Building it in Balaton

The city of Balaton has expanded in several ways during the last decade, which includes new construction and development projects

Submitted photo Minnesota Energy Resources representative Rory Lenton awards a check to EDA director Tara Onken for the installation of a new multi-generational park in Balaton as community members Rick Anderson, Mike Nelson, Doug Hall and Mary Timmerman, along with GameTime employees look on. MRS and its charitable giving entity, Wisconsin Public Service Foundation, donated $10,000 to the project. Also helping with the installation were: Cookie Cooreman, Pat Rutz, Greg Erickson, Marla Anderson, Del Rutz, Douglas and Erin Hall, Guy Knutson and Carl Peterson.

BALATON

Despite being a community of less than 700, Balaton is growing in a number of ways.

As Balaton Economic Development Authority (EDA) director, Tara Onken has seen development, construction and expansion opportunities come to fruition throughout the community, including at Eastbay, Ralco, Victory Christian Church and Grandview Beach Acres.

“I love Balaton,” Onken said. “Everybody just chips in and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty and everybody works together as a community. We’re really fortunate, for the size of our town, to have everything going on that we do. It makes the community more attractive to live in and increases the vitality of our community, ultimately making it a better place to live for everybody, which is the goal.”

Eleven new homes have already been built in Balaton’s Eastbay addition, a city and EDA development that was started roughly 12 years ago. Onken says four lots were closed on just this past year — two of which already have new homes on them.

“If you add it all up, it’s almost a million dollars what we’ve increased in our tax base in about one year in Balaton,” Onken said. “With EDA, we all work toward retaining or adding jobs or building tax base, so our work out at Eastbay, with selling lots and offering our tax abatement incentives for new builds, is huge. It saves people some significant dollars if they choose to make Balaton their home. Then it also increases our tax base as everyone shares the burden.”

There has also been movement at Grandview Beach Acres, which is Mary and Fran Timmerman’s development project.

“Our east side of town there on Highway 14 has just been taking off,” Onken said. “We’ve sold at least four lots out at Eastbay and then Timmermans built their twin home out there. We had the spec home built by Ace Home and Hardware out of Marshall — they built that — and that’s for sale. Just kitty-corner to that is a brand new single-family home that was built with two more that we’re expecting to get started next year.”

Onken said it was a huge risk on the city’s behalf when it made the decision to go forward with the subdivision, but that thankfully it has panned out.

“Look at where we are now,” she said. “Had we not had that subdivision built, we would not have those homes built — there’s nowhere else to really build in town. So it’s nice that they had forward-thinking and moved ahead with that.”

EASTBAY PARK

One of the most recent highlights at Eastbay has been the installation of a multi-generational park.

“The idea started with wanting a playground for Eastbay because it was the only area in town that didn’t have one,” Balaton Chamber President Julie Erickson said. “It grew from there and the idea for outdoor exercise equipment came from an article on grandparents parks, a concept that has started in other parts of the country. It’s so adults and children can exercise and play in the same park.”

Committee members — Erickson, Onken, Cookie Cooreman, Rick Anderson and Pat Rutz — oversaw the completion of Phase 1.

“The park installation went well, though we had been delayed due to a wet summer,” Erickson said. “We installed a toddler unit and a 5-12 age unit. We also installed the liner and engineering wood fiber surface. A swingset and merry-go-all will be installed early next spring.”

Along with committee members and employees of GameTime, Greg Erickson, Marla Anderson, Del Rutz, Doug and Erin Hall, Mike Nelson, Guy Knutson, Mary Timmerman and Carl Peterson helped with the park installation and were in attendance for a check dedication ceremony.

“It was awesome,” Onken said. “We had a lot of volunteers that came out and showed their support — dug in — and we got the project done.”

Minnesota Energy Resources contributed with a $10,000 grant for the park.

“We got $5,000 on the day we installed the park and the other $5,000 will come after the first of the year,” Onken said.

Erickson said that committee members thought a park might be attractive to young families looking to move to Balaton as well as being functional for residents.

“We got input from a physical therapist as to the type of equipment that would also be useful for patients that might be doing outpatient physical therapy after surgery,” she said. “The nature trail is still in the development stage, but may include a pond, look-out tower, butterfly garden and have a sand pit with diggers, just to name a few.”

Onken said the full vision includes a natural playscape with rocks, sticks and sand.

“We want to bring back all the things that maybe we played with when we were little,” she said.

