WORTHINGTON — Seven members of the Senate Capital Investment committee visited Worthington Wednesday afternoon in the midst of a southwest Minnesota bonding tour. The purpose was to learn more about this area’s requests for state funding to assist with public projects. Statewide, more than 400 project proposals have been submitted for consideration, totalling over $5 billion.
Committee chairman David Senjem (R-Rochester) will lead the senate committee through the process of determining which projects get funded with whatever amount the Minnesota Legislature agrees on during the next legislative session.
“We do try to ferret out those that are going to make the most impact,” Senjem said during a stop at the Worthington Fire Hall Wednesday afternoon. The committee had just viewed a presentation on the W.E.L.L. (Welcome, Education, Library and Livability), a collaborative building project between ISD 518, Nobles County and the city of Worthington. Earlier that afternoon they heard from the city of Ellsworth about its request for bonding to help pay for a new city hall and shop after theirs was destroyed by fire in January. Also, the committee visited Sungold Heights mobile home park and spent time at Minnesota West Community and Technical College to hear its requests for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funding.
“What I sense here in southwest Minnesota, to some degree — maybe a bit more than in other areas — is just the communityism,” Senjem said. “People are really kind of engaged in their communities and thinking about what they want and thinking in terms of how they can make their communities better.
“There’s just nothing but positive when you see that,” he added. “It just inspires us to want to help.”
By the time the tour reached Worthington, the committee had logged eight days of travel. Each trip is broken into regions, with this week’s three-day jaunt focusing on southwest and south central Minnesota. Senjem said he anticipates another 20 days on the road to visit communities and learn about the projects identified for possible bonding funds.
From what he’d seen thus far, Senjem said the requests are “all good — there’s not a bad project that we’ve looked at.”
When it comes down to the bottom line, what gets funded will be determined by how much bonding the three governmental bodies can agree upon.
“You look at cost and distribution, and make sure each part of the state is equally helped as much as possible,” Senjem said. “What’s going to put Minnesota forward? It might be a community college, it might be a trail … or a new city hall in Ellsworth, a community that just doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it themselves.”
Ellsworth is seeking $1.3 million in state bonding to help fund its building projects. Meanwhile, Nobles County is asking for $16 million to help finance the proposed W.E.L.L. project along Second Avenue near downtown Worthington.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson presented the Senate committee members with the details of the project Wednesday, explaining how the school district will comprise an estimated 50% of the space, the county 40%, the city 5% and possible other entities 5%.
The building is slated to house adult basic education, early childhood programming, community education and other programs of the school district, a new county library and some social services offices for the county, as well as potential space for the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and Worthington Regional Healthcare Foundation. The goal is to connect the new building with the existing blue building on the parcel, which the city is renovating into a field house for indoor sporting activities.
“We’re addressing three specific needs that we have in our community,” Steve Robinson, Worthington City Administrator, said. “All of us would struggle to be able to build three separate facilities on our own. That’s why we’re going this route — to collaborate together.”
Johnson focused on the estimated 15% cost savings of a collaborative building project.
“The whole community will realize the savings from that,” he said, adding that the site is centrally located, near walking and biking paths and along the city bus route. Still, the property isn’t without its challenges, particularly its close proximity to the railroad, existing soil contamination (the city is applying to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for a grant to fund soil remediation) and the constraints of a long and narrow parcel on which to build, Johnson said.
As currently planned, the two-story building is estimated at $39 million, with ISD 518 committing $12.5 million.
Promoting the W.E.L.L. as a location to provide educational advancement and workforce development for the area’s influx of new immigrants, the site would ready newcomers for entry into the workforce, gain English language skills and receive assistance as they work toward earning their U.S. citizenship.
The senators asked several questions, including why Minnesota West isn’t involved in the W.E.L.L. collaboration since the project is about educational advancement. It was noted the college was involved in early discussions, and that it will get some of its space back when the Nobles County Integration Collaborative can move into the W.E.L.L.
What also was revealed during the discussion was the school district’s five failed bond referendums since 2013, each seeking voter approval for facilities expansion to alleviate overcrowding in the district’s schools. A sixth vote will take place within the next two weeks.
While the failed referendums might speak somewhat to the ability to fund the W.E.L.L. project with local dollars, it was also noted that Worthington is a farming community and the state of the farm economy isn’t good.
When Johnson was asked if the project received only a quarter — or half — of the state bonding money it requested, how the W.E.L.L. might get funded, he replied that the county would probably bond for its share.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot of space that we can reduce,” he said. “The problem we have today is we can’t provide the services the public needs.”
Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne), was at Wednesday’s meeting, though he isn’t a member of the Capital Investment committee.
“I’m always hopeful that we’ll be able to get some funding for our different projects,” Weber said following Wednesday’s presentation. While noting the importance of having committee members travel the state to get a better sense for the projects seeking bonding, at the end of the day, they aren’t going to be able to fund everything, he added.