by Jim Boyle
A lot happened in the Elk River area in 2021.The pandemic’s grip waned, but sadly people could feel it tighten as the year closed. Many have expressed a hope that 2022 will be the year the coronavirus and its variants release their grip and normalcy returns for good. We at the Star News second that hope.
While COVID-19 grabbed headlines all year long, it was far from the only headline this past year. Here the Star News presents a look at some of the year’s other top stories.
There was no attempt was made to rank stories in order of importance, but we offer them for reflection as we embrace 2022 and hope for a better year to look back on come December.
The list isn’t exhaustive and there are big storylines not included. Many of them will continue to be reported on in 2022 like the city of Elk River wrapping up $35 million in park and recreation improvements we pay for with a sales tax voters approved in 2018.
Otsego’s population climbed 47% since 2010
Once a quiet township with rolling farm fields and pastures dotted with dairy cows, Otsego has grown into Wright County’s largest city.
New census figures showed Otsego’s population climbed 47% since 2010, from 13,571 to 19,966 — an increase of 6,395.
Mayor Jessica Stockamp said she believed a number of factors are driving the growth, including Otsego’s proximity to both the Twin Cities metro area and St. Cloud.
Stockamp said Otsego has also had willing landowners who have sold to developers and those developers are offering multiple housing options in varying price ranges. Otsego has a large amount of land within its borders, with working farms and large rural lots in the center of the city and urban development closer to Interstate 94 and Highway 101, she said.
Other factors like tax rates, schools and parks play a role, too. Stockamp said the city has a vast park system with new parks built within the last 20 years and more than 39 miles of trails.
“We run a lean budget, so our tax rate is also very attractive when people are looking at why they should call Otsego home compared to other areas,” she said. “We have great schools in our area and with the new schools being built that is very attractive for young families, we hear.”
Otsego was a township until it incorporated as the city of Otsego in 1990. It is located in Wright County, which is the third-fastest-growing county in Minnesota.
Wright County posted a 13.3% population gain between 2010 and 2020 and its population is now 141,337, up from 124,700 a decade ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lawmakers pitched mothballing Northstar
The future of the Northstar Commuter Rail Line was called into question after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated ridership and left the future of commuting uncertain as more people work from home.
At least three lawmakers suggested mothballing the 12-year-old service that runs 40 miles between Target Field and Big Lake, with stops in Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Ramsey and Elk River.
Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, introduced bills in March that would require immediate closure of the Northstar and sale of all assets. Any remaining state money appropriated to the line would revert to the general fund.
“Ridership is down 96% from what it was, so it’s just a massive amount of subsidized money here,” Bahr said. “It was a really nice experiment, and, like all other experiments, when it fails, it’s time to cut your losses and move on.”
Hallows convicted of murdering Autumn Hallow, 8, while in their care
Brett Jason Hallow and Sarah Kay Hallow each were sentenced Sept. 23 to serve 480 months for their pattern of behavior that ultimately led to the death of 8-year-old Autumn Hallow in their Elk River apartment.
The sentencing of Autumn’s father and stepmother was done by judge was Karen B. Schommer.
Brett Hallow entered pleas of guilty to the following felony offenses: child endangerment (two counts), threats of violence, domestic assault by strangulation, and second-degree murder. He further agreed to aggravating factors that result in an agreed-upon 480-month commitment to the Commissioner of Corrections.
Sarah Hallow entered pleas of guilty to the following felony offenses: child endangerment, domestic assault, threats of violence (two counts), and second-degree murder. She further agreed to aggravating factors that result in an agreed-upon 480-month commitment to the Commissioner of Corrections.
“The loss of a child is grievous; the loss of a child at the hands of two who were entrusted to care for that child is beyond comprehension,” said Kathleen Heaney, Sherburne County attorney. “While there is no measure in the criminal justice system that accounts for the loss, I hope that the sentencing today will allow the family, friends, and community some modicum of comfort knowing that those whose acts led to the loss of A.H. were held accountable.”
The Elk River Lions donated a bench in memory of Autumn. Members of the Lions and the family of Autumn gathered on Aug. 17 for a short ceremony and unveiling.
