The year that was 2009Published 2:25pm Saturday, January 2, 2010
Toasts have been made. Resolutions have been declared. Confetti has rained.
The new year is here. It’s time to move forward — but not before taking a look back at 10 of Austin’s biggest stories of 2009.
Fire devastates downtown
A fire that started in the Mi Tierra restaurant and grocery store devoured several businesses and apartments in downtown Austin on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. There were no injuries reported during the fire, which occurred on one of the coldest days of the year, with temperatures of 15 degrees below zero.
Firefighters from Albert Lea, Blooming Prairie, Brownsdale and Rose Creek battled the blaze, which ravaged the old, two-story structures, destroyed all of Mi Tierra’s businesses and damaged several other buildings.
“It is a tragic loss,” said Sandy Forstner, executive director of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, days after the fire.
Lee Hansen, of Hansen Hauling & Excavating, Inc., and Steve Davis, owner of Steve’s Pizza were later given honorary helmets for helping the firefighters. Hansen was called to the scene shortly after the fire started with a backhoe to clear away some of the debris so firefighters would more easily access the fire. Davis was recognized for allowing firefighters and other emergency personnel to use his building as a warming station.
Arson was determined to be the cause of the fire in February of 2009. Suspects have yet to be named.
Tornado tears through city
A tornado hit Austin June 17, 2009, damaging homes and buildings, ripping up trees from their roots, flipping cars and knocking down power lines.
The northern part of the city was most damaged with Todd Park and the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center among areas hardest hit.
Trees have been planted throughout the year, in efforts to replace the hundreds lost.
“You used to see a forest, now you see a field,” said Kim Underwood, director of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, in November.
Meteorologists ranked the twister an EF2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is used to determine the strength of tornadoes. This means wind speeds were between 111 to 135 mph. It measured about 10 miles long with a maximum width of 120 yards.
Austin suffered $1.5 million in damage to public infrastructure during the tornado.
AHS posts best soccer season ever
Austin High School’s boys soccer team made school history by reaching the state tournament this fall. The Packers also posted their best season yet. In the Class ‘A’ state tournament, they fell to Simley 2-1 on a late goal in the quarterfinals. Austin finished 14-6 overall in a year that saw 14 different players score goals.
They graduate 14 seniors.
“They’re a good group of kids,” Austin head coach Jens Levisen said of his departing players. “They’re all around good kids and not just good soccer players. They’re good with academics and community involvement. They have a lot of very strong attributes.”
Two killed in bus crash
A day at the casino ended in tragedy when two people were killed and 20 others were injured Nov. 18 when a tour bus rolled over west of Austin.
The crash occurred two miles west of Austin on I-90. The bus, operated by Strain Motor Coach Company in Rochester, was returning from the Diamond Jo Casino in Iowa when it crossed the center median, two westbound lanes and went into the ditch on the north side of the freeway. The bus overturned in the ditch, coming to rest on its side.
The driver, 52-year-old Ed Erickson, of Elgin, Minn., suffered an apparent aneurysm in his chest and lost consciousness shortly before the crash.
Killed in the crash were Rhonda Hill, 52, of Plainview, Minn., and Pamela Holmquist, 56, of Kasson, Minn.
“This is a truly tragic event,” Capt. Matt Langer of the State Patrol said. “Everyone was returning from what was likely an enjoyable outing. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
No charges were filed, and the driver’s medical condition was determined to be the cause of the crash.
Unfolding of Curt Rude’s charges, lawsuit
Former Austin police Capt. Curt Rude became a mainstay in the media in November of 2007, after he took two bottles of the prescription painkiller OxyContin prescribed to Mark Johnson from the Austin Police Department’s evidence room. Mark Johnson was a former KAAL-TV reporter, and friend of Rude’s, who died of an OxyContin drug overdose in March of 2007.
Rude was elected to the school board the same night that he removed the painkillers from the APD evidence room. Charges followed, and on Nov. 5, 2009, Rude was convicted of fifth-degree felony drug possession and gross misdemeanor interfering with property in official custody. He was acquitted of felony theft.
In December, he was sentenced in Olmsted County to five years probation and 200 hours of community service. He will not serve jail time and will not have the felony on his record if he complies with his probation. Tuesday, Rude was officially dismissed as police captain — he had been on-leave since 2007. The conviction alone was enough to revoke the license.
