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YEAR IN REVIEW: Public figures, businesses old and new help set the tone in 2021

After a year of most things halting or being shut down, the residents of Waseca County were more than ready to burst back onto the scene in 2021.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist, the Waseca community quickly got busy as they came out of lockdowns and distance learning. While various crime from domestic assaults to an ongoing string of catalytic converter thefts certainly made headlines, the healing spirit of the people is what shined through the brightest. New businesses emerged in town, while other major employees elected to remain put. 

Fires devastated nonprofits, farms and residential areas, and the public had to say goodbye to beloved public figures in more ways than one. 

It was a year of comebacks, new beginnings and unanticipated endings. Here are the 10 biggest stories in the Waseca County News in 2021 counted by website statistics and community reactions.

1. Officer Arik Matson retires from the Waseca Police Department

It has been almost two years since Waseca Officer Arik Matson was shot in the head and critically wounded while responding to a report of a suspicious person, and in October he officially retired. During a community commendation ceremony, Matson's coworkers and members of the community personally thanked and recognized him for his dedication to public safety. 

“I could stand up here for the next 15 minutes and try to thank every person, every group that helped save my life that night, but that would probably get really boring and inevitably I would forget somebody,” Matson said at the ceremony. “I have thought what I could have done to not get shot that night, but the only thing I could think of is I could have not responded. But that is not what we do. No matter how horrible or dangerous the call is, we always respond, because that’s what we stand for.”

Matson was also awarded the Law Enforcement Purple Heart, which is for officers injured or disabled in the line of duty, as well as the Medal of Honor, which is awarded to members who, “without reckless disregard, knowing and purposefully expose themselves to the risk of death or serious injury,” according to the awards and commendations policy of the Waseca Police Department.

Earlier in the year, Waseca County Attorney Rachel Cornelius was successful in working with Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) and Rep. John Petersburg (R-Waseca) in passing the 'Matson Strong' bill, which will increase penalties for those convicted of first-degree assault with a dangerous weapon against a police officer, judge, prosecutor or correctional officer, upping the minimum sentence from 20 years to 25 years in prison.

Throughout 2021, Matson was also recognized by the Minnesota Senate, was named the Minnesota American Legion Law Officer of the Year, and was surprised by area residents with a customized golf cart.

2. New Business Challenge participants complete crash course, winner announced

Jonathan Berg may be the definition of being in the right place at the right time.

A stay-at-home father of 11 with a self-described “entrepreneurial spirit,” Berg paved an auspicious path over five months from simply having an idea to winning the Waseca New Business Challenge. The win, and the accompanying $30,000 prize, will equip Berg to open his first business, Good Game Gaming Center, in North Ridge Plaza in Waseca in March.

The program represented Waseca’s first-ever new business competition, consisting of a 10-week entrepreneurship training program facilitated by the Small Business Development Center of Minnesota State University, Mankato with a business pitch competition at the end. It was launched in May by the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce and Lead For Minnesota with the aim of spurring economic growth in Waseca.

Berg is the program’s first winner, announced in November.

“When I won I was like, do I cry, do I jump for joy?” Berg said. “When you put all that effort in, that work, and then it comes to where you win — it was a pretty awesome feeling.”

Berg plans to offer more than 300 accessible online games, tournaments, camps, gamer training and more at Good Game Gaming Center.

3. U of M Waseca holds first reunion in more than a decade

Eleven years since their last gathering, the 2021 reunion of the University of Minnesota-Waseca did not disappoint. Laughter, tears and memories were shared among the 150 THE who came to Farmamerica in August to celebrate their time at the University of Minnesota-Waseca, which closed in 1992.

According to Jim Gibson, the event’s master of ceremonies, the reunion was to honor the legacy of a program from which so many graduates went on to find success. The stories of those alumni are important, Gibson said, even though there’s no future college to populate.

Among the highlights of the reunion was the surprise set of presentations given for one attendee, Ed Frederick, on behalf of the university and the alumni association. Frederick, who started on as the superintendent of the Southern School of Agriculture before it became UMW in 1971, went on to become the provost of UMW before eventually being named chancellor.

Frederick, who is 90, is still a strong advocate for education, Gibson said. He was brought to the reunion by his son, a graduate of the horticulture program at UMW.

