Top 10 stories of the year

Impacts of coronavirus top year of local news

The year 2020 will forever be remembered in the history books as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It changed the way of life for  people across the globe, and in Albert Lea it was no different.

As the Tribune editor, publisher and reporters sat down at the beginning of December to look back through the big stories of the year and narrow that list to the top 10, there was no question the pandemic and how it impacted the community was the top story of the year.

Aside from the pandemic, however, there were several other large stories, including a controversial election season, shootings, fires, changes in the business community and developments for the new clinic opening in Albert Lea that in most years would have been top news.

Here is how the news of 2020 stacked up:

1. Coronavirus sweeps across the globe; safety precautions put in place affect daily living, schools,
businesses, nursing homes, other areas of life

Andy Dyrdal waves to his granddaughter-in-law and his great-granddaughters during a visit in April through a window at Thorne Crest Senior Living Community for his 97th birthday. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

In March, COVID-19 became real for Minnesota residents when Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order directing Minnesotans to stay at home and limit movements outside of their home beyond essential needs.

Schools shifted to distance learning, several businesses not deemed essential shut their doors, and city and county buildings were closed out of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and give local and state officials time to prepare resources and gather personal protective equipment for area hospitals and nursing homes.

People who could work from home were asked to do so, and visits were limited at local senior care facilities and hospitals.

The stay-at-home order was ultimately extended, but even after it was drawn back, many limitations remained in place. People were asked to wear face masks indoors and limit large indoor gatherings.

Many large summer events were canceled, including the Freeborn County Fair, most of the small town festivals, the Big Island Rendezvous and others.

It was not uncommon to see drive-in church services, outdoor graduation ceremonies or even drive-thru birthday parades.

While in-person dining was allowed for a few months, resaturants and bars in November were asked to scale back again to takeout and delivery only.  This order remains in place through Jan. 10.

As of press time Monday, COVID-19 had led to 17 deaths in Freeborn County and 92 hospitalizations. Of the county’s 1,934 people who have tested positive for the virus, 77 cases currently remain active.

Minnesota has had 5,160 cumulative deaths. New case counts are declining both in the county and as a state, along with hospitalizations.

Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea began vaccinating its health care employees the week of Christmas, and Albert Lea nursing homes were slated to begin vaccinating workers and residents the final week of the year.

Many who work in the health care industry have described the vaccination as a light at the end of the tunnel.

Albert Lea schools are slated to return to in-person learning Jan. 11 after the break.

2. Community rallies behind shot officer and family

Waseca Police officer Arik Matson is steadied by his wife, Megan, as he reads a statement at Tyler Janovsky’s sentencing hearing in November at the Waseca County Courthouse. Janovsky was sentenced to 35 years in prison in Waseca County District Court for shooting Matson in the head on Jan. 6 after officers were called to a suspicious person call. Pat Christman/Mankato Free Press

Much of southern Minnesota was in shock in early January after hearing that Waseca Officer Arik Matson was shot and gravely injured while responding on duty to a call of a suspicious person.

Matson, who lives with his family in Freeborn, grew up in Albert Lea and had worked for the Waseca Police Department since 2013 on patrol and as the D.A.R.E. officer. He also was a member of the South Central Drug Task Force SWAT team and had previously worked for the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office and Wells and New Richland police departments.

Aside from his law enforcement experience, he was a volunteer on the Freeborn Fire Department and a member of the Freeborn City Council.

The community quickly rallied behind Matson and his family with a large prayer rally at Crossroads Church and fundraisers. A GoFundMe account for Matson and his family raised over $200,000. T-shirts sold by 407Designz of Alden and Tiger City Sports in Albert Lea raised over $16,000.

Many people followed his recovery online, and after spending several months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Matson returned home in October to warm welcome home parades in Waseca, Freeborn and Albert Lea. Though he continues his therapy and rehabilitation at home, many have described his recovery as a miracle.

Community members gathered on the street to wave and greet the parade bringing Arik Matson home in October. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

In November, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, in partnership with Dave Syverson Ford Lincoln, presented Matson with a new 2020 Ford Expedition and an additional $25,000. The Minnesota 100 Club gave gifts and checks of $500 to each of Matson’s two young daughters.

The man who shot Matson, Tyler Robert Janovsky, was sentenced in November to 35 years in prison — 20 years in prison for first-degree attempted murder of Matson and 15 years in prison for a second count for fellow Waseca officers Andrew Harren and Sgt. Timothy Schroeder.

3. Shooting at Shady Oaks apartments injures 3

A Minnesota State Patrol trooper blocks off the entrance across from Shady Oaks apartment complex Nov. 29, the scene of an early morning shooting that injured three people. Eric Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

Life in Albert Lea stood still for much of the day Nov. 29 during a reported shooting and standoff at Shady Oaks apartments that injured three people, including one Albert Lea officer.

