Top 10 News: Longevity was goal in Albert Lea

Published 9:42 am Thursday, December 31, 2009

In the year 2009 Albert Lea decided that healthy living was important to the future of the community. Sidewalks were built. Community gardens were added. Restaurant menus and cafeterias were altered. Longevity was the goal. And the phrase “Blue Zone-friendly” became a household term for Albert Leans. 

“Hey, I like your plates.” 

“Yes, and they are Blue Zone-friendly, too.”

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“Say, what’s in that hotdish?”

“Don’t worry. It’s Blue Zone-friendly.”

In fact, this year, the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project so clearly dominated the news, there was absolutely no contest when it came to staff discussions about selecting the Top 10 News of 2009. In some years, there is great debate over the top two or three. This year, it was the Vitality Project No. 1, then let’s debate the rest. Feel free to arrange the list in an order you like.

Speaking of health, a new 18-hole golf course was built with a clubhouse that can accommodate many local tourism and convention needs. Duffers lost a golf course in 2006, but they gained it back in 2009.

Other than that, the top news gets a bit depressing. Or should we say, recessing? Who knows? From a homicide to the economic whatchamacallit, several big stories occurred that weren’t exactly uplifting.

That’s why people turn the sports pages, isn’t it? There, local boy Ben Woodside captured the national spotlight during the NCAA tournament, among many other achievements listed in the not-so wide world of local sports.

We tried to take the long view on many items. For instance, a bus rollover that very day seems like bigger news than a golf course opening, but years from now, the golf course probably will have greater significance, considering the bus passengers lived elsewhere. Another example: Albert Lea indeed is a hockey town. That has to be considered when looking at the Thunder scandal. Factors like these went into producing this top 10 list.

1. AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project

It was on Jan. 15 that the Minneapolis-based Blue Zones organization announced it had selected Albert Lea as the subject of a 10-month “citywide health makeover,” a term later changed to the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project. The goal was to add 10,000 years of life expectancy. Blue Zones, AARP and United Health Foundation — along with National Geographic explorer and “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” author Dan Buettner — would bring a string of experts on nutrition, townmaking, behavior and purpose. 

On May 14, about 1,200 people packed into the auditorium and gymnasium at Albert Lea High School for the kickoff ceremony. By the time the Freeborn County Fair rolled around in August, it seemed every other person in Albert Lea was wearing one of those blue Blue Zones T-shirts that said “Community,” “Social Network,” “Habitat” and “Purpose.”

Many residents attended no-charge purpose workshops. Many formed social groups called “walking moais.” Kids shuffled to school in “walking school buses.” The city built sidewalks around Fountain Lake and connected a few other key gaps. People heard new views on the how-to-redo-Bridge Avenue debate. Kitchens stocked up on small plates. People committed themselves to smaller portions. Liquor stores sold Sardinian wine. People picnicked with neighbors. Schools learned tips to steer students toward healthier food choices. People chatted about their Vitality Compass results. Everyone got to know Blue Zones health initiative director Joel Spoonheim.

The national spotlight shined on Albert Lea: ABC’s “Good Morning America” came more often than any of the others, with Sam Champion and Kate Snow stopping by. But there were others — USA Today, AARP Magazine, “CBS Early Show,” “Oprah,” “Today,” to name a few.

The results came in October. On average, participants experienced 3.1 years of added life expectancy. (For people making comparisons to the goal, that is 7,130 more years, but not as many took the Vitality Compass a second time.) They also found increase vegetable consumption and fewer days of depression. Participants lost an average of 2.6 pounds — and it wasn’t even a diet. Simple changes. That was the message.

Now larger cities want what Albert Lea received as a gift. The Blue Zones organization is looking at Nashville, St. Louis and Lincoln, Neb.

2. Bankruptcy of Elks Lodge

The Elks Lodge in Albert Lea had 400 members 33 years ago. It had 2,100 by 2006. It was the 12th largest Elks chapter in the United States and by far the largest in Minnesota. Other chapters called it a supper club. 

It was more than a supper club. It was a convention center, a meeting place, a bar, a restaurant, a party host, a place that had become near and dear to many. Dear enough for many to buy $500 debenture bonds to help keep the place open enough so it could pay off debt. The bonds only became more debt, and by spring Elks leaders knew closing the doors was coming in a few months.

The cherished Albert Lea institution closed its doors Sept. 1 and filed for liquidation bankruptcy on Oct. 5. Assets outweighed liabilities by $153,000. Membership was down to 897.

Reasons cited in a Nov. 1 story for the Elks’ financial woes were losing the beloved food and beverage manager who had seen the place through its years of growth, divisions among present leaders and past leaders resulting in inability to change, problems community effectively resulting in wild rumors, a decrease in charitable gambling after an Iowa casino opened, a lack of members willing to volunteer, too many changes in menu selections and a rise in restaurant options in Albert Lea.

