Continuing fallout from the pandemic, police take top spots

2021: We’ve made it through the second calendar year of a pandemic and are still feeling its effects, with some aspects of life returning to a more “normal” and other aspects of life throwing us for more loops and blows, including the loss of two local businesses.

It’s also been a more typical year: a long-awaited business opening, and other building projects completed across the area.

2021 also brought lots of successes and changes for local sports, from coaching changes to historic championships won, and even two major ties to Olympic gymnasts. You can read a review of 2021’s top 10 stories in sports on pages 8 and 9.

But here, we have compiled a list of the top 10 news stories based on impact to the local community.

1. Turning a pandemic corner

In what has been the second calendar year of the pandemic, the volatility of the virus and any closures seemed to dissipate at the beginning of the year, though effects still linger, and the spread of the virus still circulates.

In early January, restaurants were still forced to keep their doors shut until Jan. 11, when Gov. Walz rescinded his executive order keeping dining and entertainment venues closed to slow the spread of the virus just as vaccines were hitting Minnesota for the public. Schools also were on a distance learning model for a period of time from the late fall to January and February. Schools in Forest Lake developed a plan, which included mask wearing requirements, and kept students in school for the remainder of the year. Other than a handful of days in distance learning, the school district has largely kept students in-person for classes for the remainder of 2021.

In the spring, the area saw the return of events. Forest Lake began with its annual Spring Fling on Saturday, May 1, which was busy with children petting animals in the petting zoo, playing games, and doing crafts and activities in the city’s Fire Department parking area. It was the first event the city held since the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December 2019. Arts in the Park once again took over Lakeside Memorial Park on Tuesdays this summer. Wyoming began with its Touch a Truck event in June. Fall festivals returned around the area in September, with Wyoming and Scandia returning to its traditions of Stagecoach Days and Taco Dayz, respectively. Linwood celebrated its 150th anniversary in September during its annual Family Fun Day. And both Wyoming and Forest Lake held tree lightings this year.

Theater returned with middle school and high school productions, initially choosing shows that allowed social distancing protocols. Masquers Theater held its annual summer camp for kids, though it did not produce any major public productions this year.

The biggest event that returned was the traditional celebrations surrounding the Fourth of July hosted by the Forest Lake American Legion. The carnival and food trucks took over the Legion’s parking lot and along Broadway avenue once again, and the parade was back in full swing, which was held the morning of July 3 this year due to the Sunday holiday. Fireworks lit up the sky over Forest Lake again on the evening of July 4, with a crowd amassing at Lakeside Memorial Park to watch the display.

2. Staffing shortages

The pandemic’s grip has continued to impact the economy, however. While businesses were no longer under any restrictions, staffing shortages have plagued both private and public entities much of this year, which has especially impacted restaurants and schools. The school district had already been struggling to find bus drivers the last several years, and matters worsened in the last year, coming to a critical meltdown in November when route cancellations began to occur, and in December when route cancellations increased to the point Superintendent Steve Massey had to cancel in-person classes beginning Thursday, Dec. 16, through Christmas break due to traffic safety concerns. Other areas of the district have been heavily impacted as well, with teacher shortages demanding other teachers sub in for another class while on their off period.

Staffing shortages have also hit businesses as well, like Big Apple Bagels, Key’s Bakery, or the local Dollar Tree, which, multiple times, have had to close temporarily and adjust hours due to staffing shortages.

3. Death of police officer

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Forest Lake Police Sgt. Kurt Kowarsch

The death of Forest Lake Police Sgt. Kurt Kowarsch, who was killed in an off-duty UTV accident near his cabin in Wisconsin on Saturday, Aug. 21, rocked the community. The tragedy of the death of the 42-year-old Linwood resident brought nearly 1,000 people to his funeral, held at Eaglebrook Church in Lino Lakes, on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

4. Castlewood clubhouse

In what had been a sometimes contentious topic, the Forest Lake City Council approved a move to build a new clubhouse for the city-owned Castlewood Golf Course. In 2020, the council approved the use of $150,000 for the facility using COVID-19 relief funds through the CARES Act, and after backlash, changed course and rescinded that decision in a subsequent vote. (The funds were predicated on being able to prove the expansion was necessary. The city thought it would be approved due to the lack of “social distance” space in the old clubhouse, but the community was fraught over the projected use of funds.) Max Stephens, the owner of Stella’s Restaurant also had significant concerns, not just about a new clubhouse but about frustrations surrounding the use and upkeep of the parking lot the golf course and the restaurant share, as well as concerns around the competition. The city worked to amend its contract with Stephens and alleviate his concerns, and on Monday, Aug. 23, approved a new $112,000 facility on Castlewood Golf Course, using $80,000 of a biannual government subsidy and $32,000 from the city’s general fund for the new clubhouse. Construction on the new clubhouse began in late summer.

