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2015 year in review: Pride in community

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Residents came together to celebrate major happenings in 2015.

From high interest in patronizing the 100-acre CityPlace business district that will be continually under construction next year, to the completion of a years-long public partnership with the Madison Claire Foundation’s signature project, from a mostly successful (but currently contested) referendum effort that would provide a school building for the District 833 Spanish immersion program and much more, to a four-day, 20,000-volunteer effort to pack 4 million meals for Feed My Starving Children, Woodbury made big news in the past 12 months.

On the sports front, East Ridge High School wrote a happy ending to a football season that started out on a down note, and a new contract was written for Bielenberg Sports Center after the Minnesota United Football Club soccer team decided not to practice locally.

Here’s a recap of some of the top stories of 2015.

Commercial development

Commercial growth continued for Woodbury in 2015.

At one point in July, City Administrator Clint Gridley reported 60 active commercial building permits, and another 30 were pending approval. And that’s not surprising, given the amount of business activity that happened in Woodbury in 2015.

The last year brought a number of new businesses into the city. Some of them — like Jerry’s Foods and Paradise Car Wash — are in newly-constructed buildings. Others, including Spice Bazaar, Tamarack Tap Room, Osteria and CRAVE, opened in various vacant commercial spaces around the city.

Lunds and Byerly’s completed a major interior renovation and launched its new company name in May. Also in May, HealthEast opened its new Cancer Center, bringing new treatment options to cancer patients in the southeast metro area.

But Woodbury also experienced a significant loss in May when The Hartford announced it would cease operations of its mutual fund services in May, leaving about 190 Woodbury-based employees without jobs. The department was transferred to the company’s headquarters in Radnor, Penn.

Finally, in 2015, residents got the news many had been waiting for — the Costco Warehouse company has selected a Woodbury site at Tamarack Road and Weir Drive, for a new store. The project is in its development phase. Construction could be completed as early as October 2016.


The name CityPlace started to catch on around Woodbury in 2015 — especially after the new commercial development started to take shape and new businesses started to open.

Once home to the regional offices for State Farm Insurance, the 100-acre CityPlace campus near Hudson Road and Radio Drive started to take on new life this year, as new businesses popped up around the site and construction began on several new buildings.

The property was purchased by Elion Partners and Kraus-Anderson Realty in 2014. Redevelopment work began in earnest this year, first with a series of buildings for retail and restaurant space. As the year progressed, construction of a new Residence Inn hotel started, and work was done to the property itself, making way for parking lots and landscaping amenities. Construction of a new Whole Foods Market also began this year.

The first business to open in CityPlace was the new-to-market Cafe Zupas, which opened in October. It was quickly followed by the opening of a second Woodbury Potbelly Sandwich Shop, a Verizon Smart Store, Pie Five Pizza, Wedding Day Diamonds, Mattress Firm, La-Z-Boy Home Furnishings and Decor, and the joint venue, Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros. Bagels.

In late October, Elion Partners announced the addition of a 75,000-square-foot office building to house HealthEast’s Woodbury TRIA Orthopaedic Center. It will provide orthopedic care, an ambulatory surgery center, physical therapy, hand therapy, imaging services and an acute injury walk-in clinic. TRIA will also be the first healthcare provider coming to the development.

At the same time, Elion Partners announced it would be demolishing the 400,000-square-foot former State Farm building on the CityPlace campus, to make way for future development.

Bus rapid transit

An effort to bring bus rapid transit from the Woodbury area to downtown St. Paul suffered a blow when the Minnesota Legislature failed to appropriate a proposed $3 million match needed to comply with requirements of the Federal Transit Authority.

Proponents of the Gateway Corridor (aka Gold Line) project said the lack of state funding would not hinder the fate of their efforts to build dedicated lanes along Hudson Road and Fourth Street on their way to the Union Depot.

Next up: a $25 million project development phase.

A crossroads at Valley Crossing

Valley Crossing Community School had an exciting year to say the least.

In February District 833 approved the purchase of Valley Crossing, which is a collaborative school between District 833 and districts 834 and 622, at a price of $21.5 million.

The purchase of Valley Crossing is a response to not only the end of the joint powers agreement entered into between the three districts, but it will also help address overcrowding in District 833’s elementary schools.

District 833 will use Valley Crossing as one of its boundary elementary schools.

