News 2021: Late storms, gifts define year

Published 8:38 pm Thursday, December 30, 2021

The year 2021 has been a year dominated by a continuing pandemic, breaking news and even some national news that impacted Austin.

Each year is filled with its share of big and encompassing news events, but 2021 in a lot of ways seemed to up the ante.

As we do each year, the Herald looks back at some of the biggest news of this past year, in no particular order.

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Storms in December

Early in the week of Dec. 13, everybody knew something strange was developing. Early forecasts showed a sudden spike in temperatures, far removed from the norm for the month. A high in the upper 50s was projected for that Wednesday.

But as we got closer Dec. 15, forecasts kept upping that to the 60s, while at the same time the National Weather Service began predicting unseasonable storms later that evening.

From a turbulent atmosphere came a line of storms that pounded southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin.

The storms, which moved at an astounding 60-70 mph, created an outbreak of record tornadoes and winds that gusted to as high as 85 mph in places. Power was lost on a countywide scale, including Austin, which lost power to the entire community.

Some places in the county were without power for up to a week and a half after the storms moved through the area.

In Mower County, a total damage assessment was logged at $542,780. To date, the December storms produced the latest occurring tornadoes ever in Minnesota history, overtaking the original November record by just under a month.

One man is dead following an officer-involved shooting Dec. 23 at a Kwik Trip in the 1200 block of Oakland Avenue West. Photo provided

Officer-involved shooting

A standoff that had stretched for 24 hours ended tragically in the parking lot of an Austin Kwik Trip on Thursday, Dec. 23, in an officer-involved shooting.

In what the Austin Police Department was calling a “mental health crisis,” Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, 38 was shot by Austin Police officer Zachary Gast after Fiafonou allegedly confronted police with a knife.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has taken over the case and is still investigating. They will then send their findings, without recommendation, to the Mower County Attorney’s Office.

Gast is currently on administrative leave and a rally for Fiafonou was held outside the Law Enforcement Center Thursday.

The chain of events started on Wednesday, Dec. 22, when officers were dispatched to the area of Seventh Street and Eighth Avenue NW on a report of a male walking in traffic, holding a knife.

“Officers located the subject, who was armed with a machete, in public and attempted to gain verbal compliance from the subject,” McKichan said Friday, Dec. 24. “That was ineffective and the subject was followed into a residence.”

Fiafonou retreated into an apartment complex and at around 6 p.m. on that Thursday, APD began drawing down its presence to patrols.

Later that evening, Fiafonou left the building and made his way, followed by police, to Kwik Trip where at around 9:30 a.m. the shooting took place.

During the investigation, a knife was found near Fiafonou’s body.

Pacelli receives a gift of a lifetime

Pacelli Catholic Schools received an early Christmas gift in December, when it was announced the school had received a $1 million gift from an alumni of the school.

The donation comes from 1974 graduate Steve Wiggins and will be split in half with $500,000 going to advancing STEM education and the other half going to an endowment fund specifically geared toward scholarships.

“It just struck me how much our alumni are invested in the continued success and growth of Pacelli,” said Principal Kane Malo. “Knowing they still care about Pacelli Catholic High School, it’s just huge.”

Plans are already in motion to work with Riverland Community College, making it possible for Pacelli students to get certificates in three areas: web development/game design, mobile apps and virtual reality and computer applications.

KSMQ employees break ground for the Public Television’s new downtown facility during a October ceremony. Herald file photo

Prominent ground breakings in 2021

In June of this year, Nu-Tek Biosciences broke ground on its new facilities at the Cook Farm Site.

The groundbreaking came two years after work was started to bring the facility to Austin and currently looks to open in July of 2022.

“We really looked at Austin because they have a very rich manufacturing history,” said CEO Tom Yezzi prior to the eventi. “It’s really the proximity to the healthcare industry with Mayo Clinic Health System and The Hormel Institute.”

Nu-Tek’s site works well with development targets of the City of Austin- —  agriculture, food and biosciences.

Nu-Tek manufactures materials that are used in the next generation of pharmaceuticals for the biotech and wellness foods industry. What really sets the Minnetonka-based business apart, however, is that this is the first facility in the nation that won’t use animal testing, but rather will use plant-based materials.

Meanwhile, in October KSMQ broke ground on its new Broadcast Center in the heart of Austin.

The new facility, scheduled to be up and running by the third quarter of 2022, moves KSMQ from Riverland Community College to a central location to better serve the community.

“One word I was thinking about this morning is ‘trust,’” said KSMQ President Eric Olson, who praised the efforts of all who made the new center possible. “It’s something we hope will grow in our region and our nation. People trust our programs, they trust the work we do in the community, as witnessed by this wonderful collaboration that is bringing us a state-of-the-art broadcast facility in downtown Austin, serving 700,000 people in 20 counties in our region. Anything we put on the air here highlighting Austin, everybody sees it around our area.”

