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News from the week of December 22, 2004

EDA passes at tax auction, still interested in downtown site

The Tracy Economic Development Authority (EDA) remains interested in acquiring a vacant downtown Tracy store, despite passing on the property at the Lyon County tax forfeiture auction last week.

Community Development Robert Gervais had earlier received the EDA’s blessings for buying the former P Plus Asian grocery store at the county’s $20,000 asking price. But Gervais told EDA members Friday that he did not submit a bid after it was announced at the auction that a bank mortgage and a mechanic’s lien existed against the property. Gervais said that he and City Finance Director Dave Spencer wanted to make certain that the city would obtain clear title to the property regardless of any previous liens before they submitted a bid.

Gervais said that he is consulting with City Attorney Frank Nielsen on the issue. He also said that he has talked with bank representatives about the first mortgage. Gervais said the bank officials said that the bank has no interest in foreclosure proceedings.

The EDA holds a second mortgage on the property as security to a defaulted loan of about $15,000. By buying the property for $20,000, EDA members have felt they would have some means of recouping the past-due loan. The EDA issued the loan to Jon Herr when the store opened about five years ago.

The possible development of the property as a wellness center for Tracy Area Medical Services (TAMS) is seen as another reason for acquiring the property.

EDA member Claire Hannasch, who also chairs the TAMS advisory board, said that hospital management remains interested in an off-site wellness center. TAMS doesn’t want to own the facility, he said, but would be interested in a long-term lease with a party that owned and improved the site.

Wellness centers in Slayton and Westbrook have been financially self-supporting, and projections show that a Tracy center could do the same, Hannasch said.

Hannasch said that the cost of renovating the Third Street site into a Wellness Center has been estimated at $160,000. Spencer suggested that before committing to a remodeling project, the EDA should investigate the cost of building a new structure. A new building could be erected on the city-owned parking lot on South Street, west of the municipal liquor store, Spencer suggested.

New construction, Spencer said, could offer advantages to the wellness center, while leaving the vacant store available for other development.

EDA members instructed Gervais to ask the Tracy Ace Home Center for a rough estimate on the cost of new construction.

Gervais said that a private investment group has expressed interest in the purchasing the former P Plus store and developing the wellness center. Several EDA members said that they would not stand in the way of a private group acquiring the building.

The EDA also decided against buying the former Red Alexander property on Morgan Street at the tax forfeiture auction. The property was available for $6,400, but would have come with $4,755 in special assessments against it. The EDA felt Friday that they should wait to see if the Tracy City Council is willing to forgive some of those assessments before buying the property. EDA members have talked about tearing down the vacant house on the Morgan Street site, and redeveloping the property with townhouses or apartments.

Other EDA agenda items Friday included:

Trip to Arkansas—Plans are moving forward for a Jan. 10 trip to Arkansas. Gervais and three other local leaders plan to visit leaders of an information technology company that has expressed an interest in establishing an operation in Tracy. Gervais said that the company likes Tracy’s tax-free Job Opportunity Building Zones and its proximity to Southwest Minnesota State University. The possible availability of the Tracy Minntronix building is another plus, Gervais said. The Tracy delegation is driving to Arkansas at the invitation of the company’s owner. Gervais said that if things go well, company officials will visit Tracy.

A Southwest Minnesota State University business class generated the new business lead. Students, as a class project, studied local business conditions and tried to recruit businesses to Tracy.

SMSU project—Gervais said that he intends to follow up on several leads generated by the college students. “I like their ideas,” said EDA member Bill Chukuske. Commissioner Chad Buysse said that he wonders if there is an opportunity for Tracy related to the region’s corn and soybean processing plants. Perhaps Tracy could provide a service or product needed by the plants, he said.

Welding company—Gervais said that a recent campaign for a company that was seeking welders for a possible Tracy expansion turned out well. But, despite the availability of a local job force, Gervais said that Tracy might lose the prospect to a larger community that already has a suitable building available. Chukuske said that the experience is evidence that Tracy needs to expand its industrial park.

Housing development—Gervais said that the city needs to select a route for a proposed South Tracy drainage ditch before schematic drawings can be prepared for a possible housing development in the former Central Livestock property. Commissioner Tim Byrne, who also serves on the city council, said that the council can not make a decision until a county ditch authority considers the matter.

Danger can be as close as household pantry

Nutmeg, to most people, is a reddish-brown spice that’s often used for baking pies and cookies.

But in Kathy Ellgen’s line of work, nutmeg has absolutely nothing to do with pumpkin pie.

“Kids are taking nutmeg to get high,” the Emergency Medical Services trainer says.

Nutmeg, in the small quantities used in food recipes, is no danger. But kids who ingest tablespoons of the spice in order to get an emotional rush, are literally putting their lives at risk, Ellgen warns.

After the “high” of a nutmeg ingestion is an emotional and physical crash that can put the person into a coma and cause death, she said. In recent months, Tracy ambulance crews have responded to two emergency calls involving Tracy area young people who ingested large quantities of nutmeg.

