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Updated: 17 min 39 sec ago

Albert Lea shows how walking and other healthy habits can rejuvenate a rural community

3 hours 37 min ago

ALBERT LEA — It’s like a small-town Norman Rockwell scene, updated for the 21st century. 

A Latino family strolls through the park, immersed in conversation. Coming up fast behind is a woman in designer exercise gear and earplugs, intent on maintaining her power-walking pace. Bringing up the rear is a young man with his Husky, both of them staring up at a patch of sun that has appeared from behind the clouds.

In real life, this is Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of 18,000 where people are working to prove that healthy lifestyles like walking and good nutrition are not just big-city things.

“We’re not a resort town or a college town, we’re an ag-based rural city promoting healthy living because it’s the right thing to do and it’s how we want to live and want our children to live,” explains Ellen Kehr, a former City Council member who is a leader in the effort to make Albert Lea healthier.

Walking is more common in small towns than people tend to think. In towns of 10,000 to 50,000 people, 8.5 percent of all trips are made on foot, second only to “urban core” communities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey. In smaller towns of 2,500 to 10,000, walking accounts for 7.2 percent of trips — higher than in most suburban communities.

Effort began in 2009

Here, many people embraced healthier lifestyles in 2009 when they adopted a community-wide approach to wellness laid out in “Blues Zones,” a best-selling book by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner that examines places around the world where people live longest and healthiest.

What Albert Lea has accomplished over the past five years offers both lessons and inspiration for smaller towns and cities across the country. “The idea is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Buettner, whose new book, "The Blue Zones Solution," chronicles such community success stories around the world.

In partnership with Healthways, a Tennessee-based company focusing on well-being improvement solutions, Blue Zones is now launching a second phase in town.

Around one-quarter of adults in Albert Lea participated in the first Blue Zones project, along with half of local workplaces and nearly all kids in grades 3-8. Encouraging everyone to engage in more physical activity was a chief thrust of the campaign, which was funded in part by AARP.

It appears to have worked.

Walking is up, smoking and weight are down

Walking has increased 70 percent in the last five years, according to pedestrian counts conducted by the National Vitality Center, a local initiative working on the community health campaign. Smoking has also dropped 4 percent, and participants collectively lost almost 4 tons of weight, notes Buettner. Residents formed about 30 groups to walk or bike together regularly, nearly half of which are still going strong five years later. Two-thirds of locally operated restaurants and one large supermarket now offer new options for healthy eating. 

Even on a gray, chilly weekday afternoon, the new 5-mile trail around Fountain Lake draws more walkers and bikers than you’d expect in a town set among soybean fields of southern Minnesota. The downtown, which borders the park, is filled with people on foot heading between the bank, the library, the kitchen store, clothing stores, churches, schools, restaurants, and — in a classic Minnesota touch — the Sportman’s Tavern, which advertises “cabbage roll hotdish” as the daily special.

“This has become a piece of who we are as a community, an opportunity to become an even better community,” declares Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr.

City Council member Al Brooks, who now walks 2½ miles every day, credits the campaign with big improvements in his own health. “When I started four years ago, I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Now my cholesterol is lower, my blood pressure is 116/70 and I lost 15 pounds.”

After being launched in Albert Lea, the Blue Zones idea has now been taken to Fort Worth, Texas; Naples, Florida; Southern California; and across the states of Iowa and Hawaii. 

Paying off in other ways

Albert Lea’s health gains are paying off in many ways. "Good Morning America" broadcast live from the shores of Fountain Lake to tell the country what was happening here — part of a wave of media attention that is valuable to the town’s future prospects, says City Manager Chad Adams. “And the city’s health insurance premiums will not increase in 2015, instead of the double digit increases of the past few years,” Adams adds — a windfall for taxpayers, which he attributes to the community’s awareness of wellness, physical activity and the health benefits of strong social connections.

Adams stresses that a lively, walkable community is key to attracting businesses as well as the families and young people that Albert Lea needs to thrive in decades to come. Briana Czer, a young bank manager who moved here a year ago, thinks this strategy is working. “I like how walkable Albert Lea is. When people walk more, they socialize more. That helps connect everyone and makes me feel more part of the community, ” she says.

So how exactly did Albert Lea get more people back on their feet walking, especially in a rural region where driving is deeply embedded in the fabric of everyday life?

Courtesy of Blue ZonesAlbert Lea’s health gains are paying off in many ways.How they did it

It was a combination of: 1) creating a public education campaign about the health advantages of physical activity; 2) organizing people into informal social groups to walk or bike regularly; and 3) making the city’s streets and parks more safe and appealing for pedestrians. Here are some of the accomplishments:

  • A community-wide focus on physical activity — enlisting civic organizations, businesses, schools, public agencies, the media and citizens — offered continual reinforcement for people to get out and walk. “It has reconnected our community in a way that I never thought possible,” notes Randy Kehr, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce (and husband of Ellen Kehr). “Sociability is as important to health as exercise and eating.”
  • Walking groups, which serve as an incentive to get off the sofa, even when you feel lazy or it’s freezing outside. This makes physical activity a social occasion to look forward to.  In Albert Lea, walking groups are generally four to 10 people committed to walking together three to seven times a week.
  • Downtown was made more walkable by widening sidewalks, eliminating unnecessary traffic lanes, restoring diagonal parking, replacing some stoplights with stop signs, and “bumping out” sidewalks into the intersection, which shortens the crossing distance on busy streets. 
  • Sidewalks were added to 6½ miles of city streets in strategic locations near schools, senior centers and businesses.
  • A bikeway along Front Street now connects a state park to downtown and a commercial street on the city’s west side.  Bicycling has risen 74 percent on the street, according to the National Vitality Project’s count.
'I am proud of you'

“Small towns can reinvent themselves as places faster than big towns,” explained Dan Burden — one of America’s foremost authorities on walkable communities — to a roomful of city, county and state officials at Albert Lea’s City Hall working on further improvements for the town.

A former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the state of Florida, Burden has brought ideas for walkability and livability to more than 3,500 North American communities in the past 18 years. He helped Albert Lea citizens map out their original healthy cities strategies in 2009 as part of the Blue Zones team, and has now returned for the new phase of work as the organization’s director of innovation.

“When I first came into Albert Lea, I’ll be honest, it looked like the downtown was closed,” he told local officials. “There were businesses, but there was no life in the streets.  That’s changed now. Albert Lea, I am proud of you.”

Living the life: Our growing coastal-transplant community

4 hours 13 min ago
CC/Flickr/Matthew PaulsonThe gap between MSP’s vibrant on-the-ground reality and the skeptical perceptions of outsiders — particularly those who live and work in the coastal population centers that drive the United States’ cultural conversation — is a perennial source of worry for the region’s business leaders and policymakers.

Those of us who live in The North — and MSP, in particular — know the region is so much more than cold-weather clichés and “Fargo” references. But convincing people who’ve never been here of MSP’s vigor, vitality and all-around awesomeness can feel like an uphill battle, a massive chip on the region’s collective shoulder.

More important, the gap between MSP’s vibrant on-the-ground reality and the skeptical perceptions of outsiders — particularly those who live and work in the coastal population centers that drive the United States’ cultural conversation — is a perennial source of worry for the region’s business leaders and policymakers. How can MSP address its looming skills gap if it can’t convince talented knowledge workers to brave the cold, snow or whatever else they’re worried about and relocate here?

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Talented people do move here from the coasts, of course. In fact, strike up a conversation with the person next to you at an art opening, microbrewery, maker event, co-working space, tech-entrepreneur gathering, placemaking conference, poetry reading, food truck (you get the idea), and chances are they’ve moved from the coast and are living the life they’ve always wanted.

Some come to reconnect with family or to start new families. Others come for school. Still others come for employment opportunities, the arts and culture, and the livability. Here’s a cross-section of MSP’s growing coastal-transplant community. All are adjusting to their adopted hometown, learning to love its unique blend of amenities and embracing its unique culture.

Fighting fear with coatsZac Farber

Zac Farber grew up in Olympia, Washington, about an hour southwest of Seattle. Keen to see another part of the country, he applied to Macalester College in St. Paul. “I read about Macalester in one of those three-pound guides to colleges,” he says, “and it established a place in my imagination for a reason that's mostly obscure to me now.” To his (and his parents’) delight, he got in.

But Farber worried about his ability to deal with climatic extremes. “In Olympia, it rains incessantly, but temperatures rarely drop below 40,” he says. “I feared my first Minnesota winter as something elemental and unknown.”

Farber’s solution? “I fought my fear with coats,” he chuckles. He first visited MSP on a balmy spring weekend, but “when winter came, the coats did their duty and it really wasn't all that bad,” he recalls.

With one exception: On an unseasonably cold afternoon at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the plastic frame on Farber’s glasses literally froze off his face, snapping in half in the double-digit-below-zero chill. “That was my go-to, come-back-from-college anecdote for the next two years,” he says.

Aside from the inevitability of a long, cold winter, and a few stray cultural tidbits he’d gleaned from his bulky college guide, Farber didn’t quite know what to expect from MSP. “I'd never been to [Minnesota] before,” he says. “Minnesota’s appeal was in the prospect of a blank slate.”

Culturally speaking, what he found here wasn’t all that different from what he’d left behind. “I've never had much of an aptitude for demographic generalizations,” he muses, but “I suppose there are a lot of similarities between Washingtonians and Minnesotans in terms of unpretentiousness and fondness for the outdoors.”

Those similarities certainly eased Farber’s transition and likely factored into his decision to make a long-term home here. Aside from a year-long internship in Washington, D.C., and a brief interlude back home in Washington state, Farber has been a card-carrying Minnesotan since 2006.

He now lives in Minneapolis’ West Calhoun neighborhood. He regularly rides the 17 bus to WCCO’s downtown office, where he works as a web producer. When he’s not working, he uses the Midtown Greenway and Cedar Lake Trail to visit with college friends who’ve settled in Uptown, Downtown East and Northeast Minneapolis. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“I like living in MSP because of the friends I made in college and the low cost of living, especially compared with D.C.,” he says.

very different phone book

Scott Fagerstrom also came of age in the Pacific Northwest — specifically Vancouver, Washington, just outside Portland. He spent the first part of his career in the region, then worked his way down the West Coast, eventually landing in Orange County, California, and San Diego, where he served as business editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Life in southern California was a study in contrasts. “I was making good money at the Union-Tribune, but still couldn’t afford a house in San Diego,” he recalls.

Around the turn of the century, Fagerstrom almost moved to MSP: Looking at a management gig at the Star Tribune, he spent a few “glorious spring days” taking interviews in Minneapolis and hunting for places to live in St. Paul. Driving down Summit Avenue in full bloom, he fell in love with the broad lawns, lush vegetation, stately historic homes and eye-poppingly low list prices.

“I told myself, ‘I’m going to buy a house in this neighborhood one day,’” he recalls.

Just not then. When the Strib passed him over for another candidate, he took a position at the Los Angeles office of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a global PR firm. Opportunity knocked again in 2004, when Northwest Airlines posted for a senior communications position. This time, Fagerstrom got the job, landing in a Merriam Park home not far from Summit Avenue.

Fagerstrom was mostly prepared for the region’s notorious winters. “What I wasn’t prepared for was the heat and humidity of summer,” he says. “We don’t get that kind of weather on the West Coast.” A tornado touched down near MSP the week after he arrived, adding to his sense of climatic dislocation.

On balance, Fagerstrom believes, MSP’s weather is a good thing. “Minnesotans have perfected the art of doing things indoors. There’s a reason one of our best-known cultural exports is a radio variety show held in a concert hall,” he says, referring to Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion." "On the other hand, winter is so bad for so long that mild weather is truly a cause for celebration," he adds.

Like Farber, Fagerstrom didn’t experience acute culture shock. “More like ‘culture surprise,’” he quips. He compares Minneapolis to Seattle: hip, culturally vibrant and business-oriented all at once. St. Paul reminds him of Portland: a low-key “city of neighborhoods.”

“The Pacific Northwest and Minnesota have a lot in common,” he adds, citing the active, outdoorsy lifestyle, high quality of life, reasonable living costs and Scandinavian heritage. (“In California, I got used to being the only Fagerstrom in the phone book,” he quips.)

