2013: Year in review part 1

2013-review-part-1WEB

A lot happened in the Stillwater area in 2013. Some events held such historic significance that they will be remembered for many years to come. Although the memory of other events will fade more quickly, they still held meaning for residents this year and have shaped the community as it moves into the future.

The Gazette staff is pleased to present a look at five of the year’s top stories. We have not attempted to rank them in order of importance but present them as a reflection on the past year as we bid farewell to 2013. Watch for five more of the top stories from 2013 in the Jan. 3 issue of the Gazette and online later this week.

-Construction work begins on St. Croix Crossing bridge
-Voters in the Stillwater School District approve a levy increase
-Prominent court cases conclude
-TIF funding for boutique hotel approved
-Stillwater man named Obama’s chief of staff

Construction work begins on St. Croix Crossing bridge

52913_bridgegroundbreak1Construction crews finally broke ground in 2013 for a project that has been talked about since the days of President Harry Truman.

A delegation of local and national politicians plunged ceremonial golden shovels into the ground May 28 to celebrate the start of work on a bridge across the St. Croix River. The structure will replace the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge as the primary connection between Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Stillwater area.

“I’ve heard lots of comments over the years from people who said they’d been hearing about it for a while, that they’re grandfather had talked about it and that they doubted even their great-great grand kids would see it get built,” Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki said at the ground-breaking ceremony. “For a while, my kids thought I was working on a dam as well with our spouses saying, ‘Can you pick up the kids,’ followed by a ‘Sorry, I have a damn bridge meeting.’ But now after hours of work, long nights and many meetings, that bridge is going to be finished, and I can say, ‘Let’s build this bridge.’”

Estimated to cost up to $676.9 million, the project includes a four-lane bridge across the river and substantial work to build new approach roads leading to the bridge on both sides. It also includes work to preserve the lift bridge for use by bicyclist and pedestrians.

In 2013, contractors began work on the Minnesota approach and laid the foundations for the bridge in the river.

According to Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson Jessica Wiens, the work on the final two foundations in the river was substantially completed Dec. 27, with a few minor items expected to take a week or two.

Crews also made significant progress on the Minnesota approach.

“2013 was our kickoff year, our first year, and we got a lot of work done with everything under the water in the river and on Highway 36,” Wiens said. “We look forward to continuing that progress in 2014.”

In December 2013 MnDOT announced that a joint venture between the construction companies Lunda and Ames had been awarded $332.5 million contract for building the bridge superstructure, which includes:

• A ramp bridge from Highway 95 to the river crossing (south of the main bridge)

• A ramp bridge from the river crossing to Highway 95 (north of the main bridge)

• A Highway 36 box girder approach bridge

• A connecting structure between the river bridge and the Highway 36 approach bridge

Crews began driving poles, known as piles, into the ground at the first of seven pier locations on Minnesota land Dec. 26. The piers will support the Highway 36 approach bridge and ramp bridges. Pile driving is scheduled to continue through May between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but there will be little other work occurring during the winter.

Wiens said because pile driving requires significant preparations, residents may notice gaps between periods of pile driving at the various pier locations.

Other work is scheduled to resume in the spring of 2014.

“Next year is the big traffic impact year along 36, because we’re redoing … the Osgood intersection and the Greeley/Oakgreen intersection, as well as the frontage road,” Wiens said.

She emphasized that there will be access to all residences and businesses at all times, but that it may require measures such as temporary driveways.

Wiens said MnDOT is working with a contractor to finalize the specifics of next year’s construction timeline. She said the department will share that information with residents and businesses as soon as it can, which will likely be at the end of January or beginning of February.

“We’ll be doing all sorts of outreach later in the winter,” she said.

According to Wiens, work on highways 36 and 95 is on schedule to be finished next year, and crews will also continue work on the piers in the river. She said people will notice the foundations sticking out of the water will get taller.

Voters in the Stillwater School District approve a levy increase

110613_election2bwWebIn November St. Croix Valley residents voted to approve a renewal and increase in the school district levy.

The levy request passed with 63.3 percent of voters saying “yes.” It represented the first time in more than a decade that the community has increased its levy support of local schools beyond the rate of inflation.

The levy renewed the district’s expiring $11 million-per-year levy that was implemented in 2007, plus added $5.2 million per year, for a total $16.2 million annually, equivalent to a 5 percent increase in the district’s budget. The levy is valid for eight years.

