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COVID-19 impact is top local story of 2020

NEW ULM — It would take a heck of a big news story to knock the fact that funding was finally — FINALLY — appropriated for the Highway 14 expansion project from Nicollet to New Ulm from the top spot in The Journal’s Top Ten Local Story list. But that’s what COVID-19 did.

The worldwide pandemic loomed over New Ulm just as it did over the rest of the world. It has changed the way people work, the way they recreate, the way they celebrate holidays and family milestones and the way they send their kids to school. It has affected almost every aspect of people’s lives.

Like the rest of the nation, Brown County watched the reports of this virus as it spread from China to other countries, and finally got a toe-hold in Washington State. By March, people were being warned to take precautions, but still the number of infections spread.

On March 13 President Donald Trump issued a state of emergency order, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz did too. People were ordered to stay home, except for those involved in essential businesses. Restaurants, bars, health clubs and gyms were ordered to shut down. The Minnesota State High School League called an abrupt halt to the winter post season sports tournaments, and canceled spring sports all together.

As people scrambled to stock up on hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and toilet paper, local events started to be canceled, starting with the 55th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New Ulm. Others fell — Bavarian Blast, the Brown County Fair, Hermannfest. Local baseball tournaments were canceled, as were the Legion Baseball leagues.

Amateur baseball teams were able to compete with reduced attendance and social distancing. New Ulm was scheduled to host the State Amateur Class B and C tournaments, but as COVID-19 numbers started to rise, the New Ulm City Council was asked to deny permission to use Johnson and Mueller parks. The council split on July 7, voting to allow the tournament to be held, but as cases rose it voted 2 weeks later to deny the tournament, which was hosted in Springield.

The school year started in September with hopes of conducting classes as usual. Area schools all opted for in-person learning for all. Martin Luther College also re-opened its campus, which had closed during the Spring break. But by November, MLC was hit by COVID-19 outbreaks in its dorms and had to send students home for distance learning. District 88 also decided to go to distance learning a week before Thanksgiving due to the problems in finding substitute teachers for those on quarantine.

Local restaurants and bars that got to open to limited business earlier in the year had to close again in December with the governor’s latest order.

As the numbers began to climb, they really skyrocketed in November and December. Today, the numbers include 1,999 cases since March, and 32 deaths.

2. Highway 14

Compared to that, Highway 14 funding has to take second place. But it was a great piece of news on Feb. 28 when Gov. Tim Walz, other state officials and local legislators visited Nicollet on Feb. 28 to announce a plan to provide the final funding to make Highway 14 a four-lane highway from Nicollet to New Ulm. It is the last segment of the Hwy 14 expansion project, and one that local residents have been working for over the last 50 years.

The financing plan called for a combination of federal loans and grants. and state funding. The federal government created the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program that allows loan applications for projects at a low-interest rate. Minnesota planned to apply for a $36 million loan, at a rate of 1.2%. For the rest, MnDOT planned to apply for a federal Infrastructure for the Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant, which provides infrastructure grants to road projects. If that grant applicatoin was not successful, Walz said the state would make up the rest. The grant was awarded in September for $22 million.

Legislation authorizing the repayment of the loan was rushed through the state Legislature, and construction is expected to start in the summer of 2022.

3. CITY RENU PROJECTS

The City of New Ulm made big strides in the RENU projects for local recreational facilities. The city completed the renovation of Johnson Park in time for the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball tournament, which would have been held in August except for the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility is ready to go for this coming summer, however.

Major park construction projects took place in two of New Ulm’s major parks. In German Park, the amphitheater construction project took place, installing cement and stone tiers to replace the badly sloping earthen terraces that had become unusable in recent years for those watching concerts and performances. The work on the major phase of the project was completed, with construction of shade elements to be held this year.

In Hermann Heights Park, the city replaced the crumbling Kasota stone retaining wall along Center Street, and constructed a new entry way with a large parking area next to the park. The project forced the closing of the Hermann monument for the summer, but like Johnson Park, it will be ready for visitors this year.

Construction also began on the New Ulm Rec Center expansion project, which is the largest of the RENU projects. The project includes a new pool area with zero-depth entry and water park amenities, a new strength and wellness center, new entry and an indoor playground. The project with all alternate add-ons costs $11.567 million. The construction project is expected to be complete this coming year.

