2013 a year of extremes and transitions
For Douglas County, 2013 was a year of extremes, for weather, violent crimes and bad fires.
It was also a year marked by big changes – the transition to a new high school, transformations at the Alexandria Senior Center, reconstruction of city streets, and saying farewell to several long-time community leaders.
Here’s a look back at the Top 10 News Stories of 2013, as determined by the Echo Press editorial team.
1. ALEXANDRIA AREA HIGH SCHOOL TAKES SHAPE From a concept in 2012 to a campus taking shape in 2013, the majority of Alexandria Area High School (AAHS) was built in 2013.
In April, the Echo Press started providing AAHS construction updates.
Last spring, 100 percent of the footing and foundation excavation and construction were completed and a main power line was installed at the site.
In July, Alexandria School Board members donned hard hats and ventured inside the shell of AAHS.
Dean Anderson, school board chair, said, “I was impressed with the quality of the construction, both the exactness and accuracy of a project of this size and the strength and robustness of the structure.”
The summer months showed major progress in the construction of the school, everything from interior framing and fireproofing to mechanical and plumbing work being roughed in above and below grade.
Then, this fall, extensive interior finishing was under way, parking lots were curbed and paved; seeding and watering were taking place at the six-plex and ball fields; work was under way on stadium paving, fencing, bleachers and concession building construction.
During the school board’s tour in October, it was announced that construction of AAHS was 70 percent complete, on-budget and on-schedule to open in the fall of 2014.
The new school is being constructed on a 167-acre site located at 50th Avenue and Pioneer Road in Alexandria.
AAHS will house 1,400 students and the new 280,000-square-foot building will feature two three-story academic wings that include 36 classrooms, 12 flexible learning spaces for small and large groups, science labs, technology/engineering lab, art rooms, a media center and special education classrooms.
The new facility will also boast new athletic fields and a stadium, an activities wing with a three-station gymnasium, and a performing arts wing with dedicated music spaces, as well as a 1,000-seat auditorium.
The new facility features an eco-friendly, energy-efficient design.
2. VIOLENT CRIME Several front-page stories carried news of violent crimes that were committed in the area.
In June, Kody Klimek was charged with three counts of murder in the stabbing death of Phillip Alstadt. His court case continues.
Also in June, Jacob Dale was charged with three counts of criminal vehicular homicide in the death of 19-year-old Landon Lien, who died in a rollover crash on Memorial Day weekend. His court case continues.
Also in June, Mario Hutchinson was convicted in a 2012 stabbing that caused serious injuries. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
In December, Vanessa Zephier was charged with second-degree assault in connection with a stabbing that took place at a rural Nelson home.
On the next day, Joshua Baumann was arrested and charged with first degree assault after a fight escalated into a stabbing in an Alexandria parking lot.
3. BAD FIRES 2013 will be remembered for several big fires that damaged businesses and homes.
In January, a fire swept through Wade’s Automotive and Repair in Miltona. Firefighters from Miltona, Parkers Prairie and Carlos battled the smoky blaze for about five hours.
Later that month, fire destroyed Bruce and Nurys Smith’s home in Millerville. They also lost a dog and cat.
In March, fire destroyed Jack Baumann’s house on Hazel Hill Road near Alexandria and also killed three dogs.
On August 2, a fire shut down Blue Smoke BBQ just a couple of months after it opened along 3rd Avenue East in Alexandria. It caused about $250,000 in damage.
Ten days later, firefighters from Carlos, Alexandria and Miltona battled a fire that destroyed the lake home of Dr. Steven Longbotham and Dr. Sandra Johnson, south of the Frenchman Cove Townhomes on Lake L’Homme Dieu.
In October, a kitchen grease fire burned a family out of their home at the Oak Knoll Apartments.
The year also ended on a fiery note: Darrell and Judy Williams had to be taken to the hospital when their home at 8255 County Road 8 NW, Garfield caught fire on Christmas Eve morning.
4. ALEXANDRIA SENIOR CENTER’S UPS AND DOWNS A story published last January seemed kind of ho-hum: The Alexandria Senior Center needed new members because it was facing financial challenges.
The story picked up steam when accusations started flying against the center’s director, Ann Esterberg. Some members said she wasn’t doing enough to keep seniors engaged in the center and that her leadership style was abrasive.
At a June meeting, one senior center board member, Paul Anderson, called for Esterberg to resign. She refused, saying she was doing her job.
Nutritional Services Inc., which had been providing meals at the center, also had conflicts with Esterberg and its lease agreement with the center. It decided to move the meal program to Viking Towers last September.
The controversy triggered several letters to the editor and commentaries.
In December, members of the senior center elected a new board that includes President Kathryn LeBrasseur, Vice President Bob Hudspeth, Secretary Helen Glade and Treasurer Carol Strong.
As a cost cutting move, the board decided to lay off Esterberg and rely on board members and volunteers to lead the center.
It’s also planning fundraisers, seeking grant applications, encouraging people to join the center, and meeting with groups that are interested in using the center for programming that would be beneficial to senior citizens and their families.
5. LOCAL CONNECTIONS TO NATIONAL NEWS Two big national news stories ended up having local connections to Douglas County.
Four local women were competing at the Boston Marathon in April when two bombs exploded near the finish line. Jeanne Barlage, Sabrina Hoppe, Julie Miller and Shawn Severson were all OK but experienced the chaos and uncertainty that unfolded that day.
Three people were killed and more than 140 were injured in the explosions. The newspaper put a story online within an hour after the news broke, informing readers that the women, all friends, were all right. A follow-up story was also published in the Sports section, where the women recalled their experiences.
In October, a story that had been making national headlines for months, the partial shutdown of the federal government, took a new turn when negotiations led to a breakthrough and government employees returned to work.