“He wasn’t expecting any recognition,” Gibson said about the surprise for Frederick. “Many people came, and everybody stood and gave him an ovation that lasted. He will have felt good that we’d gone to the effort of having a program at all, and then using that as a way to acknowledge the person, the glue, the leadership for all of that for over 40 years.”

4. Fires claim pork barns, Waseca Service Center

Multiple fires caused various upsets in Waseca County this year. 

The first of three major fire incidents occurred in April, when a grill fire spread through two buildings and damaged a third on Second Avenue NE in Waseca. Both structures were occupied at the time of the fire. One person was rescued from the fire by police officers and was transported by ambulance to the hospital. Two firefighters reported minor injuries, one of which was taken to the hospital in a personal vehicle. Both buildings included rental properties, as well as Waseca Realty’s office. In total, 12 people living in the two buildings have been displaced.

In May, two hog barns were destroyed and a third barn was saved in a fire east of Waseca. Firefighters from Owatonna and Waseca responded to a building fire at Woodville Pork off Old U.S. Highway 14 near the Steele-Waseca county line at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16, according to Waseca Fire Chief Jason Forshee.

No firefighters or Woodville staff reported injuries. An estimated 3,000 sows and 9,000 piglets died in the fire, according to Forshee. Forshee said the event was possibly the biggest fire he had ever responded to in his 14-year career. The cause was officially considered "undetermined."

Months after the devastating fire, brothers Paul and Peter Zimmerman said they are focused on rebuilding the farm and hope to be fully operational again by Father's Day in 2022.

In August, a fire shuttered the Waseca Area Neighborhood Service Center on Third Avenue NW, which houses the thrift store and the center's offices. 

Denise Tipton said the fire, at at 203 Third Avenue NW, happened on Aug. 2 after everyone had left for the day and that nobody was injured. According to information she was given by the Waseca Fire Department, the cause of the fire was electrical.

“We had wiring in the ceiling that caught on fire,” Tipton said. “Thank goodness no one was there and thank goodness for the hard work and dedication of our Fire Department who got it out in no time at all. We are very grateful.”

The thrift store reopened in October.

5. Community says goodbye to first female mayor

Judy Kozan is known as the person in Waseca who got things done.

“Judy took on some challenging times in Waseca,” said Ann Fitch, executive director of Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce. “There are not too many mayors of a town our size that can hang their hat on bringing hundreds of jobs in. Judy Kozan led that.”

Judy died at home on Sept. 22 following a seven-year battle with metastatic cancer. She was 72 years old.

More than just her political accomplishments as Waseca’s first and only female mayor, though, Judy is described as somebody who wanted everybody to be included in the direction of their city’s future.

“She didn’t always agree with everyone ... and she did have her own opinions and she was not afraid to express them,” said Mayor Roy Srp. “However, she was always good about listening to others.”

Jim Kozan, her husband of 44 years and manager of Waseca Music Co., echoed Srp’s sentiments.

“She never, never tried to keep somebody out of the argument,” Jim said. “She tried to make sure everybody had their say.”

6. Bluejay Blast raises record amount for public schools

When its children’s education is on the line, Waseca puts its money where its mouth is.

Waseca’s 10th annual Bluejay Blast, a Waseca Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) fundraiser for Waseca Public Schools, raised $68,000 in November. This is the most the event has ever raised, shattering the previous record of $52,000 raised in 2019. The fundraiser comes after a year in which the event was canceled due to COVID-19 and only about $3,000 were raised. 

“I’m blown away,” said Amy Potter, chair of the Bluejay Blast committee, about the amount raised. “It showed us the community was ready to come out and have fun, all while supporting the schools.”

7. Long-awaited dog park has soft opening

“It’s often said at City Hall that it’s all about the kids,” Mayor Roy Srp said at the former westernmost ball field at Memorial Park, between Kiesler’s Campground and Barney’s Drive-In. “This is all about the dogs.”

Waseca celebrated the partial opening of its first-ever dog park in October, with pups of all sizes playing and running as they may not have ever done before in the city. The event was the culmination of at least three years of sustained effort on the part of the Waseca Park Advisory Board and Dog Park Subcommittee. It also took place only four months after the City Council’s unanimous vote July 6 to approve funding for the ball field’s conversion into a dog park.

Residents of Waseca and neighboring towns were also thrilled, showing up with their furry friends and furry friend accessories, ready to play.

“I like having one here because I used to go to Owatonna or Mankato,” said Stephanie Geyer of Waterville. “I’m like, ‘God, I wish Waseca would get one because it’s only 15 minutes from my house.”

