COVID-19 and Alexandria's downtown fire top list of 2020's biggest stories

Through it all, there were shining moments of kindness, generosity and unity.

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In April, Public Works Director Bill Thoennes used a bucket truck to put a mask on Big Ole in Alexandria. The event was organized by city staff. "Our message is simple — we are masking up for safety," said Sara Stadtherr, communications coordinator for the city. "Safety of our community, safety of those around us, ourselves and for our families." (Echo Press file photo)

The year 2020 will be most remembered for another set of numbers – COVID-19.

Back on March 6, the Echo Press ran its first front-page story about the virus, with the headline “Local officials urge coronavirus steps.”

The urging never stopped. After that, a total of 131 front-page stories about the disease appeared in the newspaper.

The coronavirus turned people’s lives upside down, canceled long-time events, shook up school routines, upset wedding plans, prevented nursing home visits, and stopped people from dining out, gathering with friends, hitting the bars, attending funerals or going to church.

Almost every fabric of everyday life was unknitted because of the disease.


And the saddest part of it all were the deaths. As of Monday, Dec. 28, COVID-19 claimed 57 lives in Douglas County. Another 3,448 people were diagnosed with the disease.

Phrases that the general public had never heard before – mask mandates, social distancing, Zoom meetings, self-quarantines, distance learning, essential workers – became commonplace.

It didn’t take long for the response to the pandemic to become politicized. It touched off heated debate about wearing masks, how far the government should go in trying to slow the spread, and which businesses should be closed and for how long.

Through it all, there were shining moments of kindness, generosity and unity. A local group formed, Helping Hands of Alexandria , that drew the attention of the governor and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, for all its volunteer work in making masks, running errands for shut-ins, and connecting resources to the people who needed it most.

Other support groups stepped up their efforts – the United Way, the Douglas County Outreach Food Shelf, the Jingle Bells Foundation and more. Local government leaders, including the Douglas County Board and Alexandria City Council, funneled state and federal aid to businesses, nonprofits and other local entities that were struggling to survive during the pandemic.

As the year drew to close, a new sense of hope emerged – vaccines. Front-line workers – doctors, nurses and health care workers – will receive them first, and eventually all adults should have access to the vaccines sometime in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some health leaders say this could happen by June.

Until then, health experts are advising people to practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings, wear a mask and stay home if they are feeling sick.

Time will tell whether 2021 will bring us to the “other side” of COVID-19 – and how many headlines the virus will cause in the coming year.


Here’s a list of other top stories of 2020 as determined by the Echo Press editorial team:

A devastating downtown fire

When Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow got the page at 4:34 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25 and arrived at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, he knew the fire was going to be bad.

The blaze ended up tearing through four buildings on the 500 block of Broadway, in the heart of downtown Alexandria. About 20 residents were displaced and the community lost six businesses – Raapers Eatery and Ale, RM Tattoo, Charlie’s Bazaar, Little Darlings Children’s Boutique, Hidden Treasures Collectibles and Comics, and Achieve Wellness Chiropractic Center.

A total of six departments and about 100 firefighters battled the stubborn blaze for nearly 12 hours. This included departments from Alexandria, Osakis, Carlos, Forada, Garfield and Long Prairie.

When Karrow was interviewed days after the fire, he said it was amazing to watch everyone come together.

“There was such a connection with all the departments,” he said. “There were good conversations. It was these guys doing this while those guys were doing that. It was a team effort and just unexplainable to watch.”

The apartment buildings above the burning businesses were evacuated, displacing residents who lived there. They were taken to the Alexandria Fire Station where the Red Cross and several volunteers assisted them.

No injuries were reported.


The aftermath was complex. Nine insurance companies and about 40 investigators sifted through the wreckage, recovered appliances, vents, air conditioning units and other possible sources of the fire, photographed all the items and placed them in storage for forensic study, Karrow said.

The fire is believed to have started on the north wall of the Raapers' kitchen but the cause is unknown, Karrow said.

An election to remember

This wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill election.

First, the campaigning was conducted in the midst of a pandemic when social distancing was encouraged and large gatherings were taboo. There were fewer debates.

Politicians, at every level, also had to adjust their campaign strategies, relying less on the tried-and-true door knocking method.

Then there was the fiery discord and bitter divisions between the supporters of President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden. Douglas County wasn’t immune to the heat. There was more than the usual amount of presidential campaign signs that were stolen or vandalized.

Local races also added a good dose of interest to the election. Four candidates filed to be Alexandria’s next mayor after long-time incumbent Sara Carlson decided to let someone else take the reigns. This triggered the first mayoral primary in the city’s history.