“All of us are so sorry for the loss of your precious Autumn,” Lions member Heather Anderson said. “Words can’t express the sorrow we feel for all of you.
“We know you are heartbroken, but we want you to know you are in all of our prayers and that we want to keep the memory of Autumn alive.”
Hannah Roos, of Rivers of Hope, also spoke.
“We appreciate everyone helping to raise awareness so that no family has to go through what you have and no child goes through what Autumn did,” she said.
The bench has been placed outside the Elk River Boys and Girls Club, where the community service club holds its meetings. The intent of the bench is for it to serve as a lasting memorial and to be a place people from the community can come for comfort and reflection. It is also part of the Lions’ continuing efforts to bring awareness to the topic of family violence.
The Lions Club works with Rivers of Hope, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide a coordinated response to end family violence through advocacy, education, and interagency collaboration. The organization offers a free, confidential 24-hour crisis line at 763-263-3433.
“We need to educate our community and be the eyes and ears, so that we are aware when our children are in need of our help,” Anderson said. “We will work with you in the hope that no other child suffers the same fate as Autumn.”
The Hallows, in separate court proceedings on June 21, admitted their guilt to a long pattern of abuse that included neglect, deprivation and violence that caused the girl to wither away to 33 pounds, which is what she weighed at a doctor’s visit at the age of 4 1/2 and made her vulnerable to her tragic outcome. They also admitted to neglect and abuse of a second child as part of additional charges that have been filed against them and are part of the plea agreement.
As part of the plea agreement, both Sarah Hallow and Brett Hallow avoided the risk of a grand jury and first-degree murder charges that could follow and bring about life sentences.
Pinewood Golf Course purchased by ownership trio in 2021
The Elk River City Council directed city staff on March 1 to develop a purchase agreement and necessary actions to sell Pinewood Golf Course to Trevor Birdsall, Jennifer Abrahamsom and Adrienne Thompson.
The trio offered to purchase the nine-hole, executive length, par-3 course for $420,000. Their offer called for putting $100,000 down at closing and making payments on the remaining $320,000 on a 15-year contract for deed with the city of Elk River.
The deal was also finalized in 2021.
Elk River Golf Club also submitted a proposal to buy the course for $25,000 and to trade an approximately 28-acre swath of land that could be added to the Woodland Trails Regional Park.
They would agree to maintain the golf course for the next 30 years, asking that the property be maintained as (untaxable) park land.
Council members were advised the city does not have a means to do that.
“We can’t tie future councils, unless we had a conservation easement,” City Administrator Cal Portner explained.
ERGC also asked for certain expenses to be borne by the city.
The Birdsall, Abrahamson and Thompson group committed to keeping the 27-acre parcel a golf course for a minimum of 15 years, but indicated it’s the group’s intent to keep it a golf course long after that. If they fail to make good on their contract for deed at any point during the 15-year agreement, the course would revert back to the city.
Council members supported the “cleaner offer” of the two and felt good about selling it for $420,000.
“If we have a private entity willing to run and profitize from it, why would we compete with that?” Council Member Matt Westgaard said. “It’s not that I am so interested in getting rid of the golf course. We were approached, and I think it’s a reasonable offer,”
Each council member spoke about their thoughts on the proposals and provided staff direction on a 4-1 vote.
Council Member Jennifer Wagner said she wasn’t in favor of selling the course at this time. She said she wasn’t expecting to be selling the course in 2021 and still didn’t feel ready after having reviewed the two proposals in front of her. She felt both had good points, but both lacked information.
“I was looking forward to the final year with Elk River Golf Club and having discussions about how the league works and improvements,” Wagner said.
Wagner said she loves that there is excitement behind the proposals, but added she is not sure “either proposal is the right proposal for the community.”
The majority felt the proposal from Birdsall, Abrahamsom and Thompson was stronger of the two, and that the group had demonstrated it has the financial wherewithal to operate the course in a difficult industry.
Elk River Mayor John Dietz, who first fielded the out-of-the-blue offer from Birdsall and Abrahamson, said the key for him was that he believes the group has the financial backing it needs.
