By Adam Swann
Caledonia City Clerk/
It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been challenging for everyone in the City of Caledonia.
Over the past year, we have dealt with COVID-19, lockdowns, economic distress, uncertainty, and contentious national and state politics. These trials have taken an emotional, physical, and mental toll on just about everyone.
Caledonia’s citizens, however, have been resilient in the face of these difficult conditions. Caledonians have maintained a strong sense of community and balanced public health concerns with the need to support our City’s businesses, schools, workforces, and families. During the past year, City leaders and employees have tried to help our community through these difficult times while also planning for a brighter future.
In 2020 some changes had to be made to City operations because of COVID-19. The Ambulance Department, under Director Mike Tornstrom’s proactive leadership, quickly procured personal protective equipment (PPE) and implemented new procedures for responding to calls for service.
City Hall and the Library were closed to the public from March 18 to May 27. The Library was closed again by the Library Board starting in mid-November in response to Governor Walz’s Executive Order 20-99.
The City waived credit card fees for utility bills paid over the phone through City staff, and the City reduced on-sale liquor license fees for businesses.
Some City Council and Economic Development Authority (EDA) meetings were held by Zoom or in the City Auditorium to allow for more social distancing. The Police Department limited contact during traffic stops and maintained social distancing to the extent possible without sacrificing public safety.
Protective barriers were installed at the liquor store to protect both employees and customers.
The City continued to provide some important services and programs for the community. For example, City parks and playgrounds remained open based on the science showing a low risk of COVID-19 transmission at these facilities.
It took a lot of planning, flexibility, and optimism, but the City opened the Caledonia Aquatic Center for most of the summer season. This would not have been possible without good leadership from pool manager Maria Schieber and assistant managers Kerrigan Scanlan and Tessa Pieper; nor would it have been possible without 12 dedicated lifeguards.
The City also provided a baseball and softball season for 141 kids despite the Coulee Region canceling its league. Caledonia’s baseball and softball program would not have happened without the steadfast leadership of manager Theresa Huff and the commitment of many volunteer baseball and softball coaches.
In addition to these summer recreational activities and services, the City offered in-person voting at the Auditorium for the presidential primary, state primary, and General Election, thanks to a resolute group of election judges. The City liquor store continued operations and performed strongly. City Hall remained opened to the public starting at the end of May in order to serve the public, though large gatherings of people were limited.
Caledonia City leaders and employees worked on more than just COVID-19 issues in 2020. For example, the City recently completed drilling new Production Well #8, and the City hired engineering firm WSB & Associates to design a new pump house for the well. The City made significant progress on planning and designing a new wastewater treatment facility, and the City received a $7 million appropriation from the State of Minnesota thanks to support from Representative Greg Davids and Senator Jeremy Miller, who added the funding to the bonding bill passed in September.
The City moved forward with other projects as well. The City replaced the light poles at the Veterans Memorial Park baseball field. The City hired engineering firm Waters Edge Aquatic Design to prepare specs for replacing the pool gutter at the Caledonia Aquatic Center, and the City accepted a bid from Ricchio, Inc. to do the work in spring 2021. The project will be paid for by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. The City also updated its Comprehensive Plan for the first time since 2007.
There were a few personnel changes at the City this year. Kayla Snell was hired as the new administrative assistant at the Police Department, and Joseph Holten was hired as the new liquor store manager.
Caledonia’s volunteers were busy. The Wild Turkey Fest Committee decorated North Park and other public areas with fall and winter decorations. Streetscapes/Caledonia Green planted flowers and obtained a $7,500 grant from the Arlin Falck Foundation to hire an artist to paint a mural in downtown Caledonia in 2021.
It was a tough year for economic development in the City. Two businesses that received Caledonia Economic Development Authority (EDA) loans closed—i.e., A.J.’s Bar and Grill and Chuck’s Old Fashioned Meats—and several other prospective businesses halted their plans as a result of Governor Walz’s shutdown orders.
Despite the challenging economic environment, there were some positive economic developments in the City, particularly in downtown Caledonia, and current and prospective building owners have expressed excitement about the momentum in downtown Caledonia. Mike and Sarah Klug finished rehabbing the new downtown office of Klug Insurance—a project that was partially funded with an EDA loan.
The Rustic Tap, a new bar and grill, also opened downtown on E. Main Street. The building owner received a Small Cities Development Program (SCDP) grant to replace the roof, and several other housing and commercial rehab projects were completed using SCDP funds.
Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center moved to its newly renovated office on S. Kingston Street, a project made possible in part due to a forgivable loan from the EDA to the building owners, Norman and Kate Snodgrass. Twin Village Apartments completed its second apartment building and quickly leased most of the eight new units; this was a project that received a partial tax abatement from the City.
There were some additional positive economic developments in the City in 2020 that occurred without public assistance. For example, Sleepy Hollow Chevrolet Buick bought Ellingson Motors in downtown Caledonia when Chuck Ellingson retired. Sleepy Hollow completed several renovations to the property and added new employees.
The City and EDA are encouraged by the positive economic projects in Caledonia in 2020, but these projects do not conceal or minimize the financial and economic hardships faced by many Caledonians, particularly our business owners, who have been shut down involuntarily for many months and given ever-changing mandates from the state. This is one of the main reasons the City allocated $161,681 of its $212,761 in CARES Act funds to the Caledonia EDA for grants to 35 City businesses to help offset their losses from COVID-19. Unfortunately, these funds are not nearly enough, and City Council and the EDA Board sympathize with the business owners and their employees who are feeling frustrated and stressed.
In closing, 2020 has been a difficult year, but the City and EDA have not stopped working for the citizens and businesses in Caledonia. We have tried to provide as much normalcy as possible while still taking reasonable precautions to protect public health and safety. We have also been working towards a better future, with new water and sewer infrastructure, improved roads, sidewalks, and recreational amenities, and a more attractive, vibrant downtown.
Thank you to everyone in the community who helped the City this year, whether by working as an election judge, volunteering to beautify our parks, serving as a coach or lifeguard, supporting local businesses, or providing words of encouragement. You have made a significant difference in getting us through this year, and it’s because of you that we are optimistic that Caledonia’s future is bright.