2016: A look back

After years in the making, the Red Baron Arena and Expo had its grand opening event in September.

To say that 2016 was an eventful year would be an understatement. There were plenty of changes and surprises in store for the world over the past 12 months, and not all of the newsworthy events happened at the global level. The Independent has compiled some of the local events that made headlines last year, presented in no particular order:

Red Baron Arena officially opens

A new regional hockey and events facility years in the making opened its doors to the public in 2016. The Red Baron Arena and Expo was the focus of several public events over the summer and fall — to say nothing of a full schedule of youth hockey and other events at the ice rink.

Area residents attended an open house in early June, which included tours of the 78,200 square-foot facility. In addition, 300 people attended an appearance by University of Minnesota athletic coaches, as part of the university’s “Gopher Road Trip” tour.

The facility’s expo space also became an unexpected venue for Marshall’s community festival in August. Rainy weather threatened to the cancel outdoor concerts and activities that are the highlight of Sounds of Summer, but organizers were able to move events like the Friday Night Lights concert into the Red Baron Arena building.

The biggest celebrations came in September, when a grand opening event brought in Minnesota sports celebrities like Darrell Thompson, Twins pitcher Ryan O’Rourke and Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon. The festivities also included a ceremonial puck drop, family games, food provided by the Schwan Food Co., and a youth hockey clinic with University of Minnesota coaches.

Construction of the arena and expo began in 2015. The project was made possible by a municipal sales tax and a food, beverage and lodging tax passed by Marshall voters in 2013, as well as about $4 million in state bonding money.

Drake’s Law passes

A law that stiffened penalties for repeat DWI offenders was passed unanimously both by members of the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate in May. Drake’s Law, which increases the maximum felony prison sentence for offenders with a previous DWI, made it to the state Legislature with support from both southwest Minnesota lawmakers like Sen. Gary Dahms and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, and from an area family deeply affected by a crash involving a drunk driver.

Drake’s Law was named in memory of Drake Bigler, the late son of Brad and Heather Bigler. Drake was five months old when the SUV he was a passenger in was struck by a truck driven by Dana Schoen of rural Starbuck. Schoen pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal vehicular operation, a plea that included an admission of a blood-alcohol content of 0.32 percent — four times the Minnesota legal limit.

Drake’s law increases the maximum prison sentence for criminal vehicular homicide to 15 years. The tougher penalty applies to people who had a previous DWI offense within the past 10 years and caused injury to a person or property damage.

“We’re happy that everything came together,” Brad Bigler told the Independent in May. “It’s gratifying, for sure, to be able to not only protect our roads, but to know that people will be held accountable for making bad decisions.”

Trio of suspects sentenced for double murder

Three southwest Minnesota men were convicted for their roles in a burglary, double murder and arson that took place at a rural Balaton farm in 2015. Over the course of several months in the early part of 2016, suspects Derek Hexum and Theodore Como each pleaded guilty and were sentenced for charges in connection with the deaths of Jim Hively, 75, and Cathy Hively, 71. Hexum was sentenced to life in prison for two counts of first degree murder, as well as first degree burglary, first degree arson, and second degree arson.

In a March court hearing, Hexum admitted to burglarizing a Ghent residence with Como on the night of April 29, 2015, and then going to the Hivelys’ farmhouse armed with a shotgun. Hexum told the court he “blacked out” and didn’t remember shooting the couple. However, he also said he didn’t doubt he shot them. The next day, Hexum, Como, and a third suspect, Kyle Wesselink, returned to the house to set it on fire.

All three men were sentenced in separate hearings in May. Como was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for charges of aiding second degree murder and aiding first degree burglary. Wesselink, who pleaded guilty to aiding an offender in December 2015, was sentenced to 52 months in prison.

Waseca defeats MHS basketball in epic 4 overtime section final

The 2016 Section 2AAA boys’ basketball final could only be described as one for the ages.

The Marshall Tigers and the Waseca Bluejays battled it out in St. Peter, through three buzzer-beaters, four overtimes and 16 extra minutes. The whole game was neck-and-neck, with Waseca senior and future SMSU Mustang Nick Dufault tying the score with a full-court basket in the third overtime. In the end, Waseca’s Cole Streich had 7.5 seconds left to break a 100-100 tie in the fourth overtime. Streich sank a three-point basket to seal the victory for the Bluejays.

Marshall coach Travis Carroll told the Independent it was a difficult loss for the Tigers, but he was very proud of the team. While the Tigers couldn’t take home the championship, the game drew lots of positive attention for both teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves honored both Marshall and Waseca before a game at Target Center.

Marshall player Reece Winkelman, who had given the Tigers a lead in the third overtime with two free throws, told the Independent that it was surprising to see the attention the game received.

“You see some crazy shots on ESPN all the time, but you never think you’re gonna be a part of it. It’s kind of cool,” Winkelman said.

