ST. PETER — Deep divisions and animosity, which are at the center of most recent stories about the federal government, made no appearance at Saturday's hour-long discussion between a group of St. Peter entrepreneurs and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
A reference to Republican President Donald Trump didn't come up until the waning minutes of the meeting when Klobuchar mentioned questions at an earlier meeting with a group of Eagan sixth-graders.
"It was Donald Trump this and that and this," the two-term Democrat said.
Older constituents are also focused on the new president and his policies, including legal refugees worried about new travel restrictions and business owners who employ refugees and other legal immigrants, Klobuchar said. People involved in tourism are also concerned.
Despite political discord on some topics, Klobuchar said progress is possible on transportation funding, regulatory reform and other business-related issues during a meeting with St. Peter Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ed Lee, St. Peter Community Development Director Russ Wille and five entrepreneurs.
"There could be some regulatory changes, which could be good for you guys," she said to the business owners.
The five entrepreneurs invited to the meeting — all women — were the focus of the discussion, each sharing their business histories.
Carol Hayes, owner of Contents home and gift store, had dreamed of owning her own store but was working for other retailers when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer 26 years ago.
"Every dream needs a deadline," Hayes said, and her mother provided a heart-wrenching one — telling her daughter she wanted to see her running her own store before she died.
Ashleigh Moelter was just 19 years old when her military mother was sent to Iraq, leaving Ashleigh to care for her younger sister while simultaneously opening a clothing store in Winthrop.
Now the owner of the Refinery Boutique in St. Peter, Moelter told of falling in love with the Chamber president, getting married and having five children even as she grew and expanded her business to Waseca and New Prague. The love story prompted Klobuchar to give Ed Lee a raised-eyebrow before both Moelter and Lee quickly clarified that she was talking about Winthrop's Chamber president, not St. Peter's.
Chelsie Salonek said her lifelong ambition was to own a clothing store/boutique and talked to a banker while she was still in high school about what would be required to make the dream a reality. By age 20, she'd completed a 70-page business plan with help from the Small Business Development Center in Mankato.
And with what Wille called "a very modest loan" from St. Peter's revolving loan fund, Generations Boutique was open for business not long after Salonek turned 21.
"Not a year later, my business manager said 'Chelsie paid us off,'" Will said.
Also telling their stories were Christine Rasmussen, who took ownership of the River Rock Bakery just 13 months ago, and Margo O'Brien, who first got involved with the St. Peter Food Co-op decades ago because she wanted to feed natural foods to her young family and now is its general manager.
The theme tying together the five was a willingness to take a risk, start small and work hard, said Lee. There was another common thread, too, Wille said.
Each received some assistance through government-backed loan funds and taxpayer funded small-business assistance programs. The investment has paid off, Wille said, with the businesses contributing to a thriving downtown business district, a higher property tax base, and more revenue for the public utilities.
"It was federal money," he said. "Thank you."
But the federal government also means regulations, O'Brien said. Even when she agrees with their purpose, they're time-consuming.
"Sometimes you feel like a rubber band and you're stretched like this," she said.
When Hayes voiced concerns about minimum wage laws potentially getting out of hand, Klobuchar said she supports an increase at the federal level — where the wage hasn't risen in eight years. Klobuchar, though, said she also supports legislation to enforce requirements that online retailers collect sales tax — something many are not doing, which gives them an unfair price advantage over Main Street businesses.
The St. Peter meeting was one of six in southern Minnesota on Saturday featuring Klobuchar, who plans to seek a third term in 2018.