The top 10 stories of 2012

According to a popular Miranda Lambert song, everybody dies famous in a small town. That may be true, but perhaps nobody could die more famous than Watertown Mayor K.J. McDonald did last year.

McDonald, who died on Oct. 4, had served as Watertown’s Mayor since 2005. He also served as the town’s Mayor in 1975-76, before serving 14 years in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.

But McDonald wasn’t one of Watertown’s most beloved residents solely based on his public service. Born in the city in 1930, he lived here virtually his whole life. He seemed to know everybody, and everybody seemed to know him. Active in his church, the Lions Club, Toastmasters, American Legion and much more for decades on end, McDonald truly was the face of Watertown for many who live here.

It is not McDonald’s death that tops all stories from 2012, but rather, the celebration of his life that his death truly became. That was never more evident than in July, several months before his death, when roughly 100 people turned out to surprise the mayor during a city council meeting. Politicians, family members and those who worked closely with McDonald in a wide assortment of community roles paid tribute to the mayor and all he had done for the city over the years.

The Carver County News’ story on McDonald immediately following his death was the most viewed story on the Sun Patriot Newspapers Web site — among all three newspapers — since  the new site began tracking that data in late summer.

Here’s a look at the other nine stories that round out the Carver County News’ top 10 stories of 2012.

2. Bridge/River Crossing

A top story in Watertown for the last several years, it was in the forefront again in 2012. The year started with the city council looking at the results of a new study, which this time examined potential river crossing routes both downtown and to the north of the city. Previously, only southern alignments had been studied in detail, because that was the county’s preferred location. Ultimately, however, the council decided not to commit to any alignment for a second crossing.

Once the council declined to map an alignment, focus shifted to replacing the current bridge at Territorial Street, which has been deemed structurally deficient. At one point, it was announced that construction could begin on the bridge as soon as 2013, but it was later learned that won’t happen. With work likely to commence in 2014, the next step is for the city to determine ways to minimize disruptions while the city is divided without a bridge open for what is expected to be several months. The city will also have to figure out how to reconstruct the intersection of Territorial Street and Lewis Avenue, something it began to examine last summer.

3. Election

The presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was the high profile race, but there were plenty of significant local races as well, including the race for Watertown mayor. Charlotte Johnson won that battle over Rick Mann.

In other high profile races, Tim Lynch defeated Frank Long to retain his District 4 seat on the Carver County Board, incumbent Rep. Ernie Leidiger (R-Mayer) defeated Keith Pickering in the race for the Dist. 47A seat in the state House of Representatives, and incumbent Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) defeated Jim Weygand to retain her Dist. 47 seat in the state senate.

Also, all four Watertown-Mayer School Board members up for re-election — John McCain, Steve Burns, Chad Koehler and Jennifer Hoover — retained their seats. Mike Dodge was elected mayor of Mayer in an uncontested race and Bruce Osborn and Tice Stieve-McPadden retained their council seats in that city.

4. iPads

Love them or hate them, the iPads are likely here to stay in the Watertown-Mayer School District. The School Board approved the 1-to-1 technology initiative in March, and the program, in which an iPad was issued to every student in the district, took effect at the start of the 2012-13 school year in September.

The progressive new program is designed to shift the district’s instruction method from a traditional book-oriented approach to a more digital-oriented approach, while making learning more engaging and fun for students and providing teachers with new ways to develop their own curriculum.

The program has drawn positive reviews from teachers, staff and students, and for the most part, from parents as well. Fifty-six percent of parents rated the program as a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5. However, many parents have also expressed concern as to how frequently their child uses the iPad for gaming. More parents indicated their child uses the iPad most often for gaming than parents who indicated their child uses the iPad most often for homework.

5. Downtown Redevelopment

The city of Watertown finished its public infrastructure improvements associated with its Downtown Redevelopment Project late in the summer of 2011, when the Lewis Avenue extension was completed. However, the proposed private development associated with that project — a senior assisted living facility — seemed to drag its feet.

Finally, in December, the city council was able to approve a site plan and development agreement for Phase 1 of the project, which will include 16 memory care units, 42 assisted living units, and 27,000 square feet of retail space along Lewis Avenue. The roughly $6 million project will be developed by Rice Lake Development III and the facility will be operated by Prairie River Home Care.

6. Royal boys to state

The Watertown-Mayer boys’ basketball team had the whole town excited when it qualified for its first state tournament berth since 1999. The team finished 24-2 during the regular season, and won the Minnesota River Conference during its first year in the league with a perfect 14-0 record. The Royals, however, lost to Litchfield in the first round of the state tournament at the Target Center.

While the boys’ basketball team’s trip to state was probably the most high profile sports story, there were other noteworthy teams as well. Mayer Lutheran’s football team also qualified for the state tournament by finally  beating Maple Lake in the playoffs, and it was actually the performance of the Watertown-Mayer girls’ track and field team that might have been the most impressive of all. The girls finished in second place at the state meet — only one point out of first — despite having only five athletes competing in four events.

7. Subway Proposal

Controversy brewed during the spring over what to do with a parcel of land at the corner of Hutchinson Road and Highway 25, adjacent to Highland Park. Local Subway owner Steve Erhard had reached an agreement to purchase the property from the executor of the estate, Tom Motzko, contingent on the city’s willingness to rezone the property to commercial. Erhard wanted to build a strip-mall retail property to use as a new home for his restaurant and as many as three other potential businesses.

However, many members of the city council stated their preference to use the land as part of Highland Park, which was consistent with the way the property was included in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Ultimately, by a 3-2 vote the council voted not to amend the comprehensive plan, a move that needed to be made if the council wished to rezone the land and let Erhard proceed with his proposal.

Complicating matters even more was the apparent bad blood between the Motzko family and the city of Watertown, stemming from damage to the property caused by work on the nearby baseball field. Motzko did not want to sell the land to the city, but ultimately did for market value.

8. Community Park takes shape

The early stages of the planned Community Park on the northeast side of town began to take shape when streets and utilities were extended into the park during the fall. Only parts of the roads were paved at that time, while the rest will be paved in the spring.

The nearby Peace Lutheran Church building also went up quickly along one of those streets — Street A, which has since been renamed Kristi Lane.

9. Miss Basketball

It may have seemed like Watertown-Mayer girls’ basketball standout Marissa Janning would never leave, but her incredible career finally came to and in March. Janning set nearly every offensive record in the school’s books, and also set the state record for 3-pointers made in a career. She finished fourth all-time on the state’s scoring list.

She averaged better than 30 points per game during her senior year, and capped the year with several prestigious honors. After being named the Associated Press State Player of the Year, she took home the biggest honor a basketball player can receive when she was named Miss Basketball in the state of Minnesota.

10. The sharing spirit

The various cities in Carver County came together late in 2011 to form the framework for potential sharing agreements between cities, and Watertown wasted no time reaching such agreements with other cities. Late in 2011, the city reached an agreement with Delano to share the services of an in-house building inspector, and in 2012, the cities once again reached an agreement, this time on a Utility Sharing Agreement to share equipment needed to clean that storm and sanitary sewer systems. Each town had only piece of the costly equipment needed for that type of maintenance.

Additionally, the city of Watertown reached agreements with Norwood Young America, and more recently with Cologne, to share the services of Utilities Superintendent Doug Kammerer. All the sharing agreements are designed to improve services or efficiency and reduce costs.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]