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LISA GROUETTE, The Globe Gazette 

Newman Catholic's Brady Gatton, left, and Jacob Smith, right, tackle Rockford's Zach Bushbaum during Friday's game in Rockford.

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$655K grant to restore Mason City-Clear Lake railroad freight line

CLEAR LAKE | A track of light rail running near Clear Lake that currently holds old rail cars will be put back into service, with the help of an annual grant and loan program funded by the Iowa DOT.

In total, a little more than $2.6 million has been allocated for three major statewide rail projects, $655,000 of which is dedicated to restoring freight service to just over 10 miles of track, from the southwestern part of Mason City, along Old Highway 106 to the western terminus near Interstate 35 in Clear Lake.

Michael Johns, general manager of Iowa Traction Railway Company — the owner of the tracks — said the current light rail will be replaced with current standard freight rail. That equates from 60-pound to 112 to 115-pound rail, in order to transport anything from soda ash, propane, utility poles and other items.

Johns said the change will allow freight to be shipped on the tracks for the first time in five years, and create 30-45 jobs in the next five years.

"None of these are home runs," he said of the projects funded by the state's Railroad Revolving Loan and Grant program. "But this is an appropriate scale project for the Clear Lake-Mason City area."

Johns said his company has already strengthened trestles and bridges that the new railroad will travel over. He added that he hopes expansion can move to Interstate 35, collaborating with trucks that need to offload materials there.

In terms of the other two projects, Laura Hutzell, rail development manager for the Iowa DOT, said funds will be used to revitalize the industry in different sectors of the state.

The Pattison Sand CP Unit Train Expansion, for example, will use the money for its second of five phases, adding 3,300 feet of track and adding 78 rail cars in Clayton to help deal with industrial transit.

Hutzell said the projects' funds are applied for by the Iowa DOT to the state legislature each year, which then approves the money for the Railroad Revolving Loan and Grant Program.

She added the projects are significant to helping improve overall transit in the state.

"Rail is a big mover in this state," Hutzell said. "The funding isn't always there so it's nice to have funding ... a lot of people think 'highway' when they think freight transit, but rail carries a lot as well."

Johns added that his company's specialty will be beneficial to the Clear Lake-Mason City area.

"This is shortline railroads," he said. "We offer tailor-made services that the Class 1 (freights) don't typically offer ... we feel we open up Mason City and Clear Lake to a lot of projects." 

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Iowa crowd peppers Ernst with questions about health care, 'Dreamers' (with photos)

IOWA CITY — Health care was at the top of voters’ agendas at a town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa City on Friday, even as the latest attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act hit a roadblock.

About an hour before Ernst’s public event, Arizona Sen. John McCain announced he would vote no on the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, likely dooming its chances. McCain joins fellow Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky in opposition, meaning the bill cannot lose any more votes and still pass. When Ernst announced the news to the crowd gathered at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus, she was met with deafening cheers.

Still, audience members made clear health care is a primary concern, asking the senator question after question on the topic. She said she agreed with them that a solution must be found — but the question remains what that solution will be.


People hold up red and green signs to show their disapproval and approval of what U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said during her Johnson County Town Hall Meeting Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa. 

She called Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s proposal for a single-payer health care system, “a pie in the sky,” questioning how it would be paid for, and said she hopes to find a bipartisan solution going forward. In the interim, she said she worries for families facing rising premiums and loss of choices with just one insurer, Medica, remaining on Iowa’s health insurance exchange for 2018.

Several hundred people flowed into the Iowa Memorial Union for the event, the third town hall this week for Ernst after appearances in Floyd and Wayne counties as part of her 99-county tour.

Johnson County made its status as Iowa’s most liberal enclave known with frequent loud cheers, boos and shouting and a sea of red and green signs reading “Agree” or “Disagree” that audience members waved enthusiastically.

The atmosphere was, at times, verbally combative, but when one attendee thanked Ernst for coming to Iowa City even knowing the reception she was likely to face, the crowd cheered.


