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2009: A year for perils and progress

Some may look back at 2009 and say, "Good riddance!"

The year brought a variety of perils for Douglas County - an economic downturn, job cuts, zebra mussels, the H1N1 flu outbreak, disruptive snowstorms, fatal motor vehicle crashes and a sharp division between city and county leaders over sharing law enforcement space.

Still, there were bright moments in 2009 - signs of a rebounding economy; new public buildings opening their doors - including a new elementary school; the culmination of the dream to build a YMCA in Alexandria; efforts to make roads safer, such as a four-way stop at Carlos Corners and new traffic lights on Highway 27/Interstate 94; the Douglas County Hospital being named in the top 100 in the nation; and local sports teams that shined, including the Parkers Prairie girls volleyball team's first-ever appearance in the state tournament.

The newspaper's editorial staff looked back on all the stories from 2009 and put together the following "top 10" list of what defined the year:

1. The economy

Douglas County wasn't immune to what was happening in the state and the nation when it came to job losses, foreclosures, cutbacks and closings.

The state of the economy pervaded many local stories in 2009. Local governments, faced with cuts the state made to deal with its own budget woes, created painful budgeting decisions. Alexandria held back on hiring two police officers, delayed purchasing equipment, tightened health care costs and cut budget items, such as street paving.

Local businesses were also impacted by the economy.

Juno Inc., an injection molding manufacturing company that had been operating in Alexandria since 1964, closed its doors in April. Its 18 employees were offered relocation options.

In May, Verizon Wireless shut down its customer service operations in Alexandria and the 65 affected workers were encouraged to apply at other Verizon locations.

The Bug-A-Boo Bay restaurant closed at the end of 2009 after a nine-year run in Alexandria. During the summer months, it provided 130 jobs. Owner Dave Bistodeau listed the faltering economy as one of the reasons.

Alexandria's unemployment rate bottomed out to 12.4 percent last February and March - the highest percentage in at least 10 years.

As reported in a February 2009 story, the lack of businesses forced some manufacturers to cut back production and in some cases, workers. Alexandria Extrusion, for instance, laid off 25 workers and Alexandria Pro-Fab cut 60 jobs.

Many local business leaders, however, remained optimistic about the future and the economy's ability to bounce back. Many expect a turnaround in 2010.

2. Joint law enforcement center split

Back when Douglas County was planning its new jail, the goal was to build a joint law enforcement center next to it that would house the county sheriff's office and the city's police department, along with dispatching.

Things didn't go as planned and the debate swirling around the facility's size, cost and need fueled many top stories in 2009.

The big hang-up with the project was the expense, estimated at nearly $12 million, which would have been split between the county ($6.3 million) and the city ($5.6 million).

At a Douglas County Board meeting in September, a divided board voted 3-2 to not move forward with the project. Commissioner Jerry Johnson, noting the difficult economy, said that taxpayers were already carrying enough of a burden. Bev Bales agreed, saying the timing of the project wasn't right. Norm Salto said the county simply didn't have the money to do the project right now.

The commissioners who favored proceeding with the project said it will only cost the county more money down the road and by dropping out now, it would jeopardize having a more cost-efficient, shared facility with the city.

The city, meanwhile, is continuing to pursue the project on its own. City leaders say that the police department's current space inside the county-owned LEC poses several problems - no secured storage space for evidence, no room to conduct interviews with the public, no room for future growth and the building itself is in poor condition.

In November, the council voted to move ahead with the schematic design of a stand-alone police department, which would be built on city land near the new county jail that's under construction on 3rd Avenue West. Several more steps must be taken, including calling for and accepting bids, for the police project to proceed.

The cost of the police department facility was trimmed from $5.6 million to $4.8 million.

3. Zebra mussels

Zebra mussels were first discovered on Lake L'Homme Dieu in June of this year. Since that time, they have been found in two other lakes - Geneva and Carlos.

Because of the infestation of this aquatic invasive species, four more Douglas County lakes were put on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) infested waters list, including lakes Jessie, Victoria, Darling and Alvin.

