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Year in Review: Avian flu tops the Tribune's biggest stories from 2015

Avian influenza hit west central Minnesota’s poultry producers this year, like a tornado, leaving millions of dead turkeys and chickens, and financial hardships in its wake. (FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

WILLMAR - Like a tornado that suddenly swoops down from the sky and doesn’t leave for months, the avian influenza hit west central Minnesota’s poultry producers this year.

In its wake the deadly virus  - known as highly-pathogenic avian influenza (H5N2) - left behind millions of dead turkeys and chickens, financial troubles for producers and numerous questions about why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Dr. Dale Lauer, who supervises the poultry testing laboratory in Willmar, realized a problem had erupted when a technician reported in early March that 10,000 turkeys had died over the weekend at a Pope County turkey farm.

Four more cases were confirmed in area counties in March and in April 60 flocks were infected with the disease.

By the time the last case was reported on June 5, the disease had hit 108 farms in 23 counties with over nine million birds either killed by the disease or euthanized to prevent the spread of the bird flu.

Kandiyohi County had 40 farms affected, which was highest number recorded in any county in the state.

On Dec. 15 the last of the quarantines that were placed on each of the 108 infected farms was finally lifted.

During the peak of the outbreak, staff from the Willmar poultry lab (which is a University of Minnesota facility that operates in cooperation with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health) was assisted by about 200 support staff the US Department of Agriculture brought to Willmar from around the country.

Willmar became the hub of information and provided a crucial link for producers looking for answers and people to help respond to the massive outbreak.

Industry professionals and state and federal lawmakers also met in Willmar to discuss response strategies and prevention techniques.

Because the Willmar poultry lab isn’t equipped to test for H5N2, samples had to be transported to the U of M diagnostic lab in St. Paul. That lost crucial time in the diagnostic and response process, which started legislative action to expand the lab in Willmar.

Ground was broken Dec. 21 on an $8.5 million expansion and remodelling project at the lab. It’s expected to be completed by August.

Meanwhile, poultry producers have made changes to their barns and employees’ routines to increase biosecurity and have their fingers crossed the virus won’t return next spring.

Willmar’s recall initiative, Steven’s termination tie for 2nd

Ron Christianson  An attempt by a committee of citizens to recall Ward 2 Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson failed after City Attorney Robert Scott concluded Aug. 7 that the committee’s recall petition was invalid because it did not allege facts that, if true, would constitute “malfeasance’’ or “nonfeasance’’ in Christianson’s performance of the duties of his office.

Recall is allowed under the City Charter. Scott said his determination that the recall petition was not valid is subject to appeal to Kandiyohi County District Court.

However, Wayne Nelson, recall committee chairman, said the committee would not challenge Scott’s opinion. Nelson said that regular citizens who hold honest concerns about the integrity of their elected officials are obligated to use legal democratic processes to redress their grievances.

Christianson said the committee’s motives were strictly political, and he said their actions were an abuse of the charter’s recall provisions. Christianson said he knew the recall petition was legally insufficient, and he said the committee, which had a lawyer as one of its members, did not have competent leadership.

Charlene Stevens A 5-3 vote by the Willmar City Council March 16 terminated the contract of City Administrator Charlene Stevens with the city, despite an outpouring of public support for Stevens at a packed house at the council meeting.

A “separation agreement” was approved after the possibility of terminating Stevens surfaced the week before the council meeting. Stevens had been notified by Mayor Marv Calvin that it appeared there was a movement within the council to “separate employment’’ with Stevens. The email said the action could take place at the council meeting and had enough votes to pass. Three council members said they knew nothing about it.

Stevens served Willmar for nearly four years. She is currently serving as administrator for the City of Cottage Grove.

Willmar’s new city administrator, Larry Kruse, formerly administrator with the city of Thief River Falls, attended his first Willmar Council meeting Dec. 21.

Area schools pass referendums is 3rd on the list

Nearly $80 million will be spent on construction and remodeling in area school districts in the near future.

Voters in three area school districts approved bonds issues in referendums in 2015.

In January, Renville County West voters approved a $5.4 million bond issue for the school in Renville. The project includes a gymnasium addition, five classrooms and a dedicated bus drop-off area.

In May, the voters in the Willmar School District voted in favor of a $52.35 million bond issue that will pay for a new elementary schools, new high school gyms and new middle school science rooms, plus remodeling and maintenance.

In November, New London-Spicer voters OK’d a $21.6 million bond issue for an auditorium and gym at the high school and a cafeteria and classrooms at the elementary school.