As it turned out, the very first group to tour the Lincoln Memorial was none other than a group of students from Discovery Middle School. The 31 students and their eight chaperones arrived in Washington, D.C., the previous day when there was a sliver of hope the shutdown would end.
As the only group at the Lincoln Memorial when it reopened, they grabbed nationwide media attention. A photographer from the New York Times took their photo and they were featured on the USA Today website, Washington Post, Star Tribune, KARE-11 TV, the Today Show and a Japanese news program.
6. WEIRD WEATHER Mother Nature has a way of being unpredictable every year but she tossed a variety of curve balls at Douglas County residents in 2013.
It started on January 19, when the temperature took a nosedive from a balmy 35 degrees to 4 below in a matter of hours. It was compounded by 56-mile-per-hour winds. The following Monday, temperatures dropped to 16 below zero, making it the harshest cold snap in a couple of years.
In February, a foot of snow closed roads and schools and was the first of several significant snowfalls. Another six inches of snow in March collapsed the ceiling at the Alexandria Area Arts Association.
The onslaught continued for weeks as the season became known as the winter that wouldn’t go away. Another half-foot of snow on March 18, accompanied by 50-mile-per-hour winds closed schools again. March was also unseasonably cold, dropping below zero four times in the month.
The long, cold winter raised concerns that the lakes wouldn’t be free of ice before the fishing opener. The ice finally retreated on May 13, just two days shy of the all-time record.
The summer also brought some bad weather. Severe thunderstorms on June 20-21 caused power outages, tree damage and flooding throughout the area.
In August, a sweltering heat wave descended, bringing seven 90-plus days of heat, making it the hottest August in a decade.
Winter also struck early. In the first week of December, residents shivered through a double blast of 10 inches of snow and wind chills of 35 below.
7. ZEBRA INVASION CONTINUES Zebra mussels didn’t create the same kind of buzz as in previous years, but they still were the subject of five front page stories in 2013.
The aquatic invasive species was discovered on Lake Mary and Maple Lake this past summer.
Other stories focused on a biopesticide, Zequanox, that showed some success in killing the zebra mussels; and a do-it-yourself way of detecting whether mussels are in your lake by lowering a PVC pipe on a string into the water.
8. GOODBYES 2013 ushered in a variety of goodbyes.
Longtime City Administrator Jim Taddei, who logged 35 years of service with the city, and long-time liquor store manager Carol Lanigan both retired this past September. An open house was held at City Hall in their honor.
Sister Patrice Kiefer also retired after five decades of service to the Our Lady of Mercy Hospital and the Douglas County Hospital, both in Alexandria. In her role as human resources director, she was described as the heart of the hospital.
Patrons of the Douglas County Library were in numb shock when they had to bid goodbye to Karen Simmons, who worked at the library for 25 years and served as director since 2009. She died in a foggy, two-vehicle crash near Glenwood on February 25.
News also broke in 2013 that Kevin Kopischke will be stepping down as president of the Alexandria Community and Technical College. He is retiring in July 2014 after serving as president since 2004 and vice president from 1991 to 2004.
Local residents are also still in the process of saying goodbye to Jefferson High School. It will close for good at the end of this school year. Students will be going to the new Alexandria Area High School near 50th Avenue. The newspaper published a front-page story on October 16, “Sun sets on Citizens Field,” that recalled historic football games that were played at JHS over its 42 seasons.
Residents in Hoffman also bid a tearful goodbye to its nursing home, Good Samaritan Society. The rehabilitation and skilled care facility closed in December. The administrator cited a decline in patients and lagging state reimbursement rates as reasons for the shut-down.
9. ROAD WORK Drivers saw plenty of traffic cones and construction signs in 2013. It was a busy year for roadwork.
Interstate 94 was buzzing with activity all summer long as crews put up huge towers and power lines as part of the CapX 2020 project.
To get the job done, workers were lifted over the transmission lines by helicopter. Drivers were asked to concentrate on the road and not the work, which also included explosions as crews fused the new lines in place.
The 345 kilovolt line between Fargo and St. Cloud is designed to improve electrical reliability in the southern Red River Valley and the Fargo, Alexandria and St. Cloud areas.
The powerline work wasn’t the only activity on I-94. Crews also installed cable barrier along a 10-mile stretch from mile post 96 to mile post 106.
Workers also replaced signs along I-94 and reconstructed the Highway 78 bridge over the freeway west of Evansville.
Another big undertaking this past summer was the reconstruction of Broadway side streets, from 4th Avenue to 7th Avenue. Workers replaced aging water and sewer lines and resurfaced those streets between Fillmore and Broadway.
The project fell behind schedule, but workers also reconstructed two city parking lots – the Coldwell Banker lot on 7th Avenue East and the Traveler’s Inn lot between 5th and 6th Avenue East.
The side streets and parking lot improvements were a prelude to a much bigger project – complete reconstruction of Broadway between 3rd and 8th Avenue in 2014. That project will likely make the “top 10” story list next year.
10. DRUG CRIMES Local authorities have been warning of escalating drug crimes involving prescription drugs and methamphetamine and 2013 fit their forecasts.
Several drug-related arrests, convictions and sentencings made front-page headlines throughout the year.
In February, three suspects were arrested in a prescription drug sting. Also that month, a Miltona man convicted of selling meth was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison.
In March, another convicted meth dealer received a sixmonth prison term, and in May, an Alexandria man was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for meth-related crimes.
In November, 10 suspects were arrested as part of West Central Minnesota Drug Task Force’s “Operation Fall Clean-up.” Five of them were charged with selling meth.
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Echo Press Reporter Amy Chaffins contributed to this story.