“People who have questioned the ability of ... (them) to run the golf course, they have committed to a 15-year contract for deed,” he said. “That should alleviate those concerns.”
Dietz reiterated that if they fail to take care of the golf course or don’t make their payments anytime during those 15 years, the course comes back to the city.
The city gets $100,000 up front and still has its hooks into the course, he said.
“I appreciate what Chris and ERGC has done for Pinewood,” Dietz said.
Elk River Meats owners marked 50 years, then closed their doors
Elk River Meats closed its doors for the last day of business on May 1, but the community would not let Bob and Denise Robeck go quietly into the sunset.
Elk River Mayor John Dietz presented them with the Mayor’s Award on Saturday, May 1, which marked the meat market’s 50th anniversary. He and staff gathered outside the business under the green and white awning to exchange kind words, take photos and have a chance to wish the couple well in their retirement.
Dietz said 50 years was far too significant to not do something special for the Robecks.
“Not many businesses in Elk River last 50 years,” Dietz said. “They did it the old-fashioned way, giving their customers what they wanted. Also their customer service was second to none. They proved you could be successful doing things the old way.”
The community mourned the loss of the downtown Elk River institution ever since it was announced. Bob and Denise Robeck said they were retiring with visions of projects and some traveling.
Jackson Street tower restored to historic look with fresh paint
The Jackson Street Water Tower in Elk River that was built 100 years ago to address a fiery past received fresh paint in 2021 and was restored an old look.
The tower was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission and was added to the National Register in 2012 when it was 92 years old. It turned 100 during the pandemic.
In 1920, the city’s first water tower was built on top of the well that had been installed about a year earlier. The water tower, located at Jackson Avenue and Fourth Street near downtown Elk River, was built by the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Co. as part of an effort to protect Elk River from fire.
The tower has not been in use for years. The Heritage Preservation Commission is credited with making it possible for the city to position itself to complete the improvements on the historic tower.
Elevation Coating, LLC, a St. Cloud-based firm, did the work over the course of six weeks. It was the oldest water tower to have been painted by the decade-old company owned by brothers Steve and Brian Minkler.
The 137-foot water tower had structural damage repaired and missing items replaced. Its new look — a silver structure and tank with a red roof — was its original look.
The city’s logo was removed in favor of block letters with the city’s name, completing the original look.
Students made their voices heard during April 19 walkout
Students from dozens of Minnesota schools walked out of their classrooms on April 19 in a coordinated protest against racial injustice.
Dozens of Elk River High School students were more than ready to join the chorus of voices as they had been meeting regularly since February as part of a new student-led social justice group that is going through the process of formally becoming a club. The new group at Elk River High School is an offshoot of the multi-cultural club, but entirely student led, according to Troy Johnson, one of four equity specialists in the school district who provides oversight of the student-led group.
The fledgling group met on April 23 and decided the focus for the remainder of the year would be on raising awareness of the group at Elk River High School, and it hoped to market itself with informational and educational booths on culture and heritage during lunch.
Other goals included visiting with students at Salk and VandenBerge middle schools to inform incoming students of their group and let them know that there’s no place for racism at Elk River High School and it won’t be tolerated.
The peaceful student-led walkout gave students a chance to address issues across the state, but the group plans to focus on Elk River High School going forward.
Pursuit of murder suspect ends in crash followed by suicide
A May 29 pursuit of a Minneapolis shooting suspect resulted in a crash along Highway 10 in Elk River near Proctor Avenue and a standoff that ended when suspect reportedly shot and killed himself.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension took over the case and the investigation into the man’s death.
The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office on June 2 identified the man who died as Michaellee Ramos Avieda, 26, of Brooklyn Center. The Medical Examiner’s Office reported he died on May 29 of suicide due to a gunshot wound to the head.
School District 728 cuts its recording of public forums, limits numbers of speakers
The Elk River Area School Board continues to record and livestream its business meetings, but under a new policy created this year it longer records or airs the public forum portion of its twice-monthly business meetings.
