by SARAH ELMQUIST and CYNTHYA PORTER
Twelve months can change a lot, and 2009 was a big year for the Winona area. Here are some local news highlights from the last year:
• The last year marked an end to Winona’s only unsolved murder after three convictions. A jury found Jack Willis Nissalke guilty of four counts of first degree murder in the death of Ada Frances Senenfelder. The 40-year-old mother was found stabbed to death in her East End home in June 1985. The case soon grew cold but was reopened in recent years, and a $50,000 reward was offered for information leading to a conviction. Nissalke is currently serving a life sentence in the Saint Cloud Prison, awaiting appeals. He’ll be eligible for parole in 14 years.
Linda Mae (Erickson) Parrish pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first degree manslaughter in Senenfelder’s death, and was released for time served.
James Raymond Bolstad pleaded guilty to three felony charges of aiding Senenfelder’s killers, and was also released for time served.
• It was a difficult year for the local workforce as sweeping layoffs left many standing in the unemployment line. Manufacturers, offices and service providers large and small trimmed their staffs to cope with turbulent economic times, resulting in the highest unemployment rate in the region in decades. The layoffs created a surge of enrollment at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical as displaced workers grappled with finding new careers. Rumblings are that 2010 will see a righting of the economic ship as companies begin to rebound, but only time will tell.
• News last spring of a potentially deadly flu virus, H1N1, had health officials, school districts and communities scrambling to contain any possible spread of the virulent virus. Bottles of hand sanitizer sprang up everywhere and officials created emergency plans and policies that erred on the side of caution to contain suspected infections. The virus is first thought to have entered Winona after a group of 4-Hers were exposed to it at the State Fair, but since that time so many cases were diagnosed across Minnesota that officials largely stopped testing for it. The good news for the year was that the H1N1 virus, though extremely contagious, was not as virulent as officials once feared, though it did leave 1,800 people hospitalized and is suspected in the deaths of 58 in Minnesota.
•Northstar Foods in St. Charles caught fire in April, forcing large sections of the city to evacuate due to the threat that the fire could have spread to five nearby anhydrus ammonia tanks. No one was seriously injured. Over 50 regional emergency agencies and fire crews responded to the major fire, which claimed the building and with it, the city’s biggest private employer. Owners are still working on plans to rebuild.
•The Winona City Council approved a bluff protection ordinance which limits development on steep slopes and bluff tops. City leaders had been working on the ordinance for years and a moratorium was placed on bluff developments for over a year. After many versions and much controversy, the ordinance was passed in December.
•The Winona Area Industrial Development Association, along with several private landowners, requested the city of Winona annex about 345 acres of Wilson Township near the I-90 interchange area along Highway 43. Landowners would like the area annexed and fitted with sewer and water to spur industrial development at the site. But utility extension is expensive, and the city is currently studying the pros, cons and costs that would be associated with annexing so much land so far from the core city. Winona is currently paying more than $1.3 million for a utility extension to Cobblestone Creek, a planned 88-home subdivision on land annexed from Wilson Township several years ago, in which only one lot has been sold.
• Winona State University had a banner year for building projects with construction on its new Wellness Center and a new residence hall underway. The projects are possible using state appropriations, gifts from local benefactors and targeted fees from students to achieve the expansion. Maxwell Hall, a recently completed renovation project, underwent a second renovation after a broken water valve caused extensive damage to the building’s interior.
• District 861, Winona State University and the Morrie Miller Foundation finally flipped the light switch on Paul Giel Field, a new sports complex created to serve the athletic interests of all three institutions as well as the needs of Cotter High School. The partnership was largely bankrolled by the Morrie Miller Foundation and created world-class track, soccer and football facilities for local teams.
•The Winona County Historical Society broke ground on its $4 million building addition in 2009. The addition will add about 12,000 square feet of space to the existing Armory Building on Johnson Street, providing space for programming, collection storage, the museum’s store, archival expansion and exhibits. The addition was first announced in 2006, when the society was presented with a $3 million challenge grant from the Laird Norton Company, which started its sawmill operation in Winona and is now headquartered in Seattle, Wash.
•Winona County Commissioners narrowly approved a long mulled $6.3 million building expansion at its Third Street Office. Work is currently underway at the site, and the addition will allow county services currently leasing space in the Plaza Building on Third Street to move into a county owned spot.
• Flat state funding and rising costs caused the District 861 School Board to trim $3 million from their budget in 2009, eliminating things like some after school services, coach buses for athletic teams, costly curriculum models and staff hours. Another $1.5 million in cuts will be likely in 2010, administrators say.
• After 15 years using the four-period day at Winona Senior High School, District 861 officials made the move this year to drop the model that has alternately drawn heavy criticism and praise for its 80-minute class periods. Under the five-period day coming in 2010, the number of elective classes students will take is reduced by one, but students will have more scheduling flexibility throughout the year and teachers will work closer to the number of minutes specified in their contract. The change also carries a substantial cost savings for the district.
• Winona Area Catholic Schools consolidated some of its elementary programs in 2009 when it closed Cathedral Elementary and merged those students into St. Stan’s. Previously, WACS had its students divided into three grade-level buildings, but the merger leaves St. Mary’s prekindergarten through first grade center and St. Stan’s second through sixth elementary.
• When it comes to acrimonious relationships, the District 861 School Board rises to the top with a yearlong history of ruffling feathers among the staff and the community. Several board members publicly accused staff of dragging their feet, playing with numbers and not doing a good job. Board chair Stacey Mounce Arnold in particular has raised eyebrows with testy e-mails and statements towards staff and parents who do not agree with her agenda for the district or her way of doing business. Arnold, a private school parent, drew her sharpest criticism for the year by saying she is not interested in improving programming in the district to make it more competitive with local charters and private schools.
• The District 861 teachers contract was once again pushed into mediation by the union, and will once again be negotiated in January under the threat of a $100,000 penalty from the state if it is not signed by mid-month. The district asked for a partial pay freeze, union leaders want 2% per year plus other contract improvements.
• The District 861 School Board has yet to extend a new contract offer to Superintendent Paul Durand, whose contract expires July 1, 2010. Durand has received praise for his innovation and leadership from parents, some school board members and the community, but at least one school board member and the teachers union have together waged a bitter battle to see him gone.
•After years of planning, Winona city leaders halted work on a potential theater and basketball arena planned for downtown Winona. Before spending state grant money to study the feasibility of such a facility, planners decided to nix the concept, at least for now.
•It's been over a year since the Wilkie Steamboat Center was demolished, and committees’ work on what to do with the site and the rest of Levee Park have been filed away. Plans to add fill for views, walkways and other Victorian elements were drawn up, but require a landscape architect and funds for the park’s redesign. City leaders put the recommendations on hold, and after a year of the Wilkie site languishing as a hole in the concrete patio, the hole was filled and native grasses were planted.
•A committee set to develop a residential parking permit system around Winona State University found a split "no" vote from city leaders on its plan. But some of the plan may still be on the table for 2010, with a subcommitte forming to work on perceived problems and a better presentation for city leaders.
•Winona Police Chief Frank Pomeroy retired after 34 years in the department and 22 years as chief. New Police Chief Paul Bostrack was sworn in, promoted to the department’s top spot after 18 years with Winona’s police force.
Winona City Manager Eric Sorensen announced he’ll retire in January 2011.
Winona County Administrator Bob Reinert retired in July, replacedby new administrator Duane Hebert.