Pandemic’s lingering impact is 2021’s top story in Douglas County

The numbers of those who tested positive for the disease continued to climb throughout the nation, state and in Douglas County. The county began the year with about 3,500 cumulative cases and ended up with more than 8,500, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The number of COVID-related deaths in the county climbed from 60 to 102 and included a well-known couple from Evansville, Darrell and Pat Nitz, both big supporters in the community who both succumbed to the disease a week apart.

In April, three new COVID variants were found in the five-county area, triggering more uncertainty about what would happen next.
All those cases put an added strain on local nurses, doctors and others on the front lines. Some were frustrated that their urgent pleas for the public to wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccines and booster shots were going unheeded by some residents.

More businesses and restaurants, including the Brass Lantern and Douglas County Home Center, closed their doors and cited the pandemic as a reason why.

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But getting through another year of the virus wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Locally, there were stories about food drives and support for restaurants – even U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar stopped in Alexandria in April to talk to restaurant owners. There was excitement over the vaccines and their ability to at least lessen the severity of those diagnosed with the disease.

Some, sick of being cooped up all winter, decided to build their own skating rinks. Others organized a first-ever video talent show.

State and federal funds were funneled to businesses that needed help. In February, 82 local businesses were informed they’d be receiving a combined total of more than $1 million in grants.

The Alexandria area’s building industry flourished during COVID, hammering out projects valued at $66.56 million. Surgical procedures, not related to COVID, also made a comeback and activity also picked up for the travel industry.

Most community festivals and events also bounced back, including the Vikingland Band Festival, Memorial Day observances, graduations, proms, the Douglas County Fair (attendance topped 50,000) and more.

Following are other topics for the “top five stories of 2021,” as determined by the Echo Press news team.

The past year was a deadly one on Douglas County roads. At least a dozen people died in crashes during 2021.

Also, this past August, a plane that took off from the Alexandria Airport crashed near Victoria, killing the pilot, Dr. James Edney of Omaha, Nebraska, his stepson, Jacob Mertes, and Mertes’ wife, Sara Mertes. Edney and his wife, Deborah, owned a home on Lake Miltona.

Although the crash didn’t happen here, Dave Greiner of Garfield died in a two-vehicle crash near Hinckley. Greiner, a longtime member of the Minnesota National Guard who was just five months away from retirement, was on his way to one of his last drill sessions.

Pedestrian crashes climbed in 2021. As of mid-November, pedestrians were involved in nine crashes, including one fatality, compared to just five in 2019 and 2020 combined. The uptick sparked a special meeting in November between MnDOT officials, Mayor Bobbie Osterberg and city engineers. MnDOT will conduct a review of options for making busy streets, including Broadway and Third Avenue, safer and submit plans back to the city’s highway committee, which will determine whether they fit the city’s budget.

Skid marks and paint can be seen at the site of a fatal head-on crash on County Road 41 near Evansville on Monday, July 26, 2021. 
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

Skid marks and paint can be seen at the site of a fatal head-on crash on County Road 41 near Evansville on Monday, July 26, 2021.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

Topics such as masking students in schools, COVID protocols and critical race theory made for some contentious debates in both the primary and special election for a seat on the Alexandria School Board.

After Alexandria School Board member Bob Cunniff resigned because he was moving out of the area, Jeff Patience was appointed by the school board until the special election, which took place in November.

Three people – Patience, Maureen Eigen and Jeremy Smith – filed for the position, triggering a primary election in August.

Candidates did not agree on the topics, causing conflicts among residents who not only attended the debates, but also the school board meetings. The school board meeting location even shifted from its normal conference room at Woodland Elementary School to the cafeteria to accommodate the growing attendance at school board meetings.

Parents in the district were quick to voice their opinions regarding the topics and the candidates.

Eigen and Patience ended up as the top two vote getters in the primary, advancing them to the special election, which took place Nov. 2. Eigen then won a close contest in the November election, defeating Patience by 267 votes.

Voters cast their ballots in the Alexandria School Board race in Ward 2 at Reach Church in Alexandria on Tuesday evening, Nov. 2, 2021. 
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

Voters cast their ballots in the Alexandria School Board race in Ward 2 at Reach Church in Alexandria on Tuesday evening, Nov. 2, 2021.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

Eigen will now serve out the rest of the term, which will be for one year. The regular school board election will take place in November 2022.

