A successful but tough – year in River Falls
Simpson talks of high points, challenges as Korpela gives relief grants update
With dam repairs not balanced by electrical production in the next couple years, the River Falls Council recently decided to maintain the current drawdown of Lake Louise and continue moving forward on the Powell Falls dam removal. The decision as communicated by City Administrator Scot Simpson in the annual ‘State of the City’ address came after “it rained a little bit in June,” he said for a small understatement, the rain resulting in damage to the manmade electric-power dam already planned for removal by 2025. Simpson also thanked the City staff and council for their continued commitment to River Falls values.
“I didn’t see their commitment waver,” Simpson said. “They found solutions to getting things done.”
Prior to City Administra-
See STATE. OF. THE. CITY, Page 10
Photo by Jack McLoone. tor Simpson giving his update to the River Falls Chamber of Commerce on April 1, Chamber Executive Director Russ Korpela made notes on economic impact opportunity resources for area businesses.
“For those of you who received an economic injury loan in spring at the beginning of the COVID pandemic…The small business administration has just decided that they’re going to extend the deferment for another 12 months. So you won’t need to start making your…loan payments until Spring 2022,” Russ Korpela told River Falls businesses with economic injury loans in the run-up to the ‘State of the City’ address by Simpson. “You’re welcome to make payments if you like. Please know that interest continues to accrue, but you don’t have to make any payments until Spring of 2022,” Korpela said.
In addition, Korpela made known that President Biden had recently signed an extension of the Personal Paycheck Protection (PPP) program through May 31, originally due to expire March 31. “Why that’s important, it does give you an opportunity to apply for a second PPP draw,” he said of local business owners and federal relief funding. For those businesses whose revenues were down twenty percent in the first quarter of 2021 from a year earlier, “you will be eligible for the employee retention tax credit,” Korpela made known in business news. “If that includes you, check with your CPA and feel free to shoot me an email for my non-CPA advice,” he said of the first $10,000 of wages related to employees.
“Lastly, we’ve got some information from the SBA (Small Business Administration; www.sba.gov). They will be in charge of administering the Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” Korpela told business owners at the ZOOM meeting. For those in the hospitality, restaurant, bar, tavern, or food truck industry, that means being eligible to receive a grant as part of the American Recovery Plan Act signed by President Biden in the last couple weeks.
“The grant in general will be the amount of revenue you lost between 2020 and 2019,” Korpela said. “You won’t have to pay it back, and you’ll be able to use it for purposes very similar to the PPP,” he said. With applications potentially available as early as May 1, eligible business owners will be getting notified by the Chamber as soon as the information is known. Korpela closed out his remarks via ZOOM paying tribute to the City’s handling of the pandemic, before turning things over to City Administrator Scot Simpson.
“It’s good to be seen, but it’s also good to see everybody,” Simpson said as he asked participants to briefly turn their cameras on for the ZOOM call. “That way I can tell if you’re scowling or if some of the information is worth having,” Simpson said. Saying that he understood that 2020 wasn’t fun for many while this was an “understatement for many,” the River Falls City Administrator started out with a moment of silence before getting down into the details for 2021. Among the general high points covered by Simpson: • Continued commitment to City of River Falls values in 2020: putting people first; embracing change; serving the community; Pursuing excellence; Acting with integrity; and considering future generations.
• Creation by the City of crisis teams for Operations, Employee Care, and Communications related to the pandemic and its logistics fallout.
• Five initial focus areas: utilities-related; public safety; local economic support; connecting the community to resources; and managing the November 2020 Presidential election.
• An almost $13 million increase in housing construction and/or alterations over 2019, with some 51 additional units.
• A new story map feature on the City website from the Community Development department.
• Infrastructure projects like the jug handle at the intersection of 35 and 65.
• $1.2 million investment in South Forks electrical substation, serving UW-RF and about 1/3 of River Falls city residents
• Improvements to the main pipe coming into the wastewater treatment plant, extending wastewater treatment plant life.
“I’m very proud of how our employees came together, regardless of department or position,” Simpson said of the City’s response to COVID stress and the need to adapt. “I guess you never really know how flexible you can be until put to the test.” When it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going away quickly, meanwhile, the City of River Falls had reorganized again under an Incident Command System.
“This allowed us to have a bit more structure while giving leaders the agility to respond quickly and swiftly to COVID-related issues,” Administrator Simpson said of the adapted restructuring. In addition, the City of River Falls had sought to communicate through a written plan to help keep residents and employees informed and up to date on what was happening.
“In the Safer-At-Home phase last spring the wheels of the City kept turning,” Simpson shared proudly. Many city employees were transitioned to working at home, while embracing change had kept the city level. With Microsoft Teams, Office 365, the Cloud and Skype offering technological assistance, together with Cisco Webex and Mitel, River Falls had been able to continue the work of government and city meetings remotely while maintaining openness to the public and its needs.