U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst speaks during her Johnson County Town Hall Meeting as part of her 99 county tour at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. 

After the event, Ernst told reporters she thinks it is important to hear from constituents, perhaps especially so when they don’t agree with her.

“It is important that people can get out and express how they feel about different issues. It certainly does inform me on how people are thinking,” she said. “I know tensions are running high ... but Iowa has once again proven that we can have civil discourse, and we can discuss these issues, hear from constituents and do it in a manner that will be productive.”

One audience member who tried to yell out his question and was asked to sit was Emiliano Martinez, a University of Iowa senior and president of Hawkeyes for Dream Iowa, which organized a rally in Hubbard Park after the event. The organization advocates for so-called “Dreamers,” the undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. They were given protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012 and rescinded by President Donald Trump in early September. Trump said the program would end after six months and that it is up to Congress to find a solution in that time.

Another person later asked Ernst the same question Martinez was yelling: what will she do to help the Dreamers?

“I do support finding a legal status, a permanent legal status for our Dreamers,” Ernst replied.

Talking with media after the town hall, she said she is aware of three or four bills in the works to address the issue. Ernst said the challenge will be finding consensus and balance on a path forward.

Martinez said he was satisfied by her answer, but remains wary.

“My concerns are for the end line,” he said. “We would hate to see DACA happen but be used to bargain for an increased budget for Immigration Customs and Enforcement or for deporting the parents of Dreamers.”  

State will OK Mason City tax breaks once downtown deal is signed

DES MOINES | Give us a development agreement, and we’ll tentatively approve financial assistance for your project.

That was the message the state’s economic development board gave to Mason City leaders Friday during discussion of upwards of $10 million in state tax breaks for the city’s proposed $38 million River City Renaissance project.

Board members told Mason City leaders once the city has a development agreement with Gatehouse Mason City LLC on a new downtown hotel and conference center, the board will give contingent approval for the tax breaks at its October meeting.

That tentative approval would come just before Mason City is scheduled to host a public hearing on the development agreement and a referendum on the overall project, which includes the hotel, an ice arena and multipurpose center, a skywalk, a performing arts pavilion, and a new Music Man museum.

City administrator Brent Trout said the city is working on the final details of the development agreement with Gatehouse.

“I think we are close,” Trout told board members Friday.

David Rachie, with Gatehouse, said progress on the development agreement has been made “in leaps and bounds.”

Trout and Rachie said the final point of negotiations is the city’s schedule for making payments on a $4.2 million loan with Gatehouse. Both said they expect to reach a final agreement ahead of the economic development board’s next meeting.

The board has given preliminary approval for $7.1 million in tax breaks for the project; it could increase that figure up to $10 million.

If the board gives contingent approval for the tax breaks, it would be contingent on passage of Mason City’s Nov. 7 referendum. Voters will be asked to approve the city’s plan for up to $14 million in loans for the project.

“The hope is that there’s no uncertainty between the developer and the city by the time you guys come back to us, because otherwise it’s going to be hard to give you guys contingent approval,” board member David Bernstein, of Sioux City, told Mason City officials. “Because we just have October to act on this before your referendum.”

Board member Chris Murray, of Ankeny, added for emphasis, “Having that development agreement is a critical point. You guys know it, and we don’t need to repeat it. You’ve got to get that development agreement.”

During the Mason City group’s update to the board, Trout said a “well-organized” campaign will help gain the necessary 60 percent approval from voters in the Nov. 7 referendum. He pointed to a recent city council special election as cause for optimism.

Candidate Joshua Masson, who supports the project, handily defeated candidate Max Weaver, who opposes the project, 72 percent to 27 percent.

“It’s encouraging, what we’re seeing within the community,” Trout said.

The project referendum will be joined on the Nov. 7 ballot in Mason City by the mayor’s office and three city council seats.

Weaver, after losing Tuesday's special election, filed Thursday to run for the at-large seat. Other project skeptics or opponents are among the candidates running to represent the Second and Fourth wards.