Ellgen, addressing the Tracy Kiwanis Club Thursday, said that nutmeg is one of many common household substances used by abusers get an emotional rush, despite the damaging and potentially dangerous consequences.

Household aerosol products—which could be anything from a can of Ready Whip or hair spray—choose to ignore the terrible price their body pays. Inhalants can kill people, she noted, by starving the body of oxygen or forcing the heart to beat more rapidly or erratically. Inhalants can lead to impaired reasoning, memory loss, defective muscular coordination and dementia.

“People need to be aware of what is going on, and what can happen,” Ellgen said.

The use of the Internet, Ellgen said, appears to be fueling the abuse of household substances. Websites and chat rooms on the Internet offer recipes for making drugs, and post comments from users. Seeing the information on the Internet, she says, gives people a false sense of security, wrongly assuming that it must be okay if the information is on-line. The illicit on-line sites proliferate so quickly, she said, authorities have been unable to control them.

With the abuse of household substances on the rise, Ellgen urges parents to be vigilant for signs of unusual behavior. Store clerks, she said, should watch for unusual purchases of household products such as inhalants, spices, vitamins and herbal medicines, and over-the-counter drugs. Thrill seekers sometimes mix drugs with energy and alcoholic drinks, Ellgen said.

‘Meth’ epidemic

The use of methamphetamine is becoming increasingly prevalent in rural Minnesota, Ellgen said.

The drug is both highly addictive and damaging to the body, she said. The drug is so addictive, that one study showed only a 3% rehabilitation rate among users. Many users become hooked from the first time that they try the drug.

The drug is popular because of the feeling of invincibility that it gives to users.

“They feel like Superman,” Ellgen said. Meth users often report increased energy levels and have an ability to stay awake for long periods of time.

Meth can also cause severe health problems, including irreversible damage to blood vessels in the brain, strokes, respiratory problems, anorexia, cardiovascular collapse and death.

Feelings of aggression and paranoia are common in the methamphetamine user, Ellgen said.

“They can be very violent and dangerous.”

The cooking process used to create methamphetamines produces a strong odor that smells like urine, Ellgen said. For that reason, meth producers are attracted to remote rural settings. Some meth “labs” have even been set up in vans and trailers. Since the substances used in the cooking process are toxic, clean-up costs are high.

With costs of up to $15,000 to clean a single room in a house used as a meth lab, Ellgen said, many “meth” infested structures simply have to be burned down.

Other drugs

There are plenty of other illegal drugs found in rural Minnesota, Ellgen said, some new, some not.

So called “club drugs” have become popular at some social gatherings for young adults, she said, including parties that are called “raves.”

The drug “Ecstasy” is known as the love drug or feel good drug. The drug enhances the senses. But users can feel devastatingly depressed, to the point of suicide, when coming down from the drug.

Several different substances, including a drug developed to sedate animals, are being used as “date rape drugs.” Perpetrators slip the drug into a young woman’s drink, and then sexually assault them when they pass out. For this reason, she indicated, young people need to be warned to never leave their food or drink untended at a party.

Some of today’s drugs have been around for years, Ellgen said. They include: LSD, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Some of the drugs are even more powerful and dangerous than their old forms. Some of today’s marijuana, she noted, has a cancer-causing agent that is 30% higher than what was found in the marijuana ten to 20 years ago.

Abuse of both over-the-counter and prescription drugs, appear to be on the rise, Ellgen indicated. For example, Viagra, anti-depressants and other prescription drugs are ingested after being mixed with other drugs, including alcohol. The pain medication Oxy Contin in crushed or chewed by abusers. Some drug tablets are crushed and then injected.

Ellgen feels that public awareness is the first step in combating drug abuse.

“Don’t think that it can’t happen around here. Because it does.”

People need to be warned to not even think about trying an illicit drug. Studies show, she said, that each drug use is a gateway to another drug.

First Responders fill need in Amiret

A new First Responders unit is saving lives in Amiret.

The Amiret First Responders started in June, said Director Kathy Fedde, but didn’t acquire most of their equipment until August.

Fedde, who led the charge to form the First Responders unit, said her husband’s heart attack 10 years ago in the middle of winter was part of her inspiration.

“That was part of my drive,” she said.

Amiret, she added, is too far from Tracy and Marshall when lives are at risk and quick response time is needed.

“I thought we needed somewhere in between to help them out,” she said.

There are six members of the Amiret First Responders who have received their training so far. They are Fedde, her husband, Larry, Justin Swenhaugen, Jess Swenhaugen, Deb Michael, and Kelli Knutson. Five others are waiting to receive training.

The First Responders were trained at North Memorial in the Twin Cities. Certification requires classes two nights a week for six weeks, and includes both CPR and First Responder training.

The team is trained to do splints and other first aid for traumas, and has a defibrillator and oxygen unit. Their job, said Fedde, is to tend to the first aid aspect until an ambulance arrives to transport the patient to the hospital.

“The first aid part of it is very important,” Fedde said.