MSP’s one cultural drawback: tight social and professional networks that occasionally make non-natives feel like, well, outsiders. “You can live here for a long time, develop good relationships with your colleagues and make great friends,” he says, “but still never be invited over for the holidays.” Fagerstrom chalks this up to the fact that many MSP natives remain in the area after completing their education and maintain largely intact networks over the course of their professional lives.

But this arm’s-length relationship with natives doesn’t make Fagerstrom feel any less at home here. And he hasn’t ruled out looking deeper into his background to see if any of those fellow Fagerstroms are long-lost relatives. Who knows? He might eventually get that holiday invite he’s been waiting for.

Accessible outdoorsinessRachel Franchi-Winters

Rachel Franchi-Winters and her husband Kyle beat a circuitous, somewhat stressful path to MSP. Both grew up in rural Athol, Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border. Like many of their peers, they moved to Boston for college: Kyle enrolled in Boston University’s aerospace engineering program, while Rachel studied biochemistry at Simmons College.

After graduation, they made the cross-country move to Phoenix, which had “a high concentration of aerospace jobs” for Kyle and a spot waiting for Rachel at the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. Kyle ended up pursuing an engineering master’s degree at Arizona State University instead; two years on, he got an offer to join a lab at the University of Minnesota and complete his Ph.D.

The pair scrambled to adjust Rachel’s career plans to the news. “We packed up our bags and moved from Phoenix to Minneapolis, never having been there before,” says Rachel. “I somehow managed to set up 7 months of [hospital and clinic] rotations there, which also gave me a chance to explore the family medicine residency programs I had applied to.”

Unlike Farber and Fagerstrom, the Franchi-Winters had a rudimentary local support network to fall back on when they arrived — and a place to celebrate the holidays. “I had a second cousin who lives in Prior Lake, MN, whom I had never met prior to coming,” Rachel says. “Now we celebrate all the major holidays together. It’s been such a blessing having some family here.”

Other aspects of the transition were smooth, even freeing. The weather here isn’t noticeably different from Boston’s, says Rachel, and the pair’s Northeast Minneapolis home is ideally placed between North Memorial Hospital, where Rachel works, and the U, where Kyle spends most of his time.

MSP’s bike friendliness has been a huge help, too. “We were expecting Minneapolis to be a bike-friendly city, so we sold one of our cars prior to coming,” Rachel says. “Kyle now rides his bike wherever he needs to go, which plays a huge role in keeping him healthy and happy.” Rachel alternates between driving and taking the 11 bus to North Memorial, depending on her schedule and the weather.

“We have a library, park, barber, market, yoga studio, farmers market, brewery, dry cleaners, and countless eateries and so many other essentials to our life within walking or biking distance,” she says with enthusiasm. “It has really allowed us to integrate into the community of Northeast and feel at home here.”

“And we do a family bike ride at least once a week,” she adds, “now with our 11-month-old in tow.” Overall, MSP’s “accessible outdoorsiness” is new to the Franchi-Winters’ experience, despite Phoenix’s rugged mountains and Boston’s sandy beaches. (Though Rachel does confess to missing the ocean.)

Also nice: MSP is much, much cheaper to live in than Boston — which, in spite of the family’s desire to “explore new places to live,” is a powerful incentive to stick around.

Alaska by way of CaliforniaDanielle Steer

Danielle Steer spent her formative years in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving down the coast and enrolling at Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College. Enamored with the West Coast lifestyle and energized by the possibilities of social entrepreneurship, she then headed south to Monterey, California, in pursuit of a Master’s of Public Administration in Social Change at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

California’s central coast suited Steer’s temperament and outlook well. With her MPA in hand, she accepted a full-time position with Middlebury’s recruitment and enrollment team — not quite “the title that I had envisioned in my quest to be a change agent,” she said in a recent blog post, but realistic given her youth and the state of the economy at the time.

Despite having “the world’s best boss,” who allowed her to tackle projects outside her official job duties and “really grow as a young professional,” Steer hit a wall in 2014. “I knew that I needed to take the skills, tools, and experiences from my grad degree and first ‘career girl’ job and apply them in a position that had more measurable impact,” she explained in the post.

Steer soon found that position; it just wasn’t where she thought it would be. Encouraged by her “bestie,” who grew up in Duluth, she applied for — and got — a leadership role at the newly minted MN Social Impact Center in Minneapolis. (Her exact title is Manager, Operations & Member Experience Design.)

Offer in hand, Steer and her husband packed up and moved to the Mill District, where they’re subleasing as they search for more permanent accommodations. “We’re really excited about Northeast Minneapolis,” she says — and about MSP’s manageable cost of living. “We’re not yet ready to buy a house but are definitely excited to live in a market where we can afford to buy,” she adds. “California just wasn’t accessible for us in that way.”

Steer and her husband are also experiencing a sort of positive culture shock. “Minnesotans are insanely loyal, valuing personal relationships and relatability over all else,” she says. That’s a welcome contrast with California, where tastes tend to be more fickle. A self-described “huge sports fan,” Steer was particularly pleased to find the Target Center packed to the gills for a late-season Timberwolves game, despite the team’s woeful performance and nonexistent playoff hopes.

Despite Steer’s relative newness, she already feels that supportiveness in her personal life. Her husband followed her here prior to lining up a job, but the Impact Center’s board “has been extremely helpful” in connecting him with employment opportunities. “MSP is tight-knit to a certain extent,” she explains, so “having support from my community has been invaluable.”

Steer also loves MSP’s “territorial loyalty.” When someone hears she and her husband are looking for a place to live, she says, “They immediately want to sell us on their neighborhood.” The city’s bike friendliness and a nearby off-leash dog park (the couple has a yellow lab) are also additional benefits. “We’re quickly falling in love with MSP,” she adds.

Sujan Patel

From the capital of tech to the capital of the North, Sujan Patel also came to MSP from California. But he didn’t have an Alaskan upbringing to prepare him for the region’s long winters or provide perspective on Northern culture.

Patel, an Orange County native, spent the first three decades of his life “moving up and down the California coast.” Since the late 2000s, he’d been planted in San Francisco’s trendy, techy SoMa district, heading up the digital marketing business he founded shortly after graduating from college.

“More than anywhere else I’d lived previously, I felt like San Francisco was my home,” he says. That started to change in late 2013, when he sold his business and began thinking about the next stage of his career. In early 2014, Chad Halvorson, founder of St. Paul-based tech startup thisCLICKS (now When I Work), courted Patel for the fast-growing company’s newly created VP of marketing position.

“I’d helped Chad with marketing and promotion for a few years, and I certainly believed in him and his company,” recalls Patel. “But honestly, having never lived outside California, I wasn’t sure about moving to Minnesota.”

Halvorson proved persuasive, though, and Patel accepted the offer. (It didn’t hurt that Halvorson first flew Patel to MSP in May, which “was probably intentional,” Patel laughs.)

He settled in a downtown St. Paul loft, partly for the proximity to When I Work’s West Side Flats offices and partly because he was apprehensive about snow-clearing responsibilities. According to Patel, the location couldn’t be better: He can walk to shops and restaurants, and has access to coffee shops (Spyhouse is his go-to) with long hours, a must for a driven startup employee who routinely catches up on work in the evenings and on weekends.

Despite its spread-out geography, Patel finds MSP at least as accessible as his more compact hometown. “The difference here is that you can certainly take transit if you want, but traffic and parking are also much more manageable,” he says. “It’s much easier to drive here, whereas in San Francisco transit is often the only option.”

That accessibility helps Patel connect with “like-minded communities” in vibrant parts of town. When he’s not working (and, often, even when he is), he spends time in Uptown, the North Loop and Northeast Minneapolis. And though he initially struggled to adjust to MSP’s “lower energy levels” and less developed startup scene, he’s come to see these apparent drawbacks as blessings in disguise.

“In San Francisco and other startup hubs, there’s so much noise and everyone is working on the next big thing. That means it’s really hard to cut through the hype and figure out what’s actually going to last, versus what’s just a fad,” he explains. “[In MSP], I have more of an outsider’s perspective, meaning I can evaluate opportunities objectively and connect with the people I should be connecting with.”

To be fair, many of those people aren’t from MSP. Ironically, adds Patel, he’s made more meaningful professional connections with people based in San Francisco in the past year than during his entire half-decade in the Bay Area. But perhaps the biggest perk of Patel’s move is simply being a key decision-maker at one of MSP’s most dynamic — and fastest-growing — tech startups.

“When I Work is hiring like crazy,” he says, “especially for developers, as we work to roll out new features faster than ever.” (According to Halvorson, the company recently passed the 50-employee mark, roughly tripling in size since the beginning of 2014.)

When I Work’s growth isn’t just great for Patel’s resume. It’s also a major plus for his overall quality of life, and probably the biggest reason he’s convinced that his decision to relocate to MSP was the right one.

“I’m fully committed to [When I Work’s] solution and have fallen in love with the team here,” he says. “When you’ve got a great product, inspirational coworkers and a clear mission, it doesn’t matter where you live — it only matters what you do.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Brian Martucci is The Line's innovation and jobs news editor.

Memorial Day activities include Fort Snelling Cemetery parade

4 hours 14 min ago

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is the day set aside to honor those who've died in active military service.

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Many events have been scheduled around the state to remember those who gave their lives. On Monday, there will be a parade and ceremony at the Fort Snelling Cemetery, with speakers, music and a display of military vehicles. The parade is at 9:30 a.m.; the program follows at 10 a.m.

Some official events from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs include a Sunday ceremony at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, 1:30 p.m.

Minnesota Veterans Homes:

  • Fergus Falls, Monday, 2 p.m.
  • Hastings, Monday, 9 apa.m.
  • Luverne, May 30, 2:30 p.m.
  • Minneapolis, Monday, 1:30 p.m.
  • Silver Bay, Monday, 10:30 a.m.

 Some other area events:

  • Afton, Monday, 11:15 a.m., Evergreen Community Cemetery, just west of Memorial Lutheran Church on County Road 18.
  • Anoka, Monday, 10 a.m., Anoka Veterans Memorial, Forest Hills Cemetery, West Main St & Highway 10
  • Bayport, Monday, 8:30 a.m., American Legion parade, starting at Minnesota 95 and Central Avenue Cottage Grove: Monday, 1 p.m., Veterans Memorial outside City Hall, 12800 Ravine Parkway S. 
  • Forest Lake, Monday, 9 a.m., Lakeside Memorial Park, 56 E. Broadway Av.
  • Fort Snelling, Sunday, 11 a.m., Remembrance Service, Fort Snelling Veterans Memorial Chapel
  • Glencoe, Monday, 10 a.m., GSL High School Auditorium
  • Lafayette, Monday, 10 a.m., Downtown City Park, or Community Center, if rain
  • Marine on St. Croix Monday, noon, Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake, 11300 180th St. N.
  • Monticello, Monday, morning memorial services at local cemeteries and 11:30 a.m. parade
  • Rosemount, Monday, 8:45 a.m., Central Park, 2893 145th St. W.
  • Rothsay, Monday, 10 a.m. Community Center, 115 2nd St. SW.
  • St. Cloud, Monday, 10:30 a.m. parade then 11 a.m. ceremony, 4801 Veterans Dr.
  • St. Paul, Monday, 9 a.m., Elmhurst Cemetery, 1510 N. Dale St.
  • St. Paul, Monday, 11 a.m., Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1800 Edgerton St.
  • St. Paul, Monday, 10 a.m., Riverview Cemetery, 340 E. Annapolis St.
  • St. Paul, Monday, 7 p.m. Como Park Pavilion, 1360 N. Lexington Parkway
  • South St. Paul, Monday, 9:30 a.m. Parade, Memorial service at 10:15 a.m. at the cemetery
  • State Capitol Grounds: Monday, 1 p.m., Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • State Capitol Grounds: Monday, 9:30 a.m.,  Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
  • Stillwater, Monday, 11 a.m., Upper Riverview Parking lot, 3rd St. S. and Pine St. W.
  • Wheaton, Monday, 11 a.m. American Legion, Hwy. 75
  • White Bear Lake, Monday, 2 p.m., 4496 Lake Av. S
  • Woodbury, Monday, 11 a.m., City Hall Campus, Valley Creek Road and Radio Drive.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar will speak at several Monday events:

  • 10 a.m., Fort Snelling National Cemetery
  • 2 p.m., POW Award Ceremony, Stewart, Minn., American Legion
  • 3:30 p.m., Flag Presentation, Olivia, Minn., American Legion 

Obama’s interview with The Atlantic: a miracle of probative questions and thoughtful answers

4 hours 15 min ago

President Obama sat down on Tuesday for a long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

In the context of today’s world of infotainment and political splatball and especially the epidemic of virulent Obama Derangement Syndrome in some quarters of our political spectrum, the exchange is a miracle of good probative questions and thoughtful answers.

