The top news from 2011

A look back at the year…

Road projects take top prize in 2011

For the second straight year, road projects have dominated the scene in the Forest Lake area.

In late October came the completion of a new Broadway Avenue bridge and reconstructed corridor from 19th Street SW to 8th Street. The new structure and streetscape was bid at $16,398,691.54 by Mora-based Redstone Construction Co.

The local improvements were made as part of Washington County’s plan to increase safety and mobility in the region. Temporary access points to I-35 were built at CR-83 and traffic was detoured around from the time the old Broadway bridge was removed the beginning of May.

Pedestrian Bridges

A new span for the Hardwood Creek  Trail at Broadway Ave. was set this spring, but the ground work began before the end of 2010.

Construction of a new pedestrian bridge at CR-83 started this fall and is expected to be built in 2012. The county awarded that contract to Sunram Construction at a cost of $1.1 million.

The total transportation investment in Forest Lake when all projects are completed in 2013 will be nearly $41 million.

Forest Lake Schools

It was a year of highs and lows for Forest Lake Area Schools in 2011.

The highs came in the spring and fall. In June, the 100th graduating class at Forest Lake High School earned diplomas. The district also unveiled the first selections to the Forest Lake Hall of Fame. In November, facing a gloomy financial future, voters strongly backed an eight-year operating levy renewal that will enable the district to continue to levy $6.2 million a year in local property taxes. Without the levy, the school board would have faced major budget cuts in early 2012.

The low came in early 2011 as the school board took action to adjust the general fund budget by some $2 million through a combination of revenue enhancements and budget cuts. A teacher retirement incentive program was accepted. The board also took action to eliminate 21 staffing positions, including 14 classroom teachers.

Top 2 city officials leave FL posts; sergeant promoted and new administrator hired

The retirement of Clark Quiring as Forest Lake’s police chief after seven years with the department may have come as a surprise but the resignation of Dan Coughlin, who replaced long-time city administrator Chip Robinson, was a real shocker. Both of the changes to employee personnel occurred mid-June.

Upon Quiring’s quick departure, Sgt. Rick Peterson was appointed as interim director of public safety before being promoted to police chief in August.

Aaron Parrish

The reasons for the city severing its ties with Coughlin were shrouded in secrecy, with him accepting a settlement to vacate the position. The job was offered this fall to Crookston’s city administrator, Aaron Parrish, after a second search was conducted to fill the post.

Tornado rips through Forest Lake

As a string of tornadoes swept through the north metro from west to east, Forest Lake was not spared from the spring storm. The Sunday, May 22 weather event was made even more worrisome as warning sirens operated by Washington County failed to activate due to an electrical malfunction in Stillwater.

A number of homeowners south of TH-97 and east of US-61 reported damage to buildings and property with many trees knocked down by the tornado. A number of roads were blocked by downed trees. Forest Lake police received eight damage reports. Forest Lake Fire & Rescue personnel deployed after the National Weather Service issued the tornado warning, but police and fire officials in the area said they were troubled when the emergency warning sirens failed to activate. No injuries were reported. The county promised it would get to the bottom of the malfunction and make sure the sirens were operational.

John Berken, Cindy Strand

John Berken and Cindy Strand, who at one point were both prominent figures in the Forest Lake business community, met their fate at the hands of judges during 2011 as their long-running criminal cases came to a resolution.

Berken is the former owner of the now shuttered Forest Lake Ford dealership and a benevolent Forest Lake Fire & Rescue firefighter who was sentenced for starting a wild fire in Columbus. On Jan. 18, 2011, Berken, 43, entered an Alford guilty plea in Anoka County District Court to the April 2009 felony wildfire in Columbus that burned more than 1500 acres and endangered homes. Under an Alford plea, a defendant maintains innocence but agrees to a conviction.

Some 200 firefighters from 30 departments were called to battle the blaze.

In March, Berken was ordered to serve 76 days in jail under work release and to pay $76,000 in restitution for fire suppressions costs. He was also placed on probation for three years.

The legal problems for Berken last year were not over, however. In November, Berken was arrested on a probation violation which followed an October 27 charge filed in Washington County alleging one felony count of aggravated forgery. The legal matter was pending as 2012 opened.

Strand, a well known title closer in Forest Lake and the owner of the now defunct Strand Closing Services entered guilty pleas on April 27, 2011 to two felon charges of theft by swindle and three felony charges of theft by false representation. In August, Strand was handed a 68-month prison sentence by Judge Greg Galler. She will spend 45 months in prison and the final 23 months on supervised probation. She was also ordered to pay restitution of $1.2 million due to victims in the case.

The criminal case in Washington County followed a lengthy investigation by the Minnesota Department of Commerce that Strand through Strand Closing Service misappropriated $1.3 million of client funds for personal use. She was stripped of her licenses and handed a $420,000 civil penalty from the state.

Her husband, Steve Strand, was initially charged in the case, but all charges were dismissed when the county attorney determined that there was not strong enough evidence to seek a court conviction.

Bachmann bids for the White House

It’s not every year a local politician launches a presidential campaign. 2011 brought just that, however, as Sixth District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann announced her drive for the White House at a June rally in her hometown of Waterloo, IA.

The Republican cut her teeth in the Minnesota Senate. Elected in 2001, she spent six years representing northern Washington County, including Forest Lake. Bachmann proved a polarizing figure from the start. She’s earned ardent supporters for her ultra-conservative views and fervent detractors for her assertive nature and controversial comments. Bachmann vaulted onto the national scene through her association with the Tea Party movement, her staunch opposition to gay marraige and some infamous media appearances.

The presidential campaign started with a bang, as Bachmann won the straw poll in Ames over the summer. Campaign staff defections and dropping poll numbers, though, had the Stillwater resident considered a longshot heading into this Tuesday’s pivotal Iowa caucuses.

FL parties with two new festivals

Locals enjoyed not one, but two new community festivals in 2011. We’re not talking about small, one-day events either.

The inaugural FLake Festival, headed up by the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, spanned nine days in February and pulled together several outdoor events. Old favorites included the Rotary Club’s Winter Plunge, the Lions Club’s ice golf tournament, the Chamber’s Medallion Hunt and the VFW Post 4210 Fishapalooza ice fishing tournament. New additions included a pond hockey tournament and a display of fancy ice sculptures.

The Chamber, the City of Forest Lake and Forest Lake Schools teamed up in June for a week of festivities dubbed Lake Fest. Conceived as a one-time event leading up to the 100th graduation at Forest Lake High School, Lake Fest grew into a bonanza of events centered at Lakeside Memorial Park. Highlights included a 5K run/walk, class reunions, an outdoor movie, live music and a talent show.

Both the FLake Festival and Lake Fest are expected to become annual events.