2005 Year in Review

1. Region mourns deaths of three area guardsmen in Iraq Western Minnesota mourned the loss of three National Guardsmen who were killed in the service of their country in Iraq. Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, 24, an Appleton native, 1st Lt. Jason Timmerman, 25...


Region mourns deaths of three area guardsmen in Iraq

Western Minnesota mourned the loss of three National Guardsmen who were killed in the service of their country in Iraq.

Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, 24, an Appleton native, 1st Lt. Jason Timmerman, 25, of Tracy, and Staff Sgt. David Day, 25, of Morris, were killed by a roadside blast on Feb. 21 in Baghdad. Sgt. Lhotka was credited with saving the life of a fellow soldier and had just helped evacuate another soldier when an improvised explosive device detonated. It took his life along with those of Timmerman and Day. All three were members of Company C of the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery.

News of the tragedy triggered grief in the region, as well as an outpouring of support for the families and friends of the fallen soldiers. Communities including Appleton and Montevideo hosted candlelight vigils and memorial services to remember the soldiers. The hometowns of the three soldiers accommodated large crowds who came to pay respects at their funerals.


Along with the sadness, the deaths were also marked by friends who remembered the men for their many accomplishments and all that they had meant to others. "Jesse, you are the best thing that ever happened to me,'' the widow of Jesse Lhotka told mourners March 2 in a letter read at his funeral service at the Zion Lutheran Church in Appleton.

The fallen soldiers will remain in the memories of their fellow soldiers. Soldiers in Company C marked their return from service in Iraq by joining on Dec. 5 to dedicate a 5-foot, granite monument in Morris in memory of the men.

-- Tom Cherveny


WRTC reuse project under way

A decision by the Minnesota Department of Human Service to change the way services are delivered to adults with mental illness meant finding a new use for the Willmar Regional Treatment Center.

Instead of housing clients at regional facilities, mentally ill adults are being relocated to small, community-based homes where they are being treated by teams of traveling mental health professionals.

The transition means that some long-time employees of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center will be out of work or will be offered jobs in other parts of the state. Some jobs and programs will remain in Willmar.


A state memo delivered to employees in late October that said a number of state jobs at the WRTC would be eliminated resulted in a public meeting with local legislators, decision-makers at the state level and a room full of WRTC employees. The memo was later rescinded, but the transfer of ownership of the campus will mean that some employees, like those who work at the power plant or in the maintenance department, will lose their state jobs.

The idea of selling the state-owned Willmar Regional Treatment Center to a private Willmar company was first floated last spring. After months of negotiating mind-numbing details, the deal is near to being closed, but is still not finalized. When the last paper is signed, the deal will include transferring a majority of the land and buildings to MinnWest Technology. The newly formed company is a combination of existing Willmar businesses including Nova-Tech Engineering, which develops and manufactures poultry equipment, and Epitopix, which develops animal vaccines. The plan is to turn the WRTC into a technology campus that will house other high-tech businesses.

Kandiyohi County will purchase seven of the 44 buildings and 18 acres of the 113-acre campus for $1. It will have permanent ownership of two buildings that house the Prairie Lakes Youth Program, a juvenile detention center. The county will own five other buildings that it will lease back to the state for on-going state operated programs, like chemical dependency treatment and a youth program. The state and Kandiyohi County have finalized their negotiations. The county has signed all the documents in the complicated real estate transaction.

MinnWest officials said they were still reviewing the stack of 43 documents to make sure that what had been verbally agreed to was showing up in the paperwork.

-- Carolyn Lange


Ethanol fuels the fire for renewable energy in region

High fuel prices and a desire to reduce dependence on foreign oil helped launch two new ethanol plants in the region this year.


The newest is Bushmills Ethanol Inc. located near Atwater. The boiler there was fired up for the first time on Wednesday. Production of ethanol was expected to start just before the new year. Getting on line in 2005 -- even in the waning moments of the year -- qualified the cooperative to receive federal bio-fuels grant money.

The $62 million plant will produce between 45 million and 49 million gallons of ethanol a year by grinding 16.1 million bushels of corn. On a daily basis, the plant will produce 28,800 gallons of ethanol and 45 tons of dried distillers grain.

Built by Fagen Construction Of Granite Falls, the ground-breaking ceremony for Bushmills Ethanol was Nov. 11, 2004. The first bushel of corn was delivered Dec. 8.