The new policy requires those who want to speak to sign up by noon on the day of the meetings to get away from last-minute requests to address the seven-member board during open forum.
The changes were greeted with disdain during open forum at the Aug. 23 meeting, which provided the second and final read of Policy No. 206 on public participation in School Board meetings. They have continued to be a source of frustration as evidenced by continued public outbursts and objections by people addressing the board or wishing to address the board at its meetings.
Twin Lakes School named Blue Ribbon Elementary School
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced on Sept. 21 Twin Lakes Elementary School in Elk River had been named a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School.
Twin Lakes was one of three Minnesota elementary schools to earn this prestigious, nationwide recognition.
“This is a testament to the work you do, to the dedication of our families, students and staff and to the incredible community that is Twin Lakes Elementary,” Assistant Superintendent William Campbell said. “With Parker Elementary earning the Blue Ribbon recognition in 2016, ISD 728 has had two schools honored in just five years. This is an incredible achievement.”
Schools are nominated for the award by the state department of education, and then the school completes a comprehensive application for consideration. Schools may apply for status as Exemplary High Performing — among the top schools in a state — or Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing — schools making the fastest progress in their state in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.
School representatives represented Twin Lakes Elementary at a two-day award ceremony in Washington, D.C., in November to celebrate their hard-won achievement.
“This is just a very special place,” Principal Dan Collins said of the award-winning school. “I’m proud to have been here since we started, and we’ve been through so much together. Growing, navigating the pandemic — we’ve always found a way to have that Otter Pride and just a great community here.”
American Legion Auxiliary celebrated 100 years in October
The Elk River American Legion Auxiliary celebrated its 100th anniversary on Saturday, Oct. 9, with lunch and a program at the local Legion.
Mike Beyer, past commander of the Legion, said he’s known most of the women in the auxiliary from many years of working together. He noted that their work doesn’t go unnoticed.
“We’re very appreciative of your efforts, and how you ladies continue to be the backbone of our post,” he told them at the ceremony.
Cathy Artman, auxiliary president, said the anniversary is an amazing milestone — 100 years of service to veterans, community and country.
“This auxiliary has been an enormous asset to this post and this community,” Artman said. Through several wars, “our veterans needed us, and you answered the call. And our job is not done.”
The auxiliary supports a variety of veteran and community programs.
The Elk River American Legion Auxiliary was founded in 1921, two years after the Elk River American Legion post started. The names of 37 women were listed on the auxiliary’s charter.
Today, the membership stands at 123, said Michele Smith, first vice president of the auxiliary.
Faith community brought people of faith together across denominations
As life returned to normal and the pandemic lost some of its grip on people in the summer of 2021, two distinct faith communities began working to bring people together.
The Elk River Ministerial Association hosted a CommUNITY Worship Gathering on Aug. 18 at the Sherburne County Fairgrounds in Elk River.
This collaborative effort included 12 local churches and three additional ministries.
Members of the group presented a check for $6,500 to Elk River Mayor John Dietz and the City of Elk River after a a collection was taken up at the event.
More than 600 people attended the worship gathering, event organizers estimated.
There was music. There were food trucks. There were people on blankets and lawn chairs facing a concert stage. There were messages from pastors Dave Johnson of River of Life and Jeff Smith of Gateway Church. There was a testimonial about recovery from addiction. There was talk of being united.
“In times such as these, with significant division and uncertainty, it just felt right to worship together in unity in Jesus’ name,” said Bjorn Dixon, the president of the ministerial association.
The second initiative was led solely by volunteers, many of whom associate with area churches but worry that as the communities in the area have grown the numbers of people connecting to a faith community have not grown accordingly. Their Community Fests have been designed to reach people, especially lost and disconnected souls. The first was held on July 18 on the grounds outside of Christ Church in Otsego, and two more were held Aug. 8 and Aug. 22 on the grounds of Christ Church in Otsego at 15849 90th St. NE.
They are also already planning four more for next summer with the idea that one of them could go all day long, according to Bob Bagne, one of the volunteers behind the event laced with opportunities to be prayed over and hear uplifting stories of people who have given their life to Christ and found a better life.