The sale of Valley Crossing was met with some hesitation from families at the school because of fears of losing the school’s current model.

There are five primary elements that make Valley Crossing’s educational model so unique – multi-age classrooms, a team teaching format, teaching neighborhoods, individualized learning programs and responsive classroom.

Valley Crossing continued to make news in March when the three districts amended the current joint powers agreement in order to address inequitable funding formulas.

The funding adjustments resulted in nearly $1 million in staffing cuts at the school.

District 833 will be taking over control of Valley Crossing for the 2016-17 school year, however it will serve as a transition year with the real changes coming in 2017.

New boundaries for Valley Crossing began to take shape in November.

Districts seek funding

It was a big year for referendums for Woodbury’s school districts.

Both District 833 and District 834 passed referendums in 2015 whereas District 622 failed to pass its referendum.

In May District 834 residents voted to pass a $97.5 million bond with 57 percent of voters voting ‘yes.’

The tax-neutral bond, which means there will not be any tax increases, will help fund: an addition and renovations to Stillwater Area High School; construction of a new elementary school; improvements to facilities across the district; and the district will change its grade configurations by moving to a middle school model, grades 6-8, as opposed to its current junior high model, grades 7-9.

In November both District 833 and District 622 went to voters with levy increases.

District 833 however asked for more than just that.

The three-question referendum asked voters to approve: a $10.3 million operating levy increase; a $96 million bond for construction of a new Oltman Middle School; and a $46.5 million bond.

While the results for Question 1, the operating levy, and Question 3, the $46.5 million bond, had definitive results – Question 1 passed with 56 percent and Question 3 failed with 52 percent of the vote – Question 2 had a much closer race with just 19 votes separating the “yes” votes from the “no” votes, with the former in the lead.

The razor-thin margin of Question 3 resulted in a recount occurring.

The canvassing board reviewed 19 challenged votes, a majority of which the voter filled in the letter ‘o’ of the word ‘no’ instead of the oval next to the word.

After the recount the margin decreased to just five votes.

Opponents ultimately filed a lawsuit in Washington County District Court objecting to the decisions made by the canvassing board.

A trial is scheduled for early next year.

District 622 was also seeking a levy increase from voters in November.

District 622’s two-question referendum asked voters to approve a $900-per-student operating levy increase as well as a $3 million technology levy.

Both requests failed with roughly 59 percent voting ‘no.’

Incumbents win

Voters were asked to elect three District 833 School Board Members in November.

The field was fairly full with a total of seven candidates: incumbent Ron Kath, incumbent Joe Slavin, incumbent Michelle Witte, challenger Molly Lutz, challenger Dean Barton, challenger Patricia Driscoll and challenger Andrea Mayer-Bruestle.

Election night saw the three incumbents – Kath, Slavin and Witte – winning by a considerable margin.

Kath led with more than 18 percent, Witte receive 17 percent and Slavin earned 15 percent.

Trailing behind were Lutz with 14 percent, Barton with 12 percent, Driscoll with 11 percent and Mayer-Bruestle with 11 percent.

New district leaders

The year 2015 brought new leadership to District 834 and District 622.

Both districts hired new superintendents this year.

District 622 was seeking a new superintendent to replace Patty Phillips, who retired.

In February the district selected Ryan Laager, executive director of secondary education for Stillwater Public Schools, as its top finalist.

However, the superintendent search restarted in April when a contract agreement could not be reached between Laager and the district.

In May, District 622 School Board selected Christine Osorio, the chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools, as its next superintendent.

District 834 also hired a new superintendent in 2015.

District 834’s former superintendent Corey Lunn left in June of 2014 for a new job, which in turn resulted in Tom Nelson, former District 833 superintendent, coming in as an interim superintendent.

After a detailed superintendent search District 834 School Board ultimately selected Denise Pontrelli, assistant superintendent and director of educational services for Spring Lake Park Public Schools, as its new superintendent in March.

New school leaders

Several of Woodbury’s schools saw new leaders take the helm in 2015.

The beginning of the school year began with new principals, and a new director, at East Ridge High School, Red Rock Elementary and the Math and Science Academy.

At East Ridge, Jim Smokrovich replaced former principal Aaron Harper, who resigned last year following an investigation.

