Airport leads 2013 news

FAIRMONT – Actions by the city of Fairmont led the local news in 2013.

The city ended its contract with its airport manager, and followed up by hiring a new city employee to run the facility this year.

Fairmont also turned on its new $30 million water plant in 2013, hoping to resolve taste and odor problems, but not without generating controversy about the cost of the plant and accompanying rate hikes.

Other top news stories of the year included the Highway 169 reconstruction project in Blue Earth, the closing of US Foods in Fairmont and a Blue Earth priest being charged with a sex crime.

The complete list of Top 10 local stories of the year follows:

No. 10

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Fairmont Elementary School students were offered free breakfast daily in their classroom.

Financed by the federal government, the program drew polarized local reactions.

A third of the way through the school year, more than 80 percent of the 900 elementary students were eating a free breakfast, consisting of milk, juice, dry cereal, crackers, muffins or breakfast bars.

Whether people initially supported or criticized the endeavor, the school district says it has fulfilled its goals: increased attendance, improved academic achievement, reduced behavior problems and fewer student visits to the nurse’s office.

No. 9

Rumblings about Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont surfaced at City Hall in November, when an impromptu discussion broke out following a City Council meeting.

Council members voiced concerns that the Mayo site is turning into a “stop-and-go,” noting that the facility has struggled in recent years with physician recruitment and retention, and that some operations have transitioned to Mankato, the unofficial hub of Mayo’s Southwest Minnesota Region, resulting in the loss of local jobs.

If problems persist, one councilman suggested the city consider recruiting another health care provider to Fairmont.

In response to the discussion, the administrator of the Fairmont site expressed surprise and disappointment that elected officials would question Mayo’s commitment to Fairmont. He cited the addition of four new physicians, and an increase in clinic visits and hospital admissions in 2013 as proof of recent successes at the facility.

No. 8

Blue Earth received a federal grant for nearly $1 million in September, catapulting the city over a major milestone in its effort to build a new industrial park at the conjunction of Interstate 90 and Highway 169.

“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do the full project,” said Mayor Rick Scholtes.

The idea for an industrial park on the north end of town began in 2012, led by Linsey Warmka, director of the Faribault County Development Corporation. She and the city have been working together since, moving ahead with an engineering study and other required paperwork.

The city has approved options to purchase the land. The target date to start work is spring 2014.

No. 7

In early February, the Martin County Fair Board approached county commissioners and warned that the Fairmont Raceway was without a promoter, and had no potential promoters on the radar. Without a promoter, 2013 could be a year without races.

Shortly after the announcement, however, the husband and wife team of Al and Becky Thoreson stepped forward, and were approved as promoters by the fair board later that month.

Al Thoreson’s racing background and Becky Thoreson’s background in marketing, public relations and event coordinating brought out more people to the raceway than just the regular racing fans.

Special guests, such as Mrs. International and Miss Minnesota International, and nights that focused on causes and organizations, such as breast cancer awareness and the Phoenix Society for burn victims, helped the Thoresons reach their goal of creating more community involvement.

No. 6

US Foods announced in November its plans to merge operations at its Fairmont distribution center with US Foods facilities in Omaha, Plymouth and Iowa City.

As a result of the transition, about 40 people will lose their jobs early next year. The news created some local confusion, with rumors flying that Fairmont Foods would be closing. US Foods was the most recent owner, however, of what used to be known as Draper Foods – a locally owned and operated company from 1978 to 1999.

The upcoming merger of food distribution giant Sysco with US Foods is not expected to have an impact on the closure of the Fairmont plant.

No. 5

In a case that is still ongoing, Father Leo Charles Koppala was accused of second-degree criminal sexual conduct after a child under the age of 13 years accused him of touching her inappropriately in June.

Koppala, who had been serving as priest for Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Blue Earth, was placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Winona. He is out on bail and has had several hearings, the latest on Dec. 16.

An arraignment hearing is expected after the new year.

No. 4

Traffic problems abounded in Blue Earth over the summer when the Minnesota Department of Transportation tore up Highway 169 from just south of the Interstate 90 overpass to nearly the south end of town.

Local residents’ concern began much earlier, when the state announced it had included three roundabouts in the plans. Many people, including Faribault County Commissioner John Roper, expressed displeasure with having the roundabouts and having so many of them.

During construction, many out-of-towners, particularly semi drivers, had trouble navigating around the work, mainly because they did not take the designated detours and wound up on streets that deadended at the Blue Earth River or the railroad tracks.

The highway re-opened in late November, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and bus tour in early December.

“It’s nice now it’s done, but it’s been a long time,” said Jason Farrow of Farrow’s Custom Cabinetry, one of the businesses along the highway.

No. 3

In March, Brian Daniel Freeman, then 30, of Ceylon, formally accepted a plea deal to serve a minimum of 33 years in a case that began in February 2012 with a home invasion in Blue Earth.

Freeman faced 11 felony counts after being accused of using a hammer to kill Christopher Fulmer, 37; and render head injuries to Freeman’s estranged wife, Candice Freeman, and her two teenage daughters.

The Freemans’ 6-year-old daughter was not injured in the attack.

No. 2

After years of planning and construction, Fairmont’s new water plant went online in September.

The new plant is located on Albion Avenue, at the site of the former William Budd Elementary School, less than a block north of the old plant.

The $30 million project began with much fanfare, before a site was even selected, as local residents debated the merits of groundwater versus surface water.

Sticking with its past position, the city opted to continue treating water from Budd Lake, though new filtration technology was utilized in the treatment process to improve complaints of taste and odor issues during summer months.

Water rates were hiked as high as 25 percent several years in a row to pay for the plant, with 2014 being the first year for which no rate increase is scheduled.

In December, the process of disassembling and razing the old plant began, with the intent to create a green space for public use.

No. 1

The management model at Fairmont Municipal Airport was altered this year, after the City Council voted to terminate its contract with an independent aviation manager.

The council began discussing the airport management in April, when the city administrator compiled a list of concerns about the facility.

Several months later, the problems were not resolved, according to city staff, and the council voted in June to terminate its contract with Five Lakes Aviation, effective Sept. 30.

In December, Lee Steinkamp began as the new airport manager. Steinkamp is not a contractor but a city employee, under the supervision of the city’s public works director.