Financing for the plant came from its more than 400 investors, as well as a $6.1 million low-interest loan from Kandiyohi County.

Granite Falls Energy LLC began production of ethanol on Nov. 14. Also built by Fagen, Granite Falls Energy is expected to turn 17.5 million bushels of corn into 50 million to 55 million gallons of anhydrous alcohol along with 130,000 tons of distillers dried grains. The plant is managed by Glacial Lakes Energy LLC of Watertown, S.D., which is a 25 percent owner of the new facility. Glacial Lakes Energy produces 50 million gallons of ethanol a year at its Watertown plant, which was built in 2002. Ethanol production facilities typically raise the price of corn in the region by about a nickel a bushel.

Low-priced corn was countered by high-priced natural gas, which many ethanol plants use.

The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson, however, could be the state's first to use farm-produced biomass as its main energy source if a proposed project is successful.

The company announced this year that in about three years it intends to use farm biomass, like corn stover, wheat grass, switch grass, wood wastes or the fast growing poplar trees, to provide fuel for a gasifier that will be turned into a clean-burning, synthetic gas. Gasification uses extreme temperatures to convert a fuel source into a synthetic gas that can be combusted like natural gas. The CVEC has forged an agreement with Frontline BioEnergy LLC of Iowa to install a prototype gasification system at the Benson facility.


The synthetic gas will replace the natural gas that now provides the steam and thermal energy required to produce more than 42 million gallons of ethanol at the plant each year.

-- Carolyn Lange

Other stories

Green Lake gives up 47-year mystery

Green Lake gave up a mystery it had kept for 47 years when the Cessna L-19 "Birddog'' that had vanished into its waters on Oct. 15, 1958, was discovered in 2004 and recovered in August of this year.

The body of the plane's pilot and lone occupant, Capt. Richard Carey, 36, a Minnesota National Guard member from Willmar, had been recovered after the crash. But the whereabouts of the airplane remained unknown despite extensive searches by both public and private parties, many of them focused in the area where the plane was ultimately found in 40-feet of water.

The story of the plane had already taken on all the makings of a local legend when fishermen Corey Fladeboe of Willmar and Brett Almquist of Maple Lake spotted it on their underwater camera while searching for walleye over the 4th of July weekend in 2004.

The intense interest that followed the news of their discovery led to a successful, volunteer effort on Aug. 14 to recover the plane. A large crowd watched through the day from boats and at the Rush Brown boat landing as scuba divers and other volunteers used a winch mounted on a pontoon boat to hoist the plane and guide it to shore. The Spicer American Legion Post and the City of Spicer had obtained permission from the U.S. Army to salvage the plane. They are working to restore it with plans to put it on permanent display as a memorial.


-- Tom Cherveny

Condo proposal creates controversy in Spicer

A proposal for a 14-story condominium in Spicer failed in November after the Planning and Zoning Commission denied a height variance for the structure.

Avidigm Capital Group, based in Lake Elmo, proposed in September building a 186-foot condo where the 134-foot grain elevator and its bins stand now west of state Highway 23 on Second Avenue. The city height restriction is 60 feet, but 25 feet in the shoreland district, which the grain elevator land is in.

Those who would live directly behind the building spoke out against it at several meetings. Because the building would be within Green Lake's shoreland district, the state Department of Natural Resources and others concerned with water quality also opposed the project.

But others were in favor of the building because of the people it would bring in and the tax base it would create.

Avidigm could have appealed the commission's decision, but instead is working on a redesign that would be lower than the elevator height. Glenn Smogoleski, Avidigm project manager, said he expects the new design to be completed after the first of the new year.

-- Cari Quam


Meeker County implements smoking ban

Restaurants in Meeker County went smoke-free Oct. 1 after the County Board approved an ordinance.

The county's original proposal would have banned smoking in all workplaces and public places, which would have included all bars and restaurants.

But after public meetings, at which bar and restaurant owners objected to the proposal, the ordinance was scaled back to implement the ban in phases.

Restaurants went smoke-free in October, but establishments with liquor licenses could apply for an exemption that lasts until July 31, 2007.

Health advocates proposed the ordinance to protect employees and customers. Those opposed to the ordinance feared it would hurt business by sending smokers to businesses in other counties.

