Top News stories of 2014: 11-20

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Curt Anderson clears snow off his vehicle in downtown Austin this past February as a winter storm covering the area moves through. Herald file photo

Curt Anderson clears snow off his vehicle in downtown Austin this past February as a winter storm covering the area moves through. — All photos are Herald file photos

11. Harsh winter brings storms, record cold temps, frozen pipes. (12 percent of the vote)

The 2013 to 2014 winter was one to remember.

The winter brought record cold with more than 50 days below zero in Austin, beating a previous record of 48 in the winter of 1955-56.

Schools closed or started late several days for bitter cold and wind chills thanks to the “polar vortex.” The cold also wreaked havoc on many homes, as 167 homes reported frozen pipes to Austin Utilities — far exceeding the average winter of about five homes that report frozen lines.

The winter saw plenty of snow too as there were 17 days with an inch or more of snow. Perhaps the worst storm of the season — if not in the last few years — was the Feb. 20-21 blizzard that dropped 8 inches of snow in Austin and 7 to 10 across Mower County and brought high winds. The snow and winds knocked out power, made roads impassable and caused Sheriff Terese Amazi to issue a no travel warning.

Austin received a surprise 10.5 inches of snow — 2-4 inches was forecasted — overnight from March 4-5, when Rose Creek also received 12 inches.

The cold weather, snow and blustery conditions caused a busy winter for the city and county. The workload caused several Mower County Public Works employees to bank more than 100 additional hours. The county traditionally pays employees for anything over 32, but the county board and Public Works Director Mike Hanson decoded to send workers home during slow times to reduce banked hours and save on the payouts.

Austin's third Kwik Trip opened in November. Herald file photo

Austin’s third Kwik Trip opened in November. 

12. Kwik Trip buys Watts Cookin’, opens new store (11 percent of the vote)

Austin lost a long standing local business in 2014, but added a new chain truck stop.

Austin Auto Truck Plaza and Watts Cookin’ owner Kermit Watts closed the business he’d owned since 1988 in March. Ultimately, Kwik Trip would buy the property and build a 7,000-square foot truck stop at the site, 1509 10th Place NE. It’s the company’s third Kwik Trip in Austin.

Hans Zietlow, the company’s director or real estate, said the store fills a need for a truck stop along Interstate 90 in Austin and southern Minnesota, adding that it’s one of the nicest, largest truck stops along I-90 in the state.

The new store cost more than $6 million, which includes construction and equipment. The station also sells compressed natural gas, or CNG, which the company sees as the fuel of the future. There has been talk about future development for new businesses near the 10th Place Northeast store, but Zietlow said no plans are in the works now and Kwik Trip is using most of its space right now. There are also adjacent properties to the site.

In spring, Kwik Trip also bought the former Gymocha coffee shop property, 1300 14 St. NW, for $365,000 to “keep potential options open,” according to Zietlow. He said the company wants to one day build a fourth Kwik Trip in northwest Austin, but no plans are imminent and it wouldn’t necessarily be at the Gymocha site.

People fill up the main level of the Austin ArtWorks Center Thursday night during the center’s grand opening.

People fill up the main level of the Austin ArtWorks Center in August during the center’s grand opening.

13. ArtWorks Center opens (11 percent of the vote)

Austin’s center for the arts opened and quickly became a busy hub for artists in 2014.

During the third annual Austin ArtWorks Festival, leaders cut the ribbon to unveil the Austin ArtWorks Center at 300 N. Main St.

“I’m still wowed whenever I go in,” Executive Director Jennie Knoebel said at the Aug. 21 grand opening. “We’ve put a lot of work in getting it ready and making it happen, and it’s exciting to see it come together.”

The old bank building, which has been vacant since 1997, was a nice fit to become the new ArtWorks Center.

“[It has] beautiful architecture and the space laid out nicely for what we wanted to do, so it was a good fit,” Knoebel said. “We wanted a more visible location.”

The center features classrooms, a gallery and a retail space over three floors. It has hosted a variety of community classes, including clay, sculpting, pottery, woodcarving, drawing, painting, and even knitting and writing.

The classes started before the space was even finished, as Krytal Lennie taught an Uncork and Create class, the first at the center, in July. John Sullivan kicked off clay classes in the Clay Cavern in September, and ArtWorks Education and Marketing Coordinator Grace Heimsness has hosted writing classes.

