Bullying leads 2017 local news

Those driving through Fairmont over the summer were met with significant road work along Highway 15. The Highway 15 project has been voted the No. 9 local news story of the year.

FAIRMONT – An assault involving Blue Earth Area football players and ensuing questions and concerns about the school’s bullying policies is the top local news story of 2017.

The year also saw several major retail closings, along with an extensive road construction project through the heart of Fairmont.

And Mayo Clinic Health System announced the closing of its Lutz Wing nursing home in Fairmont in 2017.

What follows is the complete list of Top 10 local news stories of the year, as voted on by Sentinel staff:

No. 10

A $10 million expansion and upgrade to the Fairmont Opera House was announced in September. After more than 20 years of discussions about such a project, an unexpected financial windfall coupled with a series of events prompted the Opera House’s board of directors to move forward with the plan.

The south wall of the century-old building was starting to show signs of distress, with plaster falling away and exposing soft fire brick. Then the building directly south of the Opera House became available for sale in May when its current occupant closed, and the board was able to purchase the site.

The Opera House was on tap to receive funds from three sources, including $250,000 from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The Erma Rosen Foundation gave a gift of $500,000, with $400,000 for the facility and $100,000 to be used in $5,000 increments annually over the next 20 years to sponsor a show in her name.

The third source stemmed from a notice that the Opera House was named as a beneficiary in a Fairmont resident’s will and would receive about $1 million from the estate, bringing the total gifts to about 20 percent of the $10 million goal.

Upgrades for the existing historic building include lighting and restrooms, roof repairs and ramping. The addition to the south will house offices, restrooms, meetings rooms for social events and receptions, and a gallery.

The goal is to have fundraising completed within the next three years.

No. 9

Highway 15 in Fairmont underwent reconstruction in the late summer. The work included pavement resurfacing, along with new traffic signals and sidewalks, as well as utility repairs between Johnson Street and Goemann Road. The project coincided with resurfacing and bridge repairs along I-90.

In February, it was discovered that funds for the project were tied up in the Legislature. As such, the project had not yet been let out for bidding, and questions were raised about when the project would be completed.

Funds finally were released in April, and the project was bid to a contractor April 28. The low-bidder was Duininck, Inc with a bid of $4.88 million. Work was then coordinated with adjacent construction taking place on I-90 between Sherburn and Fairmont, as well as work the city had planned for Margaret Street.

Drivers in Fairmont faced lane closures and traffic delays, as well as a temporary detour for storm sewer work.

Construction ended in late fall.

No. 8

Grassroots movements fueled two new playground projects for Fairmont in 2017. An indoor play area planned for Five Lakes Centre will enable youngsters to enjoy a fun and creative atmosphere all year long, while an outdoor playground planned for Gomsrud Park will be accessible to all people, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities.

The indoor play area was spearheaded by “Kids Just Want to Have Fun,” a subgroup that sprouted from Project 1590. By April, the group had commitments totaling $10,000, and by December it had enough commitments to move ahead with ordering the equipment. The project cost is $55,000. The committee hopes to have the play equipment installed at the south end of the mall by late February.

The outdoor accessible play area at Gomsrud Park, called Adventure Playground, carries a $450,000 price tag. In the first six months of fundraising efforts, more than half the amount has been raised, thanks in part to a $150,000 commitment from the liquor store fund in the 2018 city budget. The Schmeeckle Foundation donated $40,000 to the cause, and an anonymous donor pledged $10,000 to match personal donations.

In addition, about $160,000 in grants are pending, and fundraising has expanded to include more than a dozen local and national grants.

No. 7

After the Walmart in Blue Earth closed its doors, it did not take long for another store to fill the vacancy.

Walmart, which employed about 79 full- and part-time workers in Blue Earth, closed Oct. 3. According to the corporate office, the decision was based on revenue.

On Nov. 16, about a month and a half after the store’s closing, it was announced that the former Walmart building in Blue Earth would be leased to Bomgaars, a department store.

According to a press release from the city of Blue Earth, the Bomgaars location is expected to employee 20 to 25 people, with a hiring fair scheduled for February.

Bomgaars is set to open in early May.

No. 6

Completion of a new multi-million dollar expansion at Fairmont Foods of Minnesota, Inc. is scheduled for January, about six months after breaking ground for the project. The addition, which will be an offshoot of the existing raw meat processing area, marks continued growth at the company that was facing closure less than two years ago.

The addition, which will add about 20 people to the employee roster, will house a grinding room, cooler for storage, break room, bathrooms, locker area and a loading dock for receiving raw meat products. By limiting the delivery and processing of raw meat to a contained area, the expansion will enable the company to bolster food safety procedures which, with personal safety, are paramount at the plant.

No. 5

The November 2016 general election resulted in several new faces in Fairmont city leadership. Three out of five council representatives and the mayor began their first terms, as Ruth Cyphers from Ward 2, Wayne Hasek from Ward 4, Tom Hawkins as councilman at-large and Debbie Foster as mayor recited the oath of office. The new officials brought fresh ideas which, on occasion, sparked debate.