I urge you to read the whole thing, which includes not only Goldberg’s summary at the top but a full transcript below.

Here are a few highlights:

On the effort to negotiate a deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Goldberg asked Obama about the criticism that Iran will cheat and acquire the weapons anyway and the suspicion that perhaps the deal Obama wants to sign is designed mostly to tamp down the crisis long enough for Obama to get out of office:

Obama: “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this. I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

On the criticism that Obama’s unwillingness to get more militarily involved in the Mideast is making the situation worse Iraq:

“I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq, and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in,” he said. “And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.

“We can be effective allies. I think Prime Minister Abadi is sincere and committed to an inclusive Iraqi state, and I will continue to order our military to provide the Iraqi security forces all assistance that they need in order to secure their country, and I’ll provide diplomatic and economic assistance that’s necessary for them to stabilize.

“But we can’t do it for them, and one of the central flaws I think of the decision back in 2003 was the sense that if we simply went in and deposed a dictator, or simply went in and cleared out the bad guys, that somehow peace and prosperity would automatically emerge, and that lesson we should have learned a long time ago. And so the really important question moving forward is: How do we find effective partners — not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya — that we can work with, and how do we create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future?”

On the question of whether the Iranians (and some others) are so deranged by anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism that that they cannot be expected to behave rationally on matters involving Israel:

Obama:  “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders — and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”

Here Goldberg interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders have indeed made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded:

“They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”

Goldberg explored the less-than-warm-and-friendly relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He wrote that Obama “tried to frame his conflict with Netanyahu in impersonal terms, [but] he made two things clear. One is that he will not stop criticizing Israel when he believes it is not living up to its own founding values. And two — and this is my interpretation of his worldview [Goldberg noted] — he holds Israel to a higher standard than he does other countries because of the respect he has for Jewish values and Jewish teachings, and for the role Jewish mentors and teachers have played in his life.” After equating the creation of Israel with the American civil-rights movement, he went on to say this:

[Quoting Obama now]  “What is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values — its founding principles — that it has to care about … Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to an Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy — if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values — then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally.”

Elsewhere in the exchange, Obama made clear his continuing support for a two-state solution:

“The most important thing, I think, that we can do right now in strengthening Israel’s position is to describe very clearly why I have believed that a two-state solution is the best security plan for Israel over the long term; for me to take very seriously Israel’s security concerns about what a two-state solution might look like; to try to work through systematically those issues; but also, at the end of the day, to say to any Israeli prime minister that it will require some risks in order to achieve peace. And the question you have to ask yourself then is: How do you weigh those risks against the risks of doing nothing and just perpetuating the status quo?

My argument is that the risks of doing nothing are far greater, and I ultimately — it is important for the Israeli people and the Israeli government to make its own decisions about what it needs to secure the people of that nation.

But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if ... all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself.”

A weekend for rhubarb, lilacs and honoring our war dead

4 hours 15 min ago
CC/Flickr/Russell Harrison PhotographyOn one hand, it’s odd we memorialize the dead in the spring when the world comes alive.

Call it aromatherapy for the northland: Lilacs are the natural perfume of spring. 

Not that I was thinking about lilacs last weekend when my husband and I surveyed the overwhelming array (disarray?) of yard and beach work needing immediate attention at our lake place. As is characteristic for the two of us, my reaction was that the natural world had conspired to stress me out (think screaming and gnashing teeth); he wondered whether we should go fishing before the rain set in.

Jane Ahlin

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon on my way from yard to dock to do some chore or another that I caught the scent of lilacs — faint, to be sure, but aromatic enough for me to stop, turn, and push my face into fragrant lavender blossoms yet on the branches. All the tasks I absolutely had to do or should be doing or could not possibly get done moved to the back seat of my brain, replaced by the heady realization that lilacs had begun to bloom and would be in full bloom for Memorial Day. 

All must be right with the world.

Whatever else we know about the changing seasons, living where we do encourages love of lilacs … and rhubarb, too, of course.  If lilacs are the northland’s spring perfume, rhubarb is its first fruit. More important, if we have a bouquet of lilacs on the table and rhubarb pie for dessert on Memorial Day, the stage is set for a fine summer. It’s all a matter of timing. When lilacs bloom before Memorial Day, we’re uneasy; if they bloom after, we’re also uneasy.  (Rhubarb is not such a slave to timing.) 

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The rain began by evening and was settled in early the next morning when I drove into town for church. By then my desperation to get things done had pretty much disappeared, almost as if I’d worn it outside in the long spring rain and it had dissolved. In its place was steady rhythm, the rhythm of raindrops and wiper blades. Instead of seasonal angst from the day before — specters of work shouting to be done here, there, and everywhere — the low-ceilinged natural world held consolation. Through no effort of my own, my mind had shifted from the burden of all that must be done to the balm of all there is to appreciate. 

Nobody else was on the road. Although the sun was hidden, seemingly powerless to overcome the rain, the color green was everywhere. But it wasn’t spring green that dazzles, trumpeting itself under blue skies and in brilliant beams of light.  This green glowed — canopied fuzziness on trees and velvet haziness on fields — a surround of blurred and boundless luminescence.   

I come from practical rather than spiritual people, people disinclined to talk about philosophy or religion, at least in personal terms. And love, as I learned about it, was a verb, an action word. The point was not to say we loved one another but to show that we did. We didn’t take it to extremes, of course. No way was I about to do dishes alone to show my brothers I loved them. But our mom certainly baked it into rhubarb pies, and our dad into gratitude and joy for nature.

On one hand, it’s odd we memorialize the dead in the spring when the world comes alive. Of course, our Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day, which was instituted to honor Civil War dead by putting flowers on their graves. Memorial Day expanded the idea to honor all who died in military service. In practice, however, Memorial Day also is the day to remember family and friends who are dead. The philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke said that death “brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” 

And so we pause to see spring green around us, to smell the lilacs, and to taste the rhubarb.

A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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MN Blog Cabin Roundup, 5/22

4 hours 16 min ago
Rail is safe — what about our roads?

from streets.mn by Walker Angell

Within minutes of the crash in Philadelphia the NTSB had swung in to action and began organizing a ‘GO Team’ to investigate. According to news reports there were a couple of people there within hours, a few more by 4am, and more later in the morning. This team will devote themselves full-time to this investigation for weeks, months, or years and they should indeed do so where a single incident or the mistake of one person can have such a huge impact. It is because of this dedication that air and rail are as safe as they are. We are not the safest, but we’re not horrible either.

This doesn’t happen so much with crashes on our roads.

A view from baseball’s most important seat with Minnesota Twins scorekeeper Stew Thornley

from RedCurrent by Mark Remme

There is one seat inside Target Field and every other baseball park in America that carries incredible responsibility—and it’s nowhere near the field of play. At the Twins’ Home, it is the first seat in first row of the press box, tucked just to the right of home plate with a bird’s eye view of every angle at which the ball might travel.

This seat can impact milestones, records and batting titles. Without ever touching a baseball or stepping on the warning track, the person occupying this seat can be the difference between a no-hitter for the history books and a one-hitter forgotten in time.

Stew Thornley takes this responsibility very seriously. He and his colleagues who rotate into that seat as Major League Baseball official scorers understand each moment, each pitch, could leave them in a situation where judgment dictates reality.

Seven short quotes about the St. Croix from Walter Mondale

from St. Croix 360 by Greg Seitz

Former vice president and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale was interviewed by the Pioneer Press recently. The St. Croix’s “elder statesman” had a lot to say about the history of its protection, and its future.

Effectiveness, and the case of Dr. Oz

from Community Matters by Paul Mattesich

Dr. Oz became famous on Oprah, then developed his own TV show. Millions of people who seek health and medical information hang on his every word. But can we believe him?

The controversy focuses attention on evidence-based practices. So, what do we mean by evidence? What constitutes credible information that a treatment works or that a specific behavior promotes good health?

Honoring rural life st Heritage Park of north Iowa

from Minnesota Prairie Roots by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“COME BACK ON SATURDAY,” Monte Topp advised. “There’ll be 25,000 people here.”

“No, thanks,” I said.

And that is how I learned about the May 21 – 24 Tree Town Music Festival in Forest City, Iowa, with Saturday headliner Blake Shelton. Yes, the Blake Shelton, whom even I, not a fan of country western music, know as a judge from The Voice.

But Monte wasn’t talking much music when I met him at Heritage Park of North Iowa last Saturday morning. He was focused instead on the weekend Steam School which drew folks from around the country to learn the ins and outs of operating steam engines.

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U of M's Kaler to Legislature: Thanks for the $53 million, but it's not enough

5 hours 20 min ago

The higher education bill passed by the Legislature has been signed by Gov. Dayton, but University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said today that it's not enough.

The bill gives the University $53 million more than its current allocation, with $30 million for the medical school, $22 million for tuition relief and $1 million for Alzheimer's research.

But the University had said it needed $65 million to maintain a tuition freeze.

In a statement today, Kaler thanked legislators for the extra funding, particularly the medical school money, but he added:

While I appreciate the funds allocated for operating support, it falls short of what is needed to hold tuition increases to zero for Minnesota resident students system-wide for another two years. This will impact approximately 53,000 students and families, or about 70 percent of our undergraduates system-wide. Minnesota students and their families deserve more consideration at a time of significant state budget surplus. We have done our part to lessen the need for increased tuition revenue by reducing administrative costs by $39 million this biennium, with a plan to reduce an additional $30 million next biennium.


Kaler apparently will try again for the additional funding in the future, saying he looks forward "to working with the Governor and legislators to ensure the University remains accessible to our brightest students and maintains its reputation as a world-class institution."

Minnesotans accused of wanting to join Islamic State made threats

5 hours 37 min ago

More information on the Minnesota men accused of wanting to join the Islamic State. From the AP: “One Minnesota man accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group told an informant he'd kill FBI agents if they tried to stop him, while another told friends he'd ‘spit on America’ at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a document filed Thursday by prosecutors. The document reveals new details about Mohamed Abdihamid Farah and Abdirahman Yasin Daud, both 21. They are among six Minnesota men arrested last month for conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.”

Relatedly, the AP looks at the background of Abdifatah Ahmed, a Minneapolis man who successfully traveled to Syria in order to join the Islamic State (and was subsequently killed). “[Farhan] Hussein said [Ahmed] friend seemed confused about life, and sometimes felt stressed out by the women with whom he had children: Minnesota court papers show at times he was paying child support to two ex-wives for five of his kids, as well as support for a sixth whose mother is not identified. He wasn’t the type to go to mosque or pray every day — instead, he went clubbing and even drank alcohol, Hussein said.”

Also, be sure to check out Ibrahim Hirsi’s story in MinnPost today about a new report that examines the issues of terror recruitment in the Twin Cities Somali community.

The war in Syria is, of course, creating a lot of refugees. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and a group of 13 other Senators sent a letter to the President urging the opening of a path for more Syrian refugees to settle in the United States. The letter begins, “As the Syrian conflict enters its 5th year with no end in sight, we respectfully request that your Administration take action to significantly increase the number of Syrian refugees who are resettled in the United States. Our nation’s founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution and the United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees.  The United States traditionally accepts at least 50 percent of resettlement cases from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  However, we have accepted only approximately 700 refugees since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, an unacceptably low number.”

