2019 year in review: Changes in Albert Lea health care top news

Published 7:48 pm Monday, December 30, 2019

Albert Lea put its name on the map multiple times in 2019 — some for the good and others for the bad.

Whether it was the loss of hospital services through Mayo Clinic Health System, the announcement that MercyOne North Iowa will open a new clinic in 2020, the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener or multiple instances of severe weather, there was a lot happening in the community.

Albert Lea also saw the closure of longtime retailer Shopko, a police shooting, major construction at Hammer Field, changes on many levels of local leadership and the sudden deaths of a handful of prominent community members.

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The following are the top stories of the year, as voted on by the Tribune’s newsroom staff.


1. Albert Lea sees major health care changes; Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea closes The Baby Place, medical-surgical unit; MercyOne North Iowa announces it will open clinic in old Herberger’s building

The year 2019 was a year of change in Albert Lea with the completion of Mayo Clinic Health System’s final consolidation of most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin, namely the move of Albert Lea’s medical-surgical unit and The Baby Place.

The health system had previously moved the intensive care unit to the Austin campus, along with major surgeries requiring hospitalization, and the behavioral health inpatient unit transferred from Austin to Albert Lea. 

The health system had initially stated it planned to move childbirth services to Austin in mid- to late 2020 but in June announced it was considering an expedited timeline for this consolidation because of a staffing shortage.

In July, officials with the health system confirmed labor and delivery services would transition in October, and the unit closed to new patients at the end of that month.

As the plan continued rolling out for Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, community members who were part of the grassroots Save Our Healthcare organization continued meeting regularly, working to restore services and bring in a new provider.

In September, the nonprofit Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition announced  MercyOne North Iowa will open a clinic in Albert Lea in summer 2020. Plans for the new clinic will be delivered in five phases — starting with a primary care clinic with enough space for visiting specialists and extended hours for urgent care, including the weekends. Future phases planned include additional specialists, imaging center and an ambulatory surgery center. Each phase will be implemented as goals for patient loads are achieved.

The coalition, which is made up of a group of business, community and civic leaders from Albert Lea and Freeborn County, announced in October its plans to purchase the former Herberger’s space at Northbridge Mall for the clinic. 

The coalition will own the building and MercyOne will rent the space.

Though the current plans do not call for replacing the services lost through the Mayo Clinic Health System consolidation, coalition leaders have said that is still a goal once the initial phases are completed.

The coalition spent the last few months of the year fundraising for the building and spreading the word about the plans for the new clinic.


2. Albert Lea hosts Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener, brings positive exposure to the community

After months of preparation on both the local and state levels, Albert Lea and the surrounding area welcomed Gov. Tim Walz, legislators, media members, outdoor enthusiasts and others to town in May for the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener.

The Fishing Opener has taken place since 1948 and was designed to improve Minnesota’s economy through developing and promoting the state’s recreational opportunities. Today, the event celebrates the start of the summer tourism season and provides promotion for the host community as well as statewide recreational opportunities.

Numerous events took place, including a children’s fishing event, a community picnic and dance, a shore lunch — and of course the fishing, among others.

It was the 72nd year for the statewide tradition but the first time for the event to be held in Albert Lea.

Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan were on hand for most of the  events and issued a friendly wager to see who could catch the most fish, with the winner receiving a 2-liter of soda.

John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, commended local organizers for their work in organizing the event.

“I sincerely believe that this community came out like I haven’t seen in a long, long time with their enthusiasm, with their hospitality to make this one of the more memorable fishing openers in a long time,” Edman said.

According to a report after the event, the Governor’s Fishing Opener brought in more than 100 media personnel. Stories about the event online and in print had an audience reach of almost 647 million.


3. Mother Nature delivers a tough year. Whether it was near-record snowfall, chilly temperatures, heavy wind or rain, the weather affected many

Though Albert Lea didn’t break any major records in temperatures or precipitation in 2019, it was an eventful year for weather nonetheless.

In January, Albert Lea saw temperatures fall as low as 32 degrees below zero, which was the fourth coldest temperature on record for the city, according to the National Weather Service.