8. Marching Classic returns, streets lined with viewers

The Waseca Marching Classic returned in full force in September with six marching bands in the parade and 12 competing on the field.

“We are so pleased that this is happening again,” said Mary Williams, treasurer and community relations manager for the Waseca Marching Classic. The Marching Classic took a year off in 2020 ,due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but still held a “virtual performance” for area marching bands that still wanted the “educational experience” of the competition.

For its 34th year, Scarlett Renze, Corey Harguth, Kathy Harguth and Jeff Lane were honored as grand marshals. All four are former board members who have retired since the 2019 Marching Classic.

Each year, the Waseca Marching Classic picks one business or organization to honor as the Friend of the Classic. This year, however, the classic had many friends. For the first time since its inception, the annual classic honored teachers in all Waseca schools as Friends of the Classic.

9. FCI-Waseca continues to struggle with COVID cases

The federal women's prison in Waseca continued to make headlines after they closed 2020 with a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of 14 inmates, claiming FCI-Waseca didn't prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide adequate healthcare for inmates ill with the virus. Officials with the prison are denying the allegations, and the lawsuit was thrown out in March by a federal judge, citing a lack of authority to release the inmates.

The prison was back in the news just a month later, as a part of President Donald Trump's 11th-hour actions on his last day in the White House where he pardoned several of the Waseca inmates. Kristina Bohnenkamp, Cassandra Ann Kasowski, Blanca Virgen, Mary Anne Locke, Tena Logan, Lerna Lee Paulson and Mary Roberts all received commutations in January.

Unfortunately, the prison is once again concluding the year with bad news linked to COVID-19. Earlier this month, FCI-Waseca was identified as having more COVID-positive inmates than any federal prison in the country. In fact, nearly half the inmates throughout the entire federal prison system who are actively infected with COVID-19 are located in Waseca.

This disproportionate share of COVID-19 infection among inmates is not shared among FCI-Waseca staff, only two of whom have tested positive for the virus. Among BOP staff nationwide, however, the infection rate is higher than that of federal inmates, with 230 total staff members infected with COVID-19 out of 36,000 nationwide.

Despite the prison’s extraordinarily high COVID-19 positive rate, Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry said the idea that Waseca County’s very high rate of community spread is because of the prison is not true. Adjusting for the prison population still yields a very high rate of COVID-19 spreading among Waseca County residents, she said.

Moreover, Berry said many FCI-Waseca inmates are likely being infected as a result of community spread, rather than the other way around.

“A facility that has residents that are not mobile generally are at risk from things that are coming from other places,” she said. “So when our county community cases are high, that increases the risk for our inmates.”

10. Birds Eye commits to stay in Waseca, takes heat from city on odor

As the construction on the new Birds Eye vegetable processing plant comes to completion, the city of Waseca is all a buzz about the impact the businesses remaining in town will have.

Although city staff are unaware of parent-company Conagra’s exact reasons for choosing Waseca over other towns offering tax abatements in exchange for hosting the new vegetable plant, the implications of their choosing to stay are substantial.

“If they had not invested in Waseca, all the jobs would be going somewhere else,” said Waseca City Manager Lee Mattson. Roughly 120 jobs will remain in Waseca when the new plant opens.

Though the city is enthusiastic about the jobs remaining local, the City Council has been vocal about their less-than-positive view on the one negative of the plant: the smell. During the last Waseca City Council meeting of the year, representatives from Birds Eye and Conagra answered questions regarding the odor coming from the facility's wastewater treatment pond.

“We kept hundreds of jobs here in Waseca by building this beautiful facility within a couple miles from our existing facility,” Plant Manager Ralph Castro said in his comments to the council. “This system is a wastewater system for vegetable processing. It is not unusual to have odors at different levels throughout the year … our goal is to minimize odors to the greatest extent feasible so they are not a nuisance to our neighbors.”

Councilor John Mansfield, who had been expressing frustration with Birds Eye for months at City Council as well as Economic Development Authority meetings, said he wanted to follow up with the representatives' comments about the millions of dollars the company has allegedly invested in studying the problem.

“How much does it cost to fix it? Because it’s the smell of money leaving Waseca,” Mansfield said, adding businesses have called him complaining about the “absolutely putrid” smell bothering their clients. “The city has just taken extreme taxpayer dollars to build a 16-inch water main out there, given you a 20-year tax abatement, and I understand you’re reducing your workforce?”

