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Year in Review: A look back at what happened in west central Minnesota throughout 2022

The West Central Tribune was witness to many changes in 2022, from elections to education to infrastructure improvements.

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The BNSF Railway's inaugural train travels along the Willmar Wye tracks on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in west Willmar. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in cooperation with BNSF, the city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County, held a Wye ribbon-cutting event before BNSF then provided a train ride on the Willmar Wye for local officials and guests.
Kelly Boldan / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The past year saw plenty of changes happening in the area, from education to elections to roads and railroad improvements.

A selection of top headlines from West Central Tribune reporters were chosen to be highlighted in our Year in Review, a look back at what happened in west central Minnesota throughout 2022.

West central Minnesota residents witnessed, voted for and supported change and progress on several fronts — from elections to education to supporting infrastructure improvements — over the past year.

A ride to celebrate completion of Willmar Wye

After more than a decade, dignitaries from various partners involved in the Willmar Connector and Industrial Access Project — a nearly $50 million railroad bypass project — along with local, regional and state government officials, gathered in Willmar for a ribbon-cutting and train ride to celebrate the accomplishment that is the Willmar Wye.

The project, designed to reduce the number of trains needing to drive into Willmar to connect with another line, will cut back on train congestion within the city. Now, trains needing to travel from the Morris subdivision to the Marshall subdivision of the BNSF Railway, and vice versa, will be able to take the new rail line constructed between the two lines. This will eliminate those trains having to drive into Willmar.

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The Willmar Connector and Industrial Access project, known as the Willmar Wye, will have benefits for both trains and vehicles.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Transportation

An important goal of the project is to decrease the risk of dangerous interactions between trains and vehicles at the crossings in Willma, and also should result in fewer blocked road crossings and train horns blaring.

The new bypass track is located just west of the Willmar Industrial Park. There has been discussion regarding constructing a rail spur into the park, which would offer rail access to businesses. While the spur has not been constructed yet, it is still a possibility in the future.

There are a limited number of BNSF Railway-certified sites throughout the United States. The Willmar site would be the second site in Minnesota.

West central Minnesota sees an 'explosion' in drug-related crime

CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force leaders say they have seen an “explosion” in drug-related crimes in this region.

In a June presentation to the Willmar City Council, Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Ross Ardoff, who serves as commander of the task force, and Bill Hudson, a deputy with the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office who serves as an agent with the task force, spoke about recent trends the task force has been encountering, including the rising number of crimes involving fentanyl and methamphetamine.

The task force serves the counties of counties of Meeker, Kandiyohi, Swift, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine.

Hudson told the Willmar City Council that, on the low end, there will be about 320 arrests per year and about 400 at the top end, noting the vast majority of their investigations are felony-level drug investigations focusing on mid- to high-level drug dealers.

A normal year for methamphetamine seizures was 10 to 15 pounds in the past, but in 2020 it jumped to 57.7 pounds of methamphetamine seized, and it was 45 pounds in 2021, Hudson said.

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In cases in which fatal overdoses occurred due to fentanyl, individuals who supplied the illegal substance have been arrested or charged. Two such cases were prosecuted in 2022 — Deja Denise Padilla, of Montevideo, was arrested July 13 in connection with the fentanyl overdose death of a Renville County woman on Nov. 13, 2021 , and Makayla Marie Oothoudt Willprecht, of Willmar, was sentenced to 48 months in prison for manslaughter in connection with the death of Samantha Jean Myers, 19, of Pennock, on April 16.

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Kennedy Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Edward Amador speaks to his students before starting an assignment on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Amador, from Nicaragua, is one of five international teachers working in Willmar Public Schools this year.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Willmar Public Schools addresses staffing shortage

Willmar Public Schools, facing a staff shortage when looking for qualified teachers, turned to international solutions for the 2022-23 school year. Five elementary teachers — four from the Philippines and one from Nicaragua — entered Willmar classrooms and met their students for the first time this fall.

Jane Amindato, 28, Katherine Cusa, 42, Missi Flores, 39, and Shelamie Santillan, 36, all from the Philippines, started the school year in Willmar. Edward Amador, 27, from Nicaragua, arrived later in September, as he was waiting to receive his visa.