A blizzard in February that dumped almost a foot of snow on Albert Lea caused numerous problems, including the closure of both interstates 35 and 90, the closure of all area schools and many businesses.

Large snowdrifts led to numerous vehicles getting stuck in the snow and the opening of an emergency shelter at the Albert Lea National Guard Armory.

According to the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 82 people were rescued from treacherous highways in Freeborn County, and seven were rescued from trains that were stranded.

No injuries were reported locally.

In April, Freeborn County declared an emergency after high winds and ice led to hundreds of downed poles. At its peak, 12,000 Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services members were without power, and emergency shelters were set up in Clarks Grove, Alden and Albert Lea for people without power.

Preliminary damage estimates for Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services totaled $3 million. The cooperative will be eligible for reimbursement for a portion of the damages through both the state and federal government.

Later in the year, farmers struggled with a cool and wet planting season and then heavy rains throughout the summer.


4. Shopko closes its doors in Albert Lea and across the nation

After almost 34 years in operation, Albert Lea’s Shopko closed its doors to customers in May after a rocky road for the company nationwide.

In mid-January, the retail chain announced it had filed for voluntary petitions for a court-supervised financial restructuring under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

The Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin-based retailer then announced plans to close stores, sell its pharmacy assets and spin off its optical centers into standalone locations. The changes were designed to enable the company to emerge from bankruptcy with the ability to continue operating with a slimmed-down, more profitable footprint across the Midwest and northwest United States.

However, the company only a month later published a list that indicated it would close 251 stores or 70 percent of its locations, more than twice the number of stores Shopko identified for closing in mid-January. That included the stores in Albert Lea and Austin.

The closure of Albert Lea’s Shopko came less than a year after the closure of the Albert Lea Herberger’s on the other side of Northbridge Mall. The Bon-Ton Stores, owner of Herberger’s, also filed for a court-supervised financial restructuring under Chapter 11.


5. South Broadway sees continued revitalization with renovations of several more buildings

After several years without much new life on South Broadway in Albert Lea, the thoroughfare saw an uptick in activity this year.

The work started with the relocation of Domino’s and Slumberland Furniture south of Front Street in 2018 and trickled down the street in 2019.

Thirsty Fox Pub & Grill opened in August, followed by the opening of Bleacher’s sports bar and grill.

At the end of August, a group of local attorneys announced they had purchased the former Elks Lodge with plans to renovate the building into space for the Peterson, Kolker, Haedt & Benda law firm and a real estate development and financing firm owned by former attorney Richard N. Davies and family.

The building is slated to be renovated by summer of 2020.

Assistant Albert Lea City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos said the city also expected to see a business office and a small apartment at 927 S. Broadway, as well as the rebuilding of an auto service and tire center at 1118 S. Broadway.

To spur further development, the Albert Lea City Council in December approved expanding the South Broadway Urban Renewal Grant/Loan Policy, which allows property and business owners in the South Broadway corridor to apply for funding for building and facade improvements.

With the amendment, property and business owners can now get up to $30,000 or a 50/50 match on the first $60,000 of total project costs. The city said the increased financial assistance provides property and business owners with a greater opportunity to revitalize buildings, improve curb appeal and provide greater energy efficiency and compliance with building standards.


6. Albert Lea man dies in officer-involved shooting

A 27-year-old Albert Lea man died Jan. 3 as a result of an officer-involved shooting in the alley between College and Court streets in Albert Lea.

Officers were initially dispatched to a report of Joseph Alan Roberts, 27, engaging in disorderly conduct at a home on Court Street.

When police arrived, they found Roberts in the street carrying a large knife, described as a meat cleaver. Police pursued him on foot, and the pursuit ended in the alley.

Officers reportedly first used pepper spray and a Taser to detain him, but he continued to aggressively approach the officers. He was ultimately shot by two of the officers and died at the scene.

Though officers were not yet wearing body cameras at the time of the incident, the scene was captured on various squad car cameras.

The Olmsted County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the investigation conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, announced in June that no charges would be filed in the case.

The County Attorney’s Office stated evidence did not support criminal charges against any of the officers involved.

