Our reporters selected their top 10 most important stories affecting the Bulletin coverage area of Woodbury, Cottage Grove and South Washington County.
No. 1: HERO Center gets ready to open
After years of planning, Cottage Grove and Woodbury law enforcement are preparing for the opening of the Health and Emergency Response Occupations (HERO) Training Center.
The $20 million, 47,000-square-foot complex will serve as a professional development and training facility for police, fire and EMS.
The HERO Training Center features indoor and outdoor staging areas where police, fire and EMS can stage mock emergencies such as vehicle crashes, hostage standoffs, de-escalation scenarios and structure fires. A virtual reality firearms training simulator features a giant video screen where officers could practice de-escalation and use-of-force techniques in a variety of violent scenarios. It will be jointly owned and operated by Cottage Grove and Woodbury.
The HERO Center grand opening celebration is 5 p.m. Jan. 14. The HERO Center is located next to City Hall and the Public Safety Building at 10125 85th St., in Cottage Grove.
No. 2: Goodbye to Key Inn; Henderson lawsuit settled
Plans to redevelop Key Inn, a motel on the corner of Valley Creek Road and Woodlane Drive with a reputation for criminal activity, were approved in October by the Woodbury City Council. Work on the site, including demolition, is set for spring 2020. The first buildings are scheduled to open next September.
Minneapolis-based Lupe Development Partners LLC plans to demolish the motel, located at 1806 Wooddale Drive, as well as a multi-tenant office building at 6949 Valley Creek Road. The company's redevelopment proposal includes a retail space in the north area closer to Valley Creek Road that would consist of a drive-thru Chick-fil-A restaurant, a credit union and one other tenant. A 34,000-square-foot medical building would replace Key Inn in the south area off of Woodlane and Wooddale drives.
The move to redevelop the Key Inn came six months after a civil lawsuit was settled between the city and Tawana Henderson, the mother of Mark Henderson, who was killed by police in 2012 during a hostage situation at the motel.
In August 2012, Demetrius Ballinger held 11 people at gunpoint and raped several young women at the motel. Woodbury police shot and killed Mark Henderson, 19, as he attempted to escape the room where he was being held.
No. 3: Water supply plan delayed, 6th well taken offline
In April 2019, while state agencies continued to prepare for distribution of approximately $720 million in settlement funds, local leaders from Cottage Grove and Woodbury voiced their concern about what they called a top-down approach in deciding how the money is spent. Both cities also expressed frustration with the length of the process.
Working groups began meeting in July 2018 after the state of Minnesota and 3M Corp. settled a lawsuit about the dumping of a chemical called PFAS in February 2018 for $850 million. After legal fees, $720 million was made available to the east metro for long-term solutions in two areas: clean and sustainable drinking water, and the restoration and enhancement of natural resources.
Though a finished Conceptual Drinking Water Supply Plan, which will detail these long-term solutions, was originally expected in December 2019, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said March 2020 is the earliest the plan would be completed.
PFAS, sometimes referred to as PFCs, is a group of chemicals that were used in products like stain repellents, non-stick coatings and firefighting foam beginning in the 1950s but have since been phased out in the United States.
In October, Woodbury announced a sixth municipal well had been taken offline because regular testing found its water exceeded state PFAS health parameters. The city has 19 wells in total.
City utilities manager Jim Westerman clarified at the time that a health advisory issued for a city well in Woodbury doesn't mean it's been shut down, but that it has been put lower in rotation and would not be used until the remaining 13 wells cannot produce enough water to meet demand.
Westerman said this means the six affected wells will be completely out of use until late spring 2020.
No. 4: Snow days pile up, e-learning policy discussed
With a total count of 39 inches, February 2019 went down as the fourth snowiest month — and snowiest February ever — for Minnesota.
We also saw some of the coldest temperatures we’ve had to deal with in a while with the polar vortex at the end of January. District 833 had four consecutive days of school closures as temperatures dipped to minus-20 degrees and lower in the Twin Cities area, and as low as minus-56 degrees in some parts of the state.