The New York Times has a sad but also sadly predictable story about how the debut of President Obama’s new Twitter account, @POTUS, immediately drew a huge number of hate-filled tweets. Leading off the cavalcade of racists cited in the story was Minneapolis’ own Jeff Gullickson: “One person posted a doctored image of Mr. Obama’s famous campaign poster, instead showing the president with his head in a noose, his eyes closed and his neck appearing broken as if he had been lynched. Instead of the word ‘HOPE’ in capital letters as it appeared on the campaign poster, the doctored image had the words ‘ROPE.’ … The writer, Jeff Gullickson of Minneapolis, subsequently posted on Thursday that his reply to Mr. Obama had earned him a visit from the Secret Service at home. Reached for comment, Mr. Gullickson responded by asking in an email how much The New York Times would pay him for an interview.” Stay classy.

Four more budget bills got Gov. Dayton’s autograph Friday morning. The Pioneer Press’ David Montgomery reports: “Gov. Mark Dayton signed the state’s public safety budget, higher education budget, health and human services budget and transportation budget into law Friday. … Of those, only the public safety budget was believed to be in possible danger. Though Dayton had agreed to spending levels in the bill, it also contained language legalizing gun silencers or suppressors that Dayton opposed. He had promised to veto an earlier version of the suppressor language, but accepted the scaled-back language in the final bill.”

In other news…

The latest Minnesotan to announce a trip to Cuba? Sen. Al Franken. [AP via Austin Daily Herald]

Wow. So marketing. Very brand. “Delta revives every Internet meme it can think of for new safety video” [Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal]

Just another sad story of an addict no longer able to afford her buzz. “Home Rehabber Nicole Curtis Accused Of Not Paying Subcontractor” [WCCO]

This explains the warm feelings of civic pride we were feeling in our breasts yesterday. “Vikings stadium's final concrete column poured Thursday” [Pioneer Press]

Probably not a good choice during flamingo season, though. “Wisconsin legislator preparing to unveil bill legalizing blaze pink for hunters” [Star Tribune]

Don’t brush and drive, folks:

Scanner Chatter: A 911 call was made to report a lady brushing her teeth AND texting while driving. Arrest her please.

— Mpls/St Paul Traffic (@MSP_Traffic) May 22, 2015

“10 Things You Didn't Know About Spoonriver Restaurant and Chef Brenda Langton [City Pages]

Fridley’s Columbia Arena — where some scenes in “D3: The Mighty Ducks” were filmed — is in really rough shape. [City Pages]

“Longtime Twin Cities DJ Thorn dealing with serious health issues” [Pioneer Press]

Coming soon to Twin Cities: Lizard People. [WCCO]

Peggy Flanagan to seek Ryan Winkler's seat in House District 46A

6 hours 52 min ago

Peggy Flanagan has moved quickly following State Rep. Ryan Winkler's surprise announcement Thursday that he will resign from the Legislature because his family is moving to Europe.

Flanagan, a well-connected DFLer who is now executive director of the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, said she'll run for the seat. She's previously worked at Wellstone Action and Minnesotans United for All Families.

Flanagan, 35, lives in St. Louis Park, and says she's a U of M grad and a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. She and her husband have a 2-year-old daughter.

Flanagan said in the statement announcing her run:

“My mom and I moved to St. Louis Park when I was a baby. As a single mother, she chose this community because of the opportunities that it provided for good public education, stable neighborhoods, and economic security, and she was right. My family and I settled in my hometown for the same reasons, and now I want to give back."

Winkler announced Thursday that his wife has accepted a job in Belgium. He'll leave the Legislature but keep his job here with Biothera, a Minnesota company with international operations. He'll split his time between Minnesota and Belgium.

Gov. Dayton will call a special election for the seat, possibly in November to coincide with local elections.

New study dispels several assumptions about terrorist recruitment in the Twin Cities

7 hours 49 min ago
Creative Commons/Zachary KorbMore than 55 percent of Minnesota Somalis live in poverty, 3.5 times more than the general U.S. population.

For almost eight years, a pipeline has pulled young Muslims from their homes in the Twin Cities into unknown territories in the Middle East and Somalia to join the ranks of Al-Shabab and the Islamic State.

The disappearance of the young Somali-Americans from their families has raised many issues, of course, questions that have drawn everyone from law enforcement officers to academics into the living rooms of Somalis living in the Twin Cites.

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The latest attempt to understand the issue comes via a new report by the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California, “Foreign Fighters: Terrorist Recruitment and Countering Violent Extremism Programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul,” which not only explores the ongoing terrorist recruitment and radicalization in the community — but suggests ways to stem the intensifying flow of Muslim youngsters to international terrorist organizations.

The report, authored by Erroll Southers and Justin Hienz, was released last month but has received little media scrutiny thus far as it attempts to shed light on specific challenges the community faces here. In fact, it found that as the size of the community continues to grown in the Twin Cities, young Somali-Americans are facing challenges that leave them vulnerable to recruitment. Among other things, the report found:

  • Nearly 35 percent of Somali households in Minnesota are headed by single parents — and the average family size is 4.
  • Nearly 40 percent the state’s Somalis under 25 do not have a high school diploma.
  • Nearly 32 percent of the state’s Somali community aged 16 years and older is unemployed.
  • More than 55 percent of Minnesota Somalis live in poverty, 3.5 times more than the general U.S. population. 
  • More than 20,000 Somali-Americans under 25 face significant social and economic challenges.

The struggle to address these challenges, the study states, offers terrorist recruiters an opening to prey upon the community’s youngsters, luring them into terrorism networks. Since the end of 2013, at least eight Somalis have left Minnesota to join ISIS in Syria, according to Southers and Hienz. And over the past six months alone, another eight Somali-Americans were charged in Minnesota with planning to leave the country to join Islamic extremist organizations in Syria.

Ineffective community services

The report also looks at various responses to terror recruitment. In recent years, the number of Somali-American non-profit organizations and activists seeking funding to halt recruitment and radicalization has increased. Today, there are 35 non-profit organizations serving the community in Minnesota, states the report, twenty-three of which operate in the Twin Cities. 

The report highlights some organizations providing effective community services in the Twin Cities, including Average Mohamed, Ka Joog, Somali Citizens League, The Islamic Civic Society of America and the West Bank Athletic Club.

Yet the report also reveals that some organizations in the Twin Cities have misused government money they received in the name of serving the youth and fighting radicalization. One Somali law enforcement officer told researchers:

There are a lot of community organizations who get money in the name of the community and never come back...So-called Somali community leaders have been receiving money from the city or the state or local but the community never benefit. They benefit only that little group. And the community is pissed off. 

Another source in the report adds that some of the organization heads “are bloodsuckers. All they need is the paycheck. They don’t care about the ills and the problems.” 

The study suggested that overall, the current range of services is insufficient to combat radicalization and recruitment — and to halt the stream of young Minnesotans who want to join ISIS.

“More needs to be done,” the report states. “This does not necessarily mean increased funding, but instead, a smarter, more strategic application of funds to programs that reflect the stated needs of the community and are continually delivering evidence that funds are spent on real, immediate efforts and not used as a way to increase personal income and prestige.”

Sadik Warfa, deputy director of the Minneapolis-based Global Somali Diaspora, took issue with the criticism of some community organizations in the report. “It’s unfair to criticize the Somali organizations because I know many of them don’t receive funding,” he said. “The problem is bigger than what this report is indicating. This community needs a huge investment: employment, education, parental support, a lot of things.”

He added: “As community leaders … we’re doing everything possible to make sure our kids stay positive — without receiving any funds because we see this as our own responsibility.” 

Other community leaders, who declined to comment on the story because they wanted more time to read the complete study, noted that the report was established to pave the way for the federal Department of Justice’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, a controversial initiative that many members of the Somali community say will target and surveil Muslims.  

Report dispels recruitment assumptions

In the ongoing debate on recruitment in the Twin Cities, many community leaders often cite the lack of employment and opportunities as the primary factors forcing Somali-Americans to join violent extremists.

The report, however, states that other factors may also be at issue. Namely, that one of the core factors to recruitment is the identity crisis with which some young Somali-Americans struggle:

Recruits from Minneapolis are not necessarily (or even primarily) lacking in opportunities for a successful future in the United States. Take the example of Zakaria Maruf, relayed to us by one of his childhood friends who knew him before he left for Somalia in 2008.

Maruf was socially popular, athletic and succeeding in school. He was also affiliated with the “Somali Hot Boyz.” Graduating from high school, Maruf separated from the gang and became increasingly religious, eventually becoming a teacher at a dugsi [Islamic school] in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Maruf swapped his gang-centered social structure for one founded on an ultra-strict interpretation of Islam. Based on the findings from this study, it seems clear Maruf did not travel to Somalia because he was poverty-stricken and hopeless but because his identity, based on a narrow interpretation of Islamic beliefs and a vague sense of nationalism, required it of him.

Another assumption the report dispels: that social media is the primary method of recruitment. The main tool for recruiters in the Twin Cities, the report found, is face-to-face interaction, although Facebook and Twitter may play a role in enhancing their interactions.

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at ihirsi@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.

A Q&A with the man who built the Hiawatha Line trains — out of Lego

8 hours 9 min ago
Stubble

Steve Demlow is a member of the Greater Midwest Lego Train Club and a software engineer at 3M.

Stubble: How did you go about designing the Hiawatha Line model you’re selling today?
Steve: Well, I had built a larger 2 foot model of it, so from that I had a pretty good idea of what it was supposed to look like. We wanted to make a smaller one that we could sell because people were asking if they could buy it. Then it’s just a matter of trial and error to find something that fits the scale and holds together well enough and looks decent.

Stubble: What about trains interest you?
Steve: I’m part of a group called the Greater Midwest Lego Train Club and our main focus is we have a Lego model train layout that’s about, what is it now, 18×12 feet or so and we’re always adding on to that. We especially like to build local things to add to the model: the Hiawatha when it came out, the Northstar line when it came out, we built the Blue Line when it came out. We’ve built some other local train stuff too.

Stubble: Has anyone from Metro Transit ever seen your work?
Steve: Yeah, there’s a group called the Minneapolis Commuter Connection, it’s an offshoot of the government somehow, but they stock our little models in their skyway store. I have talked to a few people from Metro Transit who buy them and like them. I’ve been to a couple of local train events where a some of the Northstar engineers have come up to my models and played with it so that’s cool.

Stubble: You know, I didn’t even realize that there was a community of adult Lego builders locally, what’s the scene like?
Steve: The group that I’m a part of has been in the Twin cities for over 20 years. It’s actually the oldest known adult Lego club. There are a lot of them around the world, probably hundreds. Ours is still a fairly small group, but there are a few other Lego enthusiast groups who do similar things. One group is actually doing a show at SpringCon right now. I think I know of 60-80 adults involved in a sort of organized level. We get people who come in and say too that they like to build at home a lot, but aren’t really part of a group.

Stubble: What happens in a Lego club? Trading skills and swapping parts, just trading Lego lore?
Steve: It’s all of that, you get everything from people who are collectors who just buy the sets and maybe put them together to sit on a shelf, then there are the people who are really hardcore into building their own stuff and everything in between. Some are interested in just the parts, some are interested in the techniques, some are into what the Lego company is doing and what’s coming out that’s new. I will say that one focus of the group is coming together so that they can build collaborative displays. Some all build together and others are more fluid, they’ll say OK you build this section, you build this section and we’ll put them together and then people have their own stand alone model that they display too.

Stubble: Last question, what was the first Lego kit that you ever had. Do you remember it?
Steve: Oh absolutely. The first Lego kit that I ever had my grandparents bought it for me when I was four years old at at Wollworths in Michigan where I grew up. It was a little 20 piece set called a bucket loader. A little blue tractor with a red bucket on the front, so that was pretty cool.

Stubble: Did you feel the electricity?
Steve: As a four year old, I wouldn’t say it happened then. But the following Christmas, the same grandparents got me a much larger Lego set and that was a farm. It had the old figures from the 1970s, and that I played with all throughout my childhood. It was kind of the core of my Lego collection. After that I loved Lego.

This post was written by Tom Johnson and originally published on Stubble. Follow Stubble on Twitter: @stubblemag.

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Efforts to curb solar industry subsidies fail amid opposition from Iron Rangers

8 hours 35 min ago

An effort to curb state subsidies and other perks for Minnesota firms making solar panels fizzled in the final days of the legislative session amid opposition from an Iron Range company with political ties to the DFL.