5. Businesses close due to pandemic

In the wake of COVID-19, restaurants and entertainment venues took a hit during statewide mandatory closures. Most businesses in the area have survived the hardships to their finances so far, but local popular restaurant Vannelli’s closed in October after a battle with property managers Gaughn over payments. The outcry over the closure of Vannelli’s was strong, and patrons frequented the lakeside staple in its final weeks. Plans for the site have not yet been made public.

Forest Lake’s sole movie theater, Lake 5, also closed its doors, holding its last film showings on Friday, Nov. 19. Not being able to improve and upgrade the facilities due to the constrictions of the space prior to the pandemic meant the “writing was on the wall,” according to business owner Shane Martin, but the pandemic added to an already financially difficult situation. At the end of the lease, Martin decided not to re-up his contract.

6. LC4YF charitable gambling roller-coaster

In mid-March, LC4YF Executive Director Linda Madsen was notified by Running Aces that the Columbus-located hotel and casino would be severing its contract with LC4YF to hold charitable gambling at its casino. The move was due to a pursuit by Running Aces to create its own nonprofit, North Metro Racehorse & Community Foundation, which grants money to nonprofits around the region, including two horse-related entities: one based in Forest Lake, the other in the greater metro area. Representatives for the NMRCF said LC4YF would be a recipient of some of the grant money if it applied. Madsen said the amount would be significantly less than LC4YF’s typical funding through its charitable gambling there. However, the state policies surrounding charitable gambling complicated matters enough for NMRCF that the organization declined to pursue charitable gambling, and offered the slot back to LC4YF in October, which it accepted.

7. Coffeesmith opens

After purchasing the “old Houle house,” located at the junction of Highway 61/Lake Street and North Shore Trail in April 2019, Forest Lake-native Calvin Waddle opened Coffeesmith, a new coffee shop, in the 1912-built home. The project had been long and complicated, and the pace of the progress had been hampered by COVID-19 related issues, but the business opened to a crowd on Monday, Nov. 15.

8. Wyoming police switch-ups

The 10-officer Wyoming Police Department has undergone a shift in staff. Two mid-level officers departed the profession all together. Wyoming Police Officers Matt Paavola and Scott Thomas resigned in April and July, respectively, and were replaced by Jack Breitbach and 2016 Forest Lake Area High School graduate Allison Edwards.

Then, in September, Public Safety Director Paul Hoppe announced his retirement after 31 years on the force. He was hired as Wyoming’s PSD in May 2009 and officially begins his retirement Jan. 3. Woodbury Sgt. Neil Bauer was selected as the city’s new PSD, which serves as a dual role overseeing both the fire and police departments, and began on Dec. 20. He was sworn in as the city’s next chief of police on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at the council meeting.

9. FLASD building projects

Area residents said goodbye to a historic part of a school district building. Following the completion of its major reconstruction projects of its facilities in 2019, the district voted to demolish the empty CLC building, located at 200 SW Fourth St., which was built initially as a high school in 1909. It was later determined a portion of the building could be saved and reconstructed for the district’s Student Transition Education Program. In February, demolition began of the building, and area residents were able to salvage pieces of the old high school gym, which were sold as a fundraiser for the Drolson Family Foundation, which benefits the Forest Lake community. STEP was able to move into the building late 2021, before the anticipated January 2022 date.

Perhaps the biggest of the facility upgrades in the district was the complete reconstruction of the athletic field and stadium. Construction began in the week before graduation, so commencement ceremonies were held indoors. The new stadium is equipped with turf, brand-new east-facing stands which can accommodate 2,500 fans, and a “show-light entertainment package” using stadium lights to flash on and off in pre-arranged displays. The stadium was christened with a girls soccer match against North St. Paul on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

10. Bachelorette fame

Local dairy farmer and Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron got a piece of 15 minutes of fame when the hit ABC show “The Bachelorette” filmed on his family’s dairy farm in Hugo. Filming took place on Friday, Aug. 20, after several meetings with producers. Six contestants and Minnesota-native Michelle Young took a trip to the farm where they tried their hand at hand-milking a cow, churning butter and carving butter sculptures, and then enjoyed an evening hayride. The episode aired Tuesday, Nov. 23, with Miron getting a decent share of screentime.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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