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Times file photos. Roundabout shot courtesy of Daniela Meneghetti

In Part 1 of its decade in review story, The Forest Lake Times identified a trend in Forest Lake and the surrounding communities of growth vs. preservation, progress vs. tradition. While that conversation has taken many forms over the last 10 years and has often happened naturally, there have been other times when the two sides of that question have fought more openly, staking competing claims on where the future of the area should go.

In The Times’ judgment, the top three stories of the last 10 years fall into the latter category. They are presented below, along with two other stories that, while not as contentious, represent monumental changes for the community both in the 2010s and the decade to come.

5. Road work reshapes reality

Road work in and around the Forest Lake area has created major changes in the local landscape. And, while the road footprint already looks significantly different in parts of the local communities, the changes wrought by those road projects will probably continue to arrive in 2020 and beyond.

Wyoming kept a regular focus on annual street reconstruction, churning out improvement projects like clockwork from fund dollars set aside from the levy for the purpose (even though a couple of referendums related to payment mechanisms for road work failed). Forest Lake also saw a flurry of both actual and anticipated activity, from the realignment of the U.S. Highway 61/State Highway 97 intersections near the Forest Lake Area High School in 2016 to the ongoing efforts to rebuild the 97/Goodview Avenue intersection with a safer angle and format after the 2016 pedestrian death of a Forest Lake high schooler there. In the beginning of the decade, Forest Lake also worked with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to revitalize the Broadway corridor from the Interstate Highway 35 interchange to Lake Street, getting a new bridge over I-35 and a roundabout on Lake Street in the process (that project’s impact on downtown is discussed in Part 1 of this list).

However, the biggest piece of area road news in the latter half of the decade was the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s improvement project on Interstate Highway 35, especially the replacement of the State Highway 97 bridge over the interstate (substantial completion of that project occurred in 2019). The plan aimed to reduce congestion and garnered a fair amount of controversy over the bridge’s new diverging diamond design, but it is already reaping benefits for local businesses in Columbus, including the arrival of bedding retailer Bare Home, the addition of a hotel to the Running Aces property and a planned HyVee and residential project near the bridge.

4. Charter schools expand

Though various changes and initiatives at the Forest Lake Area Schools were frequent topics of local conversation throughout the decade, the city’s local charter schools were not to be outdone. North Lakes Academy and Lakes International Language Academy underwent multiple expansions in the last 10 years, both of the physical and academic nature.

North Lakes Academy was approved in 2018 to add the grades of kindergarten through fourth grade to its then-current fifth-through-12th format. The change also came with a new school building, which was finished in 2019 behind Cub Foods.

As impressive as North Lakes Academy’s growth was, however, LILA’s growth was downright meteoric. In 2010, the Spanish language immersion school added Mandarin Chinese as its second language. In 2014, it built a new, second location in the Headwaters area of Forest Lake to accommodate additional students. In 2015, the formerly K-6 school added seventh and eighth grades, with the full complement of high school grades being added the following year. In the final year of the decade, working to keep up with more growth, the school worked to finish out a couple of expansion projects at its facilities, most notably an addition of more than 50,000 square feet at its Headwaters campus.

3. Spending projects rankle

Though the intermittent strife on the Forest Lake City Council over the last decade (described in its own entry in Part 1 of this list) evolved over the course of many controversies big and small, it was in many ways set off by a one-two punch of major council-approved spending projects: the 2012 approval of the construction of the Forest Lake City Center and the 2014 approval of funding and a land donation for the construction of the Forest Lake YMCA. Both required bond issuances, and, much to the chagrin of their detractors, both did not go to residents for a vote.

The Forest Lake City Center was the more costly project and garnered more public infighting. In December 2012, roughly a month and a half after the most recent Election Day, the council voted 3-2 to issue a $22 million bond that would fund the construction of the City Center on the former site of Northland Mall. That decision sparked an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit and primed local spending hawks for further scrutiny of the 3-2 decision in October 2014 to contribute a city share of $9 million (plus land) to the building of a $14 million YMCA facility across from the Washington County Government Service Center. Further complicating matters on the second decision was the fact that the deciding vote was a council member who was appointed by fellow yes-voter and Mayor Chris Johnson after the resignation of the elected council member earlier in the year.

Both projects were built, and after their construction, much (but not all) of the public consternation died down. The YMCA provides limited free attendance for non-members who live in Forest Lake and serves as a local avenue for event hosting in addition to its wellness function. The City Center serves as a central hub for city government activities and provided much-needed space for the city’s crowded public safety departments. The projects’ council boosters swiftly departed, however, either choosing not to run again or being swept out by a spending-weary voter wave in 2014. Their replacements would be gone before the end of the decade, too, thanks in part to voter sentiment over a different controversy.

2. FLAS funding

While the local city political infighting could be fierce at times, the ongoing conversation on what to do about Forest Lake Area Schools’ funding shortfalls was more sustained than anything going on at the city level. For advocates of greater funding for the district, however, the matter had a (mostly) happy ending.

Going into the decade, school district voters had not approved a bond referendum since 1998. That streak continued into 2014, when the district put up for election the largest school bonding referendum in state history – more than $188 million, for significant security and infrastructure upgrades and a reorganized high school and middle school structure – and saw it soundly defeated. The next year, however, a pared-down $143 million version of the bond was narrowly approved (a second question, which would have addressed sports and arts facilities, was still rejected).

In 2017, school funding advocates tried again with the arts and sports bond funding, including this time as a separate item a per pupil levy increase, which would have been the district’s first in 11 years. Both were rejected, and the following spring, citing budgetary realities, the district closed Central Montessori School (the School Board also made a high profile budget cutting decision earlier in the decade, cutting its junior high sports programs in 2016). In 2018, however, voters approved a per pupil levy increase of $825 per student, and in 2019, the district wrapped its years-long facilities upgrade, leaving FLAS officials and many parents with a renewed hope for the future of district students in the 2020s.

1. Police debate draws ire

Forest Lake residents have been an active bunch in local politics over the last 10 years, but community engagement was never higher than the months of January through May 2017, when outraged residents flooded council meetings, organized boycotts and orchestrated a school walkout to protest the City Council majority’s consideration and approval of a contract policing proposal from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The controversy had its roots in an earlier decision: the council’s 2015 vote to lay off a police officer as part of a series of budget cuts. Tensions between members of the department and council members rose over the following year, culminating in 2016 election season with accusations of dirty tricks on both sides. Then, in January 2017, the council requested a proposal for services from the county Sheriff’s Office, which, if accepted, would have led to the dissolution of the local police force. Residents later learned that some of the council members had been aware of the idea since late 2016, leading some to accuse the council majority of operating covertly.

The fighting was bitter, with those in favor of the contract accusing their opponents of ignoring the nuance of their arguments and those against insisting that the council majority was engaged in score-settling and pettiness. In the end, the public outcry didn’t sway the council, which voted 3-2 to accept the proposal, but it may have swayed the county, which decided to withdraw the proposal in May – a decision that ultimately left the Police Department intact. The next election saw a new majority critical of past council dealings swept into power, including Mayor Mara Bain, the council member who spearheaded the resistance to the proposal along with Councilman Sam Husnik.

- Cliff Buchan contributed research to this story.

Ryan Howard was the news editor of The Forest Lake Times from August 2014 through January 2020. These days, he writes culture pieces for The Times and works as an editor for a Minnesota board game company.

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