This all added up to six days of school closures in South Washington County Schools.
In April, Gov. Tim Walz signed the bipartisan “Snow Day Relief Bill,” which excused schools from facing penalties for falling short of classroom instruction time per state law, such as lost funds.
At the end of the school year, the District 833 School Board approved a preliminary e-learning policy, which would allow the superintendent to designate some school closure days as days in which students would follow digital lesson plans. The district is still sorting out final details, and expects the earliest possible use of this policy to be in February 2020, a spokesperson said.
No. 5: Ravine Parkway opens
A curious bald eagle perched nearby as city, county and state officials dedicated the $7.2 million Ravine Parkway at a Sept. 18 ribbon cutting.
The 1.6-mile stretch of Ravine Parkway runs from Jamaica Avenue to Keats Avenue, north of 70th Street near the border with Woodbury. It replaces Military Road as a link between the two.
The design includes landscaped medians, trails, prairie restoration plantings and 8 acres of land that have been set aside for the future Glacial Valley Community Park. Several new housing developments, including Kingston Fields, have been built on the former farmland in anticipation of the new road.
"This is a day 16 years in the making," Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said, referring to the city's East Ravine Master Plan that was created in 2003.
No. 6: Renewal by Andersen expands, more restaurants to Woodbury
There were several high-profile development news stories in the south Washington County area in 2019.
In Cottage Grove, Renewal by Andersen began a $35 million expansion last summer.
The 350,000-square-foot warehouse and office on 28 acres was funded in part by two grants from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Andersen received $450,000 from the Minnesota Investment Fund and $800,000 from the Minnesota Job Creation Grant.
The Midwestern fast-casual staple Pizza Ranch is set to open a location in Cottage Grove, under the ownership of franchisee Cottage Grove PR, Inc. The restaurant will be located in the formerly vacant lot next to Muddy Cow off Hardwood Avenue, Harkness Avenue and Oakwood Park Drive in spring 2020. The 8,056-square-foot restaurant is shaping up to be one of the state's largest Pizza Ranch locations, featuring a fun zone and five party rooms.
Cult-favorite restaurant Texas Roadhouse broke ground in Woodbury this year, and is expected to open in January 2020.
No. 7: Gold Line project gains traction in Woodbury
In August, the Woodbury City Council approved a resolution in support of a "15 percent plan," or a partial concept design plan, for the Gold Line bus rapid transit project. The 10-mile bus line would connect downtown St. Paul to its eastern neighborhoods and suburbs Landfall, Maplewood, Oakdale and Woodbury seven days a week “with buses arriving every 10-15 minutes — so frequent, you won't need a schedule,” a Metro Transit fact sheet says.
The Gold Line is expected to begin servicing riders in 2024 and would be the first of its kind in the state, running mainly in bus-only lanes just north of Interstate 94. It would have the same fare as light rail and local buses, according to Metro Transit.
Design for local station platforms and the area surrounding them is expected to begin in late 2020, city engineer Tony Kutzke said. Current plans include 21 stations along the bus line, with three in Woodbury: one at the Woodbury 494 Park and Ride on Woodlane Drive, one near Woodbury Theatre on Guider Drive and one on Tamarack Road. Parking will be available at the Woodbury 494 Park and Ride Station and the Woodbury Theatre Station.
On Dec. 11, the Woodbury City Council approved its annual list of issues it would support in the upcoming state legislative session, which included continued backing of the Gold Line. A new condition was also added: that the state or county, not the city, own the proposed bridge over Interstate 94 connecting Helmo Avenue in Oakdale and Bielenberg Drive in Woodbury.
No. 8: Leadership and staff changes in District 833
Two of the most high-profile stories in District 833 involved the East Ridge wrestling coaches.
