While President Donald Trump’s first year in office dominated the national conversation, the Coulee Region had plenty of news for people tired of Twitter wars and idols with feet of clay.
In weather, there was an unprecedented March tornado, then flash-flooding in July. In the courts, there was Todd Kendhammer’s murder trial. On the the good news front, there was no shortage of people trying to fix the present and build for the future.
And, as always, there were plenty of interesting people doing important — and fun — things with their lives.
Building the future
Character Lives: A group of Coulee Region business leaders launched an academy to inject the Character Lives curriculum into 21 area high schools, along with training for 60 teachers and administrators, with plans to continue to expand the offering. The idea is to foster a servant leader-minded workforce that’s not only technically competent but also infused with adaptability and the communication, decision-making and problems-solving skills they’ll need.
Trane Park: A nonprofit committee launched a fundraiser to rebuild La Crosse’s underused Trane Park, turning it into a facility for people of all abilities and ages. The seven-acre, $5.9 million project, All Abilities Trane Park, would create zones designed to support children and adults on the autism spectrum, as well as provide safe experiences for others with disabilities.
- Coulee Council on Addictions broke ground in November on a new facility, Coulee Recovery Center, in the 900 block of Ferry Street after after a series of tense debates over neighbors’ objections and emotional votes by the La Crosse Common Council. The facility will replace the organization’s cramped and deteriorating converted residence at West Avenue and Jackson Street.
- In April, 55 percent of La Crosse County voters favored a premier resort area tax. The half-percent sales tax charged at “tourism-related” businesses would raise an estimated $6.6 million a year, which the county board pledged toward $90 million in needed road and bridge improvement projects. The county also promised to share 25 percent of the proceeds with municipalities for road work. The next steps: approval from the state Legislature.
Hub on Sixth:
- Work began on the $15 million renovation of the former La Crosse County courthouse and administration center. Developers gutted the building, purchased for $250,000 when the county sought to avoid asbestos abatement, and have added two stories to make room for apartments, luxury condominiums and a retail/restaurant space.
- Kwik Trip’s purchase of PDQ stores in Madison created a rising tide for other Coulee Region companies as well, lifting the boats of La Crosse Sign Group, Bakalars Sausage Co. and other vendors. Kwik Trip also secured $21 million in tax credits in an agreement with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., in support of a $309 million expansion of its La Crosse facilities, contingent on the 329 new jobs the project is expected to create.
- City officials explored alternative ways to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists trying to navigate the neighborhood near Gundersen Health System after the Wisconsin DOT says it would need to knock down dozens of homes and businesses in order to incorporate bike lanes when it rebuilds a one-mile stretch of South Avenue in 2022.
- In a quest to become the world’s largest food company to get all its electricity from renewable sources, Organic Valley announced a major investment in solar electricity that could substantially increase Wisconsin’s solar capacity and reduce electric bills for rural consumers.
Gas and wind:
- La Crosse’s longest-serving mayor died at 85 last spring. Zielke was dedicated to his constituents, regardless of status, and was instrumental in the revitalization of the downtown, as well as the development of Valley View Mall and the La Crosse Regional Airport.
Rocking to the end:
- Rock music lost a lot of greats this year, both high-profile international stars and La Crosse area rock-and-roll pioneers and influential players. The death of Chuck Berry stirred memories of his Dec. 14, 1982, concert at the La Crosse Center. The music community mourned the passing of George McCune, Rudy Von Ruden of the Shy Guys and Scott Yonkovich of White Widow.
- A new country music festival expected to draw up to 30,000 people to the former Maple Grove Country Club property in the town of Hamilton won approval in September from the La Crosse County Board. Country Boom is slated to take place in mid-July, but so far the musical lineup has not been announced and the ticket website has yet to be launched.
Freedom Fest swan song:
- The Cavalier Theater attracted some big crowds this year, with concerts by Dawes and Aaron Carter selling out, but the highest-profile show of the year was a concert by Insane Clown Posse. The venue had to scramble at the last minute to meet fire code thanks to protective coverings to limit damage from the copious amounts of Faygo pop sprayed at Insane Clown Posse shows.