But the company, Silicon Energy of Mountain Iron, will soon face scrutiny on another front.

Auditor Jim Nobles

Legislative Auditor James Nobles says he will investigate the $7 million in government loans for Silicon Energy as part of a wider probe of a state agency’s controversial economic development projects.

“Given the size and importance of it, it will be in our scope, for sure,” Nobles said.

Nobles is evaluating whether the agency, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), has made smart bets with loans and grants intended to create jobs in northern Minnesota. The agency uses taconite taxes paid by mining companies to finance economic development.   

Silicon Energy has fallen far short of its goals for job creation despite the IRRRB loans and the state subsidies. Some House Republicans oppose the subsidies as costly and unfair, but Senate DFLers defend them as good public policy.

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This week the solar industry won a reprieve when the Minnesota Senate blocked an attempt by the House to curtail the state subsidy, which lowers the cost of solar panels produced in Minnesota by providing payments to buyers. The Senate also rejected a bid by the House to end a policy encouraging the government to buy Minnesota-made panels over those made elsewhere.

The bid to curb the solar perks ran into stiff opposition from Iron Range DFLers.

“For pretty much the entire Iron Range delegation, it was like, ‘That’s a non-starter,’” Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, whose district includes the Mountain Iron solar plant, said Tuesday.

Rep. Pat Garofalo

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who proposed the curbs, said some environmentalists regarded any changes in the solar program “as a step back.” Garofalo argues there are less costly and more effective ways to reduce energy pollution than incentives for Minnesota-made solar panels. He says the solar preferences will likely be challenged again next year.

Silicon Energy said it can’t survive in Minnesota without the breaks. Over the years, the California backers of the firm have contributed at least $24,000 to Minnesota politicians. Nearly all went to DFLers, much of it to Iron Range legislators who have been the driving force in getting and protecting the solar preferences.

In 2010, Tom Rukavina, then a DFL House member from Virginia, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, sponsored the customer incentives for buying Minnesota-made solar panels.

Former state Rep. Tom Rukavina

That year Rukavina and Tomassoni played another role beneficial to Silicon Energy. As members of the IRRRB, they voted to approve $5.1 million in loans to Silicon Energy and to a city development authority for building a solar factory for the firm in Mountain Iron.

Rukavina, who is now a St. Louis County commissioner, was running for governor in 2010 and his loan vote came after California backers of Silicon Energy contributed $1,500 to his campaign.

Silicon Energy opened in Mountain Iron in 2011. Although the state preference program for the solar energy was exanded in 2013, the firm shut down production for a large part of 2014. Company president Gary Shaver says it has 11 workers in Mountain Iron, less than half the workforce it once predicted.

Nevertheless, the IRRRB gave the company another loan – for $1.95 million – last December.

Part of larger probe

When he announced plans to evaluate the IRRRB in April, Nobles said a probe “could provide useful information regarding investments the agency has made and its effectiveness in developing businesses and job opportunities in the agency’s service area.”

He said “grants, loans, and other expenditures made by the agency” might be subjects for scrutiny.

Regarding the relationship between IRRRB and Silicon Energy, “we’ll be looking at that one and at a lot of others,” Nobles said in an interview last week.

His April announcement noted that IRRRB loans to a call center with ties to the Democratic Party also raised questions about the agency’s investments. In 2006, the agency loaned the call center $625,000 and hasn’t been repaid all of the money. However, the call center made more headway than Silicon Energy in creating jobs, at times claiming 100 employees.

Pat Doyle is a longtime Twin Cities journalist.

Why long car commutes are hazardous to our health (and happiness)

9 hours 8 min ago

In two recent entries in his series on “the past, present and future of commuting in America,” Vox science reporter Joseph Stromberg explains why long car commutes are “horrible for your health” — and why biking or walking to work “will make you happier and healthier.”

And, yes, he does support those statements with plenty of research, although, admittedly, a lot of it involves observational studies, which can’t actually prove cause and effect.

Still, the bulk of the research to date on this topic leans heavily toward the finding that how we get to and from work does play an important role in our physical and mental health. Yet few of us think of it that way.

“Many Americans are obsessed with rooting out things that make us unhealthy — even to the point of overkill,” writes Stromberg. “We detox, we avoid gluten, we devise excessively complicated exercise regimes (even though these are all unnecessary). And yet for some reason, we seem to have no problem doing a simple activity every single weekday that's associated with obesity, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and general unhappiness. That activity is commuting — or at least commuting alone by car.”

Inhibiting healthful habits

As Stromberg reports, one study involving more than 4,000 Texas workers found that people who had long car commutes (more than 20 miles a day) tended to have higher blood pressure and blood sugar levels than those with shorter commutes (less than 5 miles a day).

Those effects vanished when the study’s authors corrected for exercise habits. But, notes Stromberg, “the sad truth is that most people seem to lose their willpower to exercise after sitting in traffic for long stretches of time.”

Other research has shown, he explains, that people with long commutes “consistently spent less time exercising, sleeping, and making food at home. They were also more likely to buy "non-grocery food purchases" (i.e., fast food or takeout).”

And even if they do find the time and energy to exercise, people with long commutes still tend to have higher blood pressure than those with shorter commutes — as well as more chronic back or neck pain.

Long commutes are also associated with higher levels of chronic stress — and with sleep problems. No wonder, then, that surveys (taken both in the U.S. and abroad) have found that people with longer commutes “report spending more time worrying, feeling less well-rested, and experiencing less enjoyment in life,” reports Stromberg.

Travel time not only factor

But not all types of long commutes are equal. The mode of transportation we use to get to work also appears to affect both our physical and mental health.

Writes Stromberg:

A recent Canadian study sorted people by mode of travel — walking, biking, driving, bus, intercity train, and intracity metro — and found that people who walk, bike, or take the intercity train are more satisfied with their commutes than others.

Meanwhile, a British study found that people who walk, bike, or take any form of public transit have lower rates of obesity than people who drive, after controlling for other forms of exercise and socioeconomic factors … even when (non-commuting) exercise, age, and other health factors were taken into account. [Taking public transportation may be as healthy as walking or biking because it usually involves some kind of walk at either end of the commute. 

“It's important to note that this is a correlation, not a causation,” Stromberg stresses. “There could be other factors involved that the researchers failed to account for. But previous work has shown that people who walk or bike to work also have lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It seems that not driving has all sorts of positive health benefits.”

Not always a choice

Some 85 percent of workers in the United States drive a car to their job, and those commutes average 50 minutes each workday, Stromberg reports.

More than 8 percent of Americans workers spend more than two hours of each workday commuting, he adds.

Of course, not everybody has a choice in how they get to work.

“In many places,” writes Stromberg, “there's a tradeoff between living closer to work (enabling a person to bike or walk) and paying less in rent, or having more space. Similarly, most American cities simply don't have the public transit infrastructure to convey lots of people who live far from their places of work, and some places even make it tough for people who live close to their offices to walk to work.”

“But we do have a choice in the long term — both as individuals (when thinking about moving farther away from our workplaces for bigger houses) and as cities (when considering the relative benefits of highways versus public transit, and the cost of infrastructure that allows biking and walking),” he adds. “This sort of research emphasizes just how important alternate forms of transportation might be.” 

You can read all the articles in Stromberg’s series on commuting on the Vox website.

What Greater Minnesota got out of the 2015 legislative session

9 hours 12 min ago
Creative Commons/davef3138Olivia, Minnesota

It was the morning after the November 2014 election, and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt was excitedly introducing the freshly-elected members of his new Republican majority caucus, many of them from the far-flung regions of the state. It was because of those members that Republicans had regained control of the chamber after two years, knocking out 10 DFL incumbents in districts outside of the metro area.

Like he had done many times on the campaign trail, Daudt criticized the DFL majority party for “leaving Greater Minnesota behind.” And he promised Republicans wouldn’t do the same.

Daudt wasn’t alone in making such pledges. Early in the legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Democrat from Cook, echoed the House leader’s sentiments, saying the rural parts of the state were not recovering from the recession as fast as the metro area. Both parties rolled out packages of bills designed to help.  

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But more than five months later, groups representing Greater Minnesota are giving the 2015 session an incomplete.

Some of their top priorities — fixes for roads and bridges, increased Local Government Aid for cities and tax credits to help spur investment in housing for middle-income workers — fell apart in the session’s final days as Republicans and Democrats hit an impasse over a tax bill and a long-term transportation funding package. Groups are also lamenting the loss of a bonding bill and a funding package to spend dollars from the Legacy amendment, which ran out of time in the hurried final moments of the 2015 session.

“It would be hard to paint it as a big win for any one group or a geographic area,” said Dan Dorman, a former Republican legislator and current executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. “There were some small victories, sure, but with the tax bill going away we lost a lot.”

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has vetoed an education passed by the Legislature and plans to call lawmakers back for a special session, and Dorman, like many others, hopes that some of their proposals could be revived this summer. “Special session might be the chance to turn it into the Greater Minnesota session that was talked about five months ago,” he said.

Some bright spots

The way Daudt sees it, there were still significant victories for Greater Minnesota in the final budget deal. Most notable is a provision he personally considered a top priority: Changing the way nursing homes are reimbursed.

Nursing homes currently get reimbursed by Medicaid in a combination of state and federal dollars, but with budget cuts over the years, the reimbursements haven't kept up with inflation. The proposal that passed the Legislature would pump $138 million in state money to pay for higher nurse salaries.

MinnPost photo by Briana BierschbachThen-Minority Leader Kurt Daudt with newly-elected Republicans speaking at a news conference the day after the 2014 election where the party added 10 seats from Greater Minnesota.

“This is something that will make an unbelievable difference for our long-term care facilities, particularly in Greater Minnesota,” Daudt said. “In many of those smaller towns, many of these long-term facilities are the largest employer. They are now going to be able to pay their employees a competitive wage.”

Dorman says the nursing home funding is a good thing, but it’s not specifically targeted toward Greater Minnesota. Nursing homes across the state will benefit. “Saying long-term care for Greater Minnesota, that’s like people saying education is a metro issue,” Dorman said.

Other areas got some funding, but nothing near what groups were hoping for during a session with a nearly $2 billion budget surplus: 

  • Roads and bridges: While a broader transportation funding package didn’t pass, there was $12 million in one-time money included in a “lights on” transportation bill that will help cities with populations of less than 5,000 people fix their roads and bridges. Groups initially wanted $28 million in ongoing funding for that program.
  • Broadband: Greater Minnesota groups were pushing all session for better access to high-speed Internet for businesses outside the metro. While as much as $100 million was considered at one point for broadband access, in the end just $12 million was passed.
  • Crossings: Funding for railroad safety provisions fell apart along with a transportation plan. Only $5 million was included in a bill to create rail emergency response teams and upgrade several rail crossings.
  • Local Government Aid: The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities was requesting $23 million increase in LGA over the next two years. Democrats in the Senate proposed increasing LGA payments by $89 million over the next two years, while Republicans proposed reducing payments made to just Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. In the end, no changes were made to the program after tax negotiations broke down.
  • Workforce training: Workforce training grants were included in the final jobs package to the tune of $2 million over the next four years, but the language in the bill didn’t specifically direct those grants to Greater Minnesota.

Marty Seifert, a former Republican House minority leader and now a lobbyist with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said there were other positive policy developments for Greater Minnesota, including a requirement that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency get an independent peer review and cost-benefit analysis of all new water quality regulations. Environmental groups opposed the changes, which they said would put politics into a scientific process, but Seifert says it could help local governments save money on multi-million dollar water treatment overhauls.

“For the biennium, I think the grade is still incomplete,” Seifert added. “We want to see how special session goes and we have big hopes for 2016.”

For legislators, a mixed bag

For freshman Rep. Peggy Bennett, a teacher and a Republican from Albert Lea, the final result was a mixed bag, but she’s mostly pleased with what they were able to pass this session. 

“Did we get everything done or everything we wanted? No, but that’s probably never going to happen,” Bennett said. “No one ever gets everything they want.”

She ticked off a number of accomplishments: She’s pleased with the new nursing home funding, a teacher loan forgiveness program that she says will help recruitment in rural Minnesota, and $100 million put toward keeping tuition costs down at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) campuses.