The new plant under construction out on 360th Avenue, south of the former Quad Graphics building, is a replacement facility for the one on 4th Street Southwest that packages peas and corn.


Business
spotlight
‘The smell of money leaving Waseca’: Birds Eye faces City Council
  • Updated

After multiple postponements from Birds Eye and increasing impatience among councilors and residents regarding the odor from the vegetable processing facility’s wastewater treatment pond, representatives from the Waseca plant and Conagra’s corporate team visited Waseca City Council at the Dec. 21 meeting.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Ralph Castro, plant manager at Waseca’s Birds Eye vegetable processing facility, addresses the Waseca City Council at the Dec. 21 meeting to field questions about the wastewater treatment system’s odor and steps the company is taking to reduce it. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“We kept hundreds of jobs here in Waseca by building this beautiful facility within a couple miles from our existing facility,” Plant Manager Ralph Castro said in his comments to the council. “This system is a wastewater system for vegetable processing. It is not unusual to have odors at different levels throughout the year … our goal is to minimize odors to the greatest extent feasible so they are not a nuisance to our neighbors.”

Later in the meeting, Castro acknowledged Birds Eye was eliminating 50 to 52 full-time employee positions as the Waseca facility transitions to a purely processing facility without retail. Those positions have been transferred to Wisconsin, where some Waseca employees have been offered positions.

With regard to his plans to reduce the odor, Castro said Conagra — the Chicago-based packaged goods holding company that owns Birds Eye — has invested $16 million to reduce odors in Waseca and plans to invest another $5 million. They have also added additional staffing and are in the process of updating their screen system, he said, which will aid in filtering out the solids in the holding pond, which decompose and are the main source of the odor.

Throughout the conversation between the council and representatives from Birds Eye, representatives responded to questions regarding when and by how much the odor will be reduced, saying it is unrealistic to expect the smell to ever 100% go away.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Birds Eye Plant Manager Ralph Castro and Todd Boehne, director of environmental compliance at Conagra, field questions from City Council and described efforts the company is making to minimize the odor from their wastewater treatment pond in Waseca. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Councilor Ted Conrath asked why similar operations in Owatonna and Montgomery don’t cause such bad odors for the residents of those towns. Castro responded by saying he’s been to Owatonna and Montgomery and experienced odors in those towns as well.

Councilor Allan Rose said he would like to give the residents of Waseca an idea of how much longer they are going to have to put up with the odor.

“They want some hope,” Rose said. “I’m just trying to give them some kind of a timeline.”

“We are investing millions of dollars to improve this facility,” Castro replied. “When we receive odor complaints, we do get out there … we walk it, we look for the odor and we try to figure out what the cause of the spike is.”

Councilor John Mansfield, who had been expressing frustration with Birds Eye for months at City Council as well as Economic Development Authority meetings, said he wanted to follow up with Castro’s comments about the millions of dollars they’ve invested in studying the problem.

“How much does it cost to fix it? Because it’s the smell of money leaving Waseca,” Mansfield said, adding businesses have called him complaining about the “absolutely putrid” smell bothering their clients. “The city has just taken extreme taxpayer dollars to build a 16-inch water main out there, given you a 20-year tax abatement, and I understand you’re reducing your workforce?”

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Councilor John Mansfield calls the odor from Birds Eye’s wastewater treatment system “putrid” and “insufferable” at the Dec. 21 City Council meeting, and asked for a commitment from representatives to fix the problem. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Mansfield went on to recall how he and his wife have had guests over from out of town during the summer and they haven’t been able to go outside or open the windows because of the “rancid” odor.

“And to say that you’ve done studies, that you’re looking at millions of dollars — that’s fine, but I’d like an actual commitment to fix the problem,” he said. “I’m not asking for 100%, but it’s insufferable for the citizens of Waseca.”

Castro replied that he would not commit to eliminating it 100%.

“We are making it better,” he said. “It’s going to get better year over year and it has gotten better year over year.”

Mayor Roy Srp said he felt Waseca residents were being fair in not expecting the odor to go away entirely, although he said he knew personally of a business that had considered leaving town because of the odor, which he said was “not acceptable.”

Councilor Mark Christiansen said the smell didn’t faze him, personally, before asking Castro if he could have a tour of the plant sometime. He also thanked him for choosing to stay in Waseca and providing jobs to residents rather than relocating.