Building on faith
O Little Town:
- In an undertaking so monumental that English Lutheran Church does it only at four-year intervals, members of the La Crosse congregation spent six weeks converting the church into a miniature replica of the City of David for its Bethlehem Event. The realistic scenes include chickens, donkeys and sheep, and the church takes on a distinctly earthy smell.
People of faith:
- Bethany St. Joseph Corp.’s annual Iverson Freking Ecumenical Awards again recognized the community efforts of people of faith. The recognition will go to Darryle Clott and Brad Sturm during an event next month.
- The La Crosse County Health Department was flooded with requests for well-water tests after sending notices to about 2,000 property owners warning their wells might be contaminated with nitrate and coliform bacteria. A Legislative Audit Bureau report on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources revealed that a concentrated animal feeding operation in the town of Holland had elevated levels of nitrate in monitoring well tests since 2005. The county health department is continuing an investigation to try to determine the source of widespread well contamination in areas of the towns of Onalaska and Holland.
- The Coulee Region’s continuing efforts to curb homelessness reached several milestones in 2017, including reaching functional zero among veterans and chronically homeless individuals. Leading those efforts was the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, in conjunction with the city’s Community Development and Housing Department, La Crosse County, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Couleecap, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse and numerous other public and private organizations and agencies. A significant part of the initiative was helping find apartments or other housing for individuals who had lived in Tent City in Riverside North. In October, the collaborative set its next goal: to get chronically homeless families into housing.
- Tomah Memorial broke ground on a new $66 million facility.
- The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration announced the La Crosse-based order’s decision to transfer its control of two health systems and Viterbo University to lay leadership as the nuns focus on other ministries. The order remains committed to “praying for everyone, as we always have done, and collaborating with all of these new partners” to pursue social justice, said FSPA President Sister Karen Lueck.
- The Wisconsin DNR granted a Georgia timber investment company permission to fill more than 16 acres of pristine wetlands for a major frac sand processing plant in the Monroe County town of Millston after the current landowner threatened to clearcut the site if the permit wasn’t granted because he needed to sell the land in order to pay off fines for past wetland violations. Environmental groups sued and the DNR has agreed to hold a hearing next year to re-examine the permit process.
- The deluge of oil trains rolling through La Crosse three years ago has slowed to a trickle as the bulk of North Dakota’s oil production now moves through pipelines, helping the rail industry comply with new federal safety regulations. Rail safety and environmental advocates remain vigilant over ongoing threats from other hazardous materials on the rails.
- A La Crosse County judge temporarily halted construction of a 7-mile stretch of a controversial high-voltage power line through northern La Crosse County after dismissing a lawsuit brought by the town of Holland, but he reversed his decision before causing any major delays to the $580 million project. The town’s efforts to block the line — or at least contest regulators’ decision to place it across the road from another high-voltage line — are now before the Wisconsin court of appeals.
Trouble at the VA:
- A Veterans Administration watchdog faulted staff at Tomah VA for failing to report a dentist who was violating VA policy and not properly sterilizing equipment, potentially exposing nearly 600 patients to blood-borne infection. And documents released by a congressional oversight committee added a distressing coda to the story of the Tomah VA opioid overprescription scandal: The fired former head of the Tomah VA, Mario DeSanctis, was later allowed to resign and awarded a $163,000 settlement.
- Wisconsin lawmakers approved a budget with 11th-hour provisions stripping local governments of the right to regulate quarries, which some fear could be expanded to take away town and county control over the frac sand mines. Gov. Scott Walker used a line-item veto to remove the language, saying he didn’t like the way it was introduced.
Police face danger
- Two La Crosse police officers fatally shot an armed carjacker on La Crosse’s South Side in August after he led police on a high-speed chase with an infant inside the stolen car. Roger Burzinski, 54, of Green Bay, stole the truck from Houska Park after confronting a woman at gunpoint. She was able remove her 3-year-old daughter from the backseat before Burzinski sped off with her 1-year-old daughter still in the back seat. After crashing, Burzinski refused orders from two officers to leave the car and was shot four times when he pointed a gun at one officer. The child was unharmed. District Attorney Tim Gruenke ruled the officers acted in self-defense and were justified in using deadly force.
