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High home, food costs among issues raised at Perham forum

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Community growth and development was the focus of a lively roundtable discussion March 6 in Perham.

From housing to education; transportation to health care; nearly 40 civic leaders and business owners, mostly from Perham--but also with representation from Frazee, New York Mills and a few from outlying rural areas attended the breakfast. It was hosted at Lakes Cafe by the West Central Initiative staff.

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To dissect local issues, discuss community assets, and identify weaknesses; this was an appropriate group of people. Educators, clergymen and social services providers were seated with representatives of the area's largest employers, such as KLN Enterprises-Barrel O' Fun; Arvig Communication Systems; United Community Bank; and the school system.

On hand from Frazee were Bryce Anderson, United Community Bank, and new city administrator Ken Bucholz, on the job for only three weeks.

Many of the topics were familiar, discussed at similar forums in the past; and in school board and city council chambers.

But there were also a number of fresh subjects, ideas and observations.

Transportation costs on the rise

Gas prices will change not only the way we do business--but where we live and work. The individual with a $10 an hour job in Perham, commuting from Sebeka, may reconsider as transportation costs rise: Find a job, maybe lower pay, but closer to home. Or--move closer to the job, which would mean even more demand for affordable housing in a town like Perham, with more jobs than population.

Regional approach to issues?

Some solutions need to be regional in scope, rather than local and community based, noted Perham-New York Mills attorney Steve Peloquin. He suggested a broadened perspective: viewing the area as one larger community, "linked by Main Street with four lanes...Highway 10."

Public transportation, seldom feasible in rural areas, may start to make sense. Coordinating a public bus route between New York Mills and Perham, scheduled to accommodate shift changes at the Lund plant and Barrel O' Fun, was an idea posed by Peloquin.

Productive Alternatives, which has contracted with the county to provide public transit with its "Otter Express," is considering commuter routes through rural areas, and evening service, noted Jim Rieber, a Productive Alternatives board member.

Food prices and other "big threats"

The rise in commodity prices, along with high transportation costs and energy costs in general, are contributing to a "looming" crisis of high food prices, noted Doug Huebsch, Perham business owner, who has unofficially announced that he will be running for the Perham-area Otter Tail County Board seat this year.

The new ethanol plant in Fergus Falls could be a financial asset--or an incredible, $110 million fiasco. "The plant is far from profitable...it's a very risky venture," said Huebsch, adding that the ethanol boom may be good for most farmers--but it is also good for corporate conglomerates. A possible scenario, said Huebsch, is that the plant fails, and a corporate monolith swoops in to buy it up at 20 cents on the dollar.

Have job...need home

More than 300 jobs were created in Perham over the past year, said Kenny Nelson, KLN Enterprises. As many as 75 more jobs are expected at the KLN plants alone this year.

"It's disturbing that our school enrollment is going down, or static," said Nelson, while the number of jobs goes up. "Our strategy should be to encourage people to live here."

Housing for moderate income families dominated much of the discussion.

To fill the need, Perham needs more rental options and a more varied housing stock--at lower price points.

"If we get back to the basics, I think we can put up some affordable housing," said Dave Neisen, Perham zoning administrator.

Starter homes with two bedrooms and one bathroom--but with room for future expansion--could be built for less. The challenge, said Neisen, is that first time homebuyers have become more demanding: They want master bathrooms, expensive roof designs, and other features--which they probably can't afford.

High residential property values: A blessing--and a curse--in Perham

What's a good thing about living in Perham? Residential property values are high.

What's the bad thing about trying to live in Perham? Property values are high.

That's how Kelcey Klemm, city administrator, described Perham's housing challenge.

"We have a shortage of older housing stock...and smaller, starter homes," said Klemm. This limits the availability of "affordable housing."

By the same token, "we want quality housing...not just cardboard boxes."

The level of local services and the range of assets in the community are determining factors in the price of a home, said Mary Thomas, retired principal of St. Henry's School.

"Services also drive the price. You pay more for a home because there is a high demand to live here," said Thomas.

Retail business owner Sue Huebsch has seen first-hand the difficulty for first-time homebuyers. Nearly every one of her younger employees lives in a neighboring town, because they can't afford housing in Perham, she said.

In Frazee, meanwhile, there is an abundance of buildable lots, said banker Bryce Anderson, and the lots are attractive. The flip side is that Frazee has become more of a "bedroom community" as residents drive to neighboring towns for their jobs.

Setting the stage for more housing in Perham is "Youth Build," a collaborative program where Perham students build a home to earn construction trades, providing more housing stock for the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Cutting through the red tape, so first time homebuyers can get easier access to financing, is a priority for Perham, noted Klemm.

"We're trying to streamline the process so the homebuyer doesn't have to run to five different agencies," said Klemm.

Should city buy old Lutheran school?

The old St. Paul's school is for sale, since the church expanded with an education wing. Mary Thomas urged officials to consider buying the stately brick structure, which neighbors the emergency services center and firehall.

"The St. Paul's school should be bought for the public good...or it could be lost forever to a non-public entity," said Thomas.

West Central aids area communities

The Perham forum was hosted by West Central Initiative, a non profit organization dedicated to community development.

WCI President Nancy Straw explained that the agency has $47 million in assets, and has invested nearly $12 million in grants and loans during its 21 year existence.

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