RIVER FALLS -- When River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson gave the virtual State of the City address at the March 23 River Falls City Council meeting, he said it would be a glowing and celebratory review of 2020, a year of unprecedented challenges. However, he asked for a moment of silence to remember those lost to COVID-19.

“2020 was a year like no other,” Simpson said solemnly. “But it was a year of loss for many. I understand people have lost companionship, livelihoods, opportunities and rights of passage. We’ve all lost freedom of movement and some semblance of normalcy.”

Simpson, who usually assigns a witty theme to each year’s State of the City presentation, said 2020 would receive no such designation. A year of loss, but a year of hope, he kept returning to the city’s identified core values, he said. Those include putting people first, embracing change, serving the community, pursuing excellence, acting with integrity and considering future generations. 

“In 2020, we put people first, both our employees and community members,” Simpson said. “We very much took an all-hands-on-deck approach to crisis management.”

Into action

City staff built the RF COVID-19 Community Care hub on the River Falls Public Library website. Daily and transparent communication to the public was essential, as well as pointing them toward resources, Simpson said. The initial response of city staff focused on five main areas in the early days of the pandemic:

  • Delivering safe drinking water and electricity; managing wastewater

  • Maintaining public safety

  • Supporting the local economy

  • Connecting the community to resources

  • Managing the election

“I guess you never know how flexible you can be until you are put to the test,” Simpson said. 

The “Crushing COVID-19: A guide to recovery” plan helped the city’s wheels keep turning to deliver the city services people rely on, while managing the challenges and quick changes brought on by COVID. 

Simpson acknowledged city staff and the council’s foresight in being prepared to hold meetings remotely, which allowed for city business to continue almost as usual. He also applauded the handling of the 2020 presidential election, in which almost 66% of eligible voters voted by absentee ballots. The city had more volunteers than usual and the new electronic software system, Badger Books, was in place. 

“The need to take meticulous measures to keep our poll workers and voters safe on Election Day while protecting the integrity of the elections” was monumental, Simpson said. 

Even with the limitations of COVID-19, the Glen Park Splash Pad opened. The campground was full, the park shelters saw more than 500 reservations and 400 swimming lessons took place. And even though the public library closed, library staff provided 12,000 curbside pickup services, made wifi available in the library parking lot, put computers and printers outside for public use and increased access to internet hotspots. Adult programming attendance (remotely) increased by 74%.

These core services continuing uninterrupted in the worst of times is a testament to the city’s preparedness and resiliency, Simpson said. 

Development continued

“And because we knew there would be an after,” development in the city continued, Simpson said. While many municipalities chose to put a hold on development and focus on essential services during the pandemic, River Falls kept pushing forward. In 2020, 87 single-family homes were built (compared to 80 in 2019) and 194 multi-family units were built (compared to 150 in 2019). The value, including permits for additions/alterations, is $43,290,762, compared to $30,589,843 in 2019. 

Residential developments that have been completed or are in progress include:

  • Peregrine Terrace: 92 market rate units next to Wildcat Centre off Cemetery Road will be completed in phases. 

  • 1300 S. Main St.: The site of the former River Falls Motel will provide 50 one-to-three bedroom units of affordable family housing, to be completed this year. 

  • The Depot and City Station: The Depot consists of 50 affordable housing units for seniors. City Station provides 24 market rate units. Both opened to occupants in Fall 2020. 

  • Milltown Residences: Four buildings of 21 apartments each will be completed this year, located off Division Street adjacent to DeSanctis Park. 

  • Sterling Ponds second addition: Nineteen single-family homes are being built. 

  • Sterling Ponds Cottages: Nine twin homes are under construction at the corner of Chapman Drive and Huppert Street. 

  • Sterling Ponds third addition: Construction has begun on 20 single-family homes and four twinhomes. 

Commercial projects also kept moving, including:

  • Kwik Trip No. 3 plans are currently under review. 

  • M Health Fairview opened its new clinic at 319 S. Main St. in March. 

  • Falls Family Eye Care & Vision Therapy is relocating to the former Bernard’s on Main Street. 

  • Bakken-Young Funeral & Cremation Services is building an addition. 

  • The jug-handle ramp completion at Division Street and Highways 35/65.

  • River Falls Police Department relocation to the former RiverTown Multimedia building in Whitetail Corporate Park. 

Simpson noted the police department relocation occurred three years ahead of schedule. The building is 27,000 square feet, which is 30% larger than a new building (which had been proposed for $7.5 million) would have been. The total remodel and property acquisition was $4.5 million, a savings of $3 million. 

The city also invested $1.2 million in electric infrastructure at the South Fork substation and a new underground circuit, which serves the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and about one-third of the city’s residential customers. A $2 million investment in wastewater treatment plant improvements will improve reliability and lower energy costs. And, a new fire engine replaced a 32-year-old fire engine in late January 2020. 

June 2020 flood

The flood resulting from a storm June 29, 2020, which dumped more than 8 inches of rain on the area, was one of the worst floods seen in 60 years, Simpson said. The city’s 122 ponds, 2,500 structures and 50 miles of pipe kept more homes from being flooded, he added. 

However, the flood waters damaged the Powell Falls dam, which is hastening the decommissioning of the dam (detailed in a future article). Lake Louise’s waters were drawn down in October 2020, and the impoundment will not be refilled. 

Recovery goals

The city will continue to work with public health departments and the River Falls Chamber of Commerce to ensure the following:

  • Share timely and reliable information about COVID-19 vaccinations and testing. 

  • Continue to encourage virus mitigation. 

  • Research, pursue and plan for stimulus spending resulting from the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, which includes $350 billion in aid for state and local governments. 

  • Continually monitor conditions to guide summer activities / events. 

  • Support the city’s continued physical development and local businesses. 

Simpson closed by saying the city has received a lot of “interest and submittals” for projects in 2021 and 2022 and will continue to encourage residential, commercial and industrial projects that forward the livability of the city. The initial engineering design will continue in Mann Valley, where national real estate interest has been generated. Construction on multi-family units will continue in Highview Meadows and Sterling Ponds. Tattersall Distillery plans to build a destination distillery, restaurant and event center at the former Shopko site on Paulson Road. 

Road construction projects slated for summer include Highway 29 from Prescott to Cemetery Road, in which the County Road FF intersection may be reworked, Simpson said. Cemetery road from South Main Street to Highway 65 will see an overhaul. 

As for the future, citizens can look forward to participating in comprehensive plan updating in Fall 2021, Summer Cookout Conversations and the Fifth Biannual Citizens Survey. 

“I want to thank the community for taking care of each other during the pandemic,” Simpson said. 

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