Waseca coach Todd Dufault described the game as one of the hardest-fought games he had ever seen.

“Both teams deserved to win,” he said.

Wall collapse at courthouse injures construction worker

A building expansion project at the Lyon County Government Center in Marshall took a turn for the tragic on Feb.  23. Part of a wall being built in the expansion collapsed, severely injuring a construction worker. Law enforcement and emergency responders shut down a four-block area and the intersection of West Main Street and 6th Street, while they worked to free the injured man.

The construction worker, a 52-year-old man from Little Falls, was extracted about half an hour after emergency responders arrived at the scene. He was later airlifted to a Sioux Falls hospital, with injuries including head trauma, a broken wrist and a severe leg injury caused by being punctured with a piece of rebar.

The incident led to an investigation by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and construction delays while the accident site was inspected and the wall rebuilt.

A year of searching for Marshall city staff

The city of Marshall faced some turnover in key staff positions in 2016. By the end of the year, Marshall had sought and hired a new city administrator, financial director and community services director.

Early in the year, city administrator Ben Martig notified members of the Marshall City Council that he had accepted a position as administrator of Northfield and would be resigning at the end of April. Martig had been with the city of Marshall for about eight years. At the same time, the city was also making transition plans for the retirement of two other longtime staff leaders: Tom Meulebroeck, the city clerk and finance director, and Harry Weilage, director of Marshall Community Services. Both men had served the city for decades.

Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said the situation the city faced was unique, but fortunately the planning process was already in place for two of the positions Marshall would need to fill.

Job searches were conducted for all three positions over the course of the year. Nicholas Johnson, administrator for the city of Canby, was selected for the Marshall city administrator position. Meulebroeck’s job was split into two, that of city clerk and finance director. The city also created a new position, assistant finance director. By the end of the year, those jobs had been filled, by Jane DeVries as clerk, Karla Drown as finance director, and Annette Storm as assistant finance director.

The search for a community services director took longer than the others, with two rounds of in-person interviews being conducted. In the end, the city selected Scott VanDerMillen, of Des Moines, as director of MCS.

Marshall school referendum fails

With a growing enrollment, and projections for continued growth over the next several years, Marshall Public Schools officials said space could be getting tight in the district. However, a facilities proposal that had been about three years in the making didn’t get the approval of voters in May.

A $38.81 million building bond referendum that would have been used to pay for a new elementary school and other facilities expansions was denied, on a 1,735-1,511 vote. The building bond referendum would have raised funds for projects like building a new elementary school, renovating and adding classrooms to Park Side Elementary School and Marshall Middle School, and expanding Marshall High School.

“The disappointing part of this is that had the referendum passed, we were looking at the 2018-2019 school year before construction is completed – now this bumps that timeline out to 2019-2020,” Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson said after the referendum vote. “If we continue to see so much growth, we’ll only see more challenges.”

Marshall Public Schools is continuing to try and address its facilities needs. A new, two-question building referendum, containing some of the same building options, will be headed for a special election this spring.

Effects of Porter elevator closure linger

Bankruptcy proceedings for Porter Elevator, Inc. continued last year, after the privately-owned elevator closed down in December 2015. Porter Elevator filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in late December, with assets of roughly $3.6 million and $4.2 million in liabilities, according to the company’s bankruptcy petition. More than $1 million of the liabilities were unsecured claims, leaving many creditors unsure of how, or if, they would be repaid.

More than 80 producers had corn, soybeans, wheat and oats stored at the elevator.

The process of liquidating the grain stored at the elevator began in March. A USDA spokesperson told the Independent that the Farmer’s Cooperative Elevator in Hanley Falls was awarded a bid to sell the grain and place the proceeds into a trust fund mandated by the U.S. Warehouse Act. The money would be paid out to affected producers, the spokesperson said.

While more than 100 people attended a March auction of the Porter Elevator building and other assets, there were few actual bidders. The elevator building and real estate opened with a $3 million price tag but received only one bid of $500,000, which was declined by the elevator’s bankruptcy trustee.

Second hospice house to open in Marshall

Prairie Home Hospice and Community Care announced this summer that it will be opening a second hospice house in Marshall. The new hospice house will be named the McLaughlin House, in honor of support from John “Jack” McLaughlin and his family.

The new hospice house will help PHH&CC to care for more area patients and families, CEO Pat Mellenthin said in July.

“In the last year, we’ve had to turn away a lot of patients and families, and that’s hard to do,” Mellenthin said. “If this is where they want to be if they can’t stay at home, if we don’t have any room it’s really hard for these families.”

Prairie Home Hospice and Community Care purchased a house located on Clifton Circle for the new hospice location, and renovations started in fall 2016. The new hospice house will have four patient rooms with private baths. The house will also have an in-law suite for visiting family members.