- Houston County prosecutors charged Wyatt Helfrich, 19, of La Crosse and William Wallraff, 19, of Holmen with attempted homicide after the men fired at La Crescent police officers early July 31 during a traffic stop. Helfrich fired first from the driver’s seat before his passenger fired during a 100-mph chase through Hokah. Their car struck spike strips and drove into a ditch on Hwy. 44. Police arrested the men as they fled into a cornfield.
- La Crosse County Circuit Judge Elliott Levine in April sentenced Bryce Anderson to life in prison but made him eligible to apply for release after 35 years in the 2015 death of Kristen Johnson. Anderson struck Johnson, 28, with a hammer, fracturing her skull and face, cinched a belt around her neck, and cut her neck with a box cutter, nearly decapitating her at the couple’s duplex in Holmen while their two young sons were home.
- La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne in March sentenced Haron Joyner to life in prison with release eligibility in 40 years in the March 7, 2016, stabbing wife of his wife, Jessica. Late the night before, Jessica used her cellphone to record a video of Joyner approaching her in the kitchen of the family’s apartment at 1320 S. Fifth Ave. while five children younger than 12 looked on before he swung a folding knife into his wife’s temple, arm and neck. She escaped to a neighbor’s apartment but died about an hour later. A jury found him guilty of first-degree intentional homicide after just 25 minutes of deliberations.
- Authenticom, a La Crosse-based data integrator in the automotive industry, took on the two big players in the industry. In May, president and CEO Steve Cottrell filed an antitrust suit in federal court accusing them of intentionally trying to drive his company out of business. Although Authenticom has won a few skirmishes in the continuing battle, the financial toll forced layoffs in August and more are set for February.
AllEnergy v. Trempealeau County:
- A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against a proposed Trempealeau County frac sand operation, finding that counties have the right to regulate conditional uses. A La Crosse County judge later dismisses AllEnergy’s lawsuit against the county claiming it suffered $3.5 million per month in damages as a result of being denied a permit.
Jackson County sand:
- Using an untested legal argument, two groups of Jackson County landowners sued to block a pair of proposed frac sand mining operations on the grounds that they would inevitably create a nuisance and infringe on their right to peaceful enjoyment of their land. One case is now before the court of appeals after a La Crosse County judge dismissed the claim. The man behind one of the mines says the delay is costing him millions of dollars.
Life in La Crosse
- La Crosse has a blue baby. The 9-foot-tall sculpture by Wolfgang Auer of Friedberg, Germany, last inspired wonderment in the citizens of Hamilton, Ohio, where it graced the Fitton Art Center. “Hatched Baby” is a giant fiberglass and resin baby painted blue and sitting in a white egg shell with just its head poking out. It stares open-mouthed into the distance, showing an improbable full set of perfect teeth. It’s in storage for now, awaiting an appropriate display space.
Jen the Baker:
- Stoddard baker Jen Barney provided six weeks of community pride-inspiring appearances as a contestant in the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” winning $50,000 for outlasting eight other bakers who had made the cut among 50,000 applicants nationwide.
- Lori Freit-Hammes of West Salem and Sue Karpinski of Trempealeau brought home a boatload of medals from the International Dragon Boat Federation’s World Championships in China.
- Ophelia was rescued in the fall of 2016 from a hoarding situation in by the Coulee Region Humane Society. She was one of the pioneer dogs in the WAGS program, Working with Animals to Gain Socialization, a collaboration between CRHS and the Prairie du Chien Correctional Facility, where Ophelia learned obedience, recovered her health and gained trust with the help of a group of inmates, who found the experience just as healing for themselves.
- La Crosse native Steve New has one of the most recognizable homes in the city, decorated in and out with a theme of peace, love and happiness. The free spirit and staunch liberal takes pride in his unique property, which reflects his positive and adventurous outlook on life.