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A year of scandal, economic growth

Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau embezzlement case top story in 2019

Independent file photo The grand openings for the Ashley HomeStore and Hobby Lobby located at the old Kmart location were held in August.

The Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau is still working to rebuild community trust after its former director was sentenced to prison for 68 months in July after being convicted of embezzling $265,000.

Current CVB Director Lauren Deutz went before the Marshall City Council on Dec. 17 to report all the changes in oversight that have been made to prevent such thefts.

According to court records, Darin Rahm redirected CVB funds to “phantom” vendor accounts between 2015 and 2018 before being terminated from the position.

Independent staff members voted Rahm’s embezzlement conviction as the No. 1 story in 2019. Staff members took into account the impact of the embezzlement to the community and how it affected the CVB reputation.

“He lied to us. He stole from all of us. He broke our trust,” said a statement from a group of Marshall restaurant owners during the sentencing hearing.

Steve Klinkhammer, of the AmericInn in Marshall, said the lack of promotion hurt local businesses. During Rahm’s time as CVB director, local hotel rooms were sitting empty on weekends when they should have been full, he said.

“Our employees were impacted tremendously,” Klinkhammer said. “These crimes hurt people from every economic background.”

In a written statement, Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes estimated that while Rahm was CVB director, he stole almost half of the $165,000 a year the organization received from local taxes. Local businesses and citizens were all victims.

Byrnes said Rahm’s actions “leave a dark stain on our city.”

“I have so much guilt for what I did,” Rahm told the judge. He said he looked forward to getting the help he needed to cope with a gambling addiction.

2 The Marshall Public Schools District will be building a new elementary school thanks to a $29.8 million building referendum that was approved by voters in May. The referendum also calls for safety and security improvements at Marshall schools and building projects geared toward having centralized early childhood education programs.

The single-question referendum passed with 1,950 yes votes and 1,180 no votes.

Two previous building referendums, in 2016 and 2017, had failed. Each of the two failed proposals had included a larger list of building projects, and carried a higher price tag than the $29.8 million brought to voters on Tuesday.

Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson said the school district had listened to voters’ concerns from the first two referendums, and hopefully the results of Tuesday’s vote were an indicator of that.

3

The August grand openings of the Ashley HomeStore and Hobby Lobby in the old Kmart location in Marshall created plenty of excitement in the region.

Marshall’s location and draw for shoppers were two positive factors for the location of the Ashley HomeStore, said Tom Kovash, vice president of the Ashley HomeStore division for Furniture Mart USA.

“We do see it as kind of a regional hub,” Kovash said of Marshall. In addition, Marshall’s location helps extend the company’s reach in southwest Minnesota, said Kovash and Kayla Sifferath, senior marketing manager for Furniture Mart USA. Marshall might be a more convenient shopping destination for customers who live farther away from Furniture Mart USA’s stores in Sioux Falls or Watertown, S.D., they said.

“It’s really exciting to be part of this community,” said Gary Draper, store manager of the new Hobby Lobby.

Former Marshall Economic Development Authority Director Tara Onken said the community response to Hobby Lobby opening has been intense, but positive.

4

The farm crisis of 2019 hit southwest Minnesota as hard as any agriculture region in the nation.

“It’s kind of a difficult situation because farmers don’t necessarily talk and express what they are thinking. I know two individuals that actually committed suicide because of the combination of the weather and the uncertainty of markets and the politics that are going on in the country and typically a farmer can handle the weather, but when it gets to be things beyond his control — the tariffs and the politics and all the uncertainty …,” Clarkfield farmer Doug Albin told the Independent in October.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison held a listening session at a farm in Marshall in September.

“I’m here to represent farming, but basically the dairy industry and small cities. I serve as mayor of Wood Lake, Minnesota, along with a 300-cow dairy farm,” David Stelter told Ellison. “I have a couple points to bring to your attention.”

By the time Stelter got past his second point, he delivered the message ag country dreads to hear.

“We now have a dead Main Street. We have no people. We have no kids. We have no school. And it’s because we have no people in agriculture anymore — and this is why Wood Lake is where it was, because of agriculture,” Stelter said. “So you probably can’t turn the trend around, but it does affect the whole southwest Minnesota economy if the farmers don’t maintain control of the farm land.”

5

Marshall area shoppers learned in March that all Shopko stores, including the one in Marshall, were closing because of the company’s bankruptcy.

“We got a call (Monday morning),” Marshall Shopko Manager Dave Naughton said. “The company is liquidating and closing all the stores. There was speculation for months about who might buy it or who might not. Evidentaly there was some interest. They were trying to sell it, but in the end, it didn’t get sold.”