This levy provides funding of $1,536.47 per pupil. The district says it allows current programs to continue and helps the district to avoid additional budget cuts, support the new Bridge to Excellence strategic plan and increase school safety and security.

In December Stillwater Area Schools announced the district’s total burden on taxpayers ended up being higher than expected. Before voters approved an increase in taxes, the district estimated the owner of a $250,000 home would pay an additional $167.31 compared to 2013. Now it says the same home will actually pay $178.48 more than in 2013.

District Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel said the change does not reflect a change in the voter-approved levy. Rather, the changes were adjustments to the expected amounts of other levies the district collects that are not voter approved.

Hoheisel said the district is continuing to see positive trends: General fund revenue has decreased the past few years due to the drop in student population, but this year the student population is going up. The community education fund is staying relatively level, and the debt service fund will continue to decrease as more bonds come due. And the board has said it is continuing toward managing the budget more effectively.

The district’s work is not done yet as the implementation of the Bridge to Excellence plan is beginning. Created with community members, the plan includes more than 300 action steps intended to emphasize passion and personalization in learning, create community and emphasize safety.

Year one is taking place during the 2013-2014 school year, and implementation is mainly behind the scenes. Possible changes could include a hiring process focusing on bringing in teachers with skill sets that fit within the plan; a new social studies curriculum using technology instead of textbooks to teach students; differentiating learning to engage some real-world elements students are familiar with; and connecting  with people worldwide and in the community to create networks and mentors that can help students tap into their passions.

The district says highlights of year two include world language programs in elementary schools; new grading systems to better evaluate student growth; expansion of STEM (a focus on science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM by adding an art and design component; and embedding more technology in classroom learning. According to the district, community members will be encouraged to share their experiences with students through more volunteer opportunities, and students and families will receive support through transition phases. The district also plans to expand anti-bullying efforts and to support students and staff in making healthier choices.

In year three, a new curriculum is expected to be in place. This is where personalization comes into play. The goal is to develop students’ passions and their individual social, emotional and health needs. Ways to do this include meeting the needs of the whole child, expanding blended and flexible learning, implementing bring-your-own-technology days and supporting parents in their roles as educators. Students will be matched with adults who share their passions, the district says, and student-peer mentor programs will be established.

By the time the plan enters year four, district officials hope the community is heavily involved and will help establish opportunities for students to learn alongside professionals in careers they are interested in. Community service projects would be added across all grades, and parents would also have education opportunities.

Year five is a time for review and creation of a new strategic plan.

Prominent court cases conclude

010213_Ariola ErenbergWeb

Ariola Erenberg

Two major court cases came to a conclusion this year: The wrongful death lawsuit concerning the death of 9-year-old Jack Ariola Erenberg in August 2012 after swimming in Lily Lake and the criminal case over the death of Adam McCloud.

The lawsuit stemming from the August 2012 death of Ariola Erenberg after being exposed to an amoeba after a late-summer swim in Lily Lake was closed  and dismissed with a judgment from 10th District Court Judge Susan Miles Dec. 5.

The lawsuit, filed by the boy’s father Jim Ariola, charged the city of Stillwater, the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, Washington County and the Minnesota Department of Health with wrongful death, negligence, failure to warn and violation of regulations in the death of Jack Ariola Erenberg after the boy contracted primary amoebic meningocephalitis (PAM) from an amoeba in Lily Lake in early August 2012.

Ariola Erenberg’s death came just two years after the death of 7-year-old Annie Bahneman, also from PAM, which occurred after she swam in various lakes, including Lily Lake.

Ariola’s Scottsdale, Ariz., lawyer, Roger Strassburg, argued that the public entities negligently failed to remedy the danger of the amoeba, that they negligently failed to adequately warn about the amoeba and that the county and health department aided and abetted the city’s negligence.

The public entities maintained they were immune from any liability under the doctrine of recreational use immunity and that they are immune because the amoeba was a wild animal. The county and department of health also said they owed no specific duty to Ariola Erenberg.

Judge Miles noted that Strassburg hadn’t alleged legally sufficient facts to make a claim against the entities and that the entities didn’t have a special duty to Ariola Erenberg.

Judge Miles issued an order granting the dismissal of the case with prejudice, meaning no new action can be filed in the case, though it can be appealed to a higher judge. Strassburg has indicated he plans to file an appeal.

