Turning to a new year; The Herald looks to 2015 and the Top 10 stories Austin will be following

After an eventful 2014, the city of Austin can now cast eyes forward to 2015 and expect a great number of stories to unravel themselves including more on the Oak Park Mall’s continued development, Vision 2020 and the Spam Museum.

Oak Park  Mall

Oak Park Mall

 1. The Oak Park Mall’s new developments

The city of Austin may not own the Oak Park Mall yet, but residents should expect some news on the city’s upcoming purchase agreement to purchase the site in a matter of weeks.

The city announced in October it would buy the mall site for $3.2 million in funds granted by the Hormel Foundation. The city plans to demolish much of the mall, save for Younkers, Cinemagic 7, Anytime Fitness and Shopko, to make way for a new 60,000- to 90,000-square-foot Hy-Vee store.

Austin doesn’t own the mall yet, however. City officials are working out a purchase agreement to buy the property with the mall’s current landlords, as well as with Shopko, Younkers and Cinemagic 7 representatives who all have agreements with the landlords.

It’s possible, though unlikely, the city won’t be able to work out contingencies with everyone. In the most likely scenario, the city will announce the purchase agreement’s conclusion at some point over the next few weeks and make plans to begin the $3 million mall demolition this spring.

The demolition may include a few caveats for the existing stores, such as walls and potentially extra space. Once demolition is complete, the city will turn over the site to Hy-Vee, which will begin construction on its new store.

Part of the project will include about five or six business stalls near Cinemagic 7 for businesses to eventually move inside. According to the agreement, the current Hy-Vee store at 1001 18th Ave. NW will be demolished within 90 days of its new store opening. That location will be donated to the Austin Port Authority.

Hy-Vee is also going to pay to replace much of the Oak Park Mall site’s parking lot.

Concept drawing of the inflatable dome coming to Art Hass Stadium. Photo provided

Concept drawing of the inflatable dome coming to Art Hass Stadium. Photo provided

2. Vision 2020 continues business

It’s looking to be a busy year for Vision 2020.

The $4.5 million project to instal a seasonal dome and field turf at the Wescott Field complex will likely be on of Vision 2020’s most public projects in 2015.

“I think the dome is going to be a big, visible one,” said Director of Vision Creation Laura Helle.

The dome could be used for everything from practices to games to leagues, and it will provide chances for indoor walking, indoor softball, indoor baseball and indoor soccer. Coaches viewed the turf playing field as an upgrade for all Packer teams, adding it will provide a consistent playing surface and space for winter practices. The project is expected to be completed by fall.

But that’s just the start. The Community Recreation Center committee is currently working to secure a site for the proposed rec center, which is one project that’s gained a lot of public attention.

The Gateway to Austin committee’s plan to build a highly visible visitors center should also move forward. Committee chair John Gray has said the preferred site is on 18th Avenue Northwest near the back end of the current Hy-Vee site. Once the mall project is finalized, Gray is slated to talk to the Austin Port Authority about the proposal. Presuming the mall deal is completed, the current Hy-Vee will be demolished and the land donated to the Port Authority.

Vision 2020 volunteers have become key collaborators working to expand Austin and Mower County’s biking and walking trails. This year will be no different. Along with continued work to add trails in Austin, state bonding dollars should extend the Shooting Star Trail from Rose Creek to Austin. Vision 2020 and the city of Austin also recently purchased 12 bike racks for downtown Austin.

The Waterways committee in conjunction with the Cedar River Watershed District is slated to complete flood mitigation work on parts of the Dobbins Creek prone to flash flooding, and the work could address the streams feeding into Dobbins.

 3. Hormel Institute project completion

Later this year, the Hormel Institute will complete and unveil its $28.5 million expansion that will add 20 state-of-the-art laboratories to the the Institute’s International Center of Research Technology.

Work has been underway for months, but there’s still a lot of work to be done between now and the project’s completion late this summer or this fall.

The project is significant for Austin, the state and the country, according to leaders.

“Our investment in research is the key to the country’s success, not just in medicine, but in agriculture and in energy and in our space program,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken said at the project groundbreaking last May.

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.

4. Spam Museum work kicks into gear

Hormel Foods Corp. is still working on an exact timetable, but one thing is for certain: Expect a lot of work on North Main Street in 2015 as work begins to build a new Spam Museum between Second and Fourth Avenues near the downtown fire site.

Aside from announcing the downtown museum and closing the 1101 N. Main St. location, Hormel has been tight-lipped about further details of the museum. More details should be revealed as work gets underway later this year.

Hormel officials have said to expect exhibits for all ages, including some old, revamped favorites and some new exhibits. Community leaders and Vision 2020’s Destination Downtown committee started regular meetings to plan for the Spam Museum’s move downtown and how businesses will be able to profit and make the most of the changes.