“In this case, the evidence supports the conclusion that Officer Cantu and Lt. Palmer reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to protect themselves and/or others from death or great bodily harm,” a press release stated.

Family members previously stated Roberts was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar.

Though officers were familiar with Roberts from previous arrests, the family stated the officers also knew the mental health and chemical use issues he faced and questioned why officers had to shoot him. The family said Roberts wasn’t in his right state of mind at the time of the incident.


7. New leaders are at the helm of the city of Albert Lea, the Albert Lea Housing and  Redevelopment Authority, the Freeborn County Department of Human Services and the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce

Albert Lea and Freeborn County saw several changes in leadership during 2019 at the county and city levels and at the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams announced in April he was leaving his position to serve as the CEO of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. He had been with the city since 2011.

The Albert Lea City Council began a search for a new manager through the search firm DDA Human Resources Inc. and in July selected four finalists, which came to town for interviews later that month.

After interviewing the candidates, the council voted to hire Pine Island City Administrator David Todd in July, and Todd started in September.

In August, the Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority board selected Jeanne Leick of Grand Island, Nebraska, to be the new executive director for the organization.

Leick had worked for the Hall County Housing Authority in Grand Island for over nine years — most recently as executive director for more than a year and previously as deputy director. She had also worked as an executive director for the Gothenberg Housing Authority in Gothenburg, Nebraska, for seven years.

Albert Lea’s HRA director position had been open since June 2018, when former HRA Executive Director Jon Ford resigned. Albert Lea Assistant City manager Jerry Gabrielatos and Albert Lea Finance Director Kristi Brutlag oversaw the agency in the interim.

At the county level, Department of Human Services Director Brian Buhmann stepped down from his position to become Wabasha County administrator.

Freeborn County commissioners hired Suzanne Nerison to replace him. Nerison started her career in Big Stone County in the Human Services Department first as an eligibility worker before being promoted to a supervisor, where she remained until 2011.

From there, she went to Rice County, where she worked in child protection and had been a supervisor.

Lastly, the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce in September announced it had parted ways with Executive Director Rhonda Jordal, who had worked for the organization about 15 months.

Chamber board member Kim Nelson announced during the December Business After Hours that Torrey Zimmerman had been hired as interim executive director.

Zimmerman is a conflict resolution specialist with Zimmerman Steel & Gray.


8. Albert Lea loses three major community advocates in unexpected deaths

Albert Lea residents were shocked and saddened to hear about the deaths of three major community advocates in 2019, including longtime Albert Lea volunteer Dan Borland, Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau employee Verlaine Williams and Church Offset Printing owner Michael Kruse.

Borland died in February after an apparent heart attack during blizzard conditions while in the First Lutheran Church parking lot. His car became stuck while leaving the church after live-streaming the service.

Borland was remembered by his friends and family as a kind and generous person who was selfless with his time, camera and video work, and willing to put his health after serving others. He had worked at KAAL-TV for many years before starting his own business, Dan Borland Videography.

Borland was involved with the Blandin Community Leadership Program, Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Department, Marion Ross Performing Arts Center, Save Our Healthcare, Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, Big Island Rendezvous and the Governor’s Fishing Opener.

Williams, who worked part time at the CVB, was a familiar face for many at community events and was known as someone who loved and promoted Albert Lea. She was also heavily involved in Trinity Lutheran Church events.

She died in October, only about seven months after the passing of her daughter, Yvette.

Kruse, a longtime Albert Lea resident, owned Church Offset Printing and North American Label and served over the years as an active member of St. Theodore Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, as well as many local civic groups. He was a lifetime Chamber Ambassador and received a Purple Heart and other medals of honor during his time in the Vietnam War.


9. Work is ongoing at Hammer Complex

Construction was underway most of the year on the new Hammer Complex after voters approved a $24.615 million referendum in 2018.

The new turf, scoreboard and grandstand are complete, along with the area for concessions and bathrooms.

Work was also done on the new parking lot, landscaping, fencing, drainage for the soccer and softball fields, and the fieldhouse, which will house sports locker rooms, a training room, a fitness center, a classroom, a conference room and second-floor lobby with views of the field.

