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City denies county HRA's request to provide affordable housing

New Alexandria police officer Nate Larson (right) takes the oath of office while Shem Baker awaits his turn. Family members joined the ceremony. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

The Douglas County Housing and Redevelopment Authority's plan to provide more rental housing options for low-income families hit a wall Monday night.

The Alexandria City Council voted 4-0 to deny the HRA's request that would allow it to develop 14.26 acres of land it recently purchased at 1231 North Nokomis NE. The site is located off Northside Drive behind the Habitat for Humanity building. Since the project is in the city limits, state law requires the county HRA to get permission from the city to exercise its powers to develop the land.

Council member Roger Thalman said if the city approved the project, it would have no control over the rent amounts because they would be set by the county HRA. He was opposed to giving the HRA "carte blanche" approval.

Thalman also questioned whether more affordable housing is needed in the city. He pointed to a 2018 study that showed in the next five years, Alexandria needed 560 additional rental units and 120 of them should be for low income. Since the study came out, Thalman said, the city has approved 513 new rental units — 393 market rate, 86 with tax increment financing and 34 with housing tax credits.

Council member Todd Jensen had concerns about the financial viability of the project.

Council member Bobbie Osterberg said she didn't understand why the project was being proposed in Alexandria, which has its own HRA, when other communities in Douglas County need affordable housing.

The project would include a mix of housing types — townhomes, twin homes, a multi-family/commercial building — along with stormwater ponds, streets and utilities. The HRA planned to sell public project revenue bonds to develop the property and wasn't requesting tax increment financing from the city.

The county HRA is assisting 240 families right now and 79 of them have an average income of $14,980 or less, according to Jeff Schiffman, the county's HRA director.

"These families are the working poor and our neighbors," Schiffman noted in a letter to the city, adding that the HRA has a list of 291 people waiting for housing assistance.

Before the vote, Al Glaesmann, the county HRA assistant director, told the council that the rental rates for the project would be affordable for low-income people. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment wouldn't exceed $630 a month

Glaesman said the project had received broad support from throughout the community. He said letters of support came from mental health advocates, social services, the sheriff’s office, Love INC, Productive Alternatives and the Alexandria HRA.

Thalman said the letter writers agreed with the concept of the project but the city needed to have more detailed information.

Sidewalk extension along Highway 29?

The council agreed to apply for state funding through the state's "Local Partnership Program" to extend the sidewalk south along Highway 29 in three segments from 18th Avenue to 34th Avenue.

The project also includes signal modifications at 22nd, 30th and 34th Avenues to accommodate the new sidewalks.

The total cost of the project, which wouldn't take place until 2022, is estimated at $453,981. If the city's application is approved, the state would provide about $419,355. State aid would cover the remaining costs except for design engineering expenses of about $35,000.

The ultimate goal of the project, according to City Engineer Tim Schoonhoven, is to provide pedestrian access for the entire length of Highway 29 from the freeway to Third Avenue. Right now, there is a gap between 15th and 18th Avenue.

"This project will provide a much-needed pedestrian link between the hospital, the Midway Mall shopping center and the Viking Plaza mall," Schoonhoven said in a memo to the council. "This pedestrian link is needed as evidenced by the number of people seen regularly walking along the highway."

Council member Bill Franzen pointed out that the city still has a lack of sidewalks within the core of the city, including along 34th Avenue where a fatal pedestrian crash occurred in March 2018.

Other council members agreed that the city needs to set aside more money for sidewalks.

New police officers

Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels introduced two new police officers who were recently hired — Nate Larson and Shem Baker. Wyffels described the two as "genuine fits" for the community.

Standing with family members, they took their oath of office and received a welcoming round of applause from those at the meeting.

Larson grew up in Battle Lake and was a police officer in Bemidji before moving here, closer to home. Away from the job, he enjoys fishing, hunting, the outdoors and spending time with his family.

Baker is originally from Hancock, grew up in Alexandria and worked as a police officer in Fargo before moving back here. He is buying a house at the end of the month. He enjoys hunting, fishing and camping.

Wyffels said 39 candidates applied for the jobs — a strong interest considering that some departments in other communities are having trouble getting any qualified candidates to apply.

Insights into legislative session

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which includes Alexandria as a member, accomplished one of its "gold medal" goals in the last legislative session. Lawmakers restored local government aid to its highwater mark in 2002, a $30 million increase from last year.

But it's not all shiny news. The increase in funding doesn't take into account inflation, noted Elizabeth Wefel, who presented the coalition's annual report to the council. She added that LGA faces challenges ahead: It's often a target for cuts if an economic downturn occurs; the rise of suburban legislators could prevent LGA from being a priority in the future; and updates to the LGA formula will be discussed before and during the 2020 session.

Wefel also touched on the child care crisis in Greater Minnesota, noting that there is a 35,000 shortage in the number of child care slots that are needed. She added that the shortage hampers economic growth because employers can't hire or retain workers and causes families to leave communities.

Besides preserving LGA, other coalition priorities for the 2020 session, Wefel said, are passing a large bonding bill that addresses child care, wastewater and water quality funding and economic development initiatives, along with finding a comprehensive solution for transportation funding.

Special event

The council issued a special event permit for the Matt Kjelland Memorial 5K Walk/Run on Saturday, Sept. 21 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The third annual event will start and end at City Park, using the Kenwood trails to the Central Lakes Trail and back. Police will control traffic at the intersection of Kenwood Drive and Second Avenue. Live music will take place in the grassy area near that intersection.

Proceeds from the event will to to the Matt Kjelland Memorial Scholarship, Community Suicide Awareness Education Group, Counseling and Pychological Services, BIO Girls of Alexandria and veteran and military suicide awareness programs.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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