Year in Review: Development in Albert Lea tops year in local news

Published 12:56 pm Monday, January 2, 2023

Every community has its share of big stories each year, and Albert Lea is no different. Throw in the mix an election and other changes in local leadership and things get even more interesting.

The Tribune editor, publisher and staff 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 with several honorable mentions.

After reviewing the events from 2022, the following are the top 10 stories of the year as voted on by Tribune staff:

Although the grand opening isn’t until next month, Harbor Freight Tools opened their doors to customers Tuesday. Alex Guerrero/Albert Lea Tribune

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1

To increased economic development in Albert Lea.

Despite the ongoing hardships of inflation and increases in construction costs, the Albert Lea area saw a strong year of economic development in 2022 with the opening of many new businesses and progress made on new housing developments.

Almost 10 months after breaking ground for the new Vortex Cold Storage in Albert Lea, the company’s founders and its starting employees opened the doors to their first truck in February in the ALEDA Industrial Park off of 14th Street between South Broadway and Margaretha avenues. The building provides temperature-controlled Safe Quality Food Certified storage, ranging from 40 degrees to 20 below zero, along with other customizable warehouse services.

The company invested over $30 million into the project and was expected to have as many as 31 employees when complete.

Down the street, Design Ready Controls opened in October in the 60,000-square-foot Albert Lea Economic Development Agency building at the corner of Margaretha Avenue and 14th Street. The company manufactures electrical control panels and wire harnesses and will build mobile commercial electric vehicle chargers for a company called Heliox, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, at the Albert Lea facility.

The former Streater building, off of First Street, was purchased by a group called 411 1st LLC in June, with plans to bring the building back to life under a new vision.

Ehkmler Soe and Jester Thakolo are cousins and co-owners of Natural Asian Grocery and Café. Marissa Hanson/Albert Lea Tribune

A manufacturer of store fixtures, Streater had been in Albert Lea since 1957, employing as many as 920 people in 1994, according to Tribune archives.

The group has already found some tenants for the building and continues to look for tenants for the remainder.

Aside from new growth in the industrial sector, Albert Lea saw growth in the retail market with the opening of Harbor Freight Tools in July and the announcements of Big Lots and Dollar Tree going in next door at Northbridge Mall. The stores will all be in the former Shopko space.

A Scooter’s Coffee building was constructed off of East Main Street, and Subway started construction a little further down the street next to its existing building.

Other new businesses have included Jersey Mike’s, Shopko Optical, Kashing Chains, Fusion Board Shop, Mocha & Mini, Natural Asian Grocery & Cafe, Al’s Burgers & Cafe, and Bader’s Cafe.

Hope Church has also been investing more than $2 million into the renovations of two downtown buildings at the corner of Broadway and Main Street.

In addition, 2022 saw the completion of a new apartment complex by Unique Opportunities LLC off of East Front Street, and progress has been underway on a separate complex at the former Market Place Foods site.

Jolean Shea poses for pictures in her shirt — which bears the phrase, “There’s a new Shea-riff in town” — with her with her husband, Ryan Shea, following his win for the position of Freeborn County sheriff. Kelly Wassenberg/Albert Lea Tribune

2
Election brings about change on many levels with redistricting, new leaders.

Election season got more interesting in February after a Minnesota Supreme Court redistricting panel announced new district maps for the state.

With the new maps, Freeborn County was split into two house districts with House District 23A including the western two-thirds of the county, along with some of Faribault, Waseca and Steele counties. House District 23B includes Hayward, Hayward Township, London Township, Moscow Township, Myrtle, Newry Township, Oakland Township and Shell Rock Township.

Hayfield, where District 27 Sen. Gene Dornink lived, no longer was in the same Senate district that covered Freeborn and Mower counties. As a result, Dornink announced he would move to Glenville to be in the newly formed Senate 23, and later opted to move to Brownsdale.

State Sen. Gene Dornink speaks during the endorsing convention in March at Edgewater Pavilion in Albert Lea. Dornink has been one of only two Republican senators to serve in District 27 in the last 50 years. The other was Grace Schwab for one term in 2000. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Former Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro owner Lisa Hanson, who was jailed for opening her restaurant in defiance of state executive orders tied to COVID-19 in late December 2020 and early 2021, filed to run against Dornink for the Republican endorsement for Senate District 23 seat but was ultimately defeated. She continued to the primary election but was also defeated there.