Naughton said the Marshall store had about 55 employees.

“I think it’s too bad,” Redwood Falls resident Dan Roiger told the Independent. “Shopko is a good store. That’s a lot of jobs and it was just a nice place to go.”

Whitney Hansen of Ivanhoe said she learned about the store closings on social media.

“I’m kind of sad about it,” Hansen said. “You could find some pretty good deals here.”

6

In September on 2018, Avera announced that Avera Marshall and Carris Health Marshall, a division of CentraCare, would be integrating the Carris Health clinic and surgery center in Marshall into Avera Marshall.

Carris Health was formed a year earlier, through a partnership of Affiliated Community Medical Centers, Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, and CentraCare, a health care system based in central Minnesota.

The Carris Health clinic and surgery center in Marshall officially became part of Avera Marshall on Jan. 1, 2019.

As part of the integration, the former ACMC clinic on Carlson Street became an Avera Medical Group location, and the former surgery center will become Avera Surgery Center. The 150 Carris Health employees in Marshall will become Avera employees.

In August, Avera Marshall also celebrated the opening of its new emergency department.

Construction on the Emergency Department started in January 2018. It was a multi-step project, Avera Marshall staff said. First, the current Emergency Department was moved into a temporary location, so the building expansion could be done. That second phase is what was just finished, said Dodie Derynck, vice president of clinical operations at Avera Marshall. In the next couple of months, the temporary Emergency Department area will be converted into observation rooms to complete the project, she said.

All together, the construction bring sthe Avera Marshall Emergency Department to 10,540 square feet of space. The expanded department will have a total of 10 patient care rooms, including two trauma rooms.

7

Lyon County commissioners in October approved a contract with Southwest Sanitation for biweekly recycling pickup from Nov. 1 through April 2021. Under the new schedule, recycling will be collected every other week, starting with the week of Nov. 3.

The future of curbside pickup in Lyon County was in doubt after Southwest Sanitation gave notice that they planned to terminate the previous contract. New recycling bids were opened in August, but the new bids from Southwest Sanitation and West Central Sanitation were both more costly than the current contract. Commissioners rejected the bids.

The approval of the new contract with Southwest Sanitation for biweekly recycling pickup followed a public hearing that filled the commissioners meeting room. Close to 20 county residents got up to speak at the hearing, and many said they were willing to raise assessments or fees for curbside recycling service.

8

In March, Dr. Kumara Jayasuriya was named the 10th permanent president of Southwest Minnesota State University. Jayasuriya was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Minnesota State Human Resources Committee.

“Dr. Jayasuriya has the academic credentials, the experience, and the leadership skills required to guide Southwest Minnesota State University into the future,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State. “He also has the personal traits that will allow him to not only identify the tasks ahead, but also to work in a collaborative, authentic, and transparent manner to bring about a shared responsibility among each and every member of the Southwest community and take the university to the next level.”

Jayasuriya earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1993. He has a master’s of science degree from Southern Illinois University and earned his bachelor of science from the University of Colombo-Sri Lanka.

Jayasuriya started as president July 1, replacing Connie Gores.

9

The Russell-Tyler-Ruthton School District held a groundbreaking ceremony in October for new K-12 campus in Tyler after a referendum was approved by voters in February.

The new campus replaces RTR’s current three-school configuration, and is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2022-23 school year.

The cost of construction is budgeted at $35 million. Voters from throughout the school district, which includes the cities of Tyler, Russell, Ruthton and Florence as well as a group of townships, approved the proposal in February by more than a 60 percent margin.

RTR School Board Chairman Jeff Hansen spoke about how the need to take action in response to aging school buildings was met with a commitment for doing as much as possible to chart a course that RTR school officials can continue to follow for many years into the future.

“It resulted from the dedication of many individuals,” Hansen said. “I encourage students to be thankful for this new opportunity.”

10

In November, the Marshall City Council approved a $4.89 million construction bid to renovate City Hall.

The current Municipal Building on Main Street dates back to the 1960s, and was originally a combined city office, court, police station and fire hall. The current building has issues ranging from a boiler at the end of its life to a lack of handicapped accessibility. Years of exposure to road salt and moisture in the old police and fire garage has also damaged some of the building’s concrete and rebar.

Plans to renovate the building would address all those issues, and lower City Hall’s main floor so that its public entrance is at street level.

City Hall officials began the move to temporary offices at Southwest Minnesota State University in late December.

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