The first few months found Hawkins advocating his involvement in negotiating a new fire service agreement between the city and surrounding townships. Councilman Jim Zarling had nominated Hasek to join Councilman Bruce Peters on the city’s negotiating team, but Hawkins said he also planned to attend the bargaining sessions, saying he was invited by township residents and planned to represent both the city and the townships. Zarling cautioned that the attendance of three council members would constitute a quorum and create an open meeting, which would introduce a whole new set of rules, including requirement of a public notice. The subsequent council vote tagged Hasek to join the city’s negotiating team.

In March, Foster’s request to close the open discussion portion of the meeting led to a contentious debate. For decades, the open discussion provided a time for residents to address the council. Foster’s change required residents to request a spot on the agenda by filling out a short form, thus enabling council members and city staff to be prepared with information on the topic. Hawkins questioned Foster’s sole authority to close the open discussion portion and requested an opinion from City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist. She cited City Code, stating that the order of business is set by the presiding officer, which is the mayor. Hawkins disagreed with the opinion, saying he had talked to two League of Minnesota Cities’ attorneys who agreed with him. Foster maintained she was not trying to censor anyone, but was only trying to enable preparedness and streamline the response process. Hawkins’ motion to keep open discussion the way it had been was seconded by Cyphers but failed on a 2-3 vote. Hawkins revived the issue in August, pushing to eliminate the need for a resident to register for discussion time, but the vote remained unchanged.

In July, a proposed update to the city’s building code, bringing it in line with practices that city officials have followed for decades, created a confusing situation for the council. Following a 3-2 vote supporting the code change, Hawkins claimed the motion failed because it lacked a two-thirds majority, citing City Code. Two-thirds of the five-member council would equal 3.3 votes, something that is not possible. Deferring to Hawkins’ request, Foster declared the motion failed. Bloomquist delved into the issue and found clarification through the League of Minnesota Cities that stated a majority of a five-member council is three. Within a few days, the council held a special meeting to re-vote on the code change, with the tally remaining unchanged when Hawkins and Cyphers again voted against the motion. This time, Foster declared that the motion passed.

No. 4

In April, almost a year after suffering a damaging church fire, St. James Lutheran Church in Northrop faced another setback. Robert Cairl Trueblood, then pastor, was charged with possession of child pornography.

On March 7 the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension received a tip from the company Chatstep. According to company representatives, a user identified as “PervyPastor” accessed a chat room through the service and uploaded a photographic image identified to be consistent with child pornography.

A search warrant was executed April 27 at the church office of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northrop. During the execution of the warrant, Trueblood’s computer was taken into custody and preliminarily examined, during which Bureau officials discovered pornographic photographs depicting children under the age of 18.

Trueblood, 56, has now been sentenced, with a stay of imposition. On Dec. 11, Trueblood was placed on supervised probation for five years, and he will be monitored by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He was also sentenced to 90 days in jail and received a $1,000 fine.

No. 3

On Aug. 24, Mayo Clinic Health System announced it would discontinue Lutz Wing nursing home operations in Fairmont by Dec. 1. The Lutz Wing had been open for about 40 years, with Mayo operating the facility about half of that time.

At the time of the announcement, the 40-bed facility had 24 residents.

Although the news was a surprise to the public, Mayo had made the decision to step away from nursing home operations after months of consulting and collaborating with community leaders and area nursing home leadership. Mayo had already secured the necessary approvals and support from its community board of directors, county social services, the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Department of Health to move forward with its plans.

Mayo worked with Lutz Wing residents, family members and staff over the next few months to ensure a smooth transition for the residents to other area facilities.

No. 2

Five Lakes Center in Fairmont underwent major changes in 2017 with the closing of JCPenney and Sears, and the opening of a new department store, Savewize.

In mid March, it was announced that JCPenney, a retail landmark in Fairmont since 1929, would close June 18. The closing impacted about 30 full- and part-time employees at the store and styling salon, some having worked at the store for 30 years.

The Fairmont location was one of 138 stores, or about 14 percent of the company’s outlets, that would close. The Fairmont store was one of eight that closed in Minnesota and four in Iowa.

Just three months later, in the middle of June, a “store closing” sign was hung at Sears at the south end of the mall. The Fairmont outlet was one of more than 100 locations nationwide that Sears planned to close.

About a week before the Sears store closed at the end of July, Savewize announced it would venture into the retail market by moving into the JCPenney location. An Internet-only wholesaler of closeout merchandise, Savewize is owned by David Pinter, son of mall owner Sam Pinter of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Fairmont Savewize site became the first brick-and-mortar store for the company when it opened Oct. 1.

The Sears store currently is being used as a temporary display space for the Savewize furniture department.

No. 1

An alleged assault involving several Blue Earth Area football players sent shockwaves through the community, prompting others to come forward with stories of bullying and neglect, and a call for change in the district.

On Oct. 18, four Blue Earth Area football players reportedly punched and slapped a teammate until he was unconscious, causing a concussion as well as severe bruising and swelling to the face, according to the police report. Three of the players were charged with third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm and aiding and abetting third-degree assault, while another was charged with aiding and abetting third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm.

The alleged assault caused public outcry, with concerned parents, students and community members showing up at the Nov. 20 and Dec. 11 school board meetings to speak out against how the district handles bullying.

A letter was handed to the school board following the Nov. 20 meeting, calling for accountability and change within the district.

In response, the school board created a bullying task force of 25 parents, community members, students, school board members, staff and administration to evaluate how the district has handled bullying in the past, and determine what needs to be changed.