In February, co-head coach Travis VanDeWiele resigned from his position as a Ramsey County corrections officer following criminal and internal investigations showing he had used excessive force against an inmate.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies usually wait until criminal proceedings against an officer are complete before carrying out internal investigations. In this case, a criminal investigation started in April 2016. He pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in January 2018, and served one year of probation.
After the court case wrapped up, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office conducted an internal investigation, ultimately reaching an agreement for VanDeWiele to resign in February. VanDeWiele also resigned from East Ridge wrestling, where he had coached since November 2015. He was paid $5,453 for the 2018-19 season.
In May, the school board chose not to renew head coach Matt Everson’s contract, emphasizing a pattern of subordination with the athletics director. The decision drew backlash from the tight-knit wrestling community, who credited Everson with taking the team to its first state tournament this year.
While Everson and his supporters acknowledge he at times disobeyed his boss, they maintain he did so in the wrestlers' best interest, and that his actions were not accurately described in his termination letter, which Everson made public by asking for a discussion with the school board.
District attorney Michael Waldspurger emphasized that while terminating a coaching contract does not require a reason, Activities Director Sara Palodichuk had consulted with several other administrators, as well as the human resources department. They concluded that Everson's contract should not be renewed, he said.
District 833 welcomed three new principals in fall 2019. At Park High School, Principal Todd Herber told The Bulletin he aims to focus on career readiness. Connha Classon switched from serving as principal at Woodbury Elementary School to Valley Crossing Elementary School. She was replaced at Woodbury by Tony Mosser.
No. 9: A safe place opens for homeless youth
In September, St. Croix Family Resource Center opened the Youth Connections Drop-In Center at All Saints Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove.
St. Croix Family Resource Center Director Cindy Parsons said the goal is to provide support for kids, ages 13-24, who may be homeless. The center is open Tuesdays 3-6 p.m.
While it’s not a shelter, staff at the center can help kids find a support network.
“It's just a place to increase those connections in the community,” Parsons said. “Those with unstable housing can have access to the donation room, which is filled with clothing, food and personal care items. They can take food with them.”
No. 10: High-profile crimes hit area
Police responded to three high-profile crimes in Cottage Grove and Woodbury.
Jan. 31: Harvey Kneifl, 72, of Woodbury had been on trial for alleged sexual assault of children on his District 833 bus route when he failed to show up for sentencing. Upon arrival at Kneifl’s apartment building at Saint Therese Senior Services, 7555 Bailey Road, Woodbury police and building staff did not get a response at his door. Building staff entered the apartment to find Kneifl with "significant" injuries and his wife, Julie, 72, dead with a deep laceration to her neck. Kneifl was charged the following day, Feb. 1, with second-degree murder and was held on $1 million bail. Kneifl was later sentenced in May to more than 20 years in prison for the child sexual assault charges and in June was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his wife.
June 7: Multiple-law enforcement agencies responded to an AMBER alert after Jeffrey Lo carjacked his ex-girlfriend in Cottage Grove and drove away with the couple's two young daughters. Lo was taken into custody in Hidden Valley after a nearly four-hour manhunt that included a helicopter, four K-9 units, the FBI and U.S Marshals Service. The children aged, 1 and 3, were unharmed. Lo, 24, was charged with two counts of kidnapping with a firearm, assault with a firearm, and violation of an order for protection while in possession of a dangerous weapon.
Nov. 4: A man accused in a three-city crime spree involving kidnapping, sexual assault, auto theft and a home invasion shot himself to death during a standoff with police in the 7400 block of Hidden Valley Trail. Two officers, one from Cottage Grove and the other from Woodbury, discharged their weapons. The Ramsey County medical examiner ruled that the gunman, Noah Ante Erickson, 34, of White Bear Lake, died by suicide. Police said Erickson drove a stolen car from Maplewood to Cottage Grove, where he took a family of four hostage at gunpoint. They escaped unharmed after Erickson stole and then abandoned a family vehicle that was parked in the garage.