The DNR has been working diligently on this problem and has asked for the public's help as well. When zebra mussels are found in any of the area lakes, the public is supposed to contact the DNR.

Students in John Esbjornsson's environmental science class at Jefferson High School also got involved by taking on zebra mussels as a class project. They have made signs, developed a website, designed business cards with information about zebra mussels and much more to try and help spread the word about this invasive species.

The Douglas County Lakes Association formed a zebra mussel committee and asked members of other area lake associations to join. The committee worked on planning and preparing a position paper to be presented to the DNR. The paper was supposed to sum up the lake associations' position on what the DNR should be doing to combat the infestation of this type of exotic species in Douglas County lakes.

At the beginning of December, Doug Jensen from Minnesota See Grant spoke to a group of residents, basically stating that there is life after a zebra mussel invasion and that the public needs to work together to keep the spread to a minimum.

4. CLRSD shut down

After spending more than five years planning and millions of dollars, the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District (CLRSD) - a controversial sewer project in the lakes area - was shut down.

And even though it was dissolved earlier this year, it continued to affect those living in the townships that were once part of the district. The townships included Brandon, Carlos, LaGrand, Leaf Valley, Miltona and Moe.

Prior to its disbanding, CLRSD racked up roughly $3.4 million in debt, which needed to be paid by November 1 of this year. Each township had to make a decision as to how the money was going to be repaid. Most of them took out bonds to pay for their share of the debt and then put the debt from the bond back on township residents or at least those who live in areas that would have been serviced by CLRSD.

5. H1N1 flu virus

At the end of last year and the beginning of this year, the public was all abuzz about a new strain of influenza. At first, people called it the swine flu, but quickly changed its name to H1N1 - the technical strain of influenza.

Health officials have stressed eating pork is safe and that people can't get H1N1 from eating pork. The virus does not even come from pigs. It is a respiratory illness, not a food-borne illness.

H1N1 continued to be in the news throughout the year because of new cases being reported throughout the state and in some cases, the deaths that occurred because of it.

Because of its potential severity and widespread outbreak, Minnesota FluLine was launched, which is a 24-hour toll-free flu help line that residents can call with questions. The number for Minnsota FluLine is 1-866-259-4655.

In addition, a vaccine was developed for the H1N1 strain of influenza. Local public health officials predicted that by the end of the year, about half of the state's population will more than likely be immunized against the H1N1 flu virus.

Because of a vaccination shortage, there was a period of time where only certain groups of people could get the vaccine. Now, however, it has been opened up and anyone can receive the H1N1 flu vaccine.

6. County Road 42

Work on the controversial County Road 42/11/34 project began in late April, early May. Although there were many people excited about this project, there were several that were against it.

Despite which side of the fence people were on, the project began and progressed nicely throughout the summer.

Phase one of the project consisted of three different stages.

The first stage of the project started at the intersection of County Road 42 and South L'Homme Dieu Drive and ended at County Road 42 at Ross Garden NW. The section of road between South L'Homme Dieu Drive and Browns Point Road NW was also completed during stage one.

Stage two was from the intersection of County Road 42 and Ross Garden NW to the Carlos/Darling Bridge, right before the County Road 11/34 split.

Stage three consisted of the section of County Road 42 at the Indian Mounds (formerly the intersection where Timberdoodle gift shop was located) to Blakes by the Lakes, which is about one-quarter mile northeast of the County Road 11/42 intersection.

Phase one work was completed in August. In 2010 and 2011, work will continue with phase two and phase three of the overall project.

7. Douglas County Jail

In July, the ground was broken on a project that has been more than five years in the making - a new Douglas County jail.

The new $12.9 million jail, located at its new site along 3rd Avenue West (where Douglas County Public Works used to be), should open sometime this year.

Back in March, the Douglas County Board sold bonds in the amount of $12.9 million, plus the cost to issue the bonds, which was a savings of nearly $3 million from the final projected cost of $15.76 million.