 5. Austin to continue school calendar talks; high school set for summer renovations

Austin Public Schools could continue researching potential changes to its calendar in 2015.

A group of about 50 community members researched different options throughout 2014 for a school’s yearly calendar, as well as options such as start time, that could help students. The group is set to recommend to the Austin Public Schools Board that the district and the community continue researching possible calendar options in January.

After the committee’s recommendation, the board will decide whether to move forward with more research. If it moves forward, more committees will likely discuss what calendar and time options could look like in Austin. The new committees would look at busing, scheduling for extracurricular activities, and other areas that would be affected by a change. The committee would not decide whether to make changes to the current Austin schedule, but rather would research changes that could be beneficial to Austin and its students.

Although changes with the calendar may not be set within 2015, Austin High School will see changes this summer.

Austin High School and Knowlton Auditorium will be renovated this summer after the Austin Public Schools Board passed the sale of about $7.6 million in bonds for the renovations. The renovations have been a long time in coming.

About $5.3 million in general obligation alternative facilities bonds will be used for upgrading the more than 20-year-old heating ventilation air conditioning (HVAC) systems at AHS, and about $2.3 million in general obligation capital facilities bonds will go toward upgrading Knowlton Auditorium’s sound and electrical systems.

Activities and programs that take place at the high school during the summer will be moved to other locations due to construction. The district will seek bids for construction within the next few months.

 6. The state’s road to better transportation

A new legislative session means the next few months will be filled with news on the biggest decisions to come out of St. Paul, but many across the state are anticipating action on Minnesota’s transportation woes.

Last year, both Democrats and Republicans said they would raise transportation as an issue at this session. Gov. Mark Dayton has already called for $6 billion to be spent on Minnesota transportation over the next 10 years.

The state will need to do something about its aging infrastructure. The Center for Rural Policy and Development found Minnesota faces a $12 billion shortfall in road and bridge funding over the next two decades.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will follow Dayton’s plan or, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson suggested, shift state money around from other transportation needs like light rail to pay for roads and bridges.

 7. Changes on 18th Avenue Northeast

The year is just days old, but several business changes are already on the horizon for the 18th Avenue Northeast retail district.

Target will close in less than a month, unless the “Save the Austin, Minnesota, Target” group can convince the company otherwise, which — despite the community efforts to keep the store — appears exceedingly unlikely. Muy! Pizza Minnesota is building a new Pizza Hut in the 1004 18th Ave. NW strip mall, and the proposed Hy-Vee and Oak Park Mall project is likely to continue to spur more change.

In 2014, numerous business changes happened few people saw coming — like the announcements that Target, Quiznos and Staples would all close.

One business to watch may be Radioshack. Though nothing has been announced regarding the Austin store, the company announced plans to close about 1,100 of its more than 5,000 stores last year, but CNN and other news agencies have reported the company doesn’t have the funds to close its stores (CNN also reported closing the stores is an expensive undertaking).

The last few years have seen lots of change in Austin’s largest retail hub. What will 2015 have in store?

 8. Fighting cancer: Lyle Area Cancer Auction and Paint the Town Pink

ah.07.04.aThe 36th annual Lyle Area Cancer Auction will reach a milestone in a few weeks: $2 million raised to fight cancer.

The auction has been a consistent force in recent years, raising more than $110,000 every year since 2004 and topping $200,000 for the first time in 2013. Last year, $186,000 was raised, making for more than $1.9 million raised since 1980.

The auction is set for Jan. 16 and 17 at the Lyle American Legion and the Lyle maintenance building.

A few weeks later, the fight will continue with the fourth Paint the Town Pink, which runs from Jan. 31, 2014, 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.

The 2014 Paint the Town Pink raised $162,300, bringing the total for Paint the Town and Paint the Rink to $362,430 since 2011.

 9. Nature center project to move forward

The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center will have a busy year.

Tree foliage will come back, flowers will bloom, grasses will grow and work on the center’s upcoming interpretive center will continue.

Nature Center officials are working with architects to design a 15,000-square-foot building to house exhibits and classrooms for the center. In addition, the nature center may start a fundraising campaign for the project.

Nature center staff announced in November the $7 million project would move forward, in part due to a $5 million grant from the Hormel Foundation.

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. 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.

The new center is expected to go out for bid in late 2015 with construction to begin in 2016. The center is set to be built in time for a dedication on Oct. 1, 2017.

 10. Edges to face federal

trial for child porn charges

A federal trial for an Austin couple accused of producing child pornography will start in February.

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.

Once the federal trial concludes, the Edges may have to deal with their outstanding state charges.

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.

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 Edges have already lost parental rights to their four children. Deborah voluntarily gave up her rights in July, while a judge stripped Anthony of his rights in October.

—Jason Schoonover, Trey Mewes and Jenae Hackensmith contributed to this story

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