Austin Fire Chief James McCoy directs firefighters through the front door at the home of Mayor Tom Stiehm Friday morning. The mayor and his wife, Sarah, were uninjured but their dog, Annie, died in the fire.  Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Austin Fire Chief James McCoy directs firefighters through the front door at the home of Mayor Tom Stiehm. The mayor and his wife, Sarah, were uninjured but their dog, Annie, died in the fire.

14. Mayor Tom Stiehm, wife OK after fire claims home, dog (11 percent of the vote)

The mayor of Austin has dealt with highs and lows in the city this year, but many residents offered Tom Stiehm and his family support after his house burned down.

Stiehm was celebrated for his readiness to get in shape earlier this year after losing 100 pounds, but he faced tragedy when he and his wife escaped their burning home on the morning of Friday, July 18.

An electrical fire started in the Stiehm home’s basement early that morning, according to Austin firefighters.

The mayor said he heard a noise just before he woke up, but he figured it was children playing outside. He could smell the fire soon after, however.

The mayor and his wife made it safely out of the home with one of their black labs, Harper, and another dog staying at the home. The couple’s other black lab, Annie, 8, succumbed to the flames.

Chad Thomas, right, and Jeremy Olson layout on their jump into East Side Lake Saturday for Plunging for Pink, part of Paint the Town Pink.  Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Chad Thomas, right, and Jeremy Olson layout on their jump into East Side Lake earlier this year for Plunging for Pink, part of Paint the Town Pink.

15. Paint the Town Pink continues to grow (10 percent of the vote)

Austin continued to plunge ahead with its goal to find a cure for cancer in 2014 and shows no signs of slowing down.

The third annual Paint the Town Pink raised $162,300 for breast cancer research, topping organizers’ goal of $150,000.

Vision 2020 Waterways’ second Plunging for Pink raised more than $37,000, and the Austin Bruins’ fourth Paint the Rink Pink raised more than $25,000.

Other top fundraising events included the inaugural KAUS-AM Pledging for Pink radiothon, Brownsdale’s first PTTP initiative, the Hormel Foods Austin Plant’s fundraising and the 12th annual Fishing for a Cure ice fishing contest. The Mower County Fair Board joined in the cancer-fighting cause by starting Smashing Cancer, a winter demolition derby.

PTTP raised $115,260 in 2013. Since 2011, PTTP and Paint the Rink Pink have raised $362,430 to help The Hormel Institute fight breast cancer.

The 2014 funds went to support the seven, two-year seed grants awarded to Institute scientists in 2013, according to Gail Dennison, the Institute’s director of development and public relations.

The fourth Paint the Town Pink will run from Jan. 31, 2015, to Feb. 8, 2015, in Austin. The Bruins’ fifth annual Paint the Rink Pink hockey game will be on Feb. 7, 2015, at Riverside Arena.

Diginitaries pitch shovel-fulls of dirt as ground is broke for the new Hormel Institute expansion during a ceremony in May. Herald file photo

Diginitaries pitch shovel-fulls of dirt as ground is broke for the new Hormel Institute expansion during a ceremony in May. 

16. Institute kicks off expansion, announces learning center plans. (10 percent of the vote)

The Hormel Institute is writing the next chapters in its cancer-fighting story.

In May, the Hormel Institute broke ground on a $28.5 million expansion that will add 20 state-of-the-art laboratories to the the Institute’s International Center of Research Technology.

Institute leaders expect to add about 120 jobs over the next few years, growing the Institute to a total of about 250 employees. The project received $13.5 million from the 2012 state bonding bill. The Hormel Foundation committed $15 million to the expansion and an additional $8 million to recruit scientists.

The Institute also announced plans for a $4.5 million Live Learning Center, which will feature a multifunction room and a 250-seat auditorium with theater-style seating. That will include up-to-date communication technology for better broadcasting and online conferencing. With the new technology, researchers in the auditorium will be able to participate in presentations and discussions with other scientists from anywhere around the world.

Work continues today on the expansion, which is scheduled for completion in August of 2015.

17. Austin couple faces child porn charges (9 percent of the vote)

Anthony and Deborah Edge face a combined 11 federal criminal sexual conduct charges for allegedly producing several videos and images of child pornography in their Austin home.

Anthony Edge

Anthony Edge

The Edges were charged in state court in April after authorities raided the Edge home in late March. State and local authorities were tipped off by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about child pornography on the chat website Omegle.