Filling teaching positions and other jobs in the district has been a struggle in recent years. Even with those five positions filled, the district had multiple openings for teachers, paraprofessionals and other positions to start the year, according to Human Resources Director Liz Windingstad.

Hospitals in Olivia and Granite Falls end labor and delivery services

Expectant parents in Olivia and Granite Falls will have to travel further from home after local hospitals ended labor and delivery services at Olivia Hospital & Clinic and Avera Granite Falls. Both hospitals had seen a decline in the number of patients needing those services in the area.

Olivia Hospital and Clinic announced the cessation of services Jan. 18. As of May 9, pregnant patients were referred to regional partners such as CentraCare in Willmar for the final stages of their pregnancies.

The hospital was averaging 41 births per year, and had seen numbers range from as few as 16 births in a year to a high of 59 over the past several years, according to CEO Nathan Blad.

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Family practice physician Carin Martinson emphasized that the Olivia Clinic will be actually expanding its prenatal and postpartum services. The full range of laboratory and ultrasound services will continue to be offered in Olivia, and the local providers will continue to provide care to expectant and new mothers. Martinson said expectant mothers will continue to be able to meet with their local provider — with the exception of visits at 28 weeks and the final weeks of pregnancy.

Similarly, Avera Granite Falls is transferring its labor and delivery services 30 miles down the road to Avera Marshall effective Jan. 1, 2023, according to information provided by the CEOs of both locations during a mandated virtual hearing hosted by the Minnesota Department of Health on Oct. 13.

Avera Granite Falls will continue to offer the full range of prenatal and postpartum care, CEO Tom Kooiman emphasized during the hearing. Patients can continue to see their primary care physician, Dr. Rosa Avendano, in Granite Falls for care.

FedEx facility on Trott Avenue Southwest in Willmar
FedEX is the end user of the 217,000 square foot logistics facility being constructed in the Willmar Industrial Park on the west side of town. The shipping firm plans to consolidate its operations in Willmar, including its site on Trott Avenue Southwest, into the new location.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Willmar Industrial Park to see additional developments

The Willmar Industrial Park continued to expand and welcome new businesses throughout 2022, from the construction of a $30 million, 217,000-square-foot FedEx distribution center early in the year to the announcement of a $40 million Nexyst agricultural distribution project to the discussion of a BNSF-certified rail site within the industrial park.

The FedEx project began in April 2021, when CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, began looking at sites for the proposed project. The sale of approximately 27 acres in the Willmar Industrial Park Fourth Addition to project developer RDC National was approved by the Willmar City Council in September 2021. RDC purchased the land for $621,000. The sale was completed Jan. 6, paving the way for building construction at the site to begin.

At the new facility, according to the business statement, in addition to its normal shipping and distribution, FedEx Ground will also be contracting with local service provider businesses for package pickup and delivery.

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A Nexyst 360 promotion photo from its Facebook page of the product loading operation of their container product.
Nexyst 360

In November, Nexyst, announced plans to close on a $1.1 million purchase agreement for at least 137 acres in the Willmar Industrial Park to accommodate a $40 million project — constructing an agricultural distribution complex — according to Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The project would be an intermodal hub that would tie into the recently completed $48 million Willmar Wye railroad bypass project. An intermodal hub is a central location where cargo containers can be easily and quickly transferred between trucks and trains.

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A pedestrian walks along a Suite Liv'n apartment complex at 1401 5th Street SW the morning of Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Willmar. Suite Liv’n is on the verge of potentially losing some of its rental licenses for failure to fix issues that are present in many of its rental units, including black mold and standing water.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Suite Liv'n under fire for poor maintenance, management

A November report from Willmar's rental inspector Ryan Tillemans has put a Willmar rental management company in the hot seat.

Suite Liv’n, which owns nearly 900 rental units throughout Willmar, is on the verge of potentially losing some of its rental licenses for failure to fix issues that are present in many of its rental units, including black mold and standing water, according to Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker.

The Attorney General’s Office is investigating habitability violations and making sure that Suite Liv’n is providing habitable living conditions for their tenants. There’s a lot of suspicions that the company is not, according to Walker.

It is also investigating the “shady” business dealings of the company, one of which is a clause in the lease that prohibits tenants from filing class-action lawsuits against Suite Liv’n.

