Looking back on 2018: Renovation of St. Augustines just one of the big news items taking place this year

With ceilings painted in what Father James Steffes calls “heavenly blue,” St. Augustine Catholic Church finished its multi-million dollar restoration project after five months of work.

During the bulk of the project, parishioners attended St. Edward’s Church while the renovations were being completed.

As new stained glass windows were installed, ceilings were painted, and much of the original work was restored, the parish was welcomed back into St. Augustine in October.

The old Hy-Vee location was purchased for $400,000 by Slaby and Associates as part of a development agreement. Herald file photos

Purchase and redevelopment of old Hy-Vee building

In July 2018, the Austin Port Authority approved a $400,000 purchase agreement with Verona, Wisconsin-based firm Slaby and Associates for the old Hy-Vee building. Under the agreement, Slaby and Associates had to either successfully market the 52,000-square-foot building for five tenants — including an anchor store — or withdraw from the agreement.

The agreement and subsequent project was the result of over two years of negotiating and planning between the Port Authority and Slaby and Associates. Slaby and Associates is also responsible for establishing a new building at the Farmer’s Market lot, located between O’Reilly Auto Parts and the Hy-Vee gas station, which will have a “fast casual” or “sit-down” restaurant along with three other tenants.

At the time of the purchase, three stores had submitted letters of intent for the old Hy-Vee: Marshalls, Five Below and Pet Supplies Plus. In December, Victor Baeten, vice president and sales agent for Slaby and Associates, confirmed that all three stores had signed lease agreements and renovation work had begun on the building. He also indicated that other tenants were interested in the remaining two spots, though could not say who they were as nothing had been finalized.

Construction work will be performed in phases, with interior work currently occurring and plans to work on the exterior façade in early 2019. Baeten said the projected opening date for the new tenants is Sept. 1 to mid-September 2019.

Dr. Sumit Bhagra, M.D., medical director for Mayo Clinic Health System – Albert Lea and Austin and Mark Ciota, M.D. and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System – Albert Lea and Austin reveal plans for the new Family Birth Center and time frame for construction during a news conference. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Mayo Clinic Health System-Austin to add new Family Birth Center

Mayo Clinic Health System – Albert Lea and Austin announced in August it plans to create a new third-floor Family Birth Center and a two-story connecting link between the main clinic entrance and the hospital on its Austin campus.

Construction on the $11.2 million expansion is expected to begin in mid-2019 and finish near the end of 2020.

The center will be built in the third-floor space currently occupied by the Women’s Special Care Unit and step-down/telemetry unit. It will also include additional construction for a large, comfortable family waiting area. It will have 10 large rooms with private bathrooms to accommodate moms, babies and family members throughout the labor, delivery and recovery process as well as space for triage, a C-section suite and newborn nursery.

Another component of the Austin facility expansion is the addition of an extended “link” that will connect the main entrance of the medical center directly to the newly expanded units.

The construction of this unit will allow Mayo Clinic Health System to complete the transition of inpatient services by 2020 as planned.

Vision 2020 Steering Committee co-chair Nicole Behne greets people as she kicks off a groundbreaking for offical construction of the rec center. Behind her trucks and construction equipment continue preparing the ground.

Construction begins on Austin Community Rec Center

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new Austin Community Rec Center was held on July 25, officially kicking off construction of the building at Fourth Avenue and Fourth Street Northeast. The old Austin Utilities plant was demolished on the site prior to construction.

At the time of the groundbreaking, over $36 million had been raised for the Rec Center, with $25 million coming from the Hormel Foundation, $5 million from Hormel Foods, and the remainder from businesses and residents in the community.

A goal of Vision 2020, the 105,000 square-foot Community Rec Center will be a year-round facility with state-of-the-art-fitness facilities such as a family aquatic center, practice facilities and programs supporting healthy living in a safe, affordable environment. Additionally, it will have areas free to the public and areas available for access through a daily or monthly fee, preschool programs and classroom for 120 students and a school age child care program for 150 children. It is expected to employ over 175 people and have an economic impact of $3.2 million annually.

Vision 2020 is hoping to have a ribbon cutting ceremony in late 2019.

Council approves 15.69 percent tax levy increase

The Austin City Council approved a $932,000, or 15.69 percent, tax levy increase for 2019 during its last regular meeting on Dec. 17. This marked the fourth year the tax levy has increased by double-digits.

The main source of the increase was for an estimated $500,000 needed for the implementation of the compensation and classification study, which city leaders hope will make Austin more competitive in recruiting and retaining city employees. Other increases come from contractually obligated pay increases, a $200,000 housing initiative and funds committed to the new Community Rec Center.

Property taxes are based on valuation and the classification of the property. According to Administrative Service Director Tom Dankert, a 15.69 percent increase in the tax levy would mean a $60 per year increase for a home valued at $101,400.