Omegle tracked a Feb. 22 video chat and captured 26 images of an elementary-age girl performing sexual acts with an adult male, according to a court complaint. While authorities initially thought Anthony was involved in making the video, an analysis showed the video caught on Omegle was a commonly known child pornography clip instead.

Police found two computers at the Edge house, along with recordings of a teenage girl showering. Officers found pinhole cameras inside the house and interviewed a victim, who was unaware she had been recorded. Defense attorneys say Anthony installed the cameras for he and his wife to use, but prosecutors alleged Anthony purposefully bought the motion-sensor cameras to record child pornography.

Deborah Edge

Deborah Edge

Later, state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents found a different video of Deborah talking with a naked elementary-aged child in a bathroom, according to court documents.

Authorities found another image of Deborah naked from chest to the thighs holding a pornographic image of an infant.

Detectives say Deborah told investigators the videos and images were made so Anthony could be admitted to an illicit adult web site. Other child pornography was found on the computer.

The couple have lost parental rights to their four children and face a court trial in February.

18. Elkton man sentenced for role in 2012 crash (7 percent of the vote)

Jason Fredrickson is spending eight years in prison for his role in a fatal 2012 car crash that killed Austin residents Jake Moe and Luke Unverzagt.

Fredrickson, Moe and Unverzagt were drinking at a bar in Lyle and left shortly before 2 a.m. on Feb. 25, 2012. A few minutes later, Frederickson was driving his wife’s 2009 Cadillac STS when it went into a ditch going about 120 mph, went airborne, snapped a utility pole and stopped after it hit a tree and another utility pole at 2810 Fourth St. SE.

Moe, 32, was in the front seat while Unverzagt, 32, sat in the back. Both men were ejected from the vehicle. Unverzagt died at the scene and Moe died at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin.

Fredrickson was partially ejected and fractured his ankle. Police later found Fredrickson’s blood alcohol level was .126 at about 2:30 a.m. and .06 at 5:18 a.m.

Authorities eventually charged Fredrickson with criminal vehicular homicide by operating a vehicle with negligence. A jury found Fredrickson guilty in January and he was sentenced on March 13.

Above is an artist’s rendering of the new interpretive center at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center. -- Photo provided

Above is an artist’s rendering of the new interpretive center at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center. 

19. Nature center interpretive center moves ahead (6 percent of the vote)

In 2014, just about every Austin organization with “Hormel” in the name planted the seeds for significant change.

One of the last in the year was the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, which announced in November that it will move ahead on plans to build a new interpretive center after the Hormel Foundation approved a $5 million grant toward the project — that should cover the bulk of the $7 million project.

The project was announced last year in part to add more room to the facility and in part because the current interpretive center is in the flight path for the Austin Municipal Airport. The interpretive center will be 15,000 square feet — about three times the size of the current building — and it will be built northeast of the current maintenance building.

Nature center officials have about $5.8 million secured thus far — the city is expected to kick in $500,000 in capital improvement funds in 2016, along with $200,000 from the Friends of the nature center and $100,000 in donations. Educational opportunities will be a key part of the new center. The nature center will fundraise for the remaining $1.2 million, much of which will go toward new educational exhibits.

The current plan calls for 15 exhibits, which could include displays on birds of prey, a creatures of the night, prairie/soil and plants, endangered species, and an early childhood room with several hands-on activities.

Nature center officials will start working with architects to begin the project, which will be put out to bid late in 2015, with construction beginning in spring of 2016. The project is scheduled to be done in time for a dedication on Oct. 1, 2017.

A car stops to watch the musically-synced Christmas light show at the Severson farm south of Hayfield Thursday night.

A car stops to watch the musically-synced Christmas light show at the Severson farm south of Hayfield earlier this year.

20. Memories will remain at Severson’s light display (4 percent of the vote)

A 16-year tradition came to a close with a bright finale this December as the Severson’s light display in Hayfield saw its final year. The display was put on one last time to honor Calmer Severson, who passed away in September after being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.

The lights lined up to create a drive-thru for people to stop and marvel at the holiday light displays, laugh at the singing snowman who matches the radio station they’d tuned in their car, and smile at the dancing trees. Although the weather was cold during fall set-up — with snow, wind and rain — Karen and her daughter Theresa Severson would not be thwarted.

The first drive-thru show started in 2002 and grew bigger each year. Over the years, three couples have become engaged at the display, and many have made this part of their family tradition, coming out for Thanksgiving on opening night, Christmas or somewhere in between. The lights will be sold now with hopes somebody will display them for years to come.