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Early-morning traffic drives along the brief section of Minnesota Highway 23 where all four lanes of the roadway are completed south of Richmond on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Highway 23 Coalition closing the gaps between Willmar and St. Cloud

Those traveling between Willmar and St. Cloud in summer and fall of 2022 might have been delayed by road construction, but eventually they will be traversing a brand-new four-lane highway for the entire stretch.

A large crowd of supporters and advocates — from elected state and county representatives and their staff to personnel from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Mathiowetz Construction, the project contractor — converged on the Roadside Tavern in Roscoe in May to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Highway 23 Gaps project.

The project , by its completion in 2024, will see Highway 23 from Willmar to Interstate 94 be four lanes along the entire stretch. Currently, there are two two-lane gaps along that corridor, the nine-mile stretch between Richmond and Paynesville known as the north gap and the seven-mile south gap from Paynesville to New London.

The north gap portion of the project is under construction now, with the south gap work to begin in 2023. The project is being paid for by state Corridors for Commerce funds, approximately $101.5 million.

Blomkest volunteer firefighter died while on his way to storm-watching duty

Volunteer firefighter Ryan Erickson, 63, of Blomkest, Minnesota.
Volunteer firefighter Ryan Erickson, 63, of Blomkest, Minnesota.
Contributed by city of Blomkest

Ryan Erickson, a Blomkest volunteer firefighter who also volunteered as a storm-watcher, died May 12 after high winds blew over a grain bin during a storm passing through.

Erickson, 63, was preparing to leave his farm to monitor storms when the grain bin fell on him at his rural Lake Lillian property.

Erickson was very involved in the Blomkest community, and had been since he was young man. He became a volunteer firefighter at 18 years old, according to Blomkest City Clerk Barbara Gilberts. He was also a former fire chief, serving in that position for approximately five years.

Larry Kleindl retires, Kelsey Baker named next county administrator

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl has announced his intention to retire. He told the Kandiyohi County Board on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 he plans to leave his post in February 2023.
Larry Kleindl
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl in May announced his intention to retire in February 2023.

"It is with mixed emotions," Kleindl said. "I love this job."

Kleindl has been the administrator for 16 years, starting in July 2007 . Prior to that, he worked in the Family Services Department, first as a supervisor starting in 1994 and then taking over as director in 2001.

His last official day as administrator is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 24, 2023.

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The Kandiyohi County Board will be offering the position of county administrator to Kelsey Baker, who is currently serving as the Swift County administrator.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Kleindl will be succeeded by Swift County Administrator Kelsey Baker, who was selected as his replacement in late September.

Baker has served as the Swift County administrator for the last five years.

Prior to that she was the executive director for The Legends at Heritage Place, an assisted living facility in Sartell, for one year. She also worked for the state of South Dakota as a marketing and communications specialist for three years and a public information officer for one year.

Eric Tollefson unseats incumbent Eric Holien as Kandiyohi County Sheriff

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Eric Tollefson

Kandiyohi County voters elected a new sheriff by a wide margin, making Eric Tollefson the chief law enforcement officer in the county next year.

Tollefson received 12,192 votes, nearly 69%, while incumbent Sheriff Eric Holien received 5,525 votes, or 31%, according to unofficial results from all 48 precincts in the county as reported by the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.

Tollefson has been working for the county since 1996. Positions he has held include patrol deputy, detective, patrol sergeant, field training officer, water patrol officer, snowmobile and ATV patrol officer, cold water rescue team member, drug recognition evaluator and a member of the SWAT team.

Tollefson also served 12 years on the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School Board.

Our newsroom occasionally reports stories under a byline of "West Central Tribune staff report." Often, the "West Central Tribune staff report" byline is used when rewriting basic news briefs that originate from official sources, such as a city press release about a road closure, and which require little or no reporting. At times, this byline is used when a news story includes numerous authors or when the story is formed by aggregating previously reported news from various sources. If outside sources are used, it is noted within the story.

The West Central Tribune newsroom can be reached via email:
news@wctrib.com or phone 320-235-1150.
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The Tribune publishes Records as part of its obligation to inform readers about the business of public institutions and to serve as a keeper of the local historical record. All items are written by Tribune staff members based on information contained in public documents from the state court system and from law enforcement agencies. It is the Tribune’s policy that this column contain a complete record. Requests for items to be withheld will not be granted.