The festivals featured live music and uplifting life stories as well as games and activities for all ages. There was also free food, including Jesus Burgers, which is part of the Firebase Movement and has been one of its most fruitful outreaches across America.
“We want to build community and relationships,” Bagne said. “We see an opportunity to do that with the free music, the food and, if people would like, prayer.”
At each event there was a welcoming booth, a prayer tent, a prophetic arts tent and a place for dream readings as well as community resource tables.
Preliminary merger talks began between Zimmerman, Livonia Township
Preliminary talks between officials representing the Livonia Township Board of Supervisors and the Zimmerman City Council were initiated to explore the possibility of a merger of the city and township.
But before township and city officials got too far into their fact-finding mission, rumors and accusations began to fly in coffee shops and on social media.
Livonia Township then took steps to calm the waters and let people know that talks are still their infancy, and they realize there are many questions still to be answered.
Township supervisors brought attorney Troy Gilchrist to the Nov. 22 regular township board meeting to lay out what the exploratory process would look like and answer the questions that could be answered so far. The meeting room was full and many addressed the board during its open forum portion of the meeting.
“There are still concerns, but I think we have sorted the facts from the fiction,” Township Supervisor Kevin Hiller told the Star News on Nov. 23. “There are still concerns, and we’re going to work on finding answers and working through the process to see if we can find answers to (our liking). We all want what’s best for the township.”
Township officials also said if it’s not in the best interest of the township, the city and township won’t merge.
A new wrinkle for city and township leaders to consider emerged: Waste Management has its eyes on land in the township for its municipal solid waste once it fills the Elk River Landfill. That could create annual revenue streams of $2 million or more.
Downed oaks on Highway 10 caused a stir among residents
Road construction made headlines all year long, but traffic snarls weren’t the only thing that got people riled up.
The Highway 10 project in Elk River to provide a smoother road surface and greater motorist and pedestrian safety and access between Xenia Avenue and Fourth Street began in April and was completed before winter set in.
Preparations included taking down trees marked with pink ribbons, including oak trees believed to be 100 years old that lined the center median on that stretch of roadway that were passed by 28,500 vehicles per day as counted in 2018.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation removed them before reconstructing 1 mile of Highway 10 in addition to installing dual left-turn lanes on eastbound Highway 10 to Proctor Avenue/Sherburne County Road 1. The project will also included a multi-use pedestrian trail along eastbound Highway 10 from Simonet Drive to Lowell Avenue. Segments of pedestrian sidewalks and ramp approaches that were reconstructed and signal systems at Proctor Avenue and Upland Avenue were upgraded.
The ribbons and cutting down of trees were upsetting to many, including some who reached out to the Star News find out why these trees were being taken out.
Russell Fellbaum, the project manager for MnDOT’s District 3, said the oak trees in the median had to come down for a couple of reasons.
“There is a sub cut to replace the soil under the pavement to create a stronger road bed resulting in a longer lasting fix that would damage some of the root systems,” he stated in an email to the Star News. “The median will be narrower after the project to allow for the addition of the trail on the south side of the highway. This too would affect the existing roots and in some cases the trunks. Storm sewer replacement is also a part of this project, and installing some of those pipes and drainage structures would also affect some of the roots and trunks. Lastly, to manage traffic during the construction and keep the highway open, temporary lanes have to be created as they work on the existing roadway.
“For these reasons the oak trees had to be removed as they would have died from the damage caused to them.”
Vern Iverson, of Elk River, called MnDOT’s St. Cloud office to see if any of the trees could be saved, and didn’t get the answer he hoped for.
“This is so sad to see these beautiful trees, these environmental gems, taken down to accommodate traffic that is polluting our atmosphere with CO2, which is accelerating climate change,” he said. “Those trees they are cutting down absorb about 100 pounds of CO2 per year which mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Fellbaum said before trees are taken down, vegetation experts walk through the project early on to determine which trees can be saved and how to go about doing that.
“Unfortunately for this project, there was no feasible way to save those oak trees from the damage they would have endured,” Fellbaum said.