A few of Hanson’s supporters later filed a petition with the state Supreme Court questioning Dornink’s residence and whether he still lived in Hayfield, but that petition was dismissed.

Dornink in November won against DFLer Brandon Lawhead of Austin, and Republican Rep. Peggy Bennett won against DFLer Mary Hinnenkamp for the House District 23 seat.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murray was elected to serve as Albert Lea mayor, after Mayor Vern Rasmussen opted not to seek reelection.
New faces elected to the Albert Lea City Council include Rachel Christensen for Ward 1, Sherri Rasmussen for Ward 4 and Brian “BJ” Anderson for Ward 6.

New faces elected to the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners include Dawn Kaasa for District 2 and Nicole Eckstrom for District 5. Brad Edwin was reelected in District 1, John Forman in District 3 and Chris Shoff in District 4.

Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office detective Ryan Shea defeated Albert Lea police Lt. Jeff Strom to become the new sheriff.

3
Albert Lea Superintendent Mike Funk gets new job; Ron Wagner selected as new leader of the district.

Albert Lea Superintendent Mike Funk in April was selected as the new superintendent for Stillwater Area Schools.

Mike Funk

He took over the position in July after working for the Albert Lea district since 2009. At the time, Funk was the longest-serving superintendent in the Big 9 conference.

The Albert Lea school board worked with the Minnesota School Boards Association to find a replacement and by mid-May had identified four candidates as semifinalists for the position.

Ron Wagner

That list was narrowed down to two finalists, including Ron Wagner, associate superintendent with Minneapolis Public Schools, and Bryan Boysen, superintendent and kindergarten to fourth-grade principal at Kenyon-Wanamingo Schools.

The board ultimately selected Wagner, who taught in Indiana for 13 years. He started in July.

Crews with Ulland Brothers begin roadwork in April on East Main Street near Walgreens. The stretch from Newton Avenue to the Shell Rock River bridge is expected to be closed through early August. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

4
Albert Lea sees busy road construction season.

If you’ve lived in the area for a while, you’re probably familiar with the saying that in Minnesota there’s two seasons: winter and road construction.

That was certainly true for Albert Lea this year with major work taking place throughout the city on Main Street from late April through November.

The Main Street project started at Newton Avenue and spanned 2.5 miles east to Blake Avenue, reconstructing and raising the roadway from Newton Avenue to the Shell Rock River Bridge and then completing a mill and overlay from that point to Sorenson Road.

A big goal of the project was to counter flooding, along with increasing storm sewer intake capacity to better drain the roadway. Two large sediment ponds were created to take some of the extra water during rain events, including one on the former Godfather’s Pizza site.

The East Main Street project includes 3.05 miles of new sidewalk and trail to increase pedestrian safety and exercise options. East Main Street now has a pedestrian path along its entirety in Albert Lea, from State Highway 13/69 to Freeborn County Road 38 that goes to Myre-Big Island State Park. Provided

Further east, the road saw other notable changes take place with the installation of reduced conflict intersections, which have been shown to reduce the number of fatal crashes and crashes with severe injuries.

A shared user path was installed starting at Garfield Avenue and running east, past Walmart and Home Depot and out to the truck stops.

In addition to road work, Albert Leans also stayed busy watching the construction of the new 1 million gallon central water tower downtown, which is almost 180 feet tall.

Albert Lea Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Laskowske leads the firefighters carrying the urn of Lt. Brett Boss, who died after battling cancer. Behind the firefighters was Boss’s family. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

5
Community rallies together after Albert Lea Fire Rescue Lt. Brett Boss dies after battle with cancer.

Family, friends, community members and firefighters from across the state paid tribute in February to Albert Lean Brett Boss, who lost his battle Feb. 5 with Stage 4 Ewing’s sarcoma.

Boss, 38, was initially diagnosed with the cancer in 2014 and had successfully fought it in 2015. In the fall of 2020, however, the cancer returned with spots on his lung that required surgery and chemotherapy treatments. The cancer returned again in the summer of 2021, this time in his brain. While his brain surgery was successful, doctors ultimately found more spots of cancer on his left side by his heart and in the lymph nodes that fall.

