2016 Year in Review: Other top stories
Summer weather brought many storms
The year started with the Winter That Wasn't — an El Nino weather pattern that brought uncommonly warm temperatures and little snowfall.
But by summer the switch was flipped to storms and rain, rain, rain.
At least four tornadoes touched down in central Minnesota on the afternoon of July 11. Among those hit the hardest were Litchfield and Watkins, where dozens of homes and at least five businesses were damaged or destroyed. The tornado that struck Watkins also damaged the roof of the Hilltop Healthcare Center, forcing assisted living residents to evacuate.
Less than a week later, on July 16, it was the turn of Granite Falls to sustain damage from a strong storm that damaged homes and other buildings and brought down an estimated 1,000 trees. The straight-line winds included gusts of up to 67 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Power was knocked out to the entire town for almost 24 hours. Some neighborhoods didn't have power restored for another two or three days.
The loss of electricity also cut power to the pumps that help supply water to the city. Generators had to be borrowed from the city of Marshall to make sure residents had access to water.
"It's amazing that no houses got wrecked and nobody got hurt," said Nick Olson of Minnesota Valley Tree Service, who had three crews clearing away damaged trees the day after the storm.
Kandiyohi and Renville Counties were swamped with heavy rain Aug. 11. In what one city official described as "a 1,000-year event," Willmar received over 10 inches of rain in less than 24 hours.
Streets, basements and businesses were flooded. So much water poured through the city of Willmar's wastewater treatment plant that untreated wastewater had to be discharged to avoid backing up the system.
The storm came on the opening day of the Kandiyohi County Fair, inundating the racetrack and forcing some activities to be cancelled or rescheduled.
The story was similar in Renville County, where the city of Olivia received at least nine inches of rain. "I've never seen so much water in my life," said David Ervin, Olivia water and wastewater supervisor.
Weather also made headlines in 2016 with rain, wind and hail that lashed Swift County and southern Kandiyohi County July 6, causing extensive crop damage. West central Minnesotans dug out from the season's first blizzard Nov. 18. The storm included strong winds that knocked out power to many customers across the area. Christmas 2016 was accompanied by an ice storm that brought a freak combination of rain, freezing rain, thunder, lightning and strong winds. Power outages and crashes on slippery roads were reported.
2016 Year in Review: Tragedies involving children top regional news stories
2016 Year in Review: Other top stories
2016 Year in Review: In other news
A busy business year
Significant business developments in the region in 2016:
• Pioneer Public Television is moving its operations from Appleton to Granite Falls after Diane and Ron Fagen of Fagen Inc. offered to build the organization a new facility as long as it moved. Ground was broken on the building in June, and construction should wrap up in early 2017. A state bonding bill that did not pass the state Legislature would have included $1.95 million for equipment and a relay tower to connect the Granite Falls building to the broadcast tower in Appleton.
• Doors opened Sept. 22 on the new Minnesota Poultry Testing Lab in Willmar. A joint project between the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the $8.5 million, 11,900-square-foot facility replaced a smaller, outdated lab and will allow for additional testing to take place, including testing for the highly pathogenic bird flu and performing autopsies on poultry.
• A $1.5 million, 10-year abatement of city, school and county taxes was approved for RockStep Capital, to help them complete a major project at the Kandi Mall in Willmar. The $6.5 million rehabilitation project is to include remodeling of the old Kmart section into three to four new retail spaces, the construction of a new retail pad and upgrades to the mall's parking lot and signage.
• The Willmar Industrial Park was certified shovel-ready by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The certification means planning, zoning, environmental studies, title work, public infrastructure and other pre-construction work has been completed, meaning the lots are ready for development. Lots have been purchased and construction started on several projects within the Industrial Park.
• Planning for the Willmar Rail Connector and Industrial Park project, also known as the Willmar Wye, is ongoing. Project partners are ironing out the master agreement, which will include how many tracks, the route of U.S. Highway 12 and whether an at-grade crossing will remain at 1st Avenue. The environmental assessment will need to be completed before a final decision can be made. The main goal of the project is to build a track which will connect the BNSF Morris Subdivision and the BNSF Marshall Subdivision, which will reduce the number of trains which will need to enter downtown Willmar. Bid letting for the project could happen in November 2017 with construction beginning in spring 2018. Completion of the project could come in fall 2020.
• There were a number of businesses which changed hands, were closed or opened for the first time. The Willmar Best Buy was closed after 10 years, though Hobby Lobby started construction and will soon be opening next to Runnings. Keith Palmquist and Jason Quade transformed the old New London hardware store building into new retail space. Today, Fischer Laser Eye Center, Wild at Heart, How Sweet It Is and Rejuvenate Salon and Spa now call the space home. While Hardware Hank Express in Willmar, owned by Randy and Susie Czarnetzki, closed after 12 years, Mark Bonnema purchased Vegdahl's Hardware in Spicer and is keeping the local store alive. Mac's Hardware opened in Olivia, filling space vacated by ALCO.
