Owatonna People’s Press

By Josh LaFollette

Wanting to get the information right, one U.S. senator decided to get it directly from the source.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) visited Owatonna’s Climate by Design International (CDI) Friday morning to meet with community leaders and tour the manufacturer’s new facility. Klobuchar’s primary focus during the visit was to learn about the Youth Skills Training program, a partnership between Owatonna Public Schools and local employers like CDI. Other significant topics of conversation included the challenges Owatonna faces, including workforce, housing and childcare shortages.

Klobuchar met with representatives from CDI and the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Mayor Tom Kuntz and other figures from the community.

Klobuchar said her visit, part of a tour of southern Minnesota, gave her the chance to learn about the work that’s being done today to shape the region’s economic outlook.

“This is about Minnesota’s future, and so much of that is tied to making sure we are successful, not just in the metro but all of our Greater Minnesota towns. This region — Faribault, Owatonna, Austin, Albert Lea — it’s such a great example of growing economy,” she told the People’s Press.

During her visit, Klobuchar heard from Brian Coleman, Career Pathways navigator for the school district. Coleman introduced her to the basics of the Youth Skills Training program, which gives Owatonna students the opportunity to gain work experience prior to graduation. He credited CDI as a “great partner” in the program. CDI was the first business to partner with the district, but has since been joined by Wenger Corporation and Advanced Coil Technology.

“It’s been so awesome for our students to have that opportunity to actually increase their learning,” said Coleman.

Coleman said the program helps student get a feel for whether a given employment track is right for them, and often leads to a job right out of high school.

Later that day, Klobuchar met three employees from the program — Carter Strawmatt, Jude Vought and Eli Hunt.

Strawmatt was the first student from the program hired by CDI.

“He’s progressing very well. We see him as a future leader. And we’ve invested in some leadership training, both on-site and through Riverland,” CDI Personnel Director Jane Lebert told the senator, adding that current high schoolers Vought and Hunt were also “doing a really great job.”

During her visit, Director of Manufacturing Operations Patrick McDermott and Vice-President Mike Peterson walked Klobuchar through CDI’s story, from beginning in founder Tom Peterson’s garage to moving into a 217,000-square foot facility in December.

McDermott touted the new building’s amenities for employees, from fitness rooms to an outdoor basketball court.

“Our goal is to be the employer of choice in the community,” he said.

He also noted that CDI had arranged contracts with furloughed employees from RISE Modular, a facility visited by Sen. Tina Smith last year. Klobuchar said she used to worry when Minnesota businesses closed or furloughed workers, but today she’s confident that other businesses will step up to fill the gap.

Klobuchar cited the growth of CDI and the new Owatonna High School as examples of how organizations in the community are adapting to the changing economy, and credited educational opportunities like the Youth Skills Program with preparing students for success.

“So many times kids are getting super expensive degrees and then they don’t really have a way to use them. In this case, they’re making decisions that are smart for their future where they can still get a degree while they’re in the jobs,” Klobuchar told the People’s Press.

The senator’s visit also gave community leaders an opportunity to voice the concerns facing Owatonna.

Brad Meier, president/CEO of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce, bought up the housing shortage as a factor that’s inhibiting growth locally.

“We want to grow and we have a lot of jobs, as you’re hearing. We aspire to get to probably 30,000 by 2030, 40 by ‘40,” said Meier. “But we need the housing.”

Klobuchar agreed, noting that despite the challenges the community faces, “there’s got to be a way to do this.”

Meier and Klobuchar discussed a variety of housing options, from single family homes to row houses. He noted the difficulties of getting builders to invest in large projects in communities the size of Owatonna.

Klobuchar expanded on her housing comments to the People’s Press. She noted that many people think of subsidized housing when they hear government officials talk about the housing shortage, but the solution is much broader than that.

“We need more housing and we need it at every level. You don’t just want to have apartments. You also want to have condos, townhouses and single family housing,” she said.

She also addressed the issue of childcare, noting the value of using congressionally directed funding to support helpful projects and suggested the need for both traditional home daycare and the pod model, which would offer facilities for daycares outside of homes.

Overall, Klobuchar said everything she saw on her visit to Owatonna demonstrated “the power of this link in a community between business and the education system.”