Mall, landfill also top issues
The announcement that the city of Burnsville would close its ice arena, golf course and other facilities for 30 days effective March 14 now seems distant and insignificant.
Community responses to COVID-19 evolved and shifted as the pandemic unfolded and orders and guidance came down from the state. Many closures dragged on. Businesses coped, got help or went under. Some new businesses opened. Schools adopted distance learning. The public debated the level of threat and tolerance for restrictions. An election was held, with record turnout.
From the pages of Sun Thisweek, here’s a recap of Burnsville news highlights from 2020, many of them shaped by the pandemic. Stories on the year in local school districts will appear in next week’s edition.
Effective at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 14, Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz issued a declaration of local peacetime emergency due to COVID-19. The declaration invoked the city’s disaster plan and authorized other appropriate community containment and mitigation strategies.
The city temporarily closed all city facilities to the public (including City Hall) effective Sunday, March 15. They also included the Burnsville Ice Center, Birnamwood Golf Course, Maintenance Facility, Burnsville Community Television, THE GARAGE and the Ames Center.
It didn’t take long for backlash to ensue.
It erupted during a virtual City Council work session on April 14, leading staff to reverse a decision closing playgrounds in city parks.
A 3-2 council majority of Cara Schulz, Dan Kealey and Vince Workman opposed closing playgrounds. Schulz also opposed police enforcement of the governor’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses.
The decision to post signs closing playgrounds was made April 13 and they began going up April 14, City Manager Melanie Lee told council members.
Guidance from the National Recreation and Park Association and the Centers for Disease Control informed staff’s decision on the “hot button issue,” Lee said. Signs advising precautions because equipment may carry the coronavirus had previously been posted.
Closing playgrounds disadvantages Burnsville’s many apartment-dwelling children, while the more fortunate may have backyard playgrounds, Schulz said.
“The people of far more modest means, we are heaping burden after burden after burden on them,” she said. “They’re being disproportionately affected by what is happening.”
Kealey said it’s ridiculous for the CDC to recommend closing playgrounds when customers in the “petri dish” grocery stores he’s observed have insufficient social distancing, masks or gloves, and touch many surfaces.
“The inconsistency is frustrating the devil out of me,” Kealey said, suggesting that the city advise people to bring sanitary products to playgrounds. “It has really gotten ridiculous.”
A resident and nurse, Linda Kraemer, called in to the work session and said she’s one of the people who have urged the city to close play structures. She said many residents have mobilized on the issue.
“And now tonight, I’m hearing those decisions are being second-guessed,” Kraemer said.
Kautz and Council Member Dan Gustafson said the city manager has the right to make the decision. One exchange grew heated.
“You’re undermining the authority of the city manager who was hired to run this city under our policies,” Gustafson said.
Residents calling in voiced frustrations with commercial restrictions.
“Craft stores have been shut down,” said Heather Jelinek, who said crafting is her outlet for battling severe depression and anxiety. “They’re essential to me.”
Jelinek said her home craft business is in jeopardy amid canceled shows, and she can’t work her day job as a massage therapist during the pandemic.
“I want my financial freedom back,” said another caller, Sara Schmitt, a 43-year Burnsville resident and a self-employed manicurist. “I want to be busy and a thriving business in Burnsville again,” she said.
A month later, a seemingly more united City Council had softened its regulatory posture.
Council members agreed during a May 12 work session to keep playgrounds in city parks open, though a vocal group of residents still wanted them closed.
Council members also united behind a plan to address businesses that open in violation of state executive orders with a letter from code enforcement staff instead of a visit from police.
The approaches reflected an incremental reopening of community life not limited to Burnsville. Other cities had reversed playground closures, and a majority of cities in Dakota County now had open playgrounds.
Community reaches out
After helping out a sick friend in this time of pandemic, Cara Schulz widened her aim.
The Burnsville City Council member posted her phone number and personal email on Facebook, offering free lunchtime delivery of homemade soup to people who think they’re suffering from COVID-19.
A day hasn’t passed in the last couple of weeks without a delivery, Schulz said March 30.
“As people feel better, and they are able to do things for themselves, they drop off,” Schulz said. “But other people seem to be taking their place.”
Her socially distanced doorstep delivery was one example of growing outreach in Burnsville, some of which could be found at a citizen Facebook page called Burnsville Helps, where Mayor Elizabeth Kautz puts out calls for volunteers and they respond.
Other local efforts included outreach from the then-shuttered Burnsville Senior Center.
Volunteers stood ready to deliver food to isolated seniors, write letters or make “comfort check” phone calls. Director Michele Starkey said she worked to maintain contact with seniors and answer their questions and needs.
The city of Burnsville could suffer more than $2 million in 2020 revenue losses this year under a prolonged shutdown from the pandemic, officials said May 4.