Lake Middle School Principal Molly Roeske served as interim principal for the 2014-2015 school year before Smokrovich’s hire.

Red Rock’s new principal, Jennifer Holt, replaced Andy Caflisch, who moved to Armstrong Elementary to serve as its principal.

John Gawarecki came in as MSA’s new director to replace Bob Kreischer, who retired.

New leadership continued in October when Connha Classon, educational coordinator and teacher on special assignment at Valley Crossing Community School, was hired as the interim principal at Woodbury Elementary as Kristine Schaefer’s replacement.

Schaefer was named District 833’s coordinator of educational equity.

New elementary school in Woodbury

Plans for a new District 834 elementary school in Woodbury began to take shape in 2015.

District 834 is planning to build a new elementary school to address overcrowding in the southern part of the district in addition to addressing the loss of one of its boundary schools, Valley Crossing Community School, which was purchased by District 833.

The new elementary school, to be located at 11179 Brookview Road, will be paid for as part of the district’s $97.5 million referendum, which was approved in May.

In June the district signed a tentative purchase agreement to purchase a 20-acre property at a cost of $1.4 million.

The district closed on the property in December.

The new elementary school is proposed to be 75,000 square feet, which will have an estimated cost of $25.7 million to build.

The school is proposed to house between 450 and 500 students; however, the common areas will have enough space for 600 students.

In November, District 834 began accepting suggestions for the school’s name.

Crime and accidents

Woodbury Public Safety, Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County District Court put in another year of meaningful work, as they sought to protect and serve citizens while rehabilitating or punishing perpetrators.

In addition to two men being sentenced to jail time in the 2014 death of Tara Fitzgerald, three juveniles received plea deals for their roles in passing around the drugs that caused the Woodbury High School student’s death. Brian Phillip Norlander, Sydney Claire Johnson and Alistair Curtis Berg each received probation.

A belligerent resident drank a beer, smoked a cigarette and caused $375,000 of damage to a senior apartments in Woodbury when despite multiple warnings and the threat of eviction he continued to smoke while on oxygen. He died in the fire, which started after 3 a.m. and caused the evacuation of 70-plus residents. Woodbury Senior Living was investigated and eventually found negligent of supervision in the March fire.

Two Woodbury 10-year-olds got their minutes in the spotlight in July, when their lemonade stand toppled in a car accident that narrowly missed them. A slick piece of steering, with a young driver using a fire hydrant to slow his careening vehicle, might’ve saved the boys — Jack Tichenor and Sam Rauker — from injury or worse.

Firefighters couldn’t save a single-family home along Fawn Trail Circle, when a propane tank on a gas grill exploded on a senior couple’s deck in late July. Robert and Katherine Hamer escaped the fire, but it quickly spread and they lost a lifetime of valued items.

Aaron Harper, former East Ridge High School principal, was charged with felony theft. His case is pending.

It’s 17 months in prison for a man who matched the description of the shooter who killed Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick and was pulled over and Tased by Minnesota State Patrol on July 30, 2014. Steven Dion Kellem was sentenced in June 2015. Coincidentally driving through Mendota Heights during the manhunt for the shooter, Kellem led police on a wrong-way chase to Woodbury for an entirely different reason. He didn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Another high-profile chase ended on an interstate ramp in Woodbury in July, when a minivan full of Chicago area men snatched $26,960 worth of purses from a Louis Vuitton Store at the Galleria Mall in Edina and fled. Eight arrests were made after a 21-mile, 110-mph joyride.

A 23-year-old mother was charged with first-degree drug possession at a Woodbury house in July. Airport police intercepted more than 2 pounds of methamphetamine and later officers delivered it to Alissa Marie Humphrey during a sting operation. Her case is pending.

An estimated $200,000 worth of dairy equipment went missing from a Dean Foods warehouse in Woodbury in May.

Kirk Ingram, a father and husband who grew up in Woodbury, was paralyzed in a boating accident on Aug. 1.

Nineteen-year-old Bailey J. Garcia was sentenced to 27 years in prison for the second-degree unintentional murder of David Frigaard, a Park High School teacher who previously taught at Woodbury high and middle schools.

Longtime kindergarten teacher Nathan Craig McGuire sued District 833 to get back a job as Woodbury High School girls basketball coach, which he lost after a parent complaint. U.S. District Court sided with the school district, and McGuire is deciding whether or not to appeal.