-- Cari Quam

The new Highway 23 opens

The new four lanes of state Highway 23 through Spicer and New London opened in August after three seasons of construction work.

The $60 million project expanded 11 miles of the highway to a four-lane from the junction of U.S. Highway 71 to north of New London at Kandiyohi County Road 31. The project brings Willmar halfway to having a four-lane connection to St. Cloud.

The opening was celebrated in September in Spicer with several speakers, including transportation commissioner Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau.

Some work remains on the project, such as landscaping, which will be completed this spring. Until then, the total cost of the project will not be known, but it is expected to be over budget.

The next section of four-lane is planned at Paynesville, with construction scheduled to start in 2009. MnDOT selected a route in the fall and will present the project plans in January for the Paynesville City Council's approval.

-- Cari Quam

Willmar receives 2005 All-America City Award

The city of Willmar was one of 10 cities to receive the National Civic League's 2005 All-America City Award during a competition June 23-25 in Atlanta, Ga.

The League annually honors cities and communities that achieve results in cooperatively tackling challenges and solving community problems.

Since the award began in 1949, more than 4,000 cities have competed for the award and nearly 500 have been designated All-America Cities.

The Willmar City Council voted in April 2004 to apply for the 2005 award. The council approved the application in February, and the city was notified in April by the National Civic League that the city was one of 30 finalists.

Willmar's selection as a winner was based on an extensive written application that described how Willmar addressed three issues related to cultural competency, education and health care and programs for youth.

A team of about 50 people representing business, education, government, other organizations and a cross-section of ages and races worked on the application.

They also prepared and practiced a 10-minute oral presentation, which many of them joined in presenting to a panel of judges in Atlanta.

City officials say they will use Willmar's All-America City recognition as a marketing tool to attract new business and industrial development.

This was Willmar's second application for the award. The city first applied in 1982 and was named a finalist but not a winner.

-- David Little

Drive-by shooting

sends two to prison

On July 22, four people in a van shot up two Willmar residences. One of the people in the van, Jose Padilla of Granite Falls, had gotten into an argument with Ruben Ybarra. Padilla threatened to kill Ybarra and Ybarra's family. Ybarra moved out of his Regency Estates West trailer home and into the home of his wife's father on Gorton Avenue.

Padilla directed the van to both locations and shot at both homes. In both shootings, he shot a 30-06 rifle. At the Gorton Avenue home, which had nine people in it at the time of the shooting, one of Padilla's bullets hit a woman under the breast, one inch from her heart. She survived.

Padilla was sentenced to 30 years in prison in early December.

One of Padilla's co-defendants, who fired a sawed-off shotgun at the trailer home, was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The driver was sentenced to one year in jail. The other passenger is expected to be released in January. He will return to Michigan and is not to return to Minnesota.

The incident forced Ybarra and his family to move outside of the state for fear of retaliation.

-- Peter Cox

Wal-Mart to open Supercenter in Willmar; studying sites in Litchfield, Montevideo

The Willmar City Council in October approved a site plan for a new 207,204-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. The store will be built at the corner of 19th Avenue Southeast and the future Fifth Street on a 25-acre site in the new Water View Business Park in the southeast corner of the city.

The council also approved a conditional use permit for the Supercenter to construct and operate a gas station.

The Supercenter will replace a nearly 90,000-square-foot store built by Wal-Mart in 1990 on South First Street. News about Wal-Mart's interest in building a new store in Willmar surfaced in June when developers met informally with city officials to discuss the possibility.

While plans move ahead for the new Wal-Mart store in Willmar, Litchfield residents and business owners discuss the effect of a Wal-Mart store in their city. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is studying the possibility of constructing a Supercenter on 25 acres of land east of Litchfield on U.S. Highway 12. Wal-Mart does not have a store in Litchfield now.

In Montevideo, Wal-Mart is looking at constructing a 155,100-square-foot Supercenter, which would replace a 64,701-square-foot store, built in 1993.

Business owners in Montevideo asked the City Council in December to put the brakes on Wal-Mart's plans. Council members rejected requests to set a size limit on retail construction and rejected a moratorium on large retail construction. The council ultimately gave Wal-Mart the go-ahead when it approved the rezoning of property for the expansion.

-- David Little

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