The city’s general operating fund, ice arena fund and golf course fund could be down an estimated $1.87 million if city facilities remain shuttered and programs restricted through December.
They didn’t, though a second round of state-ordered closings starting Nov. 20 shuttered the ice arena and city-owned Ames Center.
At an Oct. 27 work session, before the new round of closings, City Council members rejected shuttering the city-owned performing arts center, despite operating deficits caused by the pandemic.
Projected losses of $243,637 in 2020 and $147,454 in 2021 will pressure the city’s general fund at a time when the center, under a management contract with Iowa-based VenuWorks, had begun posting annual operating profits.
CARES Act helps city, businesses
Burnsville’s COVID-19 costs that were eligible for federal reimbursement totaled $13.37 million.
The city’s share of funding from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act Congress passed in March was a smaller $4.72 million — more than $2 million of which went to grants for hard-pressed businesses and several nonprofits.
The largest portion of city spending eligible under the CARES Act was $10.33 million for the already fixed costs of police and fire payroll.
But the city incurred numerous other pandemic-related costs, including $223,636 for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and social-distancing measures; $211,970 for contracted services and reassignment of some staff to other departments; $119,852 for air-purifying negative ion generators at city buildings; $101,409 for remote work and meeting technology; $92,829 for emergency paid sick leave and flex leave; $87,408 for COVID-19-related overtime; and $54,844 for administration of the business grant program.
The grant program paid out $1.99 million. Burnsville businesses that could demonstrate harm from the pandemic were eligible for city grants of up to $20,000 awarded through a lottery. The fund also paid $50,000 grants to the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce, Experience Burnsville and 360 Communities.
The council allocated another $161,525 to a fourth nonprofit, M Health Fairview Ridges Hospital.
The council initially authorized $1.15 million for grants but later doubled it, with council members Dan Kealey and Cara Schulz leading the push for more business grant funding.
Grants a lift, if not a lifeline for businesses
At Mind’s Eye Comics in Burnsville, owner Eric Childs said the store had received nearly $12,000 in a GoFundMe drive and would get up to $10,000 in city CARES money.
The store, forced by state orders to close from March 16 to May 18, was able with the new funding to negotiate new terms with its distributor allowing a seven-day payment cushion for new product, Childs said in October.
Another grant recipient, AmericInn Burnsville burned through its Paycheck Protection Program funding in eight weeks and laid off housekeepers and a breakfast attendant, general manager Jim Satterlund said.
Hotel management is chipping in on room cleaning, desk service and maintenance, he said. The owner, Ruhr Development, is working with its lenders.
Most summers, “We would run 80, 90 percent occupancy,” said Satterlund, describing the hospitality industry as “decimated” by the pandemic. “This summer, we ran around 30. And now we’re heading into the slow time.”
Recipient Retro Fitness had been open about six months when it was forced by state order to close in March.
“It’s been tough,” said Kent Foy, general manager and co-owner of the gym, located in the Burnsville Marketplace mall. “Luckily, the landlord has been willing to work with us. That’s helped to keep us going. And the grant here is greatly appreciated. There have been some things that have helped us to at least stay alive during that time.”
Brew pubs open
Bricksworth Beer Co. in Burnsville opened for curbside and carryout sales the first weekend of October.
At nearly 14,000 square feet, the high-ceilinged space in a business park near the Burnsville Transit Station includes a kitchen, a 10-barrel brewhouse and 6,000 square feet of taproom with socially spaced tables sitting empty.
Absent a pandemic, the taproom could hold nearly 400.
“I look forward to when the first beers get spilled here,” said proprietor Cooper Johnson, a member of the family that owns BlackStack Brewing, a similarly sized gathering spot in St. Paul’s Midway area. “We have a saying up at BlackStack — whenever somebody spills beer, we take it as a good sign, because it means people are having fun. I can’t wait to mop up some spilled beer.”
Ineffable Brewing Co. also opened in October, to in-house and takeout customers, in the former Nutmeg Brewhouse building at the southwest corner of county roads 42 and 5, next to the India Palace Grill.
The pandemic didn’t interrupt the plans of husband-and-wife owners Richard and Barbara Stein, who had set their sights on Nutmeg after seeing it was for sale.
“We had the best of hopes that maybe things would start to improve by now,” Richard said. “That’s probably a naive hope. Yeah, it’s on the back of our heads, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up, and I think that there was a window on it and they weren’t going to wait forever for someone to pull the trigger.”
Singer, band leader and Minnesota music impresario Mick Sterling responded to the pandemic by presenting the Relief Sessions, a drive-in concert series, in the parking lot of the Burnsville Ice Center.
After an initial run of weekly concerts starting in June, Sterling extended the series with daily shows from Aug. 27 through Labor Day, matching the dates of the canceled Minnesota State Fair.
The Labor Day finale was a pair of concerts by beloved Minnesota rock band the Suburbs.