The two winners who advanced to the November election were both serving on the council – Bobbie Osterberg and Todd Jensen. A rift developed after a social media group, The Truth About Todd, accused Jensen of showing erratic and angry behavior toward local residents and business owners during encounters that took place away from council meetings. Jensen, meanwhile, accused Osterberg and Carlson of interfering in the election and allowing the group to talk during the public comment portion of meetings.


The full council decided to address the allegations against Jensen by questioning him about it during a work session, but Jensen ended up walking out of the meeting, calling it a “circus sideshow.” The council later voted 4-0 to censure Jenson for violating the city’s code of ethics.

Osterberg later won the election with 64% of the vote.

In the partisan races, Douglas County supported Republican candidates by lopsided margins, giving Trump 65% of the votes to Biden’s 33%. It marked the 11th straight presidential election that the county has supported a Repbulican candidate.

As in the last two elections, no DFL candidate was able to carry Douglas County. Even Congressman Collin Peterson, who has served Minnesota's 7th District for 30 years, was soundly defeated, getting just 36% of the vote to Republican challenger Michelle Fischbach's 58%.

Republican legislators representing Douglas County rode to easy victories – Reps. Mary Franson, Paul Anderson and Jeff Backer, and Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Torrey Westrom.

Another big highlight of the election: A total of 24,256 residents out of the county’s 26,444 registered voters completed mail-in ballots or went to the polls, an impressive turnout of 91.7%.

New park salutes veterans

A new Veterans Memorial Park opened at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Broadway in Alexandria on June 17, culminating years of planning, fundraising, design work and coordination between the city and veteran leaders.

Its impact was immediate and stirring. On the day it opened, one of the park’s committee members, Jim Conn, glimpsed a woman, kneeling and weeping as she touched a veteran’s name engraved in stone.


“It was a sacred moment for me, revealing that our new park has become a powerful force of connectivity, not just for veterans but also for generations of Alexandrians that have preceded us,” Conn said in an interview at the time. “It’s a memorial for the ages.”

The park includes the names of 7,000 veterans and serves as a reminder that no veteran should be forgotten.

Ownership of the monoliths, remembrance walls and other property in the park, estimated at

nearly $1.5 million, was officially transferred to the city and approved by the Alexandria City Council.

The park is situated upon a parcel of land previously known as “Legion Park.” It includes 28 black granite monoliths quarried from the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota and contains the engraved names of veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from July 4, 1776 to the present.

A majority of the veterans honored have connections to Douglas County.

There are four distinct war eras within the park — the Early War Era (1776-1917), Global War Era (1917-1950), Cold War Era (1950-1990) and Gulf War Era (1990 to present).

A bold new look at Third and Broadway

The busy corner of Alexandria’s Broadway and Third Avenue is undergoing a transformation.


In November, the excavating work on a massive $25 million development, “The Rune,” drew to a close for the year, providing just a hint of what the project will look like when it’s completed in 2022.

Huge cranes installed sheet piles at the site to provide temporary support for excavation. Now there won’t be much activity until spring, according to Ted Thompson, senior project manager for CI Construction in Alexandria that’s in charge of the work.

The developer is GoodNeighbor Properties LLC.

This past summer, vacant buildings that last housed Bello Cucina restaurant and Blue Collar Bob’s were demolished to make room for the development.

The new five-story complex will consist of commercial and retail space, including a new restaurant — Mill Valley Kitchen, which is scheduled to open in 2022. It will also include 72 market-rate apartments, ranging from studios to one- and two-bedroom units.

The development includes 35,426 square feet of commercial space and 153 underground parking stalls.

Four stories will be above ground on the Broadway side and three stories above ground on the Hawthorne Street side. The first floor, which will be at ground level on Broadway and have underground parking on the Hawthorne side, will be the commercial level.

In November, the Alexandria City Council agreed to revise a tax increment finance agreement with GoodNeighbor Properties, extending the completion date of the project to Dec. 31, 2022.

Other top stories

Other notable stories from 2020:

Protests hit home (George Floyd, Black Lives Matter).

Manslaughter case for the beating death of Steven “Beaver” Hlinsky; Jacob Larson found guilty.

Business expansions – SunOpta, Runestone Community Center, Douglas Machine.

Comings and goings – Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels retires and Scott Kent takes over; Alexandria School Superintendent Julie Critz steps down and Rick Sansted steps in; Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson retires and Bobbie Osterberg wins election.

Tragedies – pontoon drowning, fatal bicycle crash, fatal dump truck crash and three other fatal crashes in the county.

Al Edenloff is the editor of the twice-weekly Echo Press. He started his journalism career when he was in 10th grade, writing football and basketball stories for the Parkers Prairie Independent.
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