Woodbury High School assistant kitchen manager Tonia Stocking died in a motorcycle accident in September, during a ride to benefit a crash victim’s family.

An overheated laptop started a fire at the Finnegan home along Lilac Lane. The late September fire resulted in a total loss.

The Washington County Attorney’s Office and a collaboration of law enforcement agencies made a big splash when they made 11 prostitution-related arrests in a week and charged 18 men, dating back to stings conducted in 2014. A week after the attorney’s office created a major crimes prosecution division, County Attorney Pete Orput charged an alleged pimp. His office also promoted a major crimes prosecutor and hired an analyst for the new division.

Season of redemption

It was clear simply by watching the way East Ridge football coach Dan Fritze, his eyes welling up with tears, addressed his team after the heartbreaking 14-13 loss to Osseo in the finals of the Class 6A playoffs. It was clear that this was a special group of Raptors. A season that started with so much uncertainty wasn’t supposed to end with a trip to the finals.

The only reason it played out that way was because of that group on the field. It seemed like the more outsiders wrote this team off over the course of the season, the stronger it’d become.

In the offseason East Ridge was stripped of its wins from the previous two seasons for the use of an ineligible player. And days before the start of this past season, former coach Mike Pendino resigned. That left Fritze and his players to the pick up the pieces. After a season-opening loss to Lakeville North, perhaps a wake-up call of sorts, the pieces of the puzzle slowly started to come together.

Raptors quarterback Otumos Payemanu and running back Dominik London formed a potent backfield attack that was nearly impossible to contain.

That, coupled with stellar play from the stout unit on the other side of the field, led by linebackers Alex Johnson, Josh Knazze, and Brison White, along with safety Griffin Davis, among others, helped East Ridge finish the season with an improbable 12-2 record.

So while players exited the field at TCF Bank Stadium disappointed, in hindsight, there’s absolutely no reason for the Raptors to hang their heads. In the midst of the circumstances, they accomplished more than anyone could’ve dreamed possible this season.

Bielenberg Sports Center

Overall, 2015 could be remembered as one of some disappointment, or one of great change at Bielenberg Sports Center.

Certainly, the new outdoor pleasure rink — drawing 16,500 visitors in its first season and now being open for its second season — was a hit with the community. A Splash Pad that opened on the grounds drew lots of young participants, too. And major community events like Feed My Starving Children and the Washington County Whole Community Public Safety Expo brought more fun to BSC.

But the year started off with some disappointing news, as word came down in January that the Minnesota United Football Club had announced it would no longer be using BSC as its official training facility. The soccer club stepped out of one of two contracts it had with the City of Woodbury, leaving the city to look for a new tenant for an additional space built onto BSC for the United’s facility.

Though the United chose to sever its facility contract with the city, the team maintained a marketing agreement with Woodbury. The marketing agreement allows the United a chance to recoup some of the $975,000 team ownership paid to build the addition onto Bielenberg Sports Center.

However, it was three months before the Minnesota United and the City of Woodbury met on the terms of a the termination agreement for the facility. By April, Woodbury City Council members were interested in putting the vacant space — now called “the annex” — onto the market and finding a new tenant for it.

In May, news came that not only did the United finally sign the termination agreement, but that ongoing litigation between the City of Woodbury and Gartner Holdings, LLC — a company that originally had planned to open a restaurant on the second level of BSC — had been dropped.

The news allowed the city to go forward with its plan to find a new tenant for the annex space.

But problems arose again in July, when the United came forward with a marketing proposal to name HealthEast as a major sponsor for Bielenberg Sports Center. By that same time, the city was already in communication with Summit Orthopedics, which had put together a proposal to lease the annex space.

In August, the city received a letter from the United’s legal counsel. The letter threatened litigation over the terms of the marketing agreement. Following subsequent communications from the city’s attorney, United management indicated they were not interested in going ahead with the litigation.

Finally, in mid-November, the City of Woodbury and Summit Orthopedics announced a long-term partnership according to which Summit would lease the annex and the former second floor restaurant site for the next 20 years. The city council signed the lease with Summit at its last meeting of the year, Dec. 9, and construction to finish off the site will begin soon.

Madison’s Place

Something wonderful happened outside of Bielenberg Sports Center this fall, though. Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, a group of volunteers pitched in during a cool October weekend to build the all-inclusive playground, Madison’s Place.