Absentee balloting soared in an election season that turned Burnsville’s state legislative delegation all DFL blue and returned Mayor Elizabeth Kautz to another term after 25 years in office.
In the first pandemic election — the Aug. 11 primary — absentee voting soared to 60 percent, with 5,355 votes cast absentee and 3,524 at the ballot box.
As of Oct. 20, the city had already received 19,327 absentee ballot requests for the Nov. 3 general election — roughly twice the previous high of 9,754 requests in 2016, also a presidential year, according to City Clerk Macheal Collins.
“We’re going to hit a point where we’ve hit all the people who want to vote absentee and applications are going to stop coming in,” Collins said two weeks before the election. “But we don’t know when that’s going to be.”
Kautz defeated challenger Chris Klavetter, a St. Paul firefighter, on Nov. 3. Dan Gustafson and Cara Schulz were reelected to the City Council without opposition.
District 56 Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, who was first elected in 2010, was unseated by DFLer Lindsey Port, who won her party’s nomination in a three-way primary in August.
DFLers Kaela Berg and Jess Hanson won House races in districts 56B and 56A, respectively. Berg will succeed Rep. Alice Mann, DFL-Lakeville, and Hanson will succeed Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage. Both incumbents served one term and didn’t seek reelection.
District 51 Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, and District 51A Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, who also represent part of Burnsville, won reelection.
The winning bid for 522,088 square feet of Burnsville Center that went up for auction in October was $17 million — a fraction of the $64.2 million that was owed on the property.
The 522,088 square feet of the 1.1 million-square-foot mall had been owned by Tennessee-based CBL Properties, the mall’s longtime manager. Attempts by CBL to restructure its debt on the distressed property failed.
The New York company that bought the debt has a record of buying distressed malls in other cities, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reported Dec. 3. Kohan Retail Investment Group lists 34 malls in its nationwide portfolio.
“We see the future of aging malls as a community setting where entertainment, shopping, and food come together,” the company says on its website.
The city will try again in 2021 to secure special state legislation authorizing tax-increment financing to spur redevelopment of the Burnsville Center retail area along County Road 42. Efforts in the previous two years were unsuccessful.
For years the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the city have pursued a cleanup plan for the dormant Freeway Landfill and Dump, which state officials say will endanger drinking water once the nearby Kraemer Mining and Materials quarry ceases operations and dewatering, which will change the direction of groundwater flow toward the unlined landfill.
Burnsville is pursuing a “dig and haul” option that would unearth trash from the properties and move it to the nearby Burnsville Sanitary Landfill, which is seeking state permission to expand its capacity. That will leave far more prime land along Interstate 35W for redevelopment than unearthing the garbage and replacing it on Freeway Landfill property in a newly lined landfill, city officials say.
The MPCA has put both options out for bid and intends to seek state funding for the project in 2022.
Pursuing its preferred plan is a top priority for the city in the 2021 session of the state Legislature, but it won’t be easy, officials said at a Dec. 15 City Council work session.
“It’s going to be really stressful to deal with this,” District 51 Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said. But state law says the “garbage belongs to us all,” so the Legislature will have to confront it.
Police and justice
The May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody dismayed members of the Burnsville Police Department, Chief Tanya Schwartz told the City Council in June.
She said “no one in our department thinks what happened in Minneapolis should have happened, as police officers. Absolutely not. I think we’re unified in that, and I think as a country, I feel like we’re unified in the fact that that should not have happened to another human being. If we can agree on anything, I think we can all agree on that.”
Schwartz reported in October that the department already complies with key requirements of a police accountability law the Legislature passed this summer after Floyd’s homicide.
The department will add or amend some policy language to match forthcoming guidance from the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training board, Schwartz said.
But in most areas, including chokeholds — which came under fire after Floyd’s death and are banned by the Minnesota Police Accountability Act of 2020 — it will be business as usual in Burnsville.
In October, the chief announced the department will launch a mental health unit in 2021 to more effectively deal with a rising number of cases.
Man allegedly fired at officers
Attempted murder charges were filed against a man accused of shooting at two Burnsville police officers while unleashing a barrage of gunfire from inside a house.
The officers were close enough to whizzing bullets to describe their distinct sounds and see leaves falling from trees where the bullets passed by.
The shots were fired Sept. 2 from inside a home on Sunny Acres Lane where a burglary had been reported, according to the criminal complaint.
After firing the shots, the alleged shooter, Ricardo Manuel Baldazo, jumped from a window with a handgun in each hand. He dropped the weapons when ordered by police.
Mary Ziegenhagen, who launched the Burnsville Current newspaper from her basement and published the first edition on Oct. 8, 1975, died May 2 in Cloverdale, California. She was 83.
Forty-five years later, Sun Thisweek newspapers represent an eventual merger of the company Ziegenhagen founded and the Dakota County Tribune, which began publishing in
Farmington in 1884.