Authorities arrested Devin Matthew Weiland, who lived at the apartments, after an eight-hour standoff. Investigators said Weiland allegedly fired as many as 90 rounds during the standoff, which started after he reportedly called law enforcement for a report of fireworks or gunshots in the area. When the first officer arrived, he reportedly began firing shots out the window from his apartment on the third floor, striking the officer in the chest with a rifle.

The officer, who was wearing a protective vest, suffered a serious injury to the chest that was about two-inches-by-two-inches in size and that was consistent with a wound caused by a high-velocity impact, according to court documents.

The Freeborn County attorney said during the approximately eight hours that followed, Weiland took shots at whatever target presented itself as officers attempted to make contact, and there is no evidence that any of the other individuals who were shot were threatening to him.

One of the others who was injured also reportedly lived at the apartment complex and walked out of the building because he was concerned about his vehicle. As he returned to the building, he was shot in the arm, suffering a gunshot wound to his right bicep that displaced and fractured his humerus. He also suffered a large tearing injury to the right side of his chest.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension continued its investigation Nov. 30 into the shooting at Shady Oaks. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Another man, who lives across the street from Shady Oaks, was reportedly shot in the leg through his car door while leaving to drive to work, court records state.

Authorities worked to evacuate as many people as possible to United Methodist Church, and Weiland ultimately surrendered after he reportedly suffered an injury to his forehead, though it has not been stated whether that was from himself or others.

The incident garnered the aid of law enforcement all over the region, which set up an emergency headquarters at Skyline Plaza. Residents of Albert Lea were issued emergency messages to avoid the area while the standoff was ongoing, and nearby streets were blocked off to motorists.

Weiland has since been charged in Freeborn County District Court with three counts of attempted murder and three counts of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon.

4. Area and nation see heated election season; Republicans sweep most of races in Freeborn County

Incumbent District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, looks on at election numbers on election night at Wedgewood Cove with Republican District 27 Senate candidate Gene Dornink. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Election seasons can often be divisive, and this year’s election proved especially so on the national level and trickling on down to local offices.

Though it was a heated election, the campaigns were different than in typical election years because of COVID-19, leading to smaller gatherings and in some cases more virtual events.

Though former Vice President Joe Biden ultimately won Minnesota in the presidential race, Trump won the vote in Freeborn County with almost 57% of the vote, compared to Biden’s almost 41%.

DFLer U.S. Sen. Tina Smith won reelection statewide, though Republican Jason Lewis garnered more votes locally.

U.S. House Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican, won reelection in the 1st District, and Republican District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett won reelection against DFLer Thomas Martinez.

Republican Gene Dornink of Hayfield overturned the District 27 Senate seat, unseating longtime state Sen. Dan Sparks, a DFLer.

The Albert Lea City Council saw three incumbent councilors reelected to their seats, while the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners will have three new commissioners. Albert Lea school board member Neal Skaar was reelected to his position, and Angie Hoffman and Bruce Olson will join him on the board.

The Albert Lea school district’s levy referendum failed and will come before voters again in 2021.

5. Large fire destroys Albert Lea warehouse

A large fire broke out at a structure at 601 W. Main St., along the West Main Street viaduct Thursday night. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

On the evening of Dec. 3, an Albert Lea patrol officer discovered a fire in the warehouse building at 601 W. Main St.

When firefighters arrived, they found heavy smoke, and the fire quickly grew to engulf the whole building, leading to heavy smoke throughout the city and the evacuation of 13 nearby homes, including homes on the north and south sides of College Street and on the south side of Main Street. Several of the people who were evacuated sought shelter at United Methodist Church.

News of the fire grew quickly on social media as people driving over the West Main Street viaduct took photos and video of the fire and shared them.

The Albert Lea Fire Department, along with the Glenville and Austin fire departments, battled the blaze, with fire crews remaining at the site for about 10 hours.

The warehouse destroyed in the fire was owned by Merrick’s of Minnesota LLC, according to Freeborn County property records. Damage was estimated at $300,000.

The building originated in the late 1930s as RILCO Laminated Products Inc. adjacent to the former Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, and manufactured thousands of glued laminated arches, bow-string trusses and solid timber roof trusses for factories, hangars, warehouses and other buildings for the armed services and war industries.

Deputy Albert Lea Fire Chief Jeff Laskowske, right, speaks with Lt. Trevor DeRaad Dec. 4, the morning after a large fire at 601 W. Main St. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

After an investigation into the incident, the Albert Lea Fire Department stated the cause of the fire was deemed undetermined. The department stated human interaction was believed to be involved in starting the fire because the building had no power, gas or utilities of any kind. However, the damage was significant enough that investigators could not determine if the human interaction was accidental or intentional.

The police department had frequently been called there for reports of homeless people seeking shelter at the building.