Though it lost its building, the chapter remains the largest in Minnesota, slightly ahead of Owatonna. It intends to start anew.

3. Wedgewood Cove Golf Club opens

The opening of Wedgewood Cove Golf Club in stages from May to August is another chapter in the story of golf courses in Albert Lea over the past few years. It also changed the game for places to meet in the Albert Lea area.

In 2006, Albert Lea lost a century-old golf course. Lakeville commercial developer Scott LaFavre, who grew up in Albert Lea, made an unsolicited offer to the Des Moines, Iowa, owners of the Albert Lea Golf Club. By May, the place was closed. The clubhouse was torn down. The course was torn up. His housing project went bankrupt. By the end of 2009, it sat as an eyesore on the northwest edge of Albert Lea.

But meanwhile, local developers received approval for plans for a real estate development featuring an 18-hole championship golf course. The project’s partners changed, and the owners ended up being Paul Field and Gerry Vogt. At the start of 2009, the duo was busy overseeing construction of the clubhouse and the last parts of the course’s landscape. In December 2007, shovels turned. In May, the clubhouse opened. In June, the back nine holes opened. In August, the front nine opened.

The clubhouse has a restaurant and a bar, but moreover it can accommodate many of the business functions that had been leaving Albert Lea. Those who debate whether the club’s opening really should hold the No. 3 spot only need to consider just how many events now take place at Wedgewood Cove. And consider how many will take place there over the years. And there will be golf.

The next step in this story will be to see how the housing sells.

4. Elder abuse case moves closer to trial

The allegations of abuse of residents at the Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea by six teenage girls who were working there as certified nursing assistants was the No. 1  story of 2008, bringing national media attention to Albert Lea. This year, however, the two defendants who were 18 at the time of the acts stayed in the news as their cases moved through the courts. The 15 residents at the nursing home suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and similar mental degradation disorders.

The most notable news came Jan. 21, when suspects charged in adult court Ashton Larson and Brianna Broitzman made their first appearances before a judge. Photographers and TV camera operators followed the young women as they walked from the courthouse to their cars. Larson attempted to cover her face; Broitzman walked steadily forward while wearing sunglasses. Readers nevertheless got their first look at them, not merely their high school senior photos. Their booking photos also made their first appearance in the newspaper following the date at the courthouse.

Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab set bail and conditions for their release.

In November, Schwab issued a written order denying the motion made by Ashton Larson’s lawyer to dismiss the criminal complaint against his client for lack of probable cause. 

The lawyer, Evan Larson (no relation), had questioned probable cause after first asking whether Larson should have been tried in juvenile court. In September, Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson amended the charges to reflect when the defendant turned 18 to counteract the lawyer’s claim.

In December, Larson’s trial was scheduled to begin in August.

In September, Broitzman’s trial was scheduled to begin in April. Her lawyer is Larry Maus.

Both young women face 11 charges ranging from fifth-degree assault, criminal abuse of a vulnerable adult, disorderly conduct and mandatory failure to report suspected abuse at the nursing home.

The year the cases also saw a denied motion to toss out statements, a retraction of a gag order on the press, a ruling to allow access to statements and exhibits but not copies of them, striking testimony from a Department of Health investigator, key testimony from an Albert Lea detective and lawyers making claims that threats were made during interviews.

Families used online networks to talk about the case with each other and to share with the public their feelings about their loved ones. Also, an elder abuse support group formed in Albert Lea in January.

5. Albert Lea Thunder pay-to-play scandal

The Albert Lea Thunder have been filled with problems once the honeymoon with Albert Lea was over. The team had a dismal record of 4-49-5 in its inaugural season, which mercifully ended last spring. The team had problems paying its lease and its bills around town. But all that was chump change compared to the bomb that dropped on the front page of the Albert Lea Tribune on Nov. 20.

The North American Hockey League Board of Governors ruled that the Thunder encouraged parents to pay the owners so eight players could get more playing time. NAHL Board of Governors also found owner Barry Soskin had misrepresented who owned the team. The board ordered the team’s membership to be terminated or agree to pay to about $400,000 — which could vary depending on how much pay-to-play expenses are discovered and legal fees generated.

Steve Sempeck, a bowling alley owner in Elkhorn, Neb., a western suburb of Omaha, was the whistleblower. He had all the documentation necessary to prove pay to play indeed happened — canceled checks, signed contracts, names. The father of Matt Sempeck pay $12,500 so his son could have an “advance player guarantee” to ensure he would play on the team for two years in at least 45 games and not be traded. When Matt injured his ankle, he didn’t play when second season began in September. He healed, but second-season coach Chuck Linkenheld wouldn’t add him to the roster. Steve Sempeck was upset the team wasn’t honoring his contract. He went to the league in Frisco, Texas.

