by Dennis Dalman
Despite difficulties made worse by uncertainties, Sartell not only made it through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city is poised to flourish the rest of this year and beyond.
That was the upbeat message delivered by Sartell Mayor Ryan Fitzthum during his State of the City speech at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Sartell Community Center.
At the start of his talk, Fitzthum praised city-council members. All four of them, he said, have excellent perspectives on city issues, each with different backgrounds, varying experiences and unique insights that are brought to bear on the decision-making process. The current members of the council are Tim Elness, Jeff Kolb and two elected in last November’s election, Alex Lewandowski and Jill Smith.
In 2019, months before the virus struck, the City of Sartell created an “Economic Development Vision” based on a determination that, in the words of Fitzthum, the city should support businesses so much that “they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here.” The Sartell Chamber of Commerce and the community-at-large fully supported that vision. It became a full-blown reality, Fitzthum noted, after the pandemic struck when problems, shutdowns, closing and partial openings plagued businesses, but with supportive connections being strong, almost all businesses weathered the storm well.
“That was our guiding light,” Fitzthum said. “A massive support for businesses.”
More than $1 million in government-funded CARES checks were given in person by city officials to about 80 businesses. The officials and business owners would sit down and discuss opportunities, problems and potential problems.
“Bring us together, and we will win together,” is the motto cited by Fitzthum as the win-win formula for businesses and the entire community. Businesses, he added, must let us know what is working and not working.
“We must engage, engage, engage with business leaders,” he said, and that calls for new ways to be engaged. One of the ways to do that, he added, is new forms of transparent communications to “humanize” the elements of government. Sartell has done just that, he said, with new podcasts, an email newsletter and in updating the city hall’s communications technology system, including live-streamed city council meetings with a vastly improved sound system.
The mayor described his role as a spokesperson for the city, a promoter, an educator, a presider at ceremonial functions and a conduit between businesses and the city.
Fitzthum summarized the accomplishments of last year – the ones completed, the ones ongoing and those about to start this year:
• Two new neighborhood developments – Northern Meadows and The Gates of Blackberry.
• Completion of the brand-new, $13-million Public Safety Facilities headquarters along Pinecone Road S. It houses both the police department and fire department.
• A full-time fire chief was hired by the city. Peter Kedrowski was a captain for six years with the St. Cloud Fire Department and will replace the former Sartell chief, Jim Sattler. Kedrowski began his new duties in April, the first full-time captain for the Sartell department since its founding in 1920.
• A new superintendent was selected to lead the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. Jeff Ridlehoover starts his new job on July 1 and will replace retiring superintendent Jeff Schwiebert. Ridlehoover is an adjunct professor at Hamline University; he has taught high school science and chemistry; and he has been principal in several school districts in the Twin Cities area.
• A state bonding bill of $5.5 million that will connect Scout Drive to Dehler Drive in the Medical Hub area of south Sartell. “It will be a large economic driver for us,” Fitzthum said. He added there will also be two entrance and exit roads to the Sartell Community Center this year.
• Major technological updates at city hall, some done in conjunction with the school district’s ITV services.
• The completion of the $6.2-million Scheels Athletic Complex. The new second arena at the site will have an artificial turf for sports other than hockey eight months of the year. The project was paid for via contributions and a private-public funding partnership with the city. Arena rental fees, including many from the school district, will cover operation and maintenance. Fitzthum said the new arena and its artificial turf will accommodate tournaments, as well as special events, all yearround.
• Coming up is a major re-do of Riverside Avenue that will include, among many other features, a scenic overlook and a pedestrian walkway across the “old bridge” in Sartell, which has been used only for utility lines for years.
• There has been a multi-family apartment boom in Sartell for years, but it created concerns about too much density and traffic. The council last year designated five multi-family (R3) high-density zones in the city so when apartment buildings are constructed they will be spread out, not in the same area.
• Fitzthum predicted there will be an influx of commercial developments this year in Sartell, and many of them had been planned well before the pandemic put a kibosh to activation of those plans.
One commercial development that won’t happen, at least not yet, is the opening of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Sartell. Fitzthum said he and others had heard that was in the cards, but so far, he noted, no such plans have been submitted to the city.