4. NEW ULM MEDICAL CENTER

In March, as the COVID-19 emergency was beginning to hit, the New Ulm Medical Center completed its takeover of the Springfield Hospital and the Lamberton Clinic from Mayo Systems, which had announced its intent to close them last year. Working with existing staff from the facilities, Allina Health, the parent company of New Ulm Medical Center, completed the transition in a few weeks time to provide clinic services in both locations, despite the challenges being presented by the COVID-19 emergency, which forced the hospital to cancel most elective procedures and start stockpiling for any anticipated COVID-19 cases.

The hospital and clinic adapted to provide services while maintaining social distancing, including drive-up lab testing. Later in the year, the hospital’s laboratory received equipment allowing it to perform on-site COVID-19 tests.

New Ulm Medical Center was designated a regional hub to distribute the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, since it already had the super-cold freezer equipment needed to store the vaccine. The freezer was added as part of the Heart of New Ulm project long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, New Ulm Medical Center continues to earn national awards and recognition for excellence and patient satisfaction.

5. BISHOP LEVOIR’S RETIREMENT

Bishop John M. LeVoir, head of the New Ulm Catholic Diocese for the past 12 years, resigned in August due to health concerns. The bishop had been a parish priest before being selected by the Vatican to replace Bishop John Nienstedt. Bishop LeVoir helped guide the diocese through the difficult clerical sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church. After the diocese declared bankruptcy last year, a plan for compensating the vicitms of past abuse was approved by the Bankruptcy court.

LeVoir was also appreciated for his pastoral style of leadership. His replacement will be announced by the Vatican.

6. CITY COUNCIL CHANGES

New Ulm City Council President Charles Schmitz saw his tenure come to an end this year. Schmitz filed for election as Councilor-At-Large, and faced a challenge when 4th Ward Councilor Larry Mack and Andrea Boettger filed for the position. In the August primary, Mack and Boettger took the top two spots, leaving Schmitz out of the race. Boettger went on to defeat Mack in the November election, and she will become the first woman to hold the Councilor-At-Large position in city history. Mack remains ast the 4th Ward councilor.

In another council change, Second Ward Councilor Lisa Fischer resigned after it was discovered she had inadvertently violated a little-known city rule that a person could not serve on the council if a family member was employed by the city. Her son works in the street department, and Fischer decided to leave the council rather than have him resign. Eric Warmka was later appointed to fill her remaining term.

7. NOVEMBER ELECTION

The November election was monumental across the U.S. and in Minnesota, and in Brown County voters turned out in great numbers, and also made use of mail-in, early voting and absentee ballots.

Election day was held in Brown County with little of the contention seen in other parts of the country.

Brown County voters showed their conservative leanings with a strong majority for President Donald Trump, Senate candidate Jason Lewis and Congressman Jim Hagedorn. They also supported local Republican legislators Rep. Paul Torkelson and State Sen. Gary Dahms.

8 . GFW SCHOOL CLOSING

The GFW School Board voted in February to close the Fairfax school building. The vote came after a heavily attended public hearing and much contention from Fairfax residents. The Fairfax City Council offered to give the district free utilities if it chose to keep the school open, but the district was not swayed. The board voted Feb. 28 to close the school after a proposal to close the Gibbon school instead was defeated.

In December, the GFW School Board approved the sale of the Fairfax building to Twin Cities firm for $53,000. Retro Companies Inc. of Burnsville will be able to lease the gym and locker facilities from the new owner.

9. PROTESTS, HATE SPEECH

The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked rioting and unrest across the country. Peaceful protesters in New Ulm held periodic demonstrations, holding up “Black Lives Matter” signs at Center and Broadway, without provoking much negative reaction.

But the New Ulm Human Rights Commission became concerned when racist and hateful messages began to show up at the city’s Graffiti Park. Several times people went to paint over the hate messages and replace them with messages for diversity, only to have the hate messages reappear.

10. WREATHS REPLACE GARLANDS

It may be a purely New Ulm thing, but the New Ulm City Council this year decided it was time to reconsider the traditional evergreen garlands across Minnnesota Street as Christmas decorations. The city has considered the potential liability involved in attaching the garlands to downtown buildings and the cost of making sure the attachments were solid and the buildings structurally able to hande the load. In lieu of the garlands, the downtown was decorated this year with Christmas wreaths on Minneosta Street lamp posts.

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