Dotson building

Dotson Iron Castings is planning a major expansion and makeover of its plant along Rock Street, which gets lots of foot traffic when Riverfront Park hosts events.

MANKATO — For more than a century, Dotson Iron Castings has been content to be viewed as smart and hard-working with a nice personality.

By the end of 2021, though, the Rock Street industrial plant might start turning a few heads.

A major expansion of the plant will bring new meeting rooms, break areas, locker rooms and a rooftop patio. And, in the process, it will present a shiny new face to the public and to potential employees.

“Certainly, we’re wanting people to take a second look and think, ‘I wonder what they do,’” Dotson Vice President Liz Ulman said.

While the manufacturing firm’s origins date back to the 1870s, Dotson was traditionally hidden between the railroad tracks and the industrial area along the Minnesota River north of Old Town — unobtrusively producing precision parts for farm machinery, heavy trucks, industrial equipment and the construction industry among a broad variety of customers.

That changed when Riverfront Park opened, complete with an amphitheater that draws streams of visitors down Rock Street for major concerts and festivals in the warm-weather months.

“RibFest weekend we might have 20,000 people walking past our building,” Ulman said.

If city approval comes next month, the expansion will include a makeover that might leave some of those passersby disoriented. The entirely practical concrete building they’re used to seeing — or not seeing — will be transformed with a new glass front, decorative metal panels of multiple colors and landscaping.

Inside the two-story 7,800-square-foot addition will be a lobby, spacious employee eating areas, large meeting rooms, new men’s and women’s locker rooms with private areas for changing and showering, a lactation room, a laundry area and offices.

Although Ulman doesn’t think the rooftop picnic area will offer views of the concert stage at the amphitheater, it will be a pleasant place for a break during the warm weather months: “We have a beautiful sunset when it goes down over the river valley.”

The vision for the project came from Denny Dotson and Jean Bye, both of whom served as company president before stepping back from day-to-day operations.

“Jean Bye and I have been at the company for nearly 50 years, both of us, and this is an exciting project that really goes to the continuation of the retention and recruitment of the best talent,” Dotson said.

Ulman credits Dotson and Bye for looking to the future even in the midst of a disruptive ongoing pandemic.

“They’ve always done a good job of looking beyond the immediate,” she said, adding that the expansion is a strong signal to 140 employees and to the broader community of a continuing dedication to investing in the company and its long-term presence in Mankato. “We’re committed to creating a future for our team, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Despite the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the company is hiring, Ulman said. And like other manufacturers that are increasingly relying on high-tech manufacturing techniques, competition for skilled workers can be intense.

Recruits can look at the company’s production area and see Dotson’s willingness to invest in equipment, technology and new processes, she said. And when a major fire shut down the facility in 2017, Dotson demonstrated its allegiance to its employees by keeping them on the payroll, asking them to do community service work, until the facility was repaired.

The new space is another attempt to send a message, with plans to use it for events aimed at customers, manufacturing advocacy groups, and students exploring career options. First and foremost, the space is targeted toward employees — current and future, Ulman said.

Grilling on the elevated patio for team-building events, the opportunity for spouses and kids to share a quick supper with second-shift workers, an attractive space for employees to enjoy their breaks during the 24/5 production schedule, new locker rooms Ulman will not need to hide from prospective new hires.

Dotson employees are impressed with what the organization produces behind the nondescript concrete walls, Ulman said. “It does not take much to see the pride in the team’s face when they talk about what they do and what they make and that they work for Dotson.”

While more than one employee, upon learning about the new addition, wondered if the money could just be plugged into their paychecks instead, Ulman thinks the long-term benefits of investing in the quality of the facility will win them over.

“We want to take good care of the people we have or will have,” she said.

For the project to move forward, the City Council will have to approve a variance allowing for a reduction in the required setback from Rock Street to allow for new parking that will be lost to the expansion. A public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 11.

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