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McCloud

The McCloud case concluded Dec. 10. Eric Kaprice Richard II, 23, was sentenced to sixyears and two months in prison for an attack against Adam McCloud, who later died.

In September, Richard pleaded guilty to first-degree assault against 29-year-old McCloud, of Bayport.

The assault took place in Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar Sept. 28, 2012. Bar surveillance video shown in court during the sentencing showed Richard and McCloud dancing at the bar, when McCloud apparently accidentally knocked a

Richard

Richard

drink out of Richard’s hand. The recording included what sounded like an argument off-camera when the pair went to the bar. Then the footage showed Richard charging McCloud, punching him multiple times, and knocking him to the ground.

Richard was initially charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder without intent because McCloud suffered skull fractures and intracranial bleeding. Those charges were dropped later, when it was determined that McCloud fell out of bed at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and died after a series of strokes. The medical examiner could not attribute the death to the beating.

“There are no winners, no matter what I do here today,” Judge William Eckstrum said before sentencing. “This has been a real and grievous loss. Mr. Richard will also experience a loss, but it will be nothing compared to what the McCloud family has … I have no doubt that you are a person with a lot of promise. I hope you live a good life. I want that for you, and I would have wanted that for Adam, too.”

TIF funding for boutique hotel approved

Joseph-Wolf-breweryWebA boutique hotel could be coming to downtown Stillwater soon, now that the city has agreed to provide tax increment financing (TIF) money for the project.

The new hotel would be placed in the Joseph Wolf Buildings along Main Street at the southern entrance to downtown. The group that wants to move forward with this project is called Stillwater Caves LLC. The overall project cost, according to the group’s financial representative Troy Hoekstra would be $9.4 million to refurbish the buildings and stay within the ordinances regarding working with historic places in Stillwater. Several other financial backers are involved in the project as well.

Stillwater Caves LLC approached the city council in July seeking $1.15 million in TIF money to help with the building reconstruction portion of the project. Generally with TIF, new taxes generated by a development are returned to a developer for a specified period to pay for some costs. In this case, the developer asked for some money up front, because the Wolf buildings are in a state of disrepair that needs to be righted before the project can move forward.

Despite a lot of back and forth between the parties and some concerns about putting up a large chunk of the requested money before the work is completed, the city and Stillwater Caves LLC came to an agreement in November.

The new boutique hotel is slated to have a maximum of 40 rooms, and a third story would be created above what is now Luna Rossa restaurant to add two more rooms to the hotel. Hoekstra told the council that the hotel could initially provide eight to 10 full-time jobs and a number of part time positions and that once the complex is completed it could be 40 full-time positions.

The contract between the city and the group state that the city will pay 25 percent of the $1.15 million to the group up front and place the rest of the money in escrow. The remainder will be distributed as qualified improvement costs are submitted to the banker. City Finance Director Sharon Harrison and City Administrator Larry Hansen have said that preliminary estimates show it will take 23 years for the city to recoup its investment in the project through the additional property taxes generated by the development.

Stillwater man named Obama’s chief of staff

13112_mcdonough, denis hsPresident Obama named 43-year-old Stillwater native Denis McDonough as the White House chief of staff Jan. 25.

McDonough was an all-conference defensive back on the Ponies football team and graduated from Stillwater Area High School in 1988.

He was also a member of the International Affairs Club at the high school.

The club took several srips to the Model U.N. and toured East Coast Schools like Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where Denis McDonough eventually earned a master’s degree in foreign affairs.

McDonough is the ninth in a family of 11 children, and his brother Rev. Kevin McDonough, of Saint Peter Claver in St. Paul, said they grew up closely knit and remain so today.

“My brother is a lot like Stillwater,” Kevin McDonough said. “He loved growing up there, and he had the privilege of having his family stick close by. He was always involved in sports and community activities. We lived on South Hill at the time, and he always participated in activities he loved. He always felt safe and cared for in the community. That’s the way he lived, and that’s what he aims to do for the future and with his own children.”

McDonough has extensive experience in working with politicians. He worked for former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, handling foreign policy, before following the senator to the Center for American Progress in 2004. He joined Obama’s U.S. Senate staff in 2006 and was a key adviser during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

McDonough is Obama’s fourth permanent chief of staff, following Rahm Emanuel, William Daley and Jacob J. Lew.

— Compiled by Avery Cropp and Jonathan Young

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