Benson voters turned down an $18.7 million bond issue in their district in May.

Patty Wetterling talked to the media Dec. 7 following a possible break in her missing son's case (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

No. 4 is a possible break in the Wetterling case

What is believed to be the biggest break in the 26 years since 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted came with the arrest of Danny Heinrich, 52, of Annandale, on child pornography charges in October.

Authorities have not charged him in the unsolved Wetterling abduction, but consider him a “person of interest.’’ DNA matching his was connected to the abduction of Jared Scheierl. While a young boy, Scheierl was abducted in Paynesville by a stranger. It occurred nine months before Wetterling was abducted on a country road near St. Joseph.

New London blogger Joy Baker and her diligence in connecting a series of attempted abductions in the Paynesville area in the late 1980s played a big role in bringing it all to the public’s attention. Baker had researched articles in the Paynesville Press about the attempted abductions and visited with the victims. Baker joined the parents of Jacob Wetterling in hosting a community meeting in Paynesville in early December.

A federal grand jury indicted Heinrich on 25 counts of child pornography on Dec. 16.

Tiger grant rounds out the top 5

There was good news in 2015 for a long-awaited proposal to construct a railroad bypass west of Willmar. The city received word in October that it was awarded a $10 million federal grant through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Kandiyohi County, the city of Willmar and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commissioner are partners in the $48 million project, which will reduce rail traffic through the city and provide a commercial connection to Willmar’s Industrial Park.

Topics of interest

Liv Fuchs serves a beer at Foxhole Brewhouse in downtown Willmar. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

Brewhouses grow in popularity

Relaxing with a group of friends over a pint is becoming even easier with the opening of new craft breweries in the area this past year. Each with their own personality and backstory, they all aim to provide high-quality brews made in small batches and with a lot of passion.

Goat Ridge Brewing Company of New London opened in April 2015 at 17 Central Avenue West and likes to keep things local. Owner Josh Reed gathers his hops for his brew from the family farm north of Games Lake, a place he has always known as Goat Ridge. Flavoring some of his craft beers is locally sourced honey, which fits in perfectly with Goat Ridge’s motto — Beer from Here.

Foxhole Brewhouse of Willmar became the community’s first brewer taproom when the beer started to flow in August. Ryan and Liv Fuchs, which means fox in German, opened the Foxhole in the Historic 313 building at 313 Fourth Street S.W., which used to be a storage space for the Barn Theater. Now it stages a different sort of production.

The brewhouse keeps its menu fresh with a rotating variety of brews using many different ingredients. A few of the more uncommon flavors found in Foxhole’s craft recipes include banana, chocolate, pecans and coffee.

Coming soon is the Talking Waters Brewing Company in Montevideo, with a focus on small batches and a shared love of home brewing. Partners John Skoglund, Nick Patton and Phil Zachman are still building the new brewery and taproom, eyeing a spring 2016 opening.

The trio at Talking Waters wants to experiment with different types of beers and introduce their customers to brews from around the world, almost like taking flights to different locales without having to leave the bar.

Craft and home brewing has become a very popular past-time and taprooms are popping up all over the state. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild has 90 members from across the state. But craft brewers don’t see this as a negative. Instead they work together. To these entrepreneurs it is all about the beer and the more the merrier. Coming in the summer of 2016 will be the Bluenose Gopher Brewery in Granite Falls.

Besides offering a refreshing beverage, all of the new tap rooms want to be a place for people to gather and have a good time. The tap rooms are like community living rooms, where people can enjoy a good drink, listen to music or just chat with friends.

RC Hospital and Clinics opened a new $25 million campus with a grand opening in September in Olivia. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

Regional health care gets a boost

For local health care organizations, it was a year of bricks and mortar. RC Hospital and Clinics celebrated a banner event: the opening of a new $25 million campus in Olivia that brings health care in Renville County to the next level.

Construction started in earnest on the $21 million expansion of Bethesda Pleasant View in Willmar. When the project is completed, it will unite all of Bethesda’s short-term and long-term care on one site in a facility designed to enhance the quality of life for aging adults.

It was a busy year for construction at Rice Memorial Hospital too. The Willmar hospital completed the expansion of its inpatient behavioral health unit, replaced its stand-alone intensive care unit with 10 integrated intensive care beds, and began construction of a new $5.9 million Rice Rehabilitation Center.

Minnesota National Guard’s 682nd Engineering Battalion in Willmar was honored in October. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

Nine-month deployment for Willmar-based battalion

In October, 159 soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard’s 682nd Engineering Battalion left for a nine-month deployment to Kuwait.

