Year in Review: A look at some of the biggest stories from are area in 2023
Published 7:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2023
2023 is nearly over and like most years, it has been filled with notable and important stories from our area.
Listed below are 10 of the biggest stories that took place last year.
Coalition of the willing
For the first time, a group of people and organizations came together to try and answer the question of food insecurity by creating the Hometown Food Security Project.
With entities like the United Way of Mower County, Hormel Foods and more, the effort is making sustained efforts to not only find answers and relief for food insecurity in the county, but to also establish sustained efforts that will reach into the future.
“While it’s important to know where we are, most importantly now is where are we going to go?” said Hormel Foods Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Snee in remarks during a community work session and summit in April at the Hormel Institute. “What are we doing and it’s time to do more. You are all making that same commitment today.”
In this first year, the project focused on getting off the ground, but is now beginning the necessary work of feeding Mower County. One of the most visible aspects is a new location on Main Street with Austin Aspires and the Backpack Program.
3 charged in drive by shooting
Austin was left shaken in June by a drive-by shooting that claimed the life of one man and left others wounded.
The shooting came late at night on June 9, when a report came in at 10:39 p.m. of a car crash on Fourth Street Northwest, later determined to be the result of a drive-by shooting.
One man, Gumbel Negate Gilo, 25, was found dead at the scene and two others were taken to the hospital with injuries.
The three men arrested in the case — 23-year-old Manamany Omot Abella, 28-year-old Cham Obang Oman and 18-year-old Jenny Steven Chop — pleaded not guilty in the case and are currently awaiting trial.
Chop is scheduled for a jury trial on Jan. 16. Next court dates are not listed for either Abella or Oman.
City copes with employee strife
Troubles between the City of Austin and its employees boiled over this year, reflecting the simmering tensions between the two that’s been going on for several months.
In response, late this year, the City Council approved steps to try and improve trust with employees through a survey as well as leadership 360s.
An employee survey conducted by Employee Solutions reflected a staggering amount of distrust and dissatisfaction with administration along with low morale of the city’s employees to a point the company had never seen before and were the lowest in 20 years.
“I expected them to be bad, but not the worst this company has ever seen,” said council member Joyce Poshusta. “It was sobering.”
In October, the City approved a proposal by Employee Solutions to address the issue only to come back in November to announce that it was switching companies, a move that left employees confused and worried about the process.
“The council had a plan two weeks ago and now we have a completely different plan,” City Clerk Ann Kasel told the council during a Nov. 6 City Council meeting with department heads in attendance. “Employees trust (Employee Services). There’s that appearance that something happened in these two weeks that shifted that plan.”
However, Employee Services said they would not be returning and plans were ultimately tabled in a search of a new company.
All of this came after the tumultuous exit of Parks and Recreation Director Dave Merrill, who first announced he was leaving for a new job because of the culture and then was let go after posting on the Parks and Rec Facebook that blame for recent issues should be put on the shoulders of City Administrator Craig Clark.
Days after being let go and days before starting his new job, Merrill held a town hall type meeting to further voice further displeasure as to how the situation was being handled.
Herb & Murl’s sling last burger
A longtime Mower County Fair institution celebrated its final year in 2023.
Herb & Murl’s closed shop this year after 69 years of serving burgers, fries and more. Located across from Crane Pavilion, the stand was one of the most beloved stops of people visiting the fair over the years, reaching all the way back to 1954. Five years later, in 1959, Herb and Murl Loecher purchased the stand and it had been run by the family ever since.
“It’s just time to be done doing everything,” said Barb Granholm, who ran the stand with her husband David. “I retired two years ago. The kids are all too busy — the oldest two are empty-nesters, the youngest one has these two and they are into sports and fishing. It’s time to turn it over to somebody new.”
Herb & Murl’s was more than burgers as it also served the famous Wonder Bars during its time.
“It’s been a good ride,” she said. “It really has, but it’s a bittersweet thing.”
Confronting EAB in Austin
Faced with reality, the City of Austin began taking steps to confront the Emerald Ash Borer in Austin, starting with the lengthy effort to cut down ash trees within Austin.
Establishing a 10-year timeline, the Parks, Recreation and Forestry is in the midst of cutting down 250 trees within Austin to try and stem the tide of EAB.
“The goal is to remove 250 trees a year, which is pretty aggressive and that’s all within our resources,” said then Parks and Rec Director Dave Merrill, further explaining that the plan currently in place does not account for contracting tree-felling work outside of the city.
However, there have been steps taken that will work alongside cutting the trees down.
In June, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center brought in air support in the form of 600 parasitoid wasps, which consume either the EAB larvae or consume the egg. The wasps are about the size of ants and have no stinger.