Boss was a lieutenant with Albert Lea Fire Rescue and was a passionate advocate of lobbying for safety measures for firefighters on both the state and national level. He also served as an EMT.

Research has shown that firefighters have a higher chance than the general population of developing cancer because of exposure to substances such as asbestos, lead and gases and fumes when responding to calls. Legislation Boss fought for also allowed more firefighters who suffer from cancer caused by firefighting to have coverage under workers’ compensation.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation classified Boss’s death as a line of duty death.

Boss’s service included many elements of a traditional line of duty death, including a bell ceremony symbolizing a firefighter’s sacrifice and that they have completed their duties and are returning home. It also included a last call on the radio system, followed by an emergency vehicle procession after the service.

The community rallied around Boss’s wife, Danielle, and their two children, Jaelyn and Aiden, in numerous efforts to raise funds to support the family.
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation announced in December it was paying off the mortgage on their home.

A contractor begins demolition of two buildings in disrepair at 324 and 332 S. Broadway in downtown Albert Lea in September. Provided

6
Two downtown buildings demolished, work ongoing on others.

Two buildings partially collapsing in historic downtown Albert Lea were demolished in September after the city sought bids for emergency demolition.

Both buildings, at 324 and 332 S. Broadway, were acquired by the city through tax forfeiture and were in severe disrepair, with collapsing interior floors and other structural damage. Pieces falling off the exterior posed a risk to pedestrians on the sidewalk below.

The city at first sought bids for the emergency demolition but had received only one bid for almost $711,000 — which was more than twice the engineering estimate — for the work. In the weeks that followed, Building Official Wayne Sorensen identified a contractor, Keith Johnson Construction of Blooming Prairie, who was able and willing to do the job at a much lower cost. The city also worked with several utilities to relocate services such as gas and electricity for neighboring buildings.

The Albert Lea City Council voted to spend up to $250,000 to demolish the buildings.

The long-term goal is to sell the land for private development, but in the short term, the city is considering plans to improve the open space with a small park or a parking lot with landscaping. Both options would use exterior materials from the buildings to replicate some of the lost architectural features along Broadway. If a parking lot, vehicles would access it from the alley behind the remaining buildings. The goal would be to enhance the downtown and complement potential reuse of nearby properties.

Work also continues on other city-owned properties downtown, including the Freeborn National Bank and Jacobson Apartments buildings.

The city issued requests for proposals for the buildings and received one proposal. More action is expected to happen in early January.

The city in August voted to acquire the former Hobby Shop, 132 S. Broadway.

The city has already invested significant funds to stabilize the building, including putting on a new roof in 2018 and removing some water-damaged items, and will require additional hazardous material removal and structure repairs to preserve the historic building.

Sorensen said the city stepped in to acquire the building because of concern for the neighboring buildings. In August, Sorensen said at minimum the city will need to reconstruct the basement stairs that collapsed due to water damage and clean out and dispose an extensive amount of electronic materials and components in the basement. There will be some asbestos removal and hazardous material abatement required, and a portion of the main floor framing that was originally affected by the roof will need to be evaluated and possibly repaired or replaced.

From left, Natalie Lane, Bella Chavez and Troy Chavez stand behind photos of Manny Chavez, who died July 26 after a fatal overdose. Manny was 16 and would have been a junior this year in Albert Lea. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

7
Area sees increase in overdoses, including some among youth.

Albert Lea police in August announced there had been an increase in overdoses among young adults in the previous month, with four overdoses of people between 16 and 27.

Of those, two resulted in death, and in the other two cases, the individuals were saved using Narcan, a medication used for the emergency treatment of suspected opioid overdose.

Ben Johnson, commander of the South Central Drug Investigative Unit, at the time said the overdoses in the region are primarily coming from fentanyl in fake unregulated pills made to look like legitimate prescription pills. Authorities also are seeing heroin and carfentanil overdoses, he said.

He said the fentanyl pills are made in labs — made to look like opioids such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Valium, Xanax and Adderall, among others —and are most commonly stamped in China, smuggled in to Central America and then moved in to the United States through Mexico, he said. What makes them especially problematic is that there is no consistency from batch to batch — or pill to pill — making it so someone might be able to take a certain amount of the substance one day but then get a different pill the next day that has a different amount of the drug in it and ultimately overdose.