Commercial properties see larger increases when the levy goes up, and the council’s proposed levy drew criticism from business owners and advocates, including Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Director Sandy Forstner, who was alarmed with the consistency with which the city has increased the tax levy over the past few years. City leaders pointed out that Austin is consistently rated among the lowest taxed cities in the state when compared to similar sized communities. They also said they are open to hearing from the public as to what city services they want city leaders to cut.

Murders, arson, and kidnapping charges

Four area criminal cases stood out among others in 2018.

• Russell Allen Spoors, 34, of Austin was charged with felony second-degree murder-with intent-not premeditated after his mother, Susan Spoors, 60, of Austin died from stab wounds on Feb. 22.

Russell Allen Spoors, 34

The court complaint states Susan called police at 7:34 p.m. on Feb. 22 to her residence in the 400 block of Second Avenue Southeast because she was concerned Russell was trying to abuse his medication, which she kept in her bedroom. Police arranged for Susan to stay elsewhere for the night, but she declined, believing he had calmed down and would go to bed.

Less than an hour later, Russell called the police back to the house, claiming Susan had stabbed herself. Officers found her lying in her bed, bleeding from the abdomen. While emergency personnel treated Susan, police questioned Russell, who again claimed she stabbed herself before indicating that he had stabbed her, the court complaint states. Police found three knives, one with blood on it, in the mailbox.

Susan was transported to Mayo Clinic Health System-Austin, where she later died from her wounds.

A trial for Russell Spoors has been scheduled for April 8, 2019.

• Darrell James Wigham, 29, of Austin was charged with three counts of felony attempted first-degree murder-premeditated, three counts of felony attempted first-degree murder-with intent while committing a felony, and felony first-degree arson in relation to a March 7 fire at 304 11th Avenue Southwest.

Darrell James Wigham, 29

Three individuals were in the house when it caught fire on the morning of March 7. Two women in the house had to be rescued from the roof. All three told police they were staying at the house the night before and that Wigham had been there late that night and early that morning. During that time, Wigham had a confrontation with one of the women. Two said they saw him pouring paint thinner on a door and on the floor in a trail leading to the fireplace. They also claimed Wigham commented that he was going to “kill them” and said, “You all just think I’m playing. You all just think I ain’t going to do (expletive) about it. You just watch when this (expletive) house burns down.”

An investigation by the fire marshal confirmed the fire was started by an accelerant.

Wigham has since pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 25, 2019.

• Lois Riess, 56, of rural Blooming Prairie was arrested on April 19 in South Padre Island, Texas, after a nationwide manhunt that began with the March 21 shooting death of her husband, David Riess.

Lois Riess, 56

Lois was a suspect in the death of her husband, who was found dead at the couple’s home on March 23. Lois forged checks to steal $11,000 from her husband’s bank account, then fled to Fort Myers, Florida, where she became a suspect in the April 9 shooting death of Pamela Hutchinson, 59, who looked like her. Police believed Lois was hoping to assume Hutchinson’s identity.

Records indicate David Riess and Hutchinson were both killed by small-caliber weapons in bathrooms, had towels draped over their bodies and a rolled-up towel wedged between the floor and bathroom door.

Lois was arrested at a South Padre Island waterfront restaurant by two federal deputy marshals after an employee, who recognized her from surveillance video broadcast on television, called police. She was extradited to Florida and charged in the murder of Hutchinson. Lee County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

• Miguel Jay Cooley Sr., 44, of Moorhead, a suspect in the Sept. 23 shooting death of 20-year-old Gabriel Perez in Fargo, North Dakota, was arrested on Sept. 24 at the home of a relative in the 200 block of Elm Street in Rose Creek. On the night of Sept. 29, Cooley’s wife, Izetta Rose Cooley, 39, of Moorhead came to the residence with her oldest son, 16-year-old Morgan Cooley, and took two of her children staying at the residence, in violation of a Clay County Court order placing the children at the Rose Creek residence.

Miguel Jay Cooley Sr., 44

Law enforcement in the surrounding areas searched for Izetta, listing her as a kidnapping suspect. The Moorhead Police Department listed two other children of Cooley’s missing after they were not seen at their Moorhead residence.

Izetta was arrested on Oct. 2 at a residence in Moorhead, where law enforcement recovered the two children taken from Rose Creek as well as the two children reported missing out of Moorhead. Morgan Cooley turned himself in to Moorhead police on Oct. 5.

Izetta was charged with two counts of felony kidnapping-to facilitate felony or flight and felony deprive of custody right-violation of court order-take minor. She later pleaded guilty to felony deprive of custody right-violation of court order-take minor as part of a plea agreement, which resulted in the dismissal of the other two charges. She will be sentenced on March 14.

Pierre Lilly, an Austin High School junior, listens intently to officials from The Hormel Foundation, Austin Public Schools and Pacelli Catholic Schools, about the qualifications to be eligible for the new Austin Assurance Scholarship that would help prospective students attend Riverland Community College debt-free. Hannah Yang/hannah.yang@austindailyherald.com

Announcement of The Hormel Foundation’s Austin Assurance Scholarship Program

This announcement was considered a “game changer” for many Austin families with students contemplating the future and whether to pursue a post-secondary education.