Though the court case and Rude’s police career are complete, he will remain in the news into 2010.
Rude is the plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against Austin Public Schools and former superintendent Candace Raskin.
Rude sued the district and Raskin Nov. 6, 2009, alleging that statements made by Raskin — dating back to the 2007 election night — were defamatory and caused him harm.
APS and Raskin filed a joint response to the lawsuit in court last month, denying the allegations and asking that Rude recoup any expenses incurred. APS Superintendent David Krenz said last week that the district will ask a judge to dismiss the case. Rude has yet to file his suit in court, and neither he nor his lawyer have ever opted to comment on the case.
Jail and Justice Center
Construction started in April on the Mower County Jail and Justice Center. Three downtown blocks were cleared to house the structure.
The construction is slightly ahead of schedule with the building set to be completed sometime in the summer of 2010. However, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said the building likely won’t open until September or October because it will take at least three months to train jailers to work in the new building.
The project has not been without hiccups. In early December, the Local No. 6 plumbers and pipefitters union went on strike. The Harty Mechanical Inc. plumbers working on the jail and justice center returned to work after less than a week, approving a salary offer from the Southeastern Minnesota Piping Contractors Association.
Officials said the brief strike did not cause problems for the timeline.
Neo-Nazis in Austin
Sam Johnson, of Austin, has conducted several demonstrations in Austin since July. Johnson, a member of the white-supremacist National Socialist Movement, has created controversy and drawn protesters from as far as the Twin Cities with his rallies.
Three counter-protesters were arrested and charged following a rally in October. According to police reports, the three were joined by at least 25 to 30 others who pushed in on Johnson and his supporters. People threw tomatoes, cups of Jell-O and other objects at the Neo-Nazis during the rally, the report states.
“I think it shouldn’t be allowed,” Austin resident Jonathan Thompson said during a rally. “Free speech is one thing; hate speech is totally different.”
Except for the most recent demonstration, the rallies — complete with swastikas and Nazi salutes — took place at the Veterans Memorial, drawing criticism from residents and city officials and statewide media coverage.
Dave “Tolly” Tollefson, 72, dies
Family, friends and area officials filled the sanctuary of St. Olaf’s Church Dec. 7 to remember Mower County’s 5th District commissioner and board chairman David “Tolly” Tollefson.
Tollefson, who was battling cancer, died Thursday, Dec. 3.
Tollefson and his wife moved to Austin in 1963, where they raised three children. He and his wife Peggy opened Tolly’s Time Out in 1984.
After retiring in 2006, he was elected county commissioner that year.
He is remembered for many things, including his efforts on the new Mower County Jail and Justice Center.
“He was an excellent person,” Commissioner Ray Tucker said before the service. “He was a big asset to our board. Very pleasant to work with. We’ll miss him. There’s no doubt about that.”
Chief Wilson announces retirement
Austin Fire Chief Dan Wilson announced plans to retire at the end of 2009 after more than 25 years with the department. He has been chief for the last 16.
The year not only marked his retirement, but also highlighted professional achievements and controversy.
Wilson orchestrated several area fire departments in the fight against the Main Street fire, the biggest fire in Austin since The Ace Hotel fire in 1979.
“The fire chief and his firefighters did a great job under very difficult circumstances,” Mayor Tom Stiehm said days after the downtown fire.
Later in the year, Wilson would receive a written reprimand for his conduct toward a citizen at a city committee meeting. Wilson also became subject of an internal investigation over allegations that he has fostered a poor work environment. Wilson has denied all allegations, and the investigation remains in limbo, as no conclusions have been released publicly and no punishment against Wilson has been announced.
The City of Austin will use at least two different temporary fill-ins before a new fire chief is hired, which city officials hope is done by March.
Referendum fails; cuts loom
Voters turned down the Austin Public Schools district levy request by 116 votes in November.
The district, facing decreasing state funding, asked voters to approve a $1 million levy to pay for employee contracts and maintenance costs. The levy would have cost the average homeowner $84 a year.
Of the 93 school funding referendums on ballots across the state in November, 62 passed.
District officials in Austin now are looking at budget cuts.
“It may impact our number of employees, and potentially class sizes,” district director of finance and operations Mark Stotts said the day after the election.