In an effort to prevent further overdose deaths in the community, a new effort started in September designating Grace Christian Church in Albert Lea as a naloxone access point. Naloxone is approved by the Federal Drug Administration to reverse an opioid overdose in as little as two to five minutes.

A group of volunteers provides naloxone kits free of charge every Friday to people who come into the church during designated times, as well as fentanyl test strips.

Attendees mingle inside the mall during the event Saturday night. Alex Guerrero/Albert Lea Tribune

8
The Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition continues raising money to take MercyOne clinic to next phase; Blue Cross Blue Shield to include MercyOne clinic in-network in Medicare Advantage plan.

The Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition saw some big successes in 2022.

Held Nov. 5 at the Northbridge Mall and the John & Susan Morrison Healthcare Plaza in Albert Lea, the Ball in the Mall event raised funds for the expansion of medical services at the John & Susan Morrison Healthcare Plaza. The expansion is a collaborative effort between the Healthcare Coalition and MercyOne.

The gala raised $125,000, about $15,000 over the goal.

The ball exceeded its goal with the help of 42 local companies and several out-of-state company sponsorships. In addition, 19 local business vendors provided the food and beverages. The silent auction had 90 items collected from local businesses that raised $10,000 and the live auction, with Sonny Jensen as auctioneer, raised $25,000.

Another big success for the coalition came when Blue Cross Blue Shield announced in November the insurance company will now include the new MercyOne Albert Lea Family Medicine & Specialty Care as in-network for the company’s Medicare Advantage plan.

The Healthcare Coalition and seniors in the area had lobbied for the change for about a year, contacting Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the insurance company and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The insurance plan had previously only included Mayo Clinic.

The decision to include MercyOne was important for the coalition because an increased patient load will help them move to the next phase of their project.

9
Allegations surface against former Albert Lea High School counselor and girls’ basketball coach RJ Polley.

Albert Lea High School guidance counselor Richard John Polley, who also served as the head girls’ varsity basketball coach, was charged in Freeborn County District Court in mid-January with alleged criminal sexual conduct with a student.

Richard Polley

Polley was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, including penetration, of a student under 18. The charge involves a defendant in a prohibited occupational relationship with the victim.

Polley was immediately placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, and his coaching duties were assumed by an assistant.

At the conclusion of the investigation, the school board voted to terminate him from his position.

The school investigation found evidence to support the allegations and also found that Polley had falsified parts of his district job application submitted Nov. 11.

The investigation revealed he lied about never being asked to resign to avoid termination with his former employer, the South Washington County Schools district. The board’s investigation found that, while Polley was the subject of allegations there, the district had conducted its own investigation and that on April 23, 2021, Polley signed a resignation agreement and release of all claims.

The investigation did not release the nature of the allegations.

A Freeborn County prosecutor in December filed an intent to introduce evidence of alleged inappropriate communication between Polley and underage females at his previous school district at South Washington County Schools.

“The investigation showed that there was a large amount of inappropriate contact with defendant and several female students,” Assistant County Attorney Abigail Lambert said. “There was a text message to a female student from defendant stating, “low key, I love you” and another text the next day stating “pretend last night didn’t happen.”

Polley’s lawyer, Patrick Cotter, has argued to exclude the evidence from the South Washington County Schools investigation and said the proposed evidence is not “markedly similar” to the allegations in the current complaint.

Polley has pleaded not guilty to his charge and is awaiting his jury trial that is slated to begin May 1.

10
Former Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority employee charged with theft of over $200K.

Former Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority employee Marcie Marie Thumann was charged by way of summons in August with theft from the organization, which receives funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for people receiving housing assistance.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged the theft occurred from January 2010 through at least July 18, 2018, and that Thumann allegedly embezzled and stole $213,217 for her own use.

Thumann in October pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to theft from a program receiving federal funds and admitted to routinely embezzling HRA rent payments for her own personal use and benefit. Court documents stated Thumann pocketed cash payments and altered payee information on payments made by check and money order.

Thumann, as bookkeeper for the organization, was solely responsible for recording and reconciling tenant rental payments to the HRA. Court documents stated she worked for the organization, which receives both federal and state funding to remedy the shortage of available housing for low-income residents.

Court documents stated the computer system used to manage tenant accounts required Thumann to manually enter rent payments and allowed her to issue account adjustments.