The city of Albert Lea at the end of December stated it had received a court order allowing for the cleanup of the site and had contracted with Dulas Excavating for $40,000 for the work. Work was expected to be complete in early January.

6. Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition purchases former Herberger’s building; COVID-19 delays start of construction

Brad Arends, right, shakes hands with Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition’s “Big Donor,” John Morrison, during an event in Albert Lea in February. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

The year started off on a high note for the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition when it purchased the former Herberger’s building at Northbridge Mall in February.

In a celebration with dozens of members of the community in attendance, coalition trustee and president Brad Arends signed documents to make the purchase official and the crowd erupted into applause.

Also attending the ceremony was Albert Lea High School graduate John Morrison of the class of 1955, who contributed $1 million toward the effort.

The Herberger’s sign was removed in August at property owned by the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition that is expected to become a new MercyOne clinic. Provided

Plans call for partnering with MercyOne North Iowa to bring a new clinic to the community.

Construction was on track to begin in April when MercyOne announced in March it had temporarily halted construction plans for the Albert Lea clinic because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals across the country were closed down for elective surgeries and many other procedures.

Despite the setback, the coalition continued fundraising throughout the spring and summer and announced in August it had received two larger donations from Albert Lea High School alumni who no longer live in the community — one for $150,000 from an anonymous donor and a second for $700,000 from Dale Larson.

In November, the coalition announced it had received word from MercyOne that construction would begin in January.

The groundbreaking ceremony has now been slated for Jan. 14.

7. Rally held in Albert Lea in honor of George Floyd asks for justice, change

A Justice for George Floyd Rally was held in June diagonally across from the Freeborn County law enforcement center. Floyd died the week before while in Minneapolis Police Department custody, igniting rallies, protests and demonstrations across the state, country and the world. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Eight days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a few hundred people gathered in Albert Lea north of the Freeborn County courthouse to protest against Floyd’s death and to open a dialogue for change.

Floyd, 46, was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to pay for goods at a grocery store and died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for minutes, even after he stopped moving. That officer faces a second-degree murder charge in the case, and the other three officers at the scene are facing charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

People of all backgrounds came out to the George Floyd rally in Albert Lea June 2. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

There had been many protests across the state and country after Floyd’s death, and the one in Albert Lea included people of all ages and backgrounds.

Attendees of the rally in Albert Lea gathered in the county parking lot at the intersection of Newton Avenue and College Street, and organizers encouraged people to practice social distancing and wear face masks.

With high temperatures and humidity, Albert Lea police officers handed out water to attendees.

Members of the Albert Lea Police Department, including Public Safety Director JD Carlson, left, kneel during the Justice for George Floyd Rally in June in Albert Lea. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Many talked about the need for change on a greater scale but also credited the Albert Lea Police Department for its work in the community.

After the rally, they also walked through the downtown streets, carrying signs and chanting to remember Floyd and that “Black lives matter.”

8. Community rallies together after deaths of several area youth

Crosses, flowers and other items could be seen near the site where a missing Albert Lea 18-year-old was found along the edge of Fountain Lake. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Any time you have one youth death in a community, it is heartbreaking, but this year, the Albert Lea area saw the deaths of a handful of youth by tragic circumstances.

The first was in February when 16-year-old Grace Zimmerman died in a crash on Minnesota Highway 13 south of Manchester. Zimmerman was a sophomore at Albert Lea High School and was part of the Albert Lea dance team.

In June, the body of a missing teenager was found in Fountain Lake. William Edward Bair, 18, had last been seen two days prior and was found in the lake by a family member searching from the shore. Family and friends could be seen for several days along the shoreline of the lake after Bair’s body was recovered, as they reminisced about his life and paid their respects.

In August, Madison “Maddie” Mann, 12, a student at Southwest Middle School, died from injuries she sustained in an ATV crash. Her friends said she was full of life and enjoyed dancing.

Close to the same time, Jimmy Amarosa, 17, of Albert Lea died unexpectedly as a result of a car crash in Glenville. Amarosa attended the Area Learning Center and enjoyed spending time on his Xbox with family and friends, according to his obituary.

In September, Job Sanchez, 16, who attended Albert Lea High School, died of complications with pneumonia. Sanchez was employed at Walmart and enjoyed skateboarding, video games and being with family and friends.

In all of the instances, the community rallied to support friends and family of the victims through food, fundraisers, prayer vigils and other efforts, and school officials worked to provide counseling resources to students when possible.

9. Sunflower fields open north of Albert Lea, bring hope and sunshine to residents

A sunflower field in rural Albert Lea opened in September for people to visit and take pictures near Manchester. The field, started by Johnny Olson and on the property of his cousin Jared Dawson is dedicated to families in the local community who have lost children to accidents or illnesses. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Amidst the sadness that came in 2020 from the deaths of several area youth, along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the heated election, a ray of hope came forward in September when a Minnesota man named Johnny Olson partnered with his cousin, Jared Dawson, of the Manchester area, to open sunflower fields.