The battalion is based in Willmar, but the soldiers hail from 99 communities across the state. The unit was made up of 33 female and 126 male soldiers ranging in age from 19 to 56. For two-thirds of the soldiers, it was their first deployment.

In their official send-off, a convoy of troop carriers and equipment traveled down South First Street lined with people from the community before going to Willmar Senior High Achool for a farewell ceremony.

After a few days with family, the soldiers piled onto buses outside the armory in Willmar and were on their way for training in Texas before heading to Kuwait.

Meadow Star Dairy began operations in rural Pennock in October. (SUBMITTED)

Meadow Star Dairy in operation

The largest dairy farm in the region began operation

Oct. 26 west of Willmar, near the small town of Pennock.

With 8,500 animals housed in a massive barn that covers 20 acres, the Meadow Star Dairy milks 7,000 cows twice a day in a rotary milking parlor that’s big enough for 106 cows to be milked at one time.

Eight semi-tankers full of milk is produced each day and is transported to the First District Association processing facility in Litchfield.

The remaining 1,500 animals are “dry” cows that don’t produce milk prior to calving.

Owned by Riverview LLP of Morris, Meadow Star Dairy includes feed storage to house tons of silage and hay, lagoons that can hold 90 million gallons of liquid manure and three houses for some of the 50 employees that work at the farm.

Guy Lindblom pulls leaves from mature marijuana plants. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

Medical marijuana battles

The debate over medical marijuana may have played out in the halls of the state Capitol, but some of the most important, real-life stories behind its eventual legalization belonged to residents in west central Minnesota.

Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of two medical cannabis producers in the state, announced in December it had cultivated a new strain that delivers a higher content of the non-intoxicating cannabidiol than any other. The company is calling its strain the Katelyn Faith strain. It is in memory of Katelyn Faith Pauling, the 8-year-old daughter of Kristy and Jeremy Pauling of Montevideo. She died in March following her struggles with Batten disease, a neurological disease.

The Paulings brought their daughter to the Capitol and worked for the legalization of medical cannabis in the hope it would help their daughter and others.

A Madison mother’s desire to help her son suffering the effects of the traumatic brain injury he received when struck by a baseball brought the debate over medical marijuana to a national audience. Lac qui Parle County charged Angela Brown with child endangerment in 2014 for giving her son a tincture of cannabis oil she had obtained legally in Colorado for his treatment.

She fought the charges and was featured on national television and in major media outlets throughout the state and country.

As part of an agreement, the charges were formally dismissed this year.

Leadership positions change

A number of faces have changed in prominent positions in Willmar over the course of the past year, including two new law enforcement officers of the four-legged kind.

Dokken resigns council seat; Mueske elected

Longtime Ward 4 Willmar City Council member Jim Dokken resigned July 22 and Ridgewater College instructor Shawn Mueske was elected in a special election Nov. 10 to fill Dokken’s unexpired term. Mueske defeated Tom Butterfield for the Ward 4 council seat.

Dokken had served on the council since Jan. 11, 1999.

ACMC names Firkins Smith president and CEO

Cindy Firkins Smith Affiliated Community Medical Centers announced in July that Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith was named the new president and chief executive officer. Smith will assume her duties in January 2016, ACMC announced. She replaces Dr. Ronald Holmgren, who had been president and CEO of the regional multi-specialty health system for 15 years. He plans to retire at the end of December.

Smith, of Spicer, has practiced dermatology and dermatologic surgery at ACMC for 25 years, and is also a clinical professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Dermatology. In 2014 Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to the Blue Ribbon Commission on the University of Minnesota Medical School. She has served as president of the Minnesota Medical Association, and currently serves as an alternate delegate for the American Medical Association.

Kjergaard retires; Holm superintendent

Willmar Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard retired June 30 near the end of a 38-year career in education. Kjergaard was a superintendent for 27 years, serving in a half dozen districts including seven years as superintendent of Willmar Public Schools.

Jeff Holm, formerly assistant superintendent in the Minot, North Dakota, Public Schools, was appointed Willmar Schools superintendent by the School Board and began his duties July 1.

Renquist retires as EDC executive director

Steve Renquist Steve Renquist, who served as executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, retired in July but said he would continue in the job until a replacement is hired.

After 11 years as EDC head, he’s been a familiar figure around Kandiyohi County — speaking, attending meetings, coaxing, encouraging and brokering deals, all in the name of boosting the county’s economy.

