BY GABE LICHT
MONTROSE, MN Right now, it looks like a lot of dirt. By the end of June, the outline of a park will take place north of Aspen Lane and west of Wright County Road 12 South in Montrose.
That’s where troops from the 411th Engineering Company of the United States Army are working 12-hour days to grade the land, install drainage and storm pond infrastructure, and construct a street sub-base.
It’s part of the Army’s Innovative Readiness Training Program.
“The program provides opportunities for the Army to train their personnel in operating large equipment and performing other construction-related tasks, while providing a benefit to local communities,” Montrose City Clerk Maggie McCallum wrote in the city’s newsletter.
It’s a win for the city, which is saving between $500,000 and $600,000, and it’s a win for the soldiers involved.
“The city is getting the product they want. We’re getting training; especially for new soldiers, this is hands-on experience,” said Lt. Ernest Palmer, the project manager for the job.
For Palmer and Company Executive Officer Matt Schwartzkopf, who is second in command for the first phase of the project, this is not their first rodeo.
“Two years ago, we built a runway at Fort Irwin in California,” Schwartzkopf said. “Last year, we traveled to Germany to build a runway. This is different. It lets us give back to the local community. These soldiers are from the Midwest.”
Two platoons from the 411th Engineering Company are splitting up the work. The first rotation is opening up the job site, tilling it up, and starting with a rough grade. The second rotation will fine-tune and do final grading work. Baseball and softball fields and Arapahoe Lane will start to take shape.
In addition to the 411th Engineering Company, which is based out of Iowa City, IA, another crew from the 348th Engineering Company based out of Kansas City, MO, is assisting, along with a fueling crew from the 367th Engineering Company based out of St. Joseph and a surveying crew from the 389th Engineering Company based out of Dubuque, IA.
“We also have a maintenance platoon,” Schwartzkopf said. “They’re lifesavers out here. The equipment gets torn up, especially with new operators. We have to keep on schedule.”
Those new operators are gaining important experience, including how to respond to conditions and mistakes.
“Bulldozers get stuck,” Schwartzkopf said. “We’re teaching them how to do vehicle recovery. While it’s a little frustrating, it’s a good learning experience. They’re able to get that piece of equipment back.”
Some soldiers are gaining more experience in their field of choice, while others are learning to do something they don’t normally do as civilians.
“This is a very diverse group of soldiers,” Palmer said. “For some, this is their civilian job. Other soldiers have different jobs, from school teachers to law students.”
They’re getting to know each other better, in part by sleeping in close quarters, with 51 soldiers sleeping on cots in the Montrose Community Center.
“It beats having to set up tents out here,” Palmer said.
Their day starts with physical training.
On the job site, soldiers take turns doing different tasks.
“We switch out people in the machinery so everyone is getting hands-on experience, and so we get fresh people in,” Palmer said.
The landscape will be changing dramatically, as the southeast side alone will have 12 feet of soil cut out of it. In total, 50,000 cubic yards of dirt are being moved, plus 10,000 cubic yards of sand. That’s in 17 acres that the soldiers are modifying, out of the 22 total acres slotted for the park.
The city acquired the land in 2013 through land tax forfeiture. In doing so, the city was required to use the land for a public purpose. Special meetings and surveys showed the community supported using the land for a park.
Once that park concept was established, city staff began looking for ways to fund such a large park with the desired amenities. That’s when they learned of the IRT program.
“We applied for this in 2015,” City Engineer Justin Kannas said. “We really thought this was a good fit for the city and the army. It’s wide out in the open and the timeline is very flexible . . . There’s no way the city could build this out. The community has been very involved. We have Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, which has been very active. They really appreciate the military.”
“We’ve had a warm welcome, from the sign that greeted us, to city officials, to people stopping by to say thanks,” Palmer said.
“It makes our lives easier, and we appreciate it greatly,” Schwartzkopf added.
They said city staff has been helpful.
Not only has the city provided supplies, but the city has also provided a pump to pump out water in a future retention pond so that the soldiers can dig it out. With help from the city, Palmer and Schwartzkopf say they are able to stay on task and on schedule.
As for the final timeline and budget for the park, plans are to-be-determined.
“The city is actively working on a plan to finance and complete these improvements within their 10-year capital improvement plan,” Kannas said. “In the meantime, city crews will work on the park by establishing and maintaining the grass and planting trees as funds and resources are available.”