The outdoor exercise equipment and a shade structure is part of Phase 2. Erickson said Phase 3 is the nature trail and Phase 4 is a bathroom structure.

In addition, a United Way Born Learning trail has also been installed, courtesy of several donations.

“It’s a sidewalk with things painted on the cement,” Onken said. “There are signs to prompt you what to do, maybe as a mom, what questions you might ask your kids to get their wheels turning. It’s pretty cool.”

VICTORY CHRISTIAN DAYCARE

Casie Bangasser and Mike Nelson have both been instrumental in spearheading the effort to start a childcare center at Victory Christian Church (VCC), where Nelson serves as senior pastor and Bangasser is the pastor of ministries.

“It’s pretty amazing when you drive through a community our size and see all of this going on,” Onken said. “(VCC) got a $25,000 grant. We did a co-application for funding through Southwest Initiative Foundation. There’s a couple different projects in their coverage area. The childcare center in Balaton was on of the recipients and that funding came from the DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development). We’re really fortunate because they are moving full steam ahead on their application to become a certified center.”

KSTP did a news story about the shortage of daycare in greater Minnesota.

“They came out to Balaton and did some interviews with some of the parents,” Onken said. “What we see, as far as firsthand accounts, is that there is a need, that there is a shortage all across southwest Minnesota and beyond.”

Onken said the plan is to have the center open less than a year from now, hopefully before school starts in the fall.

“They still have some building remodeling and stuff to do,” she said. “They’ll utilize the building they have already, but their master plan is to expand because their congregation and the kids are really outgrowing their needs. The building is smaller than what they need — it’s a great problem to have.”

Onken added that Minnesota Energy also gave $1,000 to the EDA to put toward the childcare center project.

“Between the park grant, childcare center grant and extra $1,000, that’s $36,000 of grant money in one year, which is awesome,” she said. “That’s not including any of the private donations, so that’s pretty cool.”

BALATON BAY GOLF COURSE

The Balaton Bay Golf Course is another enhancement not only for the Eastbay addition but the entire community. Balaton natives Jon and Niter Knochenmus purchased the par 3 course this past spring.

“I was part the Balaton EDA at the time the city of Balaton bought that property out there and though I wasn’t very excited about the idea of a par 3 course that the engineer at the time proposed, I’ve learned that you shouldn’t sell the par 3 short,” Jon Knochenmus said. “It’s a great place to learn how to golf and also for busy people, older people and families.”

Knochenmus added that the course offers enough of a challenge for everyone.

“It’s a challenging course,” he said. “There’s water on 7 of the 9 holes and there are extra large greens and tee boxes. It’s just a perfect course for young and old.”

Knochenmus said the course had been up for sale for a few years and after talking with his wife and their children, they thought purchasing and keeping up the golf course would be a good way to give back to the community.

“Being involved from the beginning, I know there was a need for housing development in Balaton,” Knochenmus said. “And in order for the housing development to grow, there needs to be stability. So we wanted to help the greater Marshall area, to give back to the community because the community has given us so much.”

Knochenmus said Eastbay is a great development with a lot to offer. Along with the golf, it has great wildlife areas, has water all around it and a lake right next to it, he said.

“As a part of Lyon County, Balaton offers a lot of recreation,” he said. “It’s a great place to raise a family or retire. It’s in close proximity to Marshall — it’s a great bedroom community.”

With more homes being built in Balaton, it helps spread the tax base out, ultimately helping all residents.

“It’s great to see the Timmermans and their Grandview Beach Acres development,” Knochenmus said. “I think it’s important to help other people who are involved in development housing as well. All of it has a big impact on a small community.”

One of the first things the Knochenmuses did after purchasing the course was to transform the little steel snack shed into an actual clubhouse where people could have a place to socialize. Onken said community members were appreciative of the upgrade.

“Now that they finished the addition, the Balaton Bay Clubhouse is about three times the size compared to what it used to be,” she said. “It’s actually pretty nice in there.”

RALCO

Ralco President Brian Knochenmus said Balaton has been an excellent community to bring projects like Agnition and tru Shrimp to life.

“The community has been a tremendous support, and our visitors from around the world always comment favorably about the friendly and welcoming atmosphere,” Knochenmus said. “Since our acquisition of the high school in 2010, Balaton has been a place of learning and growth for us, and hopefully the community continues to grow and benefit from it.”