As part of the referendum, work was also completed at Halverson Elementary School to expand the gymnasium and relocate administrative offices to the front of the building.


10. Freeborn County sheriff appeals salary and wins; county appeals decision

Though Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag filed his initial salary appeal in December 2018, most of the litigation took place in 2019.

Freitag appealed the $97,020 salary the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners set, stating the commissioners acted in an “arbitrary, capricious and oppressive manner,” failing to take into account his responsibilities, experience and qualifications.

He had requested an almost $114,000 salary.

The case came before Waseca County District Court Judge Carol Hanks in May for a trial, and in August Hanks ruled in Freitag’s favor, ordering the sheriff’s salary be set at $113,952.

“Evidence before this court indicates the county board did not sufficiently take into account the extent of the responsibilities and duties of petitioner’s office, as well as petitioner’s experience, qualifications and performance as the sheriff of Freeborn County,” Hanks wrote in the 20-page judgment.

Hanks said the county board presented no evidence about what it considered in arriving at the $97,020 salary and did not have any discussion about Freitag’s almost $114,000 salary proposal between its Nov. 27, 2018, workshop and the Dec. 11, 2018, board meeting.

The commissioners in September voted to appeal the judge’s decision, sending the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The appeals case has yet to be decided.

In the meantime, the commissioners voted to keep Freitag’s salary at the same level as what the board approved it for in 2019 as they await the resolution of the case in the Court of Appeals.


Honorable mentions

• The Albert Lea City Council approves a new ordinance requiring people to be 21 to purchase tobacco products. A similar law was signed on the federal level by President Donald Trump in December.

• Residents across the state, including in Albert Lea, are no longer able to hold their phones while operating a motor vehicle. Violating the hands-free cellphone law is punishable by a $50 ticket on the first offense and $275 for tickets thereafter.

• The body of missing Albert Lea man Nicholas Ramirez, 21, is found in the channel between Albert Lea and Fountain lakes in September. The death was ruled accidental after the medical examiner’s report listed the death as a probable freshwater drowning.


Top 20 news stories online

1. Jan. 3: “1 killed after Albert Lea officer-involved shooting,” 17,251 pageviews

2. July 25: “Dealership owner charged with offering to forgive car debt in exchange for sex acts,” 12,997 pageviews

3. Feb. 26: “‘It was a loss that touched the entire community,’” 10,285 pageviews

4. Jan. 18: “Multiple crashes reported on I-35,” 8,056 pageviews

5. Sept. 10: “2 from Denmark seriously injured in head-on crash,” 8,052 pageviews

6. July 16: “Albert Lea resident in custody after allegedly entering Lou-Rich with a shotgun,” 7,160 pageviews

7. March 11: “Austin man charged with alleged rape at Albert Lea hotel,” 7,103 pageviews

8. Jan. 4: “BCA releases names of officers involved in shooting,” 7,089 pageviews

9. Jan. 10: “1 dead after fatal crash,”7,084 pageviews

10. Dec. 19: “Entertainment announced for 2020 Freeborn County Fair,” 7,061 pageviews

11. Aug. 21: “Child struck by car in Albert Lea,” 6,616 pageviews

12. Aug. 3: “Concert review: Casting Crowns brings church to the fair,” 5,800 pageviews

13. Jan. 9: “‘He was a kind soul but had demons,’” 5,651 pageviews

14. July 30: “18-year-old in critical condition after rollover crash,” 5,573 pageviews

15. Jan. 6: “Community vigil held for Albert Lea man who died following officer-involved shooting,” 5,571 pageviews

16. Feb. 6: “Woman charged with Walmart theft,” 5,443 pageviews

17. July 31: “Albert Lea man arrested after intentionally crashing into vehicle, injuring 3,” 5,348 pageviews

18. Nov. 6: “2 injured in home invasion,” 5,347 pageviews

19. July 20: “Storms bring downed trees, branches; more than 5,000 without power,” 5,340 pageviews

20. April 11: “County board declares state of emergency due to winter storm damage,” 5,289 pageviews