The hope is that they will be able to multiply over the years to better combat the EAB.
Hormel breaks ground on early childhood education center
In May, Hormel Food Corps. broke ground on an early childhood education center that is currently being built next to Worlein Funeral Home.
The $5 million, 13,000 square foot center will host 130 slots for children, 60 of which will be devoted to children two-years-old and younger.
It’s estimated that the center will be completed in the spring of 2024.
The site of the center was chosen because of the impact Hormel felt the center would have on businesses in the area.
“We picked this site specifically because of the positive economic impact it would have on the community as a whole,” said Jeff Holt, senior manager of Corporate Properties at Hormel Foods. “It’s convenient for families and mothers or fathers to be able to pick up their kids then run to Hy-Vee, run to Walmart, and be able to grab a meal at one of the restaurants.”
In order to better support the center, which is expected to be run at a deficit yearly, both Mower County and the City of Austin granted 15-year tax abatements. The Austin School Board granted a five year abatement.
“I think it’s a huge benefit just for the economic development of the whole city to provide something like this,” said Mower County Board of Commissioners Chair Mike Ankeny. “It’s just a big deal. You’re going to draw people to town. It’s kind of a no-brainer to support something like this.”
Rolling down the river
A citizen-driven effort to establish a whitewater park for kayak enthusiasts and more in the heart of Austin on the Cedar River is gradually picking up steam
While no definitive decision has been made yet to build the park, a feasibility study reflected that such a project is possible with a projected price tag of around $10 million.
Those supporting the project say that the park, which would consist of a series of rapids, a wading area and paths along the project’s run next to Riverside Arena would provide both recreational and economic opportunities for the community.
“There was a lot of good talk about the future and how this project can help us toward the future and make us a destination and grow,” said Nate Smit at an August meeting on the project.
Conceptual images show the park starting at the pedestrian bridge behind the YMCA at the Austin Community Recreation Center and ending at Second Avenue NE. Between those points are a series of five drops and five pools that will allow for users to run the course.
Along the way rock structures will help create the whitewater obstacles geared for both seasoned and new whitewater enthusiasts. The course would further be augmented by proposed stone bank terracing along the final two pools as well as a pedestrian trail planned for the west side of the river and going under the bridges.
Swatting call sends law enforcement to elementary school
A hoax call, often termed as a “swatting” incident, sent law enforcement in numbers to Banfield Elementary in February.
The call came just five months after law enforcement was mobilized in Austin and cities across the state of Minnesota in September of 2022 for a rash of calls.
Both the Austin Police Department and Austin Public Schools were quickly able to determine that like the September 2022 call, this one in February was also a hoax.
Still, the call left people stunned and concerned as some parents came to pick up their children, including Krista Qualey.
“I love the quick response of the police officers,” she said, standing next to her son Liam Nash. “It’s unfortunate that this is the world we live in today. Even if it was just a scam or quote, unquote ‘joke,’ I’m not taking a chance with my little one’s life.”
Change of Riverland leadership
Dr. Kat Linaker, who was named the new president of Riverland Community College in April, officially took over the position on July 1.
She follows Dr. Adenuga Atewologun, who was the college’s president for a decade.
“It is a new chapter in the history of Riverland Community College,” Atewologun said. “A nice chapter.”
Linaker comes in at a time where the college is asking for $17,140,000 in bonding money from the state legislature to renovate the Austin campus’s East Building to create a Student Services Hub.
“This renovation will provide a home base for all student and academic support services, enabling our staff to better serve students regardless of which of our three campuses — Austin, Albert Lea or Owatonna — they attend,” she said. “By creating a sense of belonging and increasing accessibility to support services we expect this project to contribute to an increase in enrollment, retention, completion and an overall increase in student satisfaction with their experience here at Riverland, particularly among first-generation students.”
Community Action Building celebrates opening
With the cutting of a ribbon in May, the Community Action Building officially opened its doors to a central location that includes the Parenting Resource Center, Welcome Center, Minnesota Immigrant Law Center, Nexus-Gerard Family Healing and Children’s Dental Health Services.
The ribbon-cutting is the end of a process that started in 2021 and is expected to be able to efficiently help people with its central location and ability to link different organizations quickly.
“My honest impressions have been, it’s truly been an amazing collaboration among different organizations coming together to really provide multi-faceted services to everybody in the community from children to adults,” said Sara Salas Ramirez, who was hired as the Parenting Resources director in December of last year. “It really has been an amazing experience to come in later in the game and still understand what the project is all about and understand and continue to grow the mission of the PRC and what the Community Action Building is supposed to do.”