“As a City Council we were well positioned to meet some of the challenges laid out before us,” Simpson shared. There was one particular stressor, however.
“One of the largest challenges we faced was the 2020 Presidential election,” Simpson said. “And it was historic in many ways.” With new electronic pollbooks and five elections under their belt, the city was pretty confident it could pull things off. Absentee ballots, meanwhile, amounted to 66 percent of eligible voters, he said.
“And of course the meticulous measures we needed to take to keep the poll workers and our voters safe, while the number one goal was protecting the integrity of the elections,” he said. Long story short, it was successful.
As to other matters, the city splashpad had opened, reservations had been kept for many city venues and the local library model had been “turned on its head,” while “popular curbside service” had also made its debut. Hydrants were flushed, water was tested, the electricity grid still worked, manholes were serviced, and streets were plowed for snow.
“Keeping those systems running can be challenging even in the best of times,” Simpson said. “And the fact that they were uninterrupted even in the worst of times is a testament to our city’s preparedness and resiliency,” Simpson shared. Also touched on was the transition to Allina Health EMS from services being provided by the city, along with several city and other building projects.
“While many cities in the state and nation chose to wait and see, hunker down, and focus only on core services, we decided to move forward and facilitate another year of infrastructure projects,” Simpson said. Among those were the Milltown Residences on West Division Street, police department renovations, Sterling Ponds residences, and a soon coming third Kwik Trip. “In doing so we demonstrated our value of continuing to consider future generations,” Simpson said.
At the same time and in view of the pandemic situation, the City had taken a look at its Strategic Plan and instituted a hiring freeze, along with cutting back on some city expenses. “This resulted in us spending about ten percent less than our budget or $1 million savings in expenditure, and this was despite us making all our progress on key projects and all the services we’ve been talking about,” Simpson said. Before long it was into the looking forward phase, with one last note by Simpson.
“Before we get to the look ahead part of my address, I want to say something that I think fits with integrity,” he said of River Falls city values. “We had a lot of partners that we relied on through this past year,” the City Administrator said, with many partnerships coming to the forefront. “I think this was a year where community partnerships mattered more than ever,” he said.
Chief among the partnerships highlighted was that with county health. “We met weekly with county health officials,” Simpson said of COVID coordinating between agencies. Also touched on were Chippewa Valley Technical College, UW-RF, the River Falls Chamber of Commerce, and Allina Health.
So what’s to come? Simpson had more to say on the coming year as well. Among the recovery goals for River Falls touched on by the City Administrator were the following: • Share timely and reliable information about COVID19 vaccinations and testing
• Continue to encourage virus mitigation
• Research, pursue, and plan for stimulus spending
• Continually monitor conditions to guide summer activities and events
• Support the City’s continued physical “What we want to see is that light at the end of the tunnel get brighter,” Simpson said, “So we’re focusing our attention on recovery.” That focus, he said, included working with partners on vaccine rollout and awareness. In addition, Simpson that, “we’re going to work with our state representatives to continue tracking this stimulus,” regarding cash flow from the government, which he compared to a wartime spending effort. “We’re going to try and find out what the City government can do to try and maximize the amount of that money that’s coming into our community for specific projects and organizations.”
Going through the summer, the City of River Falls would work with Public Health and the Chamber of Commerce to try and put on safe events, as well as return to the normal library schedule.
“Finally, we’re going to continue supporting the continued physical development of the city,” he said, with all development types alike in focus. Mentioned specifically to come were the Tattersall distilling at the old Shopko site, along with Sterling Ponds Corporate Park development, initial engineering design on Mann Valley, along with different residential developments under construction at Ivey Meadows and Sterling Ponds.
“There’s going to be significant highway construction this year,” he said, making note of Highway 29 from Prescott to Cemetery Road including a reworking the County F intersection. Also in the coming road work schedule was Cemetery Road from South Main to Highway 65.
“That’s something that’s going to be very visible and can be very annoying, but it’s long overdue frankly for any of you that travel to Prescott,” he said of the road work on Cemetery Road headed east. The Powell Avenue Bridge is up for deck reworking to come, and would be worked on with the state. Finally, there was the update to the Comprehensive Plan, last done as a whole 16 years ago.
“The last time there was an update to the whole plan was 2005,” Simpson said of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. “This helps guide the growth, analyses trends, park, resources. Parks, utilities and more. It helps the community decide what it wants to be when it grows up.” Up for more focus this time from 2005 were climate, resiliency, and storms, Simpson said.
“Public engagement will really be a part of this plan,” he said, saying the City wanted to make sure that everyone had a voice in the planning of the community. “I really encourage those of you in the business community to pay attention to that and to participate to the extent that you’re able,” he said. “One voice can make a big difference.” Simpson closed out by thanking the community for being cooperative and patient, with helping their neighbors.
“The community is really the reason I’m proud to live and serve in River Falls,” he said.