A project of the Madison Claire Foundation, Madison’s Place is the long-time vision and dream of Woodbury mother Dana Millington. Planned to be fully accessible to kids and adults, with or without physical limitations, the Madison’s Place playground is named for Millington’s daughter, Madison, who was diagnosed as an infant with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA. The disease caused a curvature of her spinal cord, which eventually led to her inability to move her arms, legs or head. Madison died after a nearly two-year battle with the disease.

Millington first brought her concept before the City of Woodbury in 2009. After getting the go-ahead from the city, she started her fundraising efforts. In order to build this fully accessible playground, she had to raise $830,000.

By July of this year, Millington was down to her final $80,000. Equipment was ordered, and a community build event was scheduled for September, to help keep the construction costs down.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. Just days before September’s community build, several inches of rain fell from the skies, and caused the holes that held the poles for the equipment to collapse.

It took a few weeks, but the ground dried out and another community build was scheduled a month later. Most of the equipment was put in, but the padding — a special padding that will allow wheelchairs to travel over it with ease — will not be put in until the coming spring.

And Millington is close to raising that final $80,000, too. A major donation from Elion Partners, and a commitment from Summit Orthopedics, as well as continued donations from the community have put that goal within reach.

The Madison’s Place playground is expected to be complete, and a dedication ceremony held, in spring 2016.

Feed My Starving Children

Organizers of Woodbury’s first Feed My Starving Children MobilePack event knew the goal of packing 4 million meals to feed 11,000 children for a year was aggressive. But they set the goal, and achieved it, all the same.

On the weekend of Oct. 8-11, nearly 20,000 volunteers flooded Bielenberg Sports Center to help with the MobilePack event.

Feed My Starving Children is a nonprofit organization that provides meals to malnourished children in dozens of impoverished countries around the globe. The meals, MannaPacks, are potato- and rice-based meals that contain vitamins and dehydrated vegetables. Each pack contains the equivalent of about six meals.

While Feed My Starving Children has permanent packing sites in Chanhassen, Coon Rapids and Eagan, Woodbury’s event was a mobile event, where meals are made off-site, and then shipped to the permanent sites for distribution. It was considered to be maybe the largest mobilepack event in the state.

After four days of packing, the FMSC event netted a total of 4,066,200 MannaPack meals to feed 11,140 children.

The event also included a fundraising component, with a portion of the proceeds being donated to Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf.

Special appearances

A handful of celebrities showed their faces in Woodbury this year.

Notably, the cast and film crew of “Wilson” visited the Marsh Creek neighborhood in July and again in August, shutting down some streets and creating a base at East Ridge High School while also engaging fans.

A presidential campaign made a visit to the area, as well. Pastor Rafael Cruz spoke at the Machine Shed restaurant in Lake Elmo, seeking support for the election of candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Afton downtown projects move forward

Much of Afton City Council’s attention in 2015 was directed to its downtown.

Many discussions, and oppositions, occurred throughout the year relating not only to the city’s future sanitary sewer but also the redesign of its Old Village.

The topic of Afton’s sanitary sewer occupied much of the spring and summer since the city was working towards getting its permit approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

While the city was hard at work getting all of its information together, the neighboring communities of Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point worked tirelessly to halt the project.

The communities have opposed the project since the beginning due to its location,which borders the communities, as well as environmental and financial concerns.

The MPCA approved the permit in June.

Another hot topic in Afton related to Washington County’s upcoming redesign of Country Road 21, which runs through Afton, in addition to the related downtown aesthetics and city road construction.

Throughout the spring and summer Afton City Council spent considerable time discussing how it wants its Old Village to look once all of the projects are complete.

The main aesthetic priorities are lighting, landscaping and sidewalks.

In fact, in April the city setup a lighting demonstration downtown to illustrate how the new lights will look.

Polar Plunge

Warm hearts triumphed over cold temperatures at Woodbury’s first Special Olympics Polar Plunge event on Feb. 14.

Woodbury’s Polar Plunge drew more than 550 people who were willing to jump into the icy waters at Carver Lake to help raise funds for Special Olympics Minnesota.

The event netted approximately $89,000. A portion of those proceeds were allocated to the Madison Claire Foundation’s all-inclusive playground, Madison’s Place.