That Nov. 20 front page was packed with news. It had the Thunder scandal, a follow-up story on the fatal bus rollover and a story about a man who drove his company truck into a swamp north of Albert Lea.

On Dec. 7, the NAHL Board of Governors stripped Soskin of ownership. At the end of the year, the league ran running the team, which today has a record of 7-23, already surpassing last season’s effort. The team plays in Owatonna at 6 o’clock tonight.

6. Homicide of Jody Lee Morrow

Authorities report that shortly before noon on June 21, a Sunday, a 37-year-old man came to the Freeborn County Law Enforcement Center saying he thought he killed his girlfriend. Thirty-eight-year-old Jody Lee Morrow was found dead inside her trailer at 730 Larimore Circle. The man, Chad Jamie Gulbertson, was arrested.

A preliminary report from the Freeborn County medical examiner determined that Morrow’s death was caused by multiple blunt-force injuries to her head with a hammer.

The death was sad, but it was particularly sad for victims’ rights advocates, who noted her situation during a candlelight vigil in October. Morrow and Gulbertson lived together for 3 1/2 years, from October of 2005 to April 15, 2009. Morrow had applied for an emergency order for protection against Gulbertson in both September of 2008 and in May of 2009. She was granted an official order for protection June 1, according to court records.

Gulbertson was to have no direct or indirect contact with Morrow, whether that was through telephone, mail, e-mail, messaging or a third party, the order stated. This was valid through June 1, 2010.

In Minnesota, first-degree murder charges can be brought only by a grand jury. A grand jury was convened, and on Oct. 19 it charged Gulbertson with one count of first-degree murder involving premeditation, one count of first-degree murder while committing domestic abuse, one count of first-degree murder while committing a burglary, one count of second-degree murder intentional and one count of second-degree murder while restrained by an order for protection.

In court on Aug. 30, the public defender for Gulbertson moved for an evaluation to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. In November, the evaluation found he was indeed competent but prone to suicide attempts and disruptions in the courtroom.

7. Recession impact on local economy

The recession was called by many names. It was called a downtown, a slowdown, a contraction. Finally, the name Great Recession rose to the top. Even the International Monetary Fund uses the term now.

Nowhere in the Albert Lea area was the Great Recession felt more deeply than in Lake Mills, Iowa. One of its mainstay employers, Cummins Filtration, announced Aug. 25 it would layoff 400 employees between November 2009 and March 2010. The work they had done would be shifted to a plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

The president of Cummins made the announcement at the plant at 7 a.m. that day. All workers at Cummins — commonly called Fleetguard by locals in reference to a former name — were given the day off. All cut employees received a severance package with salary and health care benefits of at least a month, depending on how long they had been with Cummins. The director of communications said the recession had been hard on the filtration industry — it experienced the steepest drop in sales in the company’s 52-year history — and the shift was done to remain competitive.

Albert Lea felt the Great Recession in how people delayed major purchases, saved their money and knew they would have a hard time selling homes. Fewer transactions means less state revenue, and less state revenue means less money to support the cities. Albert Lea trimmed $1.2 million from its budget, and a fight over a reduction in the police force will continue into 2010.

Budget fights at the state, city, school and county levels all were particularly gruesome this year.

Everyone learned the term “staycation.” Enrollment at Riverland Community College went up, typical during economic slides.

The Great Recession resulted in a federal stimulus package. The legislation gave Albert Lea a new runway and Freeborn County two new roads between Albert Lea and Alden. Both Interstate 90 and Freeborn County Road 46 were “shovel-ready” when the money came flowing into Minnesota. The stimulus also made it easier for banks to make loans to small businesses in the area.

And, of course, the stimulus got auto dealers working overtime thanks to a program nicknamed “cash for clunkers.”

8. Interstate 90 tour bus rollover

Two died and 21 were injured when tour bus

A Strain Motorcoach Tours bus was headed for Rochester after four hours at the Diamond Jo Casino in Iowa on Nov. 18 when driver Ed Erickson of Elgin suffered a chest aneurysm. Three miles west of Austin shortly after 3 p.m., the eastbound bus crossed the grassy median, crossed over the westbound lanes and slammed into the north ditch before rolling onto its right side — the side with the door. Two people died and three were injured.

Good Samaritans pulled over and began helping the trapped passengers. They managed to open the hatches on the top of the bus and to speak with the driver and passengers through the busted front glass. Authorities arrived, and many of the passengers were seated on the side of the ditch. Witness Tammy Eggum of Hayward was driving westbound when she saw the bus cross the median. She said the bus became airborne.

