Dear Ms. Klobuchar: Wadena would like 4-lanes ... please.
The wants and needs of Wadena County were tossed toward U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar staff members Wednesday at the Wadena County Courthouse, tops on that list was the desire for a stretch of four-lane highway through Wadena.
"This is the only section of Hwy 10 that is now reduced to two lane traffic," County Highway Engineer Ryan Odden said. "We've been loudly saying, we believe from a safety standpoint, and from a commercial freight movement aspect ... complete Highway 10."
Odden said drivers get used to driving four lanes on Hwy 10 throughout the state, but when they reach Wadena, the only stretch that's two-lane, it causes safety issues.
"That's unfortunate, we don't have money to address it, that's the thing," Serge Phillips, Federal Relations Manager with MnDOT said. It's been estimated to cost $60 million to complete the project, according to those present, and the city and county have virtually zero dollars to put towards it.
It's a request that's been talked about for a while and many in attendance said now is the time. Klobuchar staff members asked the burning question, "how long has Wadena been asking for four lanes?"
Forty or 50 years someone said. "No," Wadena Development Authority director Dean Uselman said, it's been on the minds of Wadena residents for at least 70 years.
Uselman said Duane Polman showed him a document he had on file in his office noting the plan of a four-lane highway through Wadena from 1949. Uselman added that in District 4, Wadena has been the only remaining stretch of two-lane since 1976. To the east, Staples was completed in 2012.
In a video at the start of the meeting, Klobuchar shared a message with the group regarding her work to secure funding for transportation needs. She touched on the Fast Act. Klobuchar was one of the first Democratic Senators to support the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act – the first long-term transportation bill passed by Congress in over a decade, according to Klobuchar news release. Signed into law in December 2015, the FAST Act directs more than $4 billion over five years in federal funding for Minnesota to invest in its roads, bridges and transit systems.
Odden said an issue Wadena County consistently runs into is that their traffic volumes are lower than many urban areas, to the point where even funding meant for rural areas, rarely escapes the grasp of much larger cities. He feared that even if the Fast Act did pass, there are often too many restrictions for their projects to receive funding. Highway 10 is currently under construction, but is being reconstructed and striped to remain a two-lane highway. That project was able to move ahead because of state bonding dollars.
"It's great that we get these dollars, but if it's so competitive that we are applying against St. Cloud or Brainerd and you have traffic volumes as a major scoring criteria, we will never succeed in getting all the points in that particular criteria," Odden said. He questioned how a rural community can fairly score against others larger than them.
Broadband still comes up short in area
Staff members asked what needs exist in internet coverage in the area. Wadena County election coordinator Joy Weyer was quick to mention that she lives north of Staples and has no internet coverage. No hot spot has worked for her, and others in her area are in the dark as well. A Klobuchar staff member said that about 91% of the county does have good connections, but the other 9% has basically no internet.
"My children went to town to do their homework," Weyer said.
Weyer said she worked for the Census Bureau in the past and there were many areas in the county where she could not access internet or use a cell phone to complete her work.
"There is a vast amount of this county that is not serviced by broadband," Weyer said.
There are waiting lists for Section 8 housing for those in the county. There is also a lack of housing for those looking to move into the county.
The list is about 100 people waiting for affordable housing, and about 70% of those are in the county, according to Tammy Trosdahl, housing programs manager with the Wadena Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Uselman noted work with the Housing Authority and the school district to use student built homes to grow affordable housing options in Wadena. He added that a large senior housing project just wrapped up in town. A developer is also looking at buying tax forfeit properties in the community for building new homes on.
The Economic Alliance executive director Katie Heppner was bursting with facts fresh off a recent survey in the county. One important figure she was able to share was that the county is short 406 childcare spots. That figure wowed some in the crowd.
Heppner mentioned that Wadena County has been chosen to be a part of the Rural Childcare Innovation Program.
"We're excited to really dive into that issue," Heppner said. "It's an issue effecting our businesses, even our students at the two-year colleges."
Uselman said that childcare needs are keeping many from entering the workforce. It's difficult to find childcare and if they do, it can be cost prohibitive. Commissioner Chuck Horsager said the area has further challenges with a large number of workers in healthcare of other jobs outside of typical childcare hours.
Klobuchar staff member Lee Rommel brought up one thing that might be helpful to the county, the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, which would provide competitive grants to states to train child care workers and build or renovate child care facilities in areas with child care shortages. The bi-partisan legislation is meant to combat the shortage seen nationwide.
Hot on the minds of Wadena County commissioners is the high property tax levels in the county. Commissioner Jim Hofer was asked about housing concerns for seniors and spinned the answer a bit to point out the struggles the county deals with that effect nearly all residents. He mentioned an apartment complex built in Staples last year, that was a twin to one built in Stearns County. The only difference is that the one in Wadena County cost about $30,000 more in taxes.
Hofer noted that Wadena County has the second highest property taxes in the state and is in the top five of lowest average income -- those work against Wadena County on many fronts. It's a topic commissioners are trying to address.
"It's a collision course trying to meet the mandates, wants, let alone the needs and come in with a respectable budget that tries to lower the taxes," Hofer said.
Klobuchar staff members recorded the gathering to take comments back and digest the findings. They visited Mora, Brainerd and Aitkin on Tuesday and were off to visit Bemidji and Walker next on the two-day "Rebuilding MN" tour. Meanwhile, Klobuchar was making stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin on a "blue wall" tour.