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Jeremy Christman of Scenic Sign in St. Cloud hangs a new sign June 18, 2007, near the entrance to MinnWest Technology campus in Willmar. The campus has seen many changes since its inception in 1912 as the Willmar Hospital Farm. Today, a private technology business calls the campus home. Tribune file photo by Bill Zimmer

2000-2009: The decade that was

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If there were an iconic symbol for the Decade of the Aughts, what would it be -- a wind turbine? Or maybe a BlackBerry, a military uniform or an unemployment check.

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Ten years ago we were talking about Y2K. We'd never heard of YouTube or WiFi. Local food was anything you didn't buy out of town. Terrorism and a crashing economy were threats that stayed mostly in the back of our minds.

Fast-forward to the end of 2009 and an entirely new landscape.

More than anything, the first decade of the 21st century was a time of change and uncertainty. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, world events hit home hard in west central Minnesota as we watched the Twin Towers, in the heart of Manhattan half a continent away, burn and collapse.

"An incredible tragedy" is how Willmar Mayor Les Heitke described the shocking terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. "It's a day in which history has changed."

The nation went to war and troops went overseas, first to Afghanistan and then, in 2003, to Iraq. Countless local military families said goodbye to each other and waited and hoped for a safe return.

For some, that day never came, and communities shared the pain of seeing a fallen soldier brought home.

The most recent homecoming: July 23, 2009, when residents of Olivia and Bird Island lined the streets as the body of 20-year-old James Wertish, a specialist with the Minnesota National Guard who was killed in Iraq, arrived in his hometown for his funeral and burial.

Pat O'Neill, one of his childhood catechism teachers, was there to pay her respects. "We raise these kids," she said. "We raise them, and we bury them."

Like a bookend to a difficult decade, the U.S. was struggling to emerge from a recession -- the worst downturn in the economy since before World War II -- as the Aughts drew to a close.

Although west central Minnesota was spared the worst of the impact, few were immune to the ripple effects of pay freezes, layoffs and a sharp drop in consumer spending. Home foreclosures were up. Local charities saw their resources stretched as the needs grew.

"Our clients are more stressed than ever. You can hear that urgency in their tone of voice," said Joan Macik, executive director of Heartland Community Action Agency, which works to help low-income families become self-sufficient.

Local government faced shrinking funds and multiple rounds of budget cuts. Area school districts went repeatedly to the voters with levy referendums seeking more money for education.

Even the weather -- tornadoes, flood, drought -- was turbulent.

But if the decade was a time of great stress, it also was a time for moving forward.

Huge change came to the prairie in the form of renewable energy. Ethanol production facilities -- Bushmills near Atwater, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson -- sprang up. Fibrominn, another Benson enterprise, began producing electricity from turkey manure.

The tall silhouettes of wind turbines sprouted across the landscape, bringing the promise of energy generated by the wind.

"We're trying to be in the forefront," said Mike Gomm, general manager of Willmar Municipal Utilities, which built a pair of 292-foot turbines in 2009 that captured national attention.

It was a decade of farewells and new beginnings. We said goodbye to the Willmar Regional Treatment Center and to old Highway 23 through Spicer, and hello to the innovative MinnWest Technology Campus and a brand-new, and long-awaited, Highway 23.

A mid-decade building boom brought new retail development to Willmar. The city opened a new airport, started construction of a new multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment plant and earned designation as an All-America City.

The region's hospitals experienced a building boom of their own. Additions and renovations transformed hospitals in Benson, in Glenwood, Litchfield, Montevideo and Willmar.

There was a regional renaissance in the arts, with new venues for theater, music and the visual arts. Local food, iPods and cell phones became part of our daily lives and vocabulary.

So who was the person of the decade? The title goes not to a person but to an entity -- the Internet. As the Aughts drew to a close, the way we communicate, do business, obtain information and even entertain ourselves was permanently changed by the power of the Web.

"It just offers so many things," said Annie Tepfer, who led a Renville County initiative to increase the use of broadband. "It connects you to the world."

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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