“It was like the movie ‘Speed,’” she said. “I was just concerned about stopping, hitting my brakes and couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Ambulances came from far and near to take all the passengers to hospitals for treatment. Freeway traffic in both directions was blocked for hours. Once everyone was out of the bus and transported, large wreckers were positioned to lift the bus. The bus had no seat belts, and when it overturned, some passengers were trapped underneath.

The rollover gained national attention, as most bus crashes do. Most of the passengers were Rochester area residents. Rhonda Hill, 52, of Plainview, and Pamela Holmquist, 56, of Kasson died in the crash.

In December, Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson announced no charges would be filed because Erickson developed sudden, unforeseen internal bleeding and passed out behind the wheel.

9. City manager announces resignation

A newspaper in Longmont, Colo., reported in mid-November the names of the finalists for a city administrator job in Lyons, Colo. That piece of information slipped without notice from Albert Lea’s online community but the next report, on Dec. 9, did not. Word spread fast that Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen was offered the position and that a contract had been negotiated. It said she would start March 1.

Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh clarified that, though a contract had been formed, she had not taken the position and was weighing her options. She has been city manager in Albert Lea since 2004 and was an administrator for Fort Morgan, Colo., from 2000 to 2004. She was one of 44 applicants for the Lyons position and among four finalists.

She apologized to the Albert Lea City Council members at a Dec. 10 workshop for not telling them about the job search before news hit local media. Councilors offered words of support for Simonsen and thanked her for the things she has done here.

That led everyone to wait for the end of the Dec. 14 meeting — one of the longest meetings of the year — to hear Murtaugh announce that Simonsen had tendered her resignation. Her last day as city manager will be Feb. 12, 2010. She starts as Lyons’ administrator on March 1. The Lyons Town Council approved, on a 6-1 vote, her salary at $82,000, in addition to $6,000 in relocation expenses. Her 2010 salary in Albert Lea would have been $100,341.

Simonsen, in a letter, stated she hopes in her new endeavor she will be able to live her life with those she loves “in a simpler, less demanding lifestyle that will assist me to find more balance between my home life and my career.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Lyons had as population of 2,035 in 2008.

The Albert Lea City Council on Dec. 28 approved a contract with Maplewood-based firm The Brimeyer Group to perform an executive search for a new city manager.

10. Quadruple fatality on Interstate 90

Gloria Anderson, 62, was headed east Aug. 19 in her Toyota Corolla home to St. Charles, Ill., with a car packed with belongings. Eastbound and westbound on Interstate 90 between Albert Lea and Alden was down to two lanes while crews reconstructed the other two lanes. For a reason still undetermined, she veered shortly after 2:30 p.m. into the westbound lanes, smashing into the front of a tractor-trailer driven by Randy Pedersen, 56, of Swaledale, Iowa. Anderson died upon impact.

The truck’s front was crumpled, and the semi driver said his steering gave out. The semi crashed into an eastbound Honda Odyssey minivan with a father and two children from Waterloo, Iowa, inside. The driver was Soubink Khemphomma, 46. The children were Bambi, 13, and Christi Khemphomma, 11. Their mother, Bouakham Khemphomma, waited up Wednesday for her husband and two children to arrive home.

The children had been staying with relatives in Minnesota, and the father punched out from his job at Tyson Fresh Meats at 6 a.m. to make the trek up to Mountain Lake to take them back home to Waterloo so they could be ready for the first day of school on Thursday. The mother got news of the fatal collision shortly after 8 p.m. when a police officer knocked on her door.

The collisions happened within visible distance of the Super America gas station near the junction of I-90 and Minnesota Highway 13. The I-90 overpass of Highway 13 remained closed for several hours until maintenance vehicles removed wreckage and the team could reconstruct the crash. Traffic was rerouted.

The Minnesota State Patrol’s report on the quadruple fatality was still ongoing at the end of 2009. It often takes several months before it reaches the county attorney’s office.

It was the deadliest automobile crash since Sept. 4, 1988. Four people had died when a Jeep failed to yield to a car at the corner of Freeborn County Roads 26 and 19.

And the rest …

The runner-ups for the list of top stories were:

Fire burns Hanson Tire service bays.

 Fire scorches Waste Management building.

 Use of unusual weapons in assaults (sword, steak knife, hammer, shovel).

 Longtime Albert Lea superintendent retires (Dave Prescott); new superintendent hired (Mike Funk).

 Bent Tree Wind Farm gets its permits; construction to begin in spring.

 Expansion of the Albert Lea Municipal Airport.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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