The Amiret First Responders are now trying to raise money for much-needed equipment and an ambulance garage. Fedde estimated that $45,000-$55,000 would be needed for the building and equipment. The First Responder team is working on fund-raising, and is also doing some grant-writing in order to raise the money. They raised about $1,700 at a fund-raiser earlier this month.

Fedde said the Amiret First Responders have already received six pages that resulted in the crew going out on calls since August.

“We’ve saved a life already.”

Soupir family honored for conservation farming

Glenn and Anne Soupir, rural Milroy, have been honored by the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and The Farmer magazine.

The Soupirs were honored as Redwood County’s “Outstanding Conservationists” at the association’s annual convention in Duluth Dec. 6-7.

The Soupir family, which includes Glenn’s brothers Jeff and Paul, were nominated for the award by staff of the Redwood Soil and Water Conservation District. The award was based upon conservation practices instituted on land owned and managed by the Soupirs. The conservation practices include:

• Planting thousands of trees and shrubs for erosion control, windbreak, and wildlife uses.

• Establishment of filter strips along ditch banks and creeks.

• Participation in water quality incentives, conservation reserve, and farmable wetland programs.

• Establishment of food plots and wildlife plantings.

• Use of conservation tillage.

Tracy selected for fine arts research project

Tracy has been selected for a Bush Foundation research project studying arts activities in rural communities.

“I think it’s great,” said Marge Robinson, president of the Fine Arts Council of Tracy.

Ten Minnesota communities were picked for the study, which will be conducted by the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. Robinson said that it is her understanding that Tracy was chosen because of its past history of community arts activities.

The study will attempt to answer this question: “Are there critical ingredients or common themes necessary to building long-term vitality for the arts in rural and suburban fringe communities? If yes, what are they?”

Metropolitan Arts Council representatives will visit Tracy between January and May of next year, and talk with community leaders about the role of the arts in the community.

The rural arts assessment is to be completed by November of 2005.

Pool repair vision emerges

‘Twas a few nights before Christmas—and at Tracy City Hall—visions of a renovated aquatic center danced in the heads of city council members.

Council members were told Monday that a plan to refurbish the aquatic center with a steel-reinforced PVC liner is very workable.

“The fix is something that we can do,” said Kevin McGrath, representing the manufacturer of Myrtha RenovAction pool liners. McGrath, who flew in from Sarasota, Florida to inspect Tracy’s pool Monday, said that it may be possible to complete renovations for part of the 2005 swimming season.

“I have been listening to some aggressive timetables for completing this,” McGrath said. “I’ve heard that you would like to have the pool open by July 1. Whether we can meet this schedule, I don’t know. My best guess is yes.”

The Myrtha liner, which has an estimated $700,000 cost, would have a 15-year warranty. McGrath said that his company has been in business for 45 years, and is approaching 15,000 installations in 70 countries.

Council members were impressed enough to authorize McGrath’s company to conduct a site survey, at a cost not to exceed $2,000. Council members were told that the survey was needed for a Myrtha liner installation to proceed.

Councilman Russ Stobb said that it looked to him that a Myrtha liner would last at least as long as what was promised with the aquatic center’s original construction, and that maintenance costs would be less expensive.

McGrath said that Myrtha pools last longer than traditional outdoor pools.

Engineering representatives for Tracy’s two major pool consultants—Wiss, Janney, Elster Associates and Gremmer & Associates—were also present for the Monday night council meeting. Prior to the meeting, the engineers and had met with several Tracy representatives and developed a ten-point “action plan” for getting pool repairs started. Brian Pashina, of Wiss, Janey Ester, said that one of the steps is determining whether the existing gutter can be used with the new pool liner. Jody Dahms of Gremmer & Associates said that the Minnesota Dept. of Health will approve a Myrtha liner

McGrath said that the pool survey would likely be done in early January.

• • •

The $1.8 million Tracy Aquatic Center opened in July of 2002, replacing a pool that had served the city for 50 years. But prior to the 2003 swim season, cracks were noticed in the center’s pool shells, and significant water leakage was experienced that summer. Following the 2003 swim season, experts were called in to evaluate the structural integrity and design of the aquatic center. Tests required the removal of the aquatic center’s Diamondbrite finish coat and the drilling of core samples from pool walls. The tests revealed a number of flaws, including voids and foreign objects in pool walls. The aquatic center did not open this summer.

The City of Tracy has filed a lawsuit against Olympic Pools, a major pool contractor; and USAquatics, the firm that drew up plans for the pool and served as the construction manager. A trial is scheduled early next year. City leaders hope that a successful litigation will allow Tracy to collect enough money to pay for pool renovations.

The city had planned to award construction bids this October. But a snafu in the bidding process developed when the manufacturer for Diamondbrite announced that it would not provide a warranty for its product reapplied on the aquatic center’s existing walls. Engineers subsequently developed seven options for the city to consider. But the Myrtha liner was one of only three options that engineers felt were worth considering. The other two options are: 1) Application of a new shotcrete coating inside of the existing pool shells at an estimated cost of $745,000, and replacing the aquatic center’s existing concrete shell with new concrete pools at a cost of $870,000.