As for the existing jail site, the county is not yet sure what will happen with the jail annex, which is located in the old Central School on 7th Avenue East between Douglas and Elm Streets. It is expected that it will be refurbished and put to use for county purposes.

The main jail, which is located between 7th and 8th Streets on Elm Street, will also be refurbished and most likely used for programming for the inmates, as well as holding areas for courts.

8. YMCA and other groundbreakings

On April 22, the dream to build a new YMCA in Alexandria became reality with a groundbreaking ceremony. At the event, YMCA leaders gave praise to people in the community who were instrumental in the project, from Wally and Betty Karl, the couple who sold the land where the facility is being built, to the late Maynard "Bud" Peterson, who donated $1.5 million to the new YMCA in honor of his wife, Sylvia, who died in 2003.

The YMCA project involved well over 1,200 people and nearly $9 million was raised.

The 56,000-square-foot facility along County Road 82 is still under construction and is expected to open in June.

The YMCA wasn't the only major project to make an impact in 2009.

Other major building projects included the new Alexandria Veterans Administration clinic, Douglas County Public Works, the expansion of the Douglas County Hospital, the Alexandria Technical College's law enforcement addition, the jail (detailed in another top 10 listing) and the opening of the new Woodland Elementary School.

9. Fatal crashes

The lives of at least 11 local residents or former residents came to a sudden end in motor vehicle crashes and other tragic accidents in 2009.

On March 15, James Lee Blanchette Jr. of Alexandria, formerly of Florissant, Colorado died in a one-vehicle rollover on County Road 82 west of Brandon.

On April 11, Jeremy Baker of Osakis died in a one-vehicle rollover. The accident happened in Gordon Township, about a mile and a half south of Todd County Road 10.

William Anton Rotz of Millerville died on Monday, May 18 - five days after he was seriously injured in a one-vehicle rollover. It happened on County Road 7 south of the intersection with County Road 5.

On May 20, former Alexandria resident Dennis Dumm, a 1996 Jefferson High School graduate, died in a bicycle crash in the Twin Cities.

On May 22, Dustin Lee Johnson of Alexandria died in a motorcycle crash in south Alexandria when he lost control on a curve on Minnesota Street and struck a fire hydrant.

On June 26, Thomas E. Turner was killed after his motorcycle struck a deer and rolled southwest of Wadena. The accident occurred on Highway 210, two miles east of Highway 29.

On July 13, Mark David Hagstrom of Garfield died after his motorcycle collided with a car near Garfield. The crash happened near the intersection of County Roads 40 and 56 in Ida Township.

On July 31, former Alexandrian, Kimberly (Skoglund) Emmert, a 1978 graduate of Jefferson High School, was struck and killed by a man backing out of his driveway in Brooklyn Park. Emmert was pushing her 1-year-old grandson in a stroller when she was struck. The baby wasn't injured.

On August 9, former Alexandria resident Jason O'Malley was killed in a hit-and-run accident with a suspected drunk driver while driving his motorcycle in Polk County, Wisconsin.

Two water-related tragedies also happened: Scott Patrick Robertson, an owner of Automaxx in Alexandria, drowned near a dock on Little Pine Lake near Perham on June 12; and Charles Eric Thomas of Johnstown, Colorado died in a tubing accident on Pocket Lake on August 6.

10. Big snowfalls

Granted, they don't stack up against the monster blizzards that used to grind the city to a halt, but a couple of big snowfalls were memorable in 2009.

Voters were all set to cast their ballots in township elections on March 10, but a blizzard changed their plans, postponing 19 of the 20 township elections in Douglas County. Eight inches of snow fell that day.

Christmas 2009 was a very white one in Douglas County. Snow began falling on December 23 when a little over a half-inch of flakes, 0.6 inches, accumulated.

Christmas Eve brought another 10.5 inches, followed by 4.5 inches on Christmas Day and another two inches on December 26.

All totaled, Alexandria received 17.6 inches of snow during the four-day period.

The snow and poor road conditions put the kibosh on travel plans over the holiday.