School board meetings have moved back to their regulation location, but are still contentious at times and are still well attended by parents who disagree with the school board’s decisions on masking and COVID protocols.

In other school news, three candidates were vying for one seat on the Osakis School Board, and the winner was Corey Goodwin with 186 votes. He was followed by Jonathan Ries with 70 votes and Ashley Shrode with 60.

Dustin Schilling ran unopposed on the ballot for a seat on the Parkers Prairie School Board. He received 77 votes.

There was also big news for the Brandon-Evansville School District, when voters easily passed the referendum to provide funding for a building project. The referendum authorized the issuing of general obligation school building bonds that will not exceed $14.5 million and will go toward “the betterment of school sites and facilities.”

The plan for the Evansville school includes the addition of more classrooms, a parent drop-off area and new parking lots.

In Brandon, the plan includes a new gym, career and technical shop and community fitness room additions, as well as new parking lots and a storage shed.

A previous $25.2 million referendum failed in November 2019.

Three referendum questions at the West Central Area School District did not pass.

West Central Superintendent Dave Hogie said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“It’s always disappointing when a building referendum fails,” Hogie said in November. “I feel badly for the board members. They’ve invested over three years of time and put together very well-intended proposals to the public, and unfortunately the voters at this time didn’t see it as the board members do.”

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, downtown Alexandria continued to bounce back from a devastating fire that destroyed four buildings and six businesses back on Feb. 25, 2020.

The debris from the buildings that once housed Raapers Eatery and Ale, RM Tattoo, Charlie’s Bazaar, Little Darlings Children’s Boutique, Achieve Wellness and Hidden Treasures Collectibles and Comics was hauled away later that spring.

In their place stood a vacant prime piece of property in the heart of downtown – until Charlie Vernlund decided to rebuild her business, Charlie’s Bazaar, at its same location, 508 Broadway.

Workers started doing foundation work this past July and the $375,000 project continues to make progress. The name of the home decor business was placed at the entrance this week.

The Broadway property that sits between Cowing Robards (left) and the under-construction Charlie's Bazaar could be developed into a bar/restaurant, according to the property owner, Carl Kvale. 
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

The Broadway property that sits between Cowing Robards (left) and the under-construction Charlie’s Bazaar could be developed into a bar/restaurant, according to the property owner, Carl Kvale.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

More activity may take place this spring. Local Realtor Carl Kvale purchased the small lot at 510 Broadway between the new Charlie’s Bazaar and Cowing Robards. The site was the home of Little Darlings Children’s Boutique.

Kvale has big plans for the site. In November, Kvale told the Echo Press that he thinks a bar or restaurant would fit the 3,300-square-foot spot nicely. Kvale also envisions topping the bar with a rooftop patio.

In July, the newspaper reported that property owners of the buildings that were lost in the fire will receive some recovery money – a $120,000 grant from the State Legislature to help remediate the damage.

Douglas County’s lack of rainfall this past year may have reached historic proportions.

“I have colleagues calling this a 40-year drought,” said Robin Trott, Extension educator for Douglas County, in July.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 52% of the state, including Douglas County, was experiencing severe drought in July, and 4% was experiencing extreme drought.

That same month, ALP Utilities implemented Stage 1 mandatory water use restrictions for residents and businesses of Alexandria

ALP asked its customers to follow odd/even watering guidelines and to alter the times in which they water their lawns and gardens, preferably before 11 a.m. or after 5 p.m., when it is most efficient to avoid excessive evaporation.

Gov. Tim Walz met with farmers south of Millerville in July, and told them the state is trying to open up more hayground for farmers, but he also urged them to adapt to climate change.

“I don’t like to do the climate change thing to start a fight, it’s just the reality of it,” he said “It’s hotter now, it is smoky today, as we see some of these things and it’s not a value judgment, or an ideology, we should just adapt to it.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, left, talks about the effects of the drought with Brandon dairy farmer Michael Roers while looking over his corn field on Thursday, July 29, 2021. 
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, left, talks about the effects of the drought with Brandon dairy farmer Michael Roers while looking over his corn field on Thursday, July 29, 2021.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

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