Riverland, Stables projects to receive bonding dollars

Published 8:12 pm Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Watershed district gets funds to develop pilot program


Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday signed most of a bill authorizing almost $1.5 billion in public construction across Minnesota — including three local projects.

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The bill includes $10.2 million for Riverland Community College to relocate its truck driving and collision programs from Austin to Albert Lea. It also gives the final funding needed to connect sewer and water lines to the Stables area, along with $300,000 to the Shell Rock River Watershed District to develop and implement a pilot storm water program to improve water quality in the area.

“I’m really happy because I think these are all solid projects for our area that will make a big difference for us,” said District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett.

Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said the Riverland project, which includes demolishing the Gateway Building and constructing 7,482 square feet in additional space on the Albert Lea campus, is good not only for students at Riverland but also to help fill needs and job openings in the area. In addition, the college will be able to bring in upgraded equipment, comparable to what is used at area businesses.

“It’s a dual purpose project in our area,” Bennett said.

Riverland Community College President Adenuga Atewologun said the construction at Riverland will allow the college to upgrade its facilities and equipment and to improve its branding in the region — for both graduating high school seniors and others who have moved away and returned to the area.

“It’s really wonderful news to see that the project we started about four or five years ago has finally born some fruit,” Atewologun said.

He thanked the governor, the Legislature, community leaders and others for their work in getting the project approved. He said he is proud to be a part of a regional collaboration with businesses, economic development agencies and chambers of commerce to meet the needs of employers.

He said selection of a designer for the project and demolition of the Gateway Building on the Albert Lea campus would begin in July and August, with the design phase taking place from August through March.

Bidding would take place in April, with construction taking place from May of next year through May 2020.

“We’re hoping by this time next year, we would have contracts awarded, and in 2019, we would break physical ground,” he said.

The addition would be open for students in June 2020.

The space freed up in Austin from relocating the truck driving and collision programs to Albert Lea will be used to expand the college’s agricultural and food programs.

Atewologun said this expansion will also require bonding dollars. He said the college also submitted a bonding proposal for the project on the Austin campus this year but recognized that the Albert Lea project had to happen first.

“We’re not stopping,” he said. “We’re not resting.”

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said the community has been behind Riverland’s project, and he thinks the entire community will benefit from it in the long run.

“The Riverland project will be a great improvement to the Albert Lea campus and will help significantly in educating and training students to meet our local workforce needs,” added Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams.

Aside from the Riverland project, Bennett noted she was glad to see the money be approved for the people in the Stables area, who have been waiting a long time to be connected to city sewer and water. The funding will come from the Public Facilities Authority, which was awarded $120 million in the bill. The 2017 bonding bill funded the sewer portion of the project, and this year’s bill will complete the water portion.

Adams said he was optimistic the grant dollars would be sufficient to cover the remaining infrastructure needs for the water and sewer expansion.

Sparks said the Stables project has been one that has been talked about since he was first elected. He was pleased to have the city and county come to an agreement and now work to get state funding to make it happen.

Dayton’s signature of the bonding bill comes a week after he took down both a massive budget package — with funding for school safety improvements and opioid abuse prevention efforts as well as unrelated policy measures — and a bill with modest tax cuts for most Minnesotans. It leaves just one final piece of legislation on Dayton’s desk: a bill shoring up public worker pension accounts that Dayton plans to sign Thursday.

Bonding bills are politically popular, providing lawmakers with new projects to tout as they head to the campaign trail. This year’s bill emerged in the final hours of the legislative session that ended at midnight on May 20, with Republicans tapping into several different funds to add more projects and win Democratic votes.

The bill borrows a total of $1.5 billion to pay for $133 million in water and sewer projects across the state, $544 million for road and bridge repairs and $32 million to build three new veterans homes. It also provides $90 million to expand affordable housing options, $25 million for schools to enhance their security and another $90 million for the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to fix ailing buildings.

“It’s big enough to make a significant difference in Minnesotans’ lives, but not so big to put future budgets at risk,” GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement.

The bill uses $98 million from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, a fund approved by voters in 1998 that’s governed by a semi-independent state commission. That funding source emerged in the final hours at the Legislature, and environmental groups called on Dayton to veto it.

Dayton said he wanted to cancel out that provision, saying it could set a harmful precedent, inviting lawmakers to continue raiding the fund. But he said he couldn’t do so without also axing important wastewater infrastructure projects.

“It was unwise, but it was shrewd,” Dayton said of the maneuver.

Dayton used his line-item veto pen on just one project. Dayton said $1 million for additional reviews of state water regulations would have added needless bureaucracy.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.