, and in 2011, the CCA, Inc., was incorporated with an operating budget of $0. In 2017, our budget was over $160,000, and next year, it’s projected to be $200,000. Everybody here is related to this stage somehow,” Gallina said. “We have definitely put the bonding bill (funds) to work. We finished the (second phase) renovation in October 2016 and have had 37 major events on this stage. It’s run the gamut from school plays and community theater to concerts with major acts. We have 35 percent attendance from the city and townships, as well as attendance from Rochester and the surrounding areas…we have quite a following of people from La Crosse and Decorah.”

She also highlighted that next on the agenda is to put the 1916 building to good use, with a Neil Diamond tribute band and a 15-person choir coming next year. The CCA also has a partnership with Wits’ End Theatre (WET), and there are high school plays that take place on the stage as well.

Young informed the legislators that Chatfield is growing. “We’ve had great leadership, a great council and support. There are 19 new homes in Chatfield this year,” he said. “Three people just finished their first year on the council, and the mayor and three councilors have served for several years.”

Near the end of the forum, Senjem expressed his sentiment that Young has served Chatfield well in his capacity as city clerk because of Young’s involvement with all departments of the city’s operation and his dedication to his role.

“You are in the five-award category, and Joel Young stands among one of the finest city administrators in Minnesota,” Senjem said. “Your city does a great job, you’ve got leadership.”

The councilors gave their last comments before the legislators departed. Councilor Mike Urban requested that the legislators give thought to ways the tax burden on local taxpayers could be eased. He stated residents are paying for a new elementary school, renovation of the high school, the daily operation of the city and now will be paying for a new municipal swimming pool and the overhaul of Highway 52 in 2019, which also functions as Chatfield’s main street.

In parting remarks from the legislators, Nelson gave her summation of the city’s efforts for the past year. “Congratulations, and I look forward to seeing what next year brings for Chatfield,” she said.

Pierson concurred, adding, “Thanks for hosting us.”