The site will be 10,000 square feet and will also host community areas for meetings and other group activities. It will also feature an outside green area where people will be able to relax.

Finally, in November, there was the groundbreaking for the Community Action Building (CAB) that will bring four non-profits together under one roof.

Those entities include the Parenting Resource Center, Michael H. Seibel Family Visitation & Exchange Center, Welcome Center and Children’s Dental Health Services.

“We’re one step closer to opening a community building … that will give people the support they need,” said Gema Alvarado, executive director of the Parenting Resource Center.

Ownership of the building will fall under the Parenting Resource Center ownership. The new building, which will connect to the existing Seibel building, will feature more off-street parking and a secure, outdoor play area for families.

Austin, St. Ansgar men charged in Jan. 6 Capitol riot

And Austin man and his father from St. Ansgar, were charged in June with four misdemeanors for their actions during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, when President Donald Trump supporters invaded the Capitol as the Legislature was making the election of current President Joe Biden official.

Court documents released by the government included pictures of the duo inside the Capitol building.

The misdemeanors included:

• Entering and remaining in a restricted building;

• Disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building;

• Violent entry and disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; and

• Parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building.

As early as Wednesday, however, it was reported that a felony for interfering with U.S. Capitol Police had been brought against them.

During the investigation, the FBI uncovered videos of Daniel and Daryl inside the U.S. Capitol building. The FBI also reviewed Daniel’s Facebook page, which showed a number of political posts around the time of the riots. In one post, dated Jan. 7, Daniel posted a photograph of the Jan. 6 crowd near the U.S. Capitol building with the caption, “Couple thousand?? Lol try like 4 million people!!! (sic)”

Both men are currently free.

CineMagic goes dark

In February, it was suddenly announced that CineMagic 7 Theatre in Austin would close down.

The announcement, released by CineMagic’s parent company Odyssey Entertainment, came out on Friday, Feb. 21, and said that the theater would be closing at the end of the day that following Sunday.

In the release, Odyssey said the lease for the property matured at the end of February. While Odyssey was hopeful an extension could be worked out to keep the theater open, the release stated that Odyssey was unable to come to a new agreement with the property owner, Hy-Vee.

Hy-Vee did not comment on the announcement.

“Austin has been a great community to do business in,” said Steve Tripp, President of Odyssey Theatres. “We have incurred substantial losses there in the last year alone and just simply can not continue to do so.”

Pair of murders shake Austin

Two murders shook the Austin community this year with the first coming in early June when David Harris was murdered inside his home.

The 45-year-old Harris was shot a little after 1 a.m. Saturday, June 5 with police responding to a 911 call to the residence at 110 12th St. NE at around 1:10 a.m.

The murder came during an botched robbery with police very quickly putting out an arrest warrant for 18-year-old Miguel Nunez Jr., of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Nunez was arrested in July and charged with felony second-degree murder – with intent – not premeditated – and two counts of felony second-degree murder – without intent – while committing a felony.

Towards the end of the month, APD investigated the second murder of the year, this time that of 20-year-old Tyesha Tahne Gills, who was killed by a single gunshot wound early on the morning of July 31.

Me’Darian Ledale McGruder, 27, was eventually arrested in September and plead not guilty to second degree murder with intent, second degree murder without intent while committing a felony and violent felon in possession of a firearm.

COVID-19 continues

After a summer of some relief, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pressure the planet.

With the coming of vaccines early in the year, there was renewed hope that the United States could finally get back on its feet. Restrictions were loosened and schools went back to regular forms of school.

However, in late 2020 the delta variant, a much more virulent mutation of the coronavirus, began pushing out of India and eventually made its way to the United States.

It was responsible for the country’s fourth deadly wave of the pandemic and once again drove up case numbers and deaths.

This was followed by the omicron variant that while not as potent as the delta variant, is much more transmittable and has pushed COVID-19 cases even higher.

As of Thursday, there have been 1,022,212 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in the state and 10,516 deaths.

Mower County nears the 8,000 cumulative case mark with 7,941 as of Thursday and 55 deaths.

Dr. Joey Page has taken over the reins of the superintendent position at Austin Public Schools, filling the role left by David Krenz, who recently retired. Herald file photo

APS hires new superintendent

After 10 years at the district, David Krenz stepped down as Austin Public superintendent at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

The district then hired Byron Superintendent and Austin native Dr. Joey Page.

“That was something that was really important for me and quite the shoes to fill,” Page said of Krenz. “His tenure here has been just exceptional and highly regarded for the work he’s done and to be able to work alongside him and transition into this has been very special.”

Brownsdale icon a total loss

For many, the Rohler Rink in Brownsdale as something of a community icon, but in September that icon was lost in a blaze that took the entire building.

The fire occurred on the night of Saturday, Sept. 4, and was reported at about 10:47 p.m. by a neighbor who was returning home and saw smoke coming from the Rohler Rink.

The cause of the blaze is currently unknown.