“It’s a part of life,” Christiansen said of the odor. “Last time I checked, we’re an agricultural community.”

With regard to the new Birds Eye facility, which is likely to see activity in the first quarter of 2022 and a 20-30% increase in production compared to the old plant, Mansfield asked if the increased production would lead to the odor worsening.

“As I pointed out earlier, multiple times, the reason for the odor is the solids and the sludge,” Castro replied, adding the new screen house should remove more of the solids from the pond. “It would be silly to build a $265 million facility and not expect to get more production out there.”

In terms of the odor improving over time, Srp said the council will be paying close attention and looking to its constituents for feedback.

“I think the citizens will be the gauge,” he said.


News
spotlight
School Board adopts 6.93% levy increase

Soaring property values and the previous year’s levy decrease have combined to produce this year’s higher-than-usual levy increase.

Despite some discomfort, the Waseca School Board voted unanimously after the Dec. 16 Truth in Taxation hearing to approve the 6.93% levy increase. The total 2022 levy is $5.24 million, an increase of $340,000 from the 2021 levy. This is down from the $344,000, or preliminary 7.01%, levy increase approved Oct. 11.

Julian Hast / By JULIAN HAST julian.hast@apgsomn.com 

Waseca School Board approved Dec. 16 a 6.93% levy increase after the Truth in Taxation hearing. The increase puts the 2022 levy at $5.24 million, up $340,000 from the previous year. This is down from the $344,000, or 7.01%, levy increase preliminarily approved on Oct. 11. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Of the $31.7 million total expenditure budget, 81.4% goes into the general fund, while 3.7% goes to the food service, 3.9% to community education, 9.4% to debt service, 0.9% to custodial and 0.7% to internal service.

Most of the $25.8 million general fund — 73% — go toward salaries and benefits, while 16.4% go toward purchased services, 5.7% toward supplies, 4.6% toward capital outlay, 0.2% toward other expenditures and 0.1% toward other financing sources.

Explaining the increase

Though Director of Business Services Elizabeth Beery said she wanted to honor and acknowledge the burden the levy increase imposes on district taxpayers, she added that the steepness of the increase can partially be attributed to the 3.9% levy decrease the previous year. The 2021 levy decrease had to do with declining enrollment and a one-time project paid for by the 2020 tax levy, which did not have to be revisited in 2021.

From the 2020 tax levy to the 2022 tax levy, there was a levy increase of 3%. The tax levy increase average for the last six years was 3.69%; for the last 15 years, it was 5.35%.

Rising property values also impacted the size of the 2022 levy, Beery said, accounting for 26% of the levy increase.

According to John Curran, appraiser at the Waseca County Assessor’s Office, the median home in the city of Waseca increased to $138,600 over the last year from $128,200, an 8.1% increase. And since state contributions decrease for districts with higher property values, the tax levy for those districts increases in turn.

Of the $340,000 that make up the 2022 levy increase, $251,000 come from the general fund. That fund takes into account property value adjustments, benefits for retired former staff, long-term facilities maintenance and more.

Post-employment benefits for retired former staff make up 15% of the levy increase, while debt service makes up about 19%, based on its payment schedule for all outstanding debt.

As part of the long-term facilities maintenance, about $102,000 comes from the asbestos abatement project at Waseca’s Central Building, which makes up about 26% of the levy. Superintendent Eric Hudspith said Dec. 2 that it is one of the few items the district could avoid paying this year — since the asbestos is safely contained in the attic — without feeling the consequences of cutting other services, and it would reduce the 2022 tax levy increase down to 4.9%. However, he said, that project does need to be done eventually, and avoiding it this year would “just be kicking the can down the road.”

School Board member Edita Mansfield, who had expressed concerns about rising property taxes for district residents at the Dec. 2 work session and asked if the asbestos abatement project could be delayed until next year, asked School Board member and treasurer Scott Deml at the Dec. 16 meeting if the Finance Committee had looked into her question to reconsider its timeline. He said it had and ultimately decided the School Board should stay the course.

“We felt that kicking that can down the road would actually make bigger increases down the road,” Deml said, adding that fears of unforeseen cost increases in the future were another factor in the committee’s decision.

Mansfield also asked if the School Board decreasing its levy would cause state aid to increase, to which Hudspith said it would not. Depending on what part of the levy is decreased, he said, state aid would also decrease along with it or stay the same.


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