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Menahga City Council delays grant application for bike path

A resolution to pay $13,500 in engineering services for a proposed bike path was kiboshed at Monday's Menahga City Council meeting.

"I have an issue with this one. A major issue. We've had very little discussion in this room on this particular issue," said Mayor Patrick Foss.

In April, the council agreed to apply for a Minnesota Transportation Alternatives Program Grant to establish a walking/biking trail between the city campground and city beach.

But Foss noted the council has already stated it doesn't have funds to create seasonal campsites at Memorial Forest Park and Campground. They also don't have feedback from property owners along U.S. Hwy. 71 who would be affected by the proposed path, he argued.

"We know there's 16 or 18 individual's properties we have to cross to get from the park to the beach," Foss said. "I'd like to know what those individuals feel as far as having a bike path built on their property. That could require easements, and if any one of them objected, that would stop the project or we'd have to go to eminent domain, which I certainly don't want to go to because that would add more cost to the project."

"I don't like the fact that we had a meeting on this that no one was informed about," he continued.

With a suggested start date of 2021, "I think we have more time to answer the questions that do exist," Foss said. "We have no idea what the cost is going to be."

Councilmember Maxine McNeece said it was her understanding that the engineer would complete those preliminary assessments.

Foss said he'd like to know if one of the property owners objects to the project before the city spends $13,500 on it.

"Are you going to talk to all those people? Who is going to do it?" asked McNeece.

Foss noted that Utilities Supervisor Frank Thelin and City Administrator Janette Bower completed legwork to determine costs for the seasonal campsite project.

Councilmember Dennis Komulainen inquired about use of Highway 71's right-of-way.

Bower said the city has a utility easement over Minnesota Department of Transportation's right-of-way. She contacted MnDOT and learned the easement does not apply to bike paths.

Obtaining initial engineering services to determine trail placement and any easement issues is part of the application process, Bower said.

"Yes, there was one meeting. That was an administrative meeting to see where to go next," she said. "It's an expenditure of money that's not budgeted. But that is the next step."

"I agree with the mayor on this. I think we should at least run it by the property owners before we spend the money because if somebody isn't on board with it, it'll be very difficult to make it work," said Vice Mayor Craig Lawrey.

The bike path may not cross private property, McNeece said, adding there are some that run alongside the highway.

Landowners should be informed of the possibility, Foss said.

"They need to be aware of it," Lawrey said. "I think we should go back and do more homework on it, then revisit it."

"A lot of homework," added Komulainen.

McNeece said the council supported the bike path because of its economic impact.

"And if you remember, I agreed because we were looking at putting in seasonal sites and that would go hand-in-hand with that project," Foss said.

McNeece said a bike path is necessary because young kids are currently walking or riding their bikes along a dangerous highway.

"I think it makes sense to connect our campground with our beach, which connects people to downtown, to businesses. To me, that's all about economic development which we aren't seeing a lot of in this town," McNeece said

"That's what the seasonal sites were part of," countered Foss.

There was no guarantee seasonal campsites would work, McNeece said.

Foss said there was enough evidence that they probably would be a success.

McNeece added the city would be eligible to receive $2,500 from the Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

"Nobody's heard that before because we weren't allowed to come to that meeting," Foss said.

The meeting involved a MnDOT official, Region 5, Ulteig, Ralph Kumpula, Bower and McNeece.

"Why weren't we all invited?" Foss asked.

That would be an open meeting issue, Bower said. Perhaps there could have been a special council meeting or the information brought to a regular meeting, she said, but no one was intentionally "shut out."

The resolution before the council called for amending the 2017 City of Menahga budget to pay Ulteig $13,500 from an unassigned fund for their engineering services. McNeece made a motion to approve the expenditure. It failed for lack of a second.

WCEDA identifies new economic needs

Mark Hanson, director of the West Central Economic Development Alliance (WCEDA), submitted a new strategic plan to the council, developed with feedback from 45 to 50 alliance members.

"In the past, economic development was bring in more jobs, bring in more jobs, bring in more jobs. We're finding things are a little different," Hanson said.

Today, there's a large deficient in child care, available rental property and employees for available jobs, all of which affect WCEDA's mission, he continued.

As part of a one-month plan, Hanson identified every licensed child care provider in Wadena County. There were 29 providers, but five quit by the end of the survey.

"The highest percentage was in Menahga. Menahga had six providers at the first of the year. Now they're down to three. That's a big drop," Hanson said.

"Why is that?" asked Councilmember Tim Ellingson.

Hanson said he couldn't yet answer that question, but suspects there are a variety of factors.

In all of Wadena County, there was only one opening for a child under two years old, three opening for ages 2-5 and one opening for a school-age child. Hanson calculated that Wadena County is short between 400 and 600 child care openings.

"So that says there's a need," Hanson said, noting if employees are recruited to the area and they have children, they'll have trouble finding a daycare. "It's not a small problem. It's getting to be a crisis. So the mission now is recruiting, finding incentives and finding facilities to provide child care."

Hanson is also working with area realtors and property developers about their role in creating additional rental housing.

"The homes below $400 and the homes above $700, there's very few," he said. "That middle ground, that two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath, that common house—there's good stock of that. The smaller house for maybe a single individual and the three-bedroom, that's where they're finding the biggest gap."

Hanson is currently developing a directory of residential and commercial rentals and apartments.

In other business, the city council did the following:

• Granted a variance to North Country Motorsports to allow vehicle sales. The property, located at 112 Aspen Ave. SE, is within the commercial business district, but the city's municipal code does not allow auto sales. Trinity Junes purchased the property to primarily sell ATVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles. The city's planning commission recommended approval of the variance request. McNeece noted that this portion of the city code dates back to 1978; hence, ATVs aren't listed as a permitted use. "I was thinking it was probably pretty old. This obviously is one that needs to be updated," she said.

• Tabled the purchase of a disc mower, costing $10,800. The new mower would replace one from 1982 that is beyond repair. The mower is used at the sewer ponds and city streets. Ellingson questioned how often the mower is used. Komulainen wondered about the costs of contracting the service versus buying a brand-new machine. The council decided to table the purchase until more information was available.

• Updated the city's revolving loan fund policy to clearly state businesses must be located within city limits to be considered for funding. New language also directs the city administrator to complete an initial review and "establishes criteria for the administrator to reject applications." Bower clarified that the city council reviews all applications, whether the review committee recommends approval or not.

• Authorized participation in and a $1,475 contribution to the Community Concern for Youth Program. Overseen by Todd-Wadena Community Corrections, the program serves at-risk youth and their families.

A special meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 21 at Menahga City Hall.