Knochenmus added that Balaton has been a great location for Ralco’s Technology Campus, since many of their primary research farms and facilities are within a 10-mile radius.

“The latest excitement, of course, is the construction of Balaton Bay Reef, which will serve primarily as a training center for employees that will care for shrimp health and productivity throughout the many harbors we construct in years ahead,” he said. “The production harbors are projected to be over 400,000 square feet, producing more than 8 million pounds of shrimp annually.”

To give some perspective to the size of the opportunity, Knochenmus said to achieve 10 percent market share domestically, it would require 40 harbors, and that they’re projecting 60 or more employees per harbor.

“We envision classes of new employees to be trained continuously throughout the year at the Balaton facility, so Balaton really will benefit from all the people and activity that tru Shrimp continues to bring,” he said.

As Ralco President Emeritus, Jon Knochenmus has seen Ralco grow on many levels and he also believes that growth will continue well into the future.

“Balaton is really the epicenter for our research,” he said. “We have our swine facility, a state of the art greenhouse and farm ground. Tru Shrimp will grow, Agnition will grow and Ralco will grow, so we need places for Balaton to grow.”

BROADBAND

When Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and DEED recently announced $26 million worth of broadband grants across greater Minnesota, the community of Balaton, through Woodstock Communications, learned that it would be the beneficiary of $413,009 state grant. The project is expected to serve more than 300 underserved households, nearly 30 underserved businesses and six underserved community anchor institutions in the city of Balaton.

“Terry Nelson and the crew at Woodstock Communications have been great advocates for the Balaton project,” Onken said. “After last year’s application was denied due to a Frontier challenge, they could have chosen to divert their efforts elsewhere, however, their persistence and continued support for the Balaton community is greatly appreciated, and their hard work has paid off. The process to get these DEED funds is extremely competitive, so the fact that Balaton was awarded is a true feather in the cap of Woodstock Communications and the community of Balaton.”

Onken said the lack of reliable Internet service has been a real issue in the community.

“Believe it or not, we have people who teach classes and that live in Balaton,” she said. “They can’t adequately teach their classes because of the lack of reliable internet service. My sister and I as college students, we had problems taking timed tests because the reliability is not there. And as we move into the 21st century with telemedicine and telecommuting and all of that, the broadband is increasingly important.”

NATURAL GAS

Onken said a natural gas project with Minnesota Energy Resources is also going on in Balaton.

“That’s a multi-million dollar project that cost the city of Balaton zero dollars and is a huge, huge asset to our community, to have alternative sources of energy because you never know when utility prices are going to vary,” Onken said. “So it’s nice to have that option.”

Onken noted that the project was in motion.

“They’re actually going to be purging the lines in the next couple of weeks,” she said. “And it’s the first entire town that they’ve piped in over 20 years. That’s, in part, because they changed the legislation — the way utility companies can charge and what they use their funds for — in an effort to bring utilities to more people, greater Minnesota, more underserved communities.”

After conducting feasibility and town hall discussions about the natural gas, Onken said partnering with Minnesota Energy was the community’s best option.

“It was going to be way too expensive for us to do it,” Onken said. “I think it was somewhere between $5-$6 million to do the project, so that was way out of our reach. In partnering, residents will see a small fee per month as part of their monthly bill, but it’s apples for apples. It’s pretty equal or even cheaper to go the natural gas route, depending on the commodity prices. Then once that’s paid off in a number of years, then that fee will go away and we’ll really be set up.”

WALKING BRIDGE AND MORE

The Balaton Area Community Foundation is working on constructing a walking path bridge, so that people don’t have to cross Highway 14 to get out to the Eastbay Addition.

“With the church, playground and all that stuff out there, there’s a lot of people who go out there, so to have that bridge will be nice,” Onken said. “It won’t be too big — just wide enough for a golf cart because a lot of people store their golf carts at their house and don’t want to or can’t drive it on the highway.”

Jon Knochenmus said Balaton has always been a friendly community but that a lot has changed in the town over the years. Because of that, people need to find new and sustainable ways to keep the community viable.

“When I was a kid, I remember Balaton having three restaurants, three grocery stores, a car dealership, implement dealers, dry good stores, a concrete business, four or five gas stations, the Gem Theater and even a locker plant,” he said. “As farms consolidate, I think communities need to reinvent themselves and try to bring the economy back by regenerating the environment. The things the town has done, including broadband and natural gas, has had a big impact on business. Hopefully we can continue growing it back a little bit.”

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