Many rural Republicans ran on fixing roads and bridges in outstate Minnesota, but Bennett counted blocking a DFL proposal to raise the gas tax and other fees to pay for roads and bridges as a victory for rural Minnesota communities. “I see that as incredibly harmful to Greater Minnesota, especially low and middle income people,” she said. “I heard from many people: Don’t raise the gas tax, it will kill our area.”

State Rep. Paul Marquart

But Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said more money should have been put into higher education for full tuition freezes at MnSCU and University of Minnesota campuses, rail safety and transportation immediately. And without additional money for LGA, Marquart said property taxes will increase in the next two years.

Marquart said Republicans’ Greater Minnesota rhetoric fell away when they proposed a $2 billion tax cut plan.

“At some point, they decided we are going to put all of our eggs in the big tax cut basket, and I think when they did, rural Minnesota interests went out the door,” Marquart said. “At that point you couldn’t do education like you wanted, and freeze tuition, and because they were doing that, we lost the transportation bill too.”

“There was so much rhetoric from the Republicans saying this was going to be the rural Minnesota session, and there were all these high hopes. And, I tell ya, when you look at what happened, it was a big flop.”

Schubert Club Mix: Old and new music in nontraditional venues

10 hours 9 min ago

In his quest to attract broader audiences to classical music, Schubert Club Artistic and Executive Director Barry Kempton has hit a sweet spot with Schubert Club Mix, a series launched in 2013.

Back then he wrote on the Schubert Club’s website, “If we succeed in attracting a music lover or music liker to a live performance for the first time, does it really matter whether they are 35 or 55 or 75?” What seemed at first like a risky proposition for the Schubert Club crowd, accustomed to high-ticket performances by high-profile artists like mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who sold out the Ordway earlier this week, Mix has proved successful enough that a third season has just been announced.

The official description of Mix as a series “that takes the formality out of classical music,” presenting “a mix of old and new … in nontraditional but stylish venues” may sound like a bid for hipsters. But the results have been more in line with what Kempton originally wanted. We’ve seen all ages (including kids) at Mix concerts. The series not only draws younger audiences to classical music, it also brings older audiences and Schubert Club regulars to performances by newer, young artists.

Season Three should continue that trend. Four concerts will be presented in three “nontraditional but stylish” venues: Bedlam Lowertown, Aria in Minneapolis and, new to Mix, the James J. Hill Center, a.k.a. the James J. Hill Library, a beautiful old space on Rice Park. All are informal. You don’t have to dress up. You can have a drink while you enjoy the music. And the ticket prices won’t break the bank.

Here’s the promising line-up: Sunday, Oct. 11, at Bedlam: Sybarite5. An award-winning string quintet equally at home with Mozart, Piazzolla and Radiohead. The program’s centerpiece will be “Look Back/Move Forward,” a newly commissioned, Bach-inspired suite by six composers, each asked to contribute one movement. Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Hill Center: David Greilsammer. Adept at both baroque and contemporary music, the Jerusalem-born, Juilliard educated pianist will perform sonatas by Scarlatti and John Cage on piano and prepared piano.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at Aria: Avi Avital, Ksenija Sidorova and Itamar Doari. Like Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, Avital is revitalizing the mandolin, once a nearly forgotten instrument, through sheer virtuosity and musicianship. The Grammy-nominated Israeli musician will be touring with his “Between Worlds” project, which crosses over from classical and folk. (We’ve been listening to the recording and it’s fantastic.) Tuesday, April 5, back at Bedlam: Gabriel Kahane and Timo Andres. Singer/songwriter Kahane and composer/pianist Andres will present an evening of “Friends Making Music” in a quasi-live-mix tape of music from four centuries including Bach, Britten and Charles Ives. We last saw Kahane and Andres here for Liquid Music in 2014 and welcome their return.

Explore Mix further here. Season tickets are on sale now ($25 per concert); single tickets  ($30) go on sale August 3. All shows are general admission.

*** 

If you want to learn about the history of the Guthrie Theater, go to the U’s Elmer L. Andersen Library. Its Performing Arts Archives has annotated scripts, performance reports, programs, reviews, photographs, costume bible scrapbooks, audio and video recordings – documentation from every play produced at the Guthrie and the theater’s organizational history. Most of it is accessible, but more recent materials have remained largely uncataloged.

That’s about to change, thanks to a new $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant will fund a 12-month project to arrange, preserve, and describe the Guthrie’s records, identify materials for inclusion in the Digital Public Library of America and other online sources, and create a plan to preserve the theater’s 21st-century materials.

If you don’t know the Andersen Library, it’s a fascinating place, an innocent-looking tip-of-the-iceberg building on the West Bank. Much of it is underground, in two enormous caverns, each two stories high and the length of two football fields. Along with the Guthrie materials, it houses the archives of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, the Minnesota Dance Theatre, the James Sewell Ballet, the University Film Society (1962-1998), and many more.

The Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature lives there, and the Givens Collection of African American Literature. They aren’t part of the Performing Arts Archives, but each is a major resource.

The Andersen is not a place where you can wander in, surf the web and check out books, but it is open to the public. An archivist who works there recently wrote a piece that helps explain it. And here’s more information about the building and how it was constructed (hint: it involved a whole lot of digging).

We strayed off the original topic – that $100,000 NEA grant – but if you followed along, you might want to visit the Andersen, because you can.

The picksCourtesy of Light Grey Art LabMaike Plenzke 1

Tonight (Friday, May 22) at Light Grey Art Lab: Iceland Residency Exhibition Opening Reception. Last August, Light Grey Art Lab took a group of artists to Iceland for a weeklong residency. Fourteen international artists converged on a farmhouse at the base of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano to collaborate, share ideas, and create. The results include paintings, photography, graphite and charcoal drawings, a combination of photography with 3D digital rendering, and plush sculptures. The opening reception features an artist talk by Sam Bosma, an award-winning comic and illustration professional and one of the residency artists. 7-10 p.m. Free. Through June 26.

Tonight through Sunday at the Walker: Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Sure, you can stream these films at home, but it will be more fun to see them at the Walker Cinema among other fans. All screenings are at 7 p.m. On Friday: “Batman Begins.” Saturday: “The Dark Knight” (with Heath Ledger as the Joker). Sunday: “The Dark Knight Rises.” As much as we liked Michael Keaton’s quirky, tormented turn as the Caped Crusader, Christian Bale really is the best Batman. Don’t even get us started on Val Kilmer. Click the links FMI and tickets ($9/$7 Walker members, students, seniors).

Courtesy of the AsterPatty and the Buttons

Saturday at the Aster: Patty and the Buttons featuring Connie Evingson. The four-piece swing band led by button accordionist Patrick Harison is joined by singer Connie Evingson for a match made in music heaven. If you don’t know the Aster, a charming café on the scenic St. Anthony Main riverfront, this is a great time of year to discover it. Patty and the Buttons have made it a second home, playing brunch there on Sundays. Saturday’s concert is at 9 p.m. $15.

Sunday on your teevee: “Mortal Enemies.” The U.S. premiere of a Danish documentary about a Minnesota World War II veteran. The story: In 1944, German fighter pilot Hans-Hermann Muller shot down an American B-17 Flying Fortress over Denmark. As the American crew parachuted to earth, Muller went against his strict orders and spared their lives. In 2012, Les Schrenk, a surviving member of the crew, tracked down Muller in Heidelberg to thank him for his act of exceptional humanitarianism. Written and directed by Uffe Bregendahl, the film airs at 6:30 p.m. on Channel 2 (TPT2). The Minnesota Channel (TPTMN) will show it at 7 p.m. and follow with a whole evening of veterans-related programming.  

Monday at Historic Fort Snelling: Military History Living Timeline. At this family event, part of Fort Snelling’s opening weekend, costumed staff and re-enactors will interpret different eras of military history through uniform and equipment displays and weapons demonstrations. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. $11 adults, $9 seniors and college students, $6 ages 6-17, free for veterans, MNHS members and kids 5 and under. FMI.

Beyond the metro

Most of the Minnesota Historical Society’s 26 sites and museums will be open Memorial Day weekend, including the Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey. For nearly 7,000 years, American Indian peoples carved sacred symbols on a ridge of red rock in southwestern Minnesota. The earliest carvings are older than Egypt’s pyramids; the last were carved in the mid-1700s. In recent years, 3,000 additional carvings have been uncovered, bringing the total identified number of petroglyphs to 5,000. Beginning Memorial Day weekend, tours are offered three times a day, at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. $7 adults, $6 seniors and college students, $5 ages 6-17, free for MNHS members and kids under 5. FMI

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyPart of the Jeffers PetroglyphsTickets please

Filmmaker, actor, and writer Woody Allen has a side gig: clarinetist and leader of a traditional Dixieland-style New Orleans jazz band with a repertoire of more than 1,200 songs: early 20th-century popular tunes, hymns, spirituals, marches, blues and rags. What will they play at the State Theatre on Aug. 2? They won’t know until they take the stage, and there will be no opening act. Tickets go on sale today at 10 a.m. ($53.50-$104).

Courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre TrustWoody Allen has a side gig as a clarinetist.

Jennifer DeCubellis: A ‘whole-person’ approach helps people stay healthier longer

10 hours 13 min ago

People are complicated, and helping them get — and stay — healthy requires support in all aspects of their lives.

Jennifer DeCubellis, Minnesota Department of Human Services assistant commissioner of community supports, knows this better than just about anyone. She came to the state from Hennepin County, where, as assistant county administrator for health, she headed Hennepin Health, a pilot program for high-risk, high-cost Medicaid patients. The program took what DeCubellis calls a “whole-person” approach to clients with a multidisciplinary care team that focused on supporting key elements of their lives — like housing, health care, transportation and employment — that contribute to overall health.

In her role at DHS, which was created this year, DeCubellis has been charged with bringing disparate state divisions together to create new supports for Minnesotans, many who face addiction and mental health concerns. Her administration includes mental health services for children and adults, alcohol and drug abuse services, services for people with disabilities, deaf and hard-of-hearing services and HIV/AIDS and housing.

DeCubellis explained that her division’s wide range is designed to address the complex lives of the people they serve. She believes rearranging the way the state approaches services will improve care, reduce waste and save money.

“It’s a whole-person approach. We are looking at the things that people need to live successfully in their communities, the things they need to support general health and wellness. If we are able to touch all aspects of their lives, we are able to help them in a more lasting way.”

DeCubellis talked to me earlier this week about her job and her hopes for the future.

MinnPost: You started this job on January 2. Do you feel like you’ve settled in?

Jennifer DeCubellis: When I was at Hennepin County, they told me I could consider myself a newbie for two to three years. Here at the state, they said I’d have 90 days to get settled in. So I’m no longer a newbie here. Not even close.

MP: Assistant commissioner of community supports is a new position at DHS. Could you describe your areas of focus?

JD: This position brings together several areas that in the past weren’t under the same administration. We are bringing together chemical health and mental health and disability services, which includes HIV-AIDS and autism. Deaf and hard-of-hearing services has also been added to this group, and another new area is housing, which wasn’t part of the state system until now.

MP: That’s a wide range of focus areas. Why are have they been brought together under one umbrella?

JD: We’ve brought them all together because we think these are all areas that directly impact the quality of people’s lives. We think it is key to have these systems working together in order to improve people’s lives along a continuum. We’re not changing the programs, but we’re making sure that they are all working together.

Jennifer DeCubellis

We want to create programs that wrap around people. We want to create a continuum of care that doesn’t just drop people between programs. We want a system in this state that operates from a whole-person perspective.

MP: Did your work with Hennepin Health make you a particularly appealing candidate for this job?

JD: I do believe that my work with Hennepin Health was of interest to Commissioner [Lucinda] Jesson. At Hennepin County, we weren’t working within a siloed system, and that was appealing. We were having payers work directly with systems that in the past had been set aside and separate with their own funding streams. We brought them together to say, “We need to use our dollars smarter.” And that worked.

What I think commissioner Jesson is saying is, “Let’s pull together all of the state systems that touch individuals’ lives in different ways. Then we can align them all here, under one area.”

MP: Is this combined approach to services unusual? Has it been tried in other states?