“The defendant manipulated the HRA’s computer system to conceal the money she stole, avoid detection and prolong her fraud scheme,” it stated. “Specifically, the defendant knowingly and willfully stole at least $213,217 in tenant payments that she know belonged to the HRA.”

Based on U.S. sentencing guidelines, Thumann faces a prison sentence of 18 to 24 months and supervised release of between one and three years. The agreement also called for paying restitution of $213,217. Her sentencing date has not yet been set.

The city of Albert Lea took over oversight of the housing authority after the resignation of former Executive Director Jon Ford in June 2018, with the help of former Assistant City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos and Finance Director Kristi Brutlag, as well as former Fergus Falls City Manager Mark Sievert in the interim. Several city councilors also joined the HRA Advisory Board.

Executive Director Jeanne Leick was hired as the new director in September 2019 to bring the HRA out of “troubled” status by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the 2018 audit was not submitted on time. She resigned at the end of May to move back closer to family in Nebraska. Sunny Bjorklund Schultz started as director in late fall.

Honorable mentions

• Thirty-two-year-old Ben Moreno was charged in the shooting death of Juan Vasquez Jr. in August south of Albert Lea. The charges were upgraded to murder in October, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office signed on to help lead the prosecution.
• Former Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen resigns in May after almost five years in the position. Human Resources Director Candace Pesch was hired to replace him in late October.
• A group of residents makes progress toward raising $1.25 million for a new inclusive playground in Albert Lea. At the end of the year, the group had received commitments of almost $700,000.
• Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea kicks off $14.9 million in renovations at the campus in September.
• Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab retires in March after 13 years as a judge. Freeborn County’s first-ever female judge, Christy Hormann, is sworn in the next month.
• Albert Lean Devin Weiland is found guilty of all counts against him tied to the shooting of three people during an eight-hour standoff in November 2020 at Shady Oaks apartments. His sentencing got moved to February 2023.
• Dave Syverson Auto Center is damaged by fire at the end of March in an accidental fire that started from sparks in the welding shop area. After the shop employees left for the day, the materials caught fire and the flames spread to a semi-truck parked nearby.
• Burn survivor and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez comes to Albert Lea for several events organized by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce. Martinez’s comments centered largely around mental health.
• A group of Albert Lea High School students walk out of school in protest in November to bring attention to bullying happening at the school.

Most read stories online in the last year

• “Albert Lea High School counselor, coach charged with criminal sexual conduct with student,” 15,965 pageviews
• “Former used dealership owner facing new charges,” 15,461 pageviews
• “Teenager struck and killed by train in Albert Lea,” 11,048 pageviews
• “Woman charged with stealing over $200K from Albert Lea HRA,” 10,786 pageviews
• “1 killed, another injured in crash in Freeborn,” 9,793 pageviews
• “It turned out to be quite a blessing’: Woman sentenced to prison earlier this month gets opportunity to be with newborn twins through program,” 9,159 pageviews
• “County board votes to terminate employee, another given verbal warning after phone recording incident,” 8,609 pageviews
• “New restaurant opens in downtown Albert Lea,” 8,403 pageviews
• “Shooting reported south of Albert Lea, authorities looking for suspect,” 7,691 pageviews
• “3 injured in stabbing in Albert Lea,” 7,090 pageviews
• “Firefighters on scene of fire at Dave Syverson Ford,” 5,625 pageviews
• “Albert Lea native wins $750K in high stakes poker tournament in Vegas,” 5,612 pageviews
• “Albert Lea woman sentenced to prison for meth sales,” 5,562 pageviews
• “Albert Lea Homecoming king and queen crowned,” 5,239 pageviews
• “I-90 closing west of Albert Lea because of poor driving conditions,” 5,021 pageviews
• “Glenville woman charged with manslaughter of 2-month-old,” 4,583 pageviews
• “Group of Albert Lea High School students walk out in protest, say change needed,” 4,528 pageviews
• “Harbor Freight Tools coming to former Shopko space, mall owner in negotiations with 2nd national retailer,” 4,527 pageviews
• “School board fires counselor facing sexual misconduct charge, investigation also shows deceit on district application,” 4,423 pageviews
• “An island of terror: Couple creates new haunted attraction in Maple Island,” 4,315 pageviews