The search for a new director is taking a little longer than expected, but the quantity and quality of the candidates who have applied for the job has the governing board very excited. The EDC Joint Powers Board is now scheduled to interview as many as six candidates in early January. The timeline calls for an offer to be made to the top candidate by mid-January with a projected start time of Jan. 25 to Feb. 25.

Willmar hires a new city administrator

The Willmar City Council voted March 16 to separate employment of City Administrator Charlene Stevens with the city. Stevens served Willmar for nearly four years. She is currently serving as administrator for the City of Cottage Grove.

Willmar’s new city administrator, Larry Kruse, formerly administrator with the City of Thief River Falls, attended his first Willmar Council meeting Dec. 21.

Cooper and Axel joined local law enforcement forces in June. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

Canine officers begin their duties

At only 17 months of age, local canine officers Axel and Cooper began their duties with local law enforcement agencies in June. That was after first traveling from Slovakia to their Kandiyohi County homes and completing several months of field training.

Willmar Police Department Officer Chris Flatten is Axel’s handler and Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Swanson is Cooper’s handler.

The canine officers, male German Shepherds with a slight mix of Belgian Malinois, arrived in Kandiyohi County in December 2014, completed four weeks of narcotics training and then completed 11 weeks of patrol dog training June 12.

Top wctrib.com headlines

1. The death of former Willmar businessman Bill Graves in a plane crash was the top read news headline on wctrib.com in 2015 with more than 26,000 page views. (A page view is recorded when a person visits the page where the story is posted.)

Graves, 52, of Flower Mound, Texas, died

Feb. 4 in a plane crash in southern Argyle, Texas.

He was a Domino’s Pizza franchisee whose business grew from one store in Willmar to 100 stores in nine states. Graves and his family had moved to Texas in 2013.

Graves was a pilot and had flown himself to Willmar on business earlier that week, and was flying from Willmar back home when the crash occurred.

2 & 7. Two headlines about a fatal crash west of Pennock on U.S. Highway 12 were the second and seventh of the top-read news headlines on the website. One person was killed and one seriously injured in the Jan. 2 crash that forced the temporary closure of the highway. A Graceville man was killed, and a Kandiyohi truck driver was injured in the head-on crash. The initial story and video garnered more than 23,000 page views.

3 & 8. Two headlines from a fight and subsequent lockdown Nov. 20 at the Willmar Senior High School were the third and eighth most-read website stories of this past year. A story and submitted video of the fight resulted in more than 21,000 page views.

The fight stemmed from a derogatory Facebook page. One group of students apparently confronted another group about the comments. There was yelling, pushing and punches thrown.

Because it occurred between classes when many other students were around, the school implemented a lockdown.

4. The Jan. 20 arrest of a man after a standoff with police at the Appleton Meat Center came in fourth for the year, with more than 13,000 page views. The intoxicated owner had barricaded himself inside and at one point shot a round of ammunition through the office door. He later pleaded guilty to reckless discharge of a firearm.

5. The Nov. 23 seizure of an estimated $20,000 worth of methamphetamine by a regional drug task force was the fifth-highest read headline for the year. More than 11,500 page views were recorded for the story about the arrest of two men in the case. Court records say one is from Appleton and one from Houston, Texas.

6. The first cows were delivered in October to Meadow Star Dairy near Pennock, and that story recorded more than 11,000 page views, coming in sixth for the year. The dairy is the largest in Kandiyohi County and is owned and operated by Riverview LLP, based in Morris.

The farm is built to house a total of 8,500 animals, about 7,000 cows milked twice a day and 1,500 “dry” cows.

9. The Willmar City Council’s decision to terminate the contract with administrator Charlene Stevens was the ninth top headline on the Tribune website with more than 10,900 page views. The council in a split vote March 16 terminated Stevens’ employment.

10. Coming in 10th in page views on the Tribune website was a story about the accidental death of a Bird Island farmer. Authorities said the man was changing a tractor tire March 21 when the tire fell on him.

11. An 11th news headline topped 10,000 page views for the year: the story of a New London Boy Scout who tried to resuscitate his bus driver who was suffering a heart attack. Jeron Baalson was a 10th-grader at New London-Spicer when the incident happened March 9. Greg Engelke, 64, died later at the hospital, but his widow and others praised Jeron’s efforts. He was honored in April by the school and the American Heart Association.

Stories by Carolyn Lange, Shelby Lindrud, Anne Polta, Linda Vanderwerf, Tom Cherveny, David Little and Susan Lunneborg

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