JD: I would say that Minnesota tends to be ahead of the curve in a lot of areas. Our disability services are known as national leaders. When we go to national conferences, our health care and mental health and chemical health services are seen as leaders, too. With this new approach, we’re making sure that we are using best practices and breaking down silos of funding and program streams to make sure we are using our dollars smarter. That is a new approach that hardly any other state is taking.

MP: It sounds like you have made some big changes in your first few months on the job. How has that been received inside and outside your department?

JD: Honestly, at first, everybody worried, “What do these changes this mean to me?” It’s natural. They thought, “Am I going to lose my piece of the pie?” Change makes everyone worry about the potential negative impacts. But in the last few months we have changed that story dramatically. People are coming together in a natural way now, and they can see that we are making a positive impact on people’s lives.

I just met with a group of chemical health stakeholders. People who haven’t historically worked with one another are working together now. It’s all in the name of helping people who need our help. For instance, there is a group in Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Services who work with young people with mental health needs. These young people had been on waiting lists for some specific mental health services for a very long time. By working directly with people at Mental Health and figuring out how we can bridge the gap, they have been able to make sure we meet the critical needs of these youth and get them enrolled in these programs.

MP: Is working together in these new arrangements energizing?

JD: Historically, most people have been focused downward, looking at their own departments. It’s natural, but we are moving away from that. When we looking at the continuum of care, when we come together and figure out how we can close gaps for the people we serve, we are forming a true partnership. It’s exciting.

At Hennepin Health, I called it “Heads-Up Healthcare.” When people take a pause from what they are doing and look up to see the impact of their work on the lives of others, they see the potential problems that lie ahead. They can figure out how to work with others to solve those problems, and they have more satisfaction and are more inspired by their work.

MP: Is this “looking down” approach typical in health care?

JD: This happens all the time in health care. People are busy and they tend to keep their heads down and do the work that’s part of their program. But they forget that patients’ lives really aren’t that simple. Individuals have a lot of needs that stretch across departments. I could be working in the best program ever, but if I weren’t lifting up my head and looking at the person I’m serving as a whole human being, I might just drop them the second they leave my program. But if I did that, I could lose 100 percent of the ground we gained with those we’re serving. What we’re working on is building bridges between programs, so that people will be served seamlessly. This way we can really make positive changes for everyone.

The goal is to take a “whole-person” approach instead of a “program” approach. A program isn’t going to be successful in impacting a person’s life unless you look at their whole lives and understand every aspect that needs to be addressed.

MP: Can you tell me more about what it means to take a “whole-person” approach to integrating health care with other services?

JD: Keeping somebody healthy takes more of a whole-system, or a “whole-person” approach. Let’s look at physical health and mental health. We have historically carved out physical health and mental health as these two separate things, but the truth is you can’t be truly healthy if your brain is not functioning as it should be. It’s all connected. We are complicated beings.

You can’t stabilize a person who is manic, for instance, if you aren’t also treating their blood pressure. And if they don’t have stable housing and access to other services, they are going to have a hard time feeling emotionally healthy. You aren’t going to gain ground in their recovery if you don’t look at everything that’s involved in helping an individual achieve optimal health. If we can take a system approach we can get stronger outcomes for people.

MP: This approach sounds expensive.

JD: In the long run it actually saves money. At Hennepin Health, we went by the motto of “Smart Government.” We wanted to create incentives that work and eliminate waste. We’re trying to make sure our dollars are spent wisely. Cooperation lowers the odds of duplicating services. By working together, we were able to reduce costs for people, but more important than that, we were also able to see better outcomes for lower costs.

MP: Tell me more about your professional background.

JD: My background is in special education. My first job out of college was in a Montessori program in Chicago. I was working with 8- to 21-year-olds in special education all in one classroom.

They were put in an alternative program. I was featured on the front page of the newspaper for all of a getting some great individual outcomes for these kids. After that, I was called in to speak with the principal because what I was doing was not promoting the school’s model. They didn’t like that my approach — which did not fit their model — was featured.

I felt that the program’s model didn’t work for my students. My work there taught me early on that there is not always just one way to achieve a goal. I ended up resigning that program and going back into clinical psychology.

I’ve learned that my passion is about systems work. How do you give the people the right tools to be successful rather than be wed to one model? That one-size-fits-all model doesn’t always work. It needs to be a flexible and innovative approach.

MP: Are you satisfied with what you’ve been able to accomplish so far?

JD: Every quarter, I look back at what I have accomplished and what I need to accomplish for the next quarter. I would say that one of the big accomplishments has been changing the discussion about our work, making sure it is about the people, not the programs. Every time we make a policy, we want it to be centered on helping people. If our work is just about checking off a box, then we haven’t accomplished what we set out to do. We want to touch lives. 

The future of urban industrial land: separating fantasy from reality

10 hours 15 min ago

It’s strange that old urban industrial neighborhoods have become romantic places. Fifty years ago, if you said “industrial” to a stranger on the street, they’d conjure up an image of giant brick buildings belching pollution, noise and stench.

But things are changing. In older U.S. cities, urban industrial property is often scattered in close proximity to dense residential and commercial uses, built before zoning codes sorted out our cities. For a long time that close proximity meant conflict over quality of life and business concerns, and cities looked to separate industrial users from their neighbors. These days, though, some urban industrial land has become a hot commodity, and planners and developers are looking for ways to elegantly mix uses in ways that haven’t been seen since the 19th century.

Reversing decentralization

While the rebirth of urban industrial land represents a sea change, it can be difficult to separate the hype from the reality around how technologies like broadband or 3D printing might change manufacturing. Last December, the St. Paul Planning Commission (of which I'm a member) held a retreat aimed at understanding trends in urban industrial land, and separating the science fiction from the materiality of current reality.

“3D printing is reducing the barrier to entry for industrial design,” Jay Demma told the commission at the retreat. Demma is a geographer and planner for Perkins & Will, which does consulting on industrial development. Demma points to how 20th-century trends that led to decentralization of industrial land might be reversing.

“Before, if you came up with an idea for a product, you had to have the financial backing to bring that design to an industrial scale,” Jay Demma explained. “That’s a huge barrier. But this technology gets rid of a lot of those barriers, so that manufacturing can happen at a vastly different scale than what happened historically.”

According to Demma’s narrative, 19th-century industrial uses required access to energy sources like water power, space-consuming rail transportation, and large pools of manual labor. That meant dense and dirty urban neighborhoods like downtown Minneapolis’ industrial riverfront. But by the mid-20th century, disbursed freeway networks, containerization, automation and the horizontal layout of factories changed the picture. For most industries, suitable property could only be found on the suburban fringe.

These days, manufacturing has become cleaner while cultural interest in small-scale, local sourcing and things like the MAKER movement are changing expectations. At the same time, well-educated labor forces are looking for more amenity-rich (read: walkable) workplace environments.

“In St. Paul, the West Midway provides an interesting example,” Jon Commers explained. “There’s a pressure from a range of market types, with interests in the same physical space.”

Like many people doing planning for St. Paul, Commers, an urban consultant who sits on the Metropolitan Council, would like to see an approach where industrial uses can work out ways to share space with other, more recent demands on older mixed-use properties.

“Sidewalk priority is a relatively specific strategy,” Commers explained to the commission. “But it’s an interesting example of how a relatively modest capital budget can create a ‘both-and’ approach [balancing industrial and mixed-use needs]. Strengthening access for people to move around is an important priority, because missing sidewalk segments really inhibits the variety of uses you can embrace in those areas.”

Courtesy of the City of St. PaulSt. Paul is adding sidewalks to parts of Midway that have never had sidewalks before.The needs of industry

But like it or not, industrial land users still have different needs from urban buildings designed for residential housing or commercial uses like restaurants or retail.

“What’s not changing in the industrial world is that buildings still have to have adequate employee parking,” David Stokes, an industrial property broker for DTZ realty, explained to the commission.

“Industrial buildings have to have more fulfillment activities in them,” Stokes said. “They need adequate truck access, truck courts and dock doors. It’s really the basic infrastructure that supports these kinds of buildings, and the businesses and employees that want to be in them.”

According to Stokes, there are two basic kinds of urban industrial properties: “re-positionings,” where long-lasting materials like brick and old-growth timber make buildings ripe for re-use as trendy mixed-use redevelopment, and new construction, which often requires vast amounts of space.

And compared to even 10 years ago, new buildings are getting much larger, which means that most new industrial properties are being built in exurban areas like Rogers, Otsego, or across the border in Wisconsin.

“Years ago, 18 foot clear height was modern,” Stokes told the group. “That moved up to 24 feet, then 32, and now some buildings are going to 40 feet; it’s all about cubic volume. And 10 years ago, a big building was 240K square feet, but nowadays buildings are 400K and 800K square feet, more than twice as big. With these changes you need bigger sites.”

From factories to creative districts

While today’s ultralarge-scale industrial development doesn’t really have a place in urban centers, there are certainly many other kinds of industrial users that want to locate in the central urban core. One big driver is that industrial uses are very complex, and represent a wide spectrum of needs.

“If you meet with a city of and talk about doing industrial development, in their mind you get smokestacks and grease and things burning,” Stokes explained. “But industrial can be a data center, heavy industrial, a cross dock, warehouse storage manufacturing, medical tech, clean rooms, light assembly, fulfillment; it can be back office data or it can be office service or flux space.”

Each new type of industrial use requires different spatial, transportation and architectural particularities. But the key question is: Which of them should cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul try to attract? For many planners, the answer isn’t a “silver bullet” of one big industry, but rather creating “districts” that bring together ensembles of smaller compatible industrial activities.

For example, St. Paul adopted an industrial plan for the West Midway industrial area that attempts to balance older and newer conceptions of industrial property. One of the big ideas is a “Creative enterprise zone” centered at the Raymond Avenue Green Line station.

“Industrial land has to go to district level,” Jay Demma explained, “with innovators, highly trained and skilled folks [working] in urban environment for a reason. It’s about amenity of experience and place, not just workshop but in neighborhoods around them. You don’t need a high level of urban amenity everywhere, but there need to be key points within these districts where there’s something of interest.”

Can everything be a brewery?

Inevitably, when people start talking about reusing industrial buildings, or the future of DIY industrial entrepreneurialism, they point to a brewery. In old industrial buildings, breweries like Indeed and 612 (in Minneapolis), or Urban Growler and Flat Earth (in St. Paul), seem like a great way to re-use and revitalize mothballed factories, and the ethos of local craftsmanship that percolates through craft beer culture epitomizes the economic goals of many city planners.

Despite the trendy new brewery-proximate buildings like St. Paul’s “Vandalia Tower” or the creative developments in Northeast Minneapolis, for much of the core cities, industrial land still involves a tradeoff between industrial business and residential concerns. Will industrial land be able to make the leap forward into a mixed-use, DIY future, or stay fixed on warehousing and logistics?

Courtesy of the City of St. PaulThe location of St. Paul’s Midway, circled on the map above, made it ideal for industrial uses.

Much of the time, a building designed around easy truck access is not going to be good for parents pushing a stroller, and cities need to remain clear about their zoning priorities. The fact remains that core industrial areas like St. Paul’s Midway are often ideal logistical locations, located next to a plethora of freeways, and remain attractive to businesses like self-storage facilities or warehousing that don’t do much to increase “creative vitality.”

Whether industrial land in St. Paul will be able to make the leap forward into a mixed-use, DIY future, or stay fixed on warehousing and logistics remains an open question. From one perspective, there’s a big difference between an urban industrial neighborhood being a convenient piece of land for a trucking facility, and a walkable space for industrial entrepreneurs. But for other city planners, balancing old and new industry remains a compelling vision.

Hillary Clinton needs to explain how she got the Iraq War vote wrong

10 hours 16 min ago

I know there is plenty of time for Hillary Clinton to take a position on everything for which a presidential candidate should have a position. But she continues to play a waiting game that is off-putting or worse.

It’s more than a month since April 13 when she “announced” her candidacy via an online video in which she barely appeared and in which she said nothing of substance other than that she was running.

Seven weeks later, there is still no link to an “issues” section on her campaign website, although there are links you can follow to donate or to volunteer.

