There’s work to be done

Published 9:25 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lawmakers see Albert Lea projects in need of funding

State lawmakers visited Albert Lea on Wednesday to tour two places where local representatives hope to secure state bonding during next year’s legislative session.

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The visit came after District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, invited members of the House Capital Investment Committee to visit Riverland Community College and Blazing Star Trail to learn more about the projects and their potential local impacts.

Lawmakers began the tour at Riverland Community College, where officials are requesting $10.1 million in bonding to renovate outdated space, relocate truck driving and collision programs from Austin to Albert Lea, and to integrate the programs into shared spaces with auto service and diesel programs.

Matt Bissonette — Riverland dean of business and technology, trade and industry, and health and wellness — gave lawmakers an overview of the effect renovating the space would have on the school. He discussed water damage sustained in the building and the necessity of the project, and he led a guided tour of auto, diesel and machine labs.

Representatives from local companies discussed the need for skilled workers to fill open jobs, and the programs benefited by the project are expected to contribute to filling open positions, according to Riverland representatives.

District 66A Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said Riverland representatives presented a “powerful” message, and she called the tour “very encouraging.”

“The students and instructors are impressive,” she said. “But to have that much of the community and the employers tell the story, because in those community and technical schools, that’s what we want. The idea is, as quickly as possible, to get people trained to the very specific needs of the local area, and we just heard that over and over.”

Riverland Community College President Adenuga Atewologun said the visit helps connect the issue of the need to recruit students to enter technical and career programs that will prepare them for industries that improve the economic vitality of the region, as well as the importance of having a modern facility in bringing students to the college.

“Hopefully this is going to pan out to funding,” he said. 

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, invited members of the House Capital Investment Committee to visit Riverland Community College and Blazing Star Trail. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Atewologun thanked Bennett and District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, for supporting the college’s bonding request. Both lawmakers attended the tour of the facility.

After touring Riverland, lawmakers visited Blazing Star Trail, and local representatives urged them to fund the construction of a bridge across Albert Lea Lake to connect Blazing Star Trail from Albert Lea to Hayward. The Legislature first authorized the existence of the trail in 1996, but not enough funding has been secured to connect the trail over the lake. 

“This is really a big piece to our puzzle,” said Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr.

Freeborn County Trail Association member Sue Blenka said the connection is needed to make the trail viable.

“It just needs to be finished now,” she said.

The trail is eventually planned to extend to Austin to connect with Shooting Star Trail and Root River Trail.

DNR Regional Supervisor Joel Wagar said the DNR will partner with the city of Albert Lea and Freeborn County through the process of completing the trail.

District 45A Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, called the tours “very informative.”

Carlson, who is in his 23rd term in office and is the longest-serving legislator in state history, said Riverland presented an “excellent argument” for funding, and the most important message from the tour was the impact remodeling the space at the college would have on the community’s workforce shortage, he said.

Carlson spoke favorably of both projects.

“We’ve got the whole state to look at, but I view both of these projects very favorably,” he said. 

Carlson, a minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said a vigorous capital investment bill would make funding the two projects more likely.

Bennett said she invited legislators to visit Albert Lea so they could see “the wonderful projects that we need to get finished.”

“It’s been one of my goals to get that through, because it’s important to our area,” Bennett said. “For Riverland to get those trades — as they talked about — consolidated and better used, more efficient, better for students, is something we need for our industries around here greatly.”

Students have left Riverland because of modern auto mechanic equipment in other locations, Bennett said.

Blazing Star Trail work needs to be completed after local and state entities funded the trail, she said, noting she is “hopeful” the two projects will be included in next year’s bonding bill. 

During the bus ride from Riverland to Blazing Star Trail, city officials discussed their request to fund development of Blazing Star Landing. The city is requesting $4 million this year to relocate Front Street closer to the railroad to allow for private development along Albert Lea Lake. The city plans to request $16 million in 2020 for property north of the railroad for construction of a Blazing Star community center and additional private redevelopment.

Peggy Bennett and other state lawmakers listen as Matt Bissonette gives a tour of Riverland projects that need funding. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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