• Clara City continued its redevelopment efforts in 2016, with the opening of a new medical clinic and grocery store. The Clara City Economic Development Agency and city of Clara City has removed a number of blighted properties in the downtown area to open the way for new development. Brett and Danielle Almich opened Almich's Market in a new building built by a local investment group for the store in September. The store replaces Rhode's Family Foods, which was removed. The Forstrom family with the Citizen's Alliance Bank constructed an annex to handle its expanded operations at the financial institution, but also provided space to make it possible to re-open a medical clinic in the community. The Chippewa County-Montevideo Hospital and Medical Clinics began staffing the clinic in April. The community also began work to replace its 50-year-old outdoor swimming pool. A successful fundraising drive made it possible for the project to go forward with the removal of the old pool and installation of footings for the new facility last autumn.
• Dollar General stores popped up around the area, including in the communities of Atwater, Hector and Belgrade in 2016.
• Willmar received national attention for its diverse business climate when MSNBC's "Your Business" did a segment on Willmar's ethnic businesses, along with the Food Hub. The show aired nationally in November.
GOP stronghold on elections
After a long and historic presidential campaign featuring an exceptionally harsh tone that created a sharp divide in the country, the coattails of Donald Trump's election to the White House also secured total Republican control of Congress in Washington, D.C., and helped carry local Republican candidates to the Minnesota House and Senate in St. Paul.
As a result of widespread wins across the state, the GOP will control both chambers of the state Legislature for at least the next two years.
Turnover of the Senate from DFL control to the GOP was accomplished, in part, by the defeat of District 17 Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, by political newcomer, Andrew Lang, R-Olivia.
Koenen, who had served a decade in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2012, was a moderate DFLer who voted against his party on a number of social issues. But that wasn't enough to protect him from the wave of Republican wins.
Area GOP representatives also won re-election to be part of one of the largest Republican majorities in the Minnesota House history. In repeat races from two years ago, Reps. Dave Baker and Tim Miller handily defeated their DFL opponents — Mary Sawatzky and Andrew Falk, respectively.
The GOP-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton entered the 2017 session earlier this week.
Area schools on the grow ...
Major building projects are in the works for the Willmar and New London-Spicer School Districts, while voters in the MACCRAY School District will go to the polls in February on a request to build a new elementary school as part of a single-campus system. The Renville County West district opened its new facilities in 2016.
Voters in the Willmar district went to the polls in March 2015 and approved a $53.25 million bond issue. Work got underway in 2016 to build a new elementary school, add science classrooms to the middle school, and construct a new gymnasium and physical education facilities at the high school. The bond issue also approved $9.5 million for deferred maintenance work.
The new science classrooms were ready for students with the start of the second semester earlier this week, and the new elementary is expected to be ready for the 2017-18 school year.
The New London-Spicer School District broke ground in August on $20.6 million in construction and expansion work on the High School, Middle School and Prairie Woods Elementary campuses. The projects include constructing a new 650-seat seat performing arts auditorium and two-court gymnasium on the high school/middle school. It also includes building a new cafeteria/auditorium and two classrooms at the elementary school.
Voters in the MACCRAY School District will go to the polls on Feb. 7 to decide a $38.8 million bond issue. The school board is seeking voter approval to build a new elementary school on the high school campus, and to erect an auditorium and expand the high school cafeteria.
The proposal calls for a single campus district, and includes funding to raze the existing elementary school facilities in Raymond and Maynard.
The Renville County West District officially opened its new facilities in September. District residents had approved a $5.4 million bond referendum making it possible to build new classrooms on the south end of the school in Renville, construct a new gymnasium, locker rooms and fitness center, and improve the school bus loading area.
Appleton fighting to re-open Prairie Correctional Facility
The City of Appleton and Swift County joined efforts in 2016 in hopes of convincing the State of Minnesota to purchase or lease the Prairie Correctional Facility and reopen it.
The 1,640-bed facility has been vacant since February 2010, but is kept "at the ready'' for occupancy and fully-licensed by owner, CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
Over 300 residents from Appleton and the region attended a community meeting at the Appleton Auditorium to show support for reopening the prison as the 2016 legislative session got underway in February. Many from the community also attended a hearing in St. Paul to promote legislation that sought to have the state purchase or lease the facility. The prison supporters ran into vocal opposition from those who do not want the state to support a private prison, and prefer that the state reduce its prison population. At session's end, no legislation was approved but supporters — of what has become known as the Appleton Option — remain hopeful.
Area legislators say the state continues to project a need for more prison beds, and that they see the Appleton facility as the best solution for the state.