The campaign press corps has been publishing a running score of how many questions she has answered from the media. A week ago, the number stood at 13 — most of which were barely substantive, one of which was “how are you liking Iowa?” — but that was getting embarrassing, so she took six more. And, in some cases, her answers are non-committal fluff.

Scott Galindez of Reader Supported News gave her a hard time about it this week, and published a few reasonable questions that he would like to ask her. Basic, obvious, what’s-your-position-on-issues-in-the-news questions, including at least one that she supposedly already answered but didn’t really.

According to Galindez, the campaign’s excuse for all this mystery is that Clinton is more focused on hearing from “ordinary Americans.” He sassed back: “What that argument fails to say is that there weren’t many more than 20 everyday Americans at any of her Iowa events, and they were handpicked by the campaign. So they were everyday Clinton supporters.”

It’s willfully naïve of me to think that Clinton, or any candidate, would run the grave risk of taking positions on issues when she doesn’t really have to. But I’m clinging to some out-of-fashion notions about what politics and campaigns and elections are supposed to be about, which includes offering and debating the merits of concrete policies — in part so that one can claim a mandate for particular actions if one is elected.

‘I got it wrong’

I have a question I’d like her to address, and it’s the follow-up to several matters on which I’ve recently obsessed in regards to the “mistakes were made” decision to bomb and then invade Iraq, a decision that even Jeb Bush is no longer defending.

Bush mentioned during Round One of his recent torment that Clinton, then a senator, had voted to authorize the war. In one of my follow-ups to that post, I said that Clinton in her most recent book wrote that in voting to authorize the war: “I got it wrong. Plain and Simple.”

But since wrongly endorsing a war, especially one that has turned out so badly, is a fairly big lapse of judgment, I believe Clinton owes us more explanation of how she came to get it wrong. (In her Senate floor statement at the time, she endorsed pretty much all the main aspects of the Bush administration’s justification for the war.)

When she first ran for president in 2008, long after so many of those justification had proven wrong, she had not yet figured out how to say that she “got it wrong.”

It is true — and likely something that she will emphasize if she has to explain her “aye” on the 2002 Senate resolution authorizing the use of military force — that even at the time she said she did not consider it a vote for a pre-emptive strike, but rather a vote to force Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq to find out whether or not Saddam was amassing chemical, biological or nuclear capabilities. Here’s an excerpt from her Senate floor statement to that effect:

"A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president and we say to him — use these powers wisely and as a last resort… And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein — this is your last chance — disarm or be disarmed.”

But that very point brings me to the question I would most like to have her address in explaining her vote and her position in 2002-03.

Levin amendment

At the time of the vote to authorize U.S. military force against Iraq, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) offered an amendment. It would have asked for United Nations authorization on the use of force and would have called on Saddam to allow U.N. inspectors back in to see what he was hiding.

The understanding at the time was that if Saddam had refused to allow inspections, the U.N. would have authorized force. It even included a provision allowing the president to use force without U.N. authority if he decided that the U.N. was delaying action in a way that threatened the United States.

But then-Sen. Clinton voted “no” on the Levin amendment, and the amendment failed (by a wide margin). That left the matter entirely at President George W. Bush’s discretion.

But Saddam — presumably knowing that he had no weapons and that he was about to get bombed — nonetheless agreed to allow U.N. inspectors back in. The U.N. inspectors did go back to Iraq and were allowed to look everywhere they wanted without delay. They found no WMD.

But Bush decided to unleash the dogs of war anyway.

During those last days, should not Sen. Clinton have been arguing publicly and privately against unleashing those dogs, saying that the results of those inspections indicated war was unnecessary? Or, if the weapons were hidden, arguing to leave the inspectors in Iraq indefinitely to keep looking?

Why did Clinton vote no on the Levin amendment and why, after the U.N. inspectors were given access to every corner of Iraq and could find no WMD,  did she not argue to postpone the attack and let them finish their work?

AG Swanson files suit against Savers thrift store chain

12 hours 42 min ago
Attorney General Lori Swanson

Savers has the hammer dropped on it, again. Jennifer Bjorhus of the Strib says, “State Attorney General Lori Swanson sued the secondhand retailer in Hennepin District Court on Thursday, saying Savers is seriously misleading the public about how much of the proceeds from donated clothing and furniture actually go to charity. … Swanson called Savers’ practices a ‘triple scam,’ and said she has no reason to think it’s unique to Minnesota. Only a small fraction of the money Savers makes from selling used clothes in its stores ends up at the charities, she said. Typically the company pays the charities about 40 cents per pound of donated clothing, which works out to pennies for a shirt that Savers might sell for $6. In the case of non-clothing goods such as furniture, Savers pays charities nothing at all.” You’ll be shocked to learn there’s a private equity firm behind it all.

For the PiPress, Nick Woltman writes, “Swanson's office first began investigating Savers in late 2013 after receiving a series of complaints. She released the findings of the investigation in November 2014 and publicly criticized the company's business practices. … the complaint says, a 1-pound suit sold for $100 in a Savers store would result in a 50-cent donation to an affiliated nonprofit, while Savers would keep the other $99.50. In the case of a $250 television, the complaint says Savers would keep the entire sale price.”

I’ll see your 1-gig and raise you 1. Julio Ojeda-Zapata of the PiPress reports, “Broadband-Internet and cable-television provider Comcast has traditionally been the Twin Cities' Internet slowpoke as its main rivals in this area have made available online-access speeds outstripping its own. That is about to change in a big way. The Philadelphia-based company said Thursday it will make 2-gigabit-per-second Internet access available to more than 600,000 homes in and around the metro area by the end of 2015. … The company has not said how much its new broadband services would cost. But the company's site quoted a $300-a-month fee for 2-gigabit service before that information was yanked, according to DSL Reports.” Anecdotally, geeks I know are generally open to a 25-30 percent price increase for 1 gig.

For MPR, Martin Moylan says, “CenturyLink says its 1 gigabit per second Internet service will be available to 100,000 area homes by summer, but has not said how much it will charge. US Internet has been deploying a fiber optic network in southwest Minneapolis. That firm's service is now available to about 30,000 homes, apartments and businesses. US Internet charges $65 a month for 1 gigabit connection. CenturyLink has offered 1 gigabit service for $80 a month when customers add land line phones or TVs. Comcast charges $115 for a 105 megabit per second connection, generally the highest speed the company has offered to residential customers, so far.”

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Just think if they passed a real transportation bill. Adam Belz of the Strib says, “A huge rise in construction hiring drove a gain of 7,400 jobs for Minnesota in April, marking the third straight month of solid increases in the state job market. Figures the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development released Thursday showed the unemployment rate ticking downward to 3.7 percent as construction added 6,600 jobs on the month. That’s the largest monthly increase for construction in 25 years and a welcome shift after what had so far been a tepid spring for the industry.”

The flu may have crested. The AP’s Steve Karnowski writes, “Minnesota notched six straight days without a new case of bird flu on Thursday, and though state officials aren't ready to say the outbreak is over, they're beginning to stand down. The first case of H5N2 in the Midwest was confirmed in early March at a Minnesota turkey farm, and the virus then spread to 88 farms in the country's top turkey producing state, affecting nearly 8 million birds, mostly turkeys. But new cases have fallen off sharply and the focus is turning toward getting poultry farms back into production.”

A bit late though for these folks. Dave Aeikens for KSTP-TV says, “The largest Minnesota farm to be hit by bird flu is temporarily laying off 39 full-time employees. The outbreak at the Rembrandt Enterprises egg farm in Renville was confirmed last week. All 2 million chickens there will have to be killed to ensure the complete eradication of the H5N2 virus.”

Also, Jennie Lissarrague of KSTP reports, “A patient at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids is facing multiple charges after police say he somehow obtained a syringe and was making threats to staff members, filling the syringe with his own blood and squirting it at them. He’s also accused of holding a woman against her will in an elevator.”

The Strib wants another veto. “Gov. Mark Dayton has already vowed to veto education funding legislation, citing early education as a top priority. A governor who has also championed water quality should swiftly veto another budget bill — the agriculture and environment spending legislation. Signing it would put the gubernatorial stamp of approval on multiple measures that would weaken protections for Minnesota’s treasured waterways. Dayton, serving his final term and looking to burnish his legacy, would tarnish it if he let this shortsighted legislation sail through. It needs a do-over in the looming special session.”

What else is he going to say? Says Matt McKinney in the Strib, “Minneapolis police officer Michael Griffin pleaded not guilty in his first appearance in federal court Thursday on charges of beating four men in 2010 and 2011 and then lying about it during civil suits they filed against him. Griffin, wearing a suit and saying only ‘Yes, ma’am’ when answering U.S. Magistrate Judge Janie Mayeron’s questions, was arraigned and then released on a $25,000 bond. He agreed to give up his passport and remain law abiding.”

Our friend Scott Walker is riding in high in GOP presidential polls, but is having a very tough time with investigators over in Wisconsin, i.e. where “It’s Working.” For The Huffington Post, Zachary Roth writes, “Three days after being sworn in as Wisconsin governor in 2011, Scott Walker announced an ambitious plan to turn the state’s commerce department into a semi-private corporation laser-focused on economic growth and job creation. … Four years later, as Walker lays the groundwork for a presidential run, WEDC appears rudderless and deeply troubled. Government and press reports have raised serious questions about the agency’s transparency, effectiveness, political independence and compliance with the law. Walker, who serves as chair of the WEDC board, has twice in recent months announced major shifts to the agency’s structure and mission — and this week he has been forced to deny that he knew about a questionable loan to a political contributor’s company. Democrats are calling for a federal investigation. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s job growth continues to lag far behind the nation’s — taking a toll on the governor’s popularity at home.”

But proving that even a broken watch is right twice a day, Jason Stein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, “Walker signed legislation Wednesday to raise the top state speed limit to 70 miles per hour as his administration announced that starting in June more than 700 miles of interstates would be marked up to the higher limit.” But anything over 70 and you pay a fine to his SuperPAC.

Could public school choice for pre-K be a solution to the budget impasse?

13 hours 37 min ago
CC/Flickr/Michael VerhoefThe Minnesota Legislature has a long history as pioneer in public school choice. Why not extend this to preschool programs for 4-year olds?

On Monday, legislators passed an E-12 education-funding bill that was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, as it lacks funding for preschool for 4-year-olds.

Ember Reichgott Junge

I suggest a solution that may be acceptable to all: public school choice for preschool. The Minnesota Legislature has a long history as pioneer in public school choice. Why not extend this to preschool programs for 4-year-olds?

Parents, teachers and school districts who want to create a public preschool program can apply as a nonprofit organization or school district to create a program customized to their needs for the 2015-2016 school year. Preschool leaders will enter into a three-year contract with the Department of Education and commit to certain outcomes in their contract for each year. Preschool leaders will be held accountable for results, or their program may be closed by the department.

Public school choice meets the needs of the competing parties. Here’s why.

Pre-K choice, not universal Pre-K. Only those parents or educators who desire a public, tuition-free option for preschool will create and enroll children in the preschool. Public funding will follow the student. The cost will be far less than universal pre-K, yet meet existing demand. The Legislature can allocate a specific amount to start the program. If demand increases, the Legislature can increase funding for more pre-K opportunities in the future.

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Accountable for results. Not all preschool programs are created equal in quality. Under this proposal, preschool leaders will commit to certain performance results, or their program may be closed.

Access for every child. Public choice preschool programs will be open to every child, as every child deserves an effective education. Many low-income children will be served, as will other children who can benefit from early education. Parental engagement will likely be a key motivating force for founding groups.

Evaluation data. Data regarding demand and results will guide the Legislature as to growth of tuition-free preschool opportunities for the future.

Public school choice for preschool provides freedom to choose, effective education for every child, and effective and efficient use of tax dollars. Most of all, it provides opportunity for Minnesota families and their youngsters.

Democrats and Republicans can all find something to like in this nation-leading, innovative approach. Supporters of private scholarships and universal preschool can all find something to like. This approach combines elements of open enrollment and chartering, both familiar public school choice options already available to Minnesota families.

And policymakers? They will bring closure to the legislative session as they impact the lives of future generations.

Former DFL state senator Ember Reichgott Junge is the author of Minnesota’s public school choice initiatives of open enrollment and chartering.

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