The Hormel Foundation made an announcement last June about giving prospective seniors from both Austin High School and Pacelli High School a chance to attend Riverland Community College debt-free. This announcement was one that rocked the community, as students now have the ability to attend college for free.

“Anyone can qualify,” said Jeffrey Ettinger, chairman of The Hormel Foundation during the program’s launch in October. “Your effort can help you take control of your future.”

It was a massive undertaking, but multiple community partners came together to develop the scholarship program and to ensure that all financial barriers and obstacles would be removed from the students’ shoulders. These partnerships included Austin Public Schools, Pacelli Catholic Schools, The Hormel Foundation, Riverland Community College, as well as the United Way of Mower County and more.

Although it’s too soon to see what the exact impact of the Austin Assurance Scholarship Program would look like in the community, many are already taking advantage of the opportunity to further themselves for whatever pathways they decide to go into the future.

“Two free years is a great opportunity,” said Austin High School junior Pierre Lilly. “A scholarship like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Southland Elementary students walk down the hallway on the first day of school in Rose Creek. Herald file photo

LeRoy-Ostrander, Southland Schools

It’s hard not to be aware of things happening in the LeRoy-Ostrander School District with the investigation of the high school principal and a fifth grade teacher. Aaron Hungerholt and Trevor Carrier both did not have their contracts renewed for coaching, and the premise of the investigation remains unknown.

Much of this investigation left many L-O families and staff frustrated, as there were very minimal to no details surrounding the incident. Calls were made for Justin Kennedy, school board chair, to resign, and for Superintendent Jeff Sampson to be relieved of his duties in the L-O district. Sampson will remain in his position until an interim superintendent is found, according to a previous story.

Southland School also had its share of news, with the decision to close Southland Elementary School in Rose Creek because of declining enrollment and lack of state funding. Students from the elementary school are expected to move to the middle/high school in Adams once renovations are finished since the referendum had passed on Nov. 6.

Parna Lam, right, and Ameisha Gunsallus, left, hold up signs during a walk-out by Austin High School students in conjunction with a national walk out. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Austin High School students walk out during aftermath of Parkland Shooting

Once news hit that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had been the site of a mass shooting that left 17 people dead and numerous injured, students nationwide participated in protests demanding for safer schools and stricter gun laws. These protests were notably recognized as majority student-led and student-organized.

Southeast Minnesota was no exception to this movement, as Austin High School students demonstrated in April 2018 about 20 minutes outside to align with the Columbine shooting that happened in 1999. Prior to the April demonstration, there was a walkout that happened in March 2018 where students mourned the deaths of the Parkland school shooting and stood outside for 17 minutes, one minute to honor each victim of the shooting.

The final design of what the new MacPhail Center For Music will look like once construction is completed in 2020. The Austin High School’s music annex will begin its renovations in January 2019. Rendering provided

MacPhail Center for Music to add addition to Austin High School for music programs

As part of its three-year partnership with MacPhail Center for Music, Austin Public Schools announced a multimillion-dollar project that aimed to enhance community music programs back in early 2018.

The high school’s annex building will be undergoing an $11 million renovation, including a 13,750-square-foot addition to the second floor and 17,850 square feet of alterations. With financial support from The Hormel Foundation of $8.7 million, APS will finance the project during a 15-year time period with renovations starting on Jan. 3.



Expanding Opportunity: Austin Ford Chrysler breaks ground on addition, renovation

Mower County

Volunteers are needed for the statewide bumble bee survey

Crime, Courts & Emergencies

Convictions June 3-10

Mower County

MnDOT asks motorists, riders to safely share the road during motorcycle convention in Rochester

Mower County

City of Austin to spray for mosquitoes

Mower County

Ikes to host steak cookout


Education: Accolades

Blooming Prairie

Education: Blooming Prairie Honor Roll

Mower County

In Your Community: Duplicate Bridge

Mower County

In Your Community: Mower County Senior Center


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Supreme Court strikes down Trump-era ban on rapid-fire rifle bump stocks, reopening political fight


New influenza testing rule for dairy cows going to Minnesota fairs

Mower County

Warrant issued for Jeffer Lorenzo after he fails to show for sentencing


Unanimous Supreme Court preserves access to widely used abortion medication


Audit finds Minnesota agency’s lax oversight fostered theft of $250M from federal food aid program


Partnerships celebrated during community event for Mower, Fillmore solar installations

Mower County

Mayo Ambulance training program hopes to increase EMT numbers


Workforce Development one of nine organizations to receive funding to train underrepresented workers for clean energy careers


Minneapolis police officer killed while responding to a shooting call is remembered as a hero

Mower County

Documentary follows AHS class across 50 years

Mower County

2024 Friendship Wagon Train coming to the area


New funding available for continuous living cover grants

Mower County

MDH inviting well users to seminar on nitrates