Olson, who is also known as Johnny Fish, started his first sunflower field on an old farm he bought from an elderly man and his wife who moved into an assisted living center. The man had a green thumb for growing flowers, and as a way to thank the man and to be a good steward, Olson decided to grow some sunflowers on the property.

He cleared the land of old trees, fences and other structures and planted the flowers.

One day after the flowers were grown and blooming, someone stopped and took pictures, and the effort took off from there.

He expanded from one to two fields, and this year — in his fifth year — he planted 12 fields, each dedicated to a group of people such as caregivers, grandparents or people who are sick or hurting.

The field near Manchester was planted on Dawson’s property and was dedicated to honor the children in the community who had died this year and in recent years, along with their families.

Lilly Steele, Nataleigh Nelson, Michaela Nelson and Issabelle Steele pose at the Fish Sunflower field near Manchester in September. Provided

The fields, like in other parts of the state, grew in popularity and saw visits from hundreds of people both locally and from out of the area during the time they were open.

Many said the fields brought comfort and peace during what was an otherwise difficult year. Pictures of people in front of the sunflowers popped up all over social media when the fields were open, and they resurfaced again during the holiday season on the front of many Christmas cards.

10. Marketplace Foods closes; developer calls for turning building into high-end apartments.

Marketplace Foods owner Jim Baldus confirmed in February that the store would close in March. A developer has brought forth plans to change the building into market-rate apartments. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

After being on the west side of Albert Lea since 2014, Marketplace Foods in February announced it was closing in March to make way for renovations for a new development. 

Owner Jim Baldus, who also owns Jim’s MarketPlace in Austin, had leased the space in Albert Lea and said he hoped to reopen the store at the same location at a later time once renovations were completed.

When the time came to close, however, it didn’t appear the store would be reopening, and residents on that side of town adjusted to shopping elsewhere. It had been a long time without a grocery store in western Albert Lea. Before Marketplace Foods, there was Nelson’s Market Place and Nelson’s County Market.

Details about potential development at the site surfaced in September when developers came in front of the Albert Lea City Council to talk about a possible project and to gain some political assurances to move forward with the purchase of the property.

The plan calls for a 50-unit complex with one- and two-bedroom higher-level units. The building would also include amenities such as an exercise area and gathering space for tenants and would likely include the option for indoor parking. In the future, if things go well, the developers said, there could be opportunities to do more.

In November the Albert Lea City Council approved a new tax-increment finance district and plan for redevelopment of the building into market rate units.

The redevelopment TIF district will allow the developers to use the increment of new tax dollars for a set number of years to pay down the overall cost of the project without impacting existing taxes.

At that time, construction was anticipated to start in May 2021 with substantial completion in December 2022.

Honorable mentions:

1. Albert Lea sees changes in local leadership.

City Manager David Todd resigns in May, and after a search for a new city manager, the Albert Lea City Council hires Ian Rigg. Susie Petersen retires as executive director of the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Holly Karsjens is hired to fill her position. Assistant City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos resigns from his position in Albert Lea for a new position in Oregon.

2. Riverland Community College completes $10.1 million in renovations, including bringing the transportation career fields offered through the college under one roof, adding and modernizing classroom and lab spaces, demolishing an obsolete building, incorporating a truck driving range, among others.

Riverland Community College President Adenuga Atewologun speaks during a ceremony in the new lower level student commons area at the Albert Lea campus. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

3. Work begins at the house adjacent to the popular Itasca Rock Garden northwest of Edgewater Park in Albert Lea after the Kohler Foundation purchased the property the year prior to restore the rock gardens.

4. Despite the pandemic, several new businesses opened this year, including The Funky Zebras, EJ’s Mercantile, Lush Salon and B-Lo Zero Sno Cones. Work was also done for new buildings for Rihm Kenworth and the new Albert Lea Veterans Affairs clinic. The former Elks Lodge was renovated for Peterson, Kolker, Haedt & Benda Ltd.

5. Clarks Grove man Mickey Nelson raises over $100,000 for the Salvation Army after pledging to walk 100 miles in an effort to raise money for the organization.

Mickey Nelson of Clarks Grove was joined by many family, friends and community members on his final half mile after walking 100 miles. Nelson’s fundraiser has raised over $100,000 towards the Salvation Army Northern Division. Tyler Julson/Albert Lea Tribune

6. Motor Inn Co. and Chevrolet of Albert Lea announced in August they have merged. They are now known as Wuerflein Chevrolet Buick GMC and Wuerflein Honda.

7. Bridge Avenue reconstruction begins, will continue in 2021.