The Columbus-Fall River area had its share of top newsmakers in 2017. From the James Street reconstruction to new business expansion and changes at city hall, these stories kept the staff at the Columbus Journal busy throughout the year.
Here are recaps of the top 10 stories of 2017, ranked from 10 – 1.
10. City grapples with snowmobile issue
Earlier in the year, the Columbus City Council repealed an existing trail used by area snowmobilers.
City ordinance calls for the trail that’s on the books in March to be the one in use for the next winter. City attorney Paul Johnson had advised council members at a previous Committee of the Whole meeting that if they wanted to make changes to the route for the coming winter, they’d have to repeal the existing trail before the end of March.
The club had the spring and summer to come up with a new proposal to bring back to the council for consideration but a new trail was not put in place.
The decision to repeal the trail comes after a winter of complaints from city residents about snowmobilers driving on private property, as well as on city streets and sidewalks.
In recent weeks, the city decided to limit the use of snowmobiles to just Columbus’ city limits to allow access to food, lodging and gas.
9. Amtrak decides to go unmanned
On May 1, the Columbus Amtrak station decided to no longer be manned by a station agent.
“Columbus will still remain a stop, but there will be no ticket office here and no one working here,” said Rod Musel, who served as the local station agent for the last 13 years. “Basically it will be a stop where you can get on and off the train by yourself.”
The Columbus station, which is on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, joins a growing list of smaller stations across the country that have been unmanned recently. In the past year and a half, stations in Winona, Minnesota, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Glenview, Illinois, and Rugby, North Dakota, have all been left without station agents or ticket windows.
Musel said the decision to unman the stations was due to the rise in online ticket purchases and a change in Amtrak’s policies and outlook.
“E-tickets, that’s the biggest portion of our business today,” he said. “We still get a lot of people walking up to the window to buy, but the e-tickets have been growing.”
An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 passengers a year get on and off the train in Columbus.
8. Kiwanis Park land leased for cell tower
Kiwanis Park in Columbus will soon be home to a 120-foot-tall cell tower, providing the land passes geologic tests and proves to be a suitable site for US Cellular to build on.
At a City Council meeting, members signed off on a 30-year lease with the cell phone company — and then, in a Committee of the Whole meeting immediately afterward, discussed a resolution they plan to send to state legislators asking for more local control over cell tower siting.
“It’s basically asking for recognition that this council, this body, would support Assembly Bill 130 and Assembly Bill 161, which specifically address some local control issues in the siting of cell towers,” explained Council President Regan Rule.
US Cellular had approached the city with the cell tower proposal back in February, and council members quickly discovered they had little control over the siting of the tower and virtually no bargaining chips to negotiate with, due to a state law passed in 2013 that superseded any municipal codes regarding cell tower placement.
If the council turned down US Cellular’s offer, a company representative had said he would make a similar offer to private property owners nearby.
The lease calls for the tower to be located on a 70-by-70-foot piece of land in a portion of the park that is primarily used for parking during baseball and softball games.
7. Library opens annex for local groups
Boxes are moving in, paint is going up and plans are being made for a grand opening at the Columbus Public Library Annex.
The Annex, located at 251 W. James St., was purchased in the fall of 2016 to ease space constraints at the library and allow its partner organizations a home base for meetings and storage.
“It’s really mutually beneficial,” library director Cindy Fesemyer said. “Although we were very happy to host our partner groups in the library, by letting them have their meetings and leave stuff over here, it frees up some space for us to store our own stuff, and it frees up some times in the program room downstairs, so we can say yes to more community meetings that want to happen in the evenings.”
Plans are for the entry room of the Annex to be a shared meeting and reception area and for each of the partner groups — the Columbus Literacy Council, the Friends of the Columbus Public Library and the Columbus Area Historical Society — to have a room of their own in the downstairs. Meanwhile, the upstairs rooms will be rented out by artists and used as private studio space.
Because the library will not be able to staff the downstairs, and the upstairs will have private tenants, the Annex will only be open to the public for special events, like open houses and book sales.
6. Fall River/Columbus sports success
In sports, the area enjoyed success on the hardwood, track and gridiron.
In March, the Fall River girls’ basketball team advanced all the way to the WIAA sectional semifinals before bowing out to Milwaukee School of Science in a nailbiter. The Pirates were just one step away from returning to the state tournament after advancing in 2016.
As the spring season ended, Columbus’ Josh Seltzner excelled in track and field. In the shot put, the senior saved his best state finish for last, winning the championship in the Division 2 finals with his best toss of 59 feet, 1.5 inches. Seltzner decided to join the University of Wisconsin football team as a preferred walk-on last summer, turning down scholarships from other schools.
Last fall, the Fall River football team went into uncharted territory, reaching Level 4 of the WIAA playoffs for the first time in school history. The Pirates’ dream of advancing to state ultimately ended in a blowout loss to Black Hawk, but it was still a remarkable season for the Fall River football program.
5. Several changes at city hall
Longtime Columbus City Clerk Anne Donahue retired after 40 years with the city on Sept. 1. In November, the city hired Megan Moen to replace Donahue.
Moen, originally from the DeForest area, comes to Columbus with some clerk experience, having served as a deputy clerk in Colorado for nearly a year. Moen said she’s excited to work for the city and feels “honored” to be chosen for the clerk role. A Lodi High School graduate, Moen has ties to Columbus. Her grandmother, Kris, attended school in Columbus and her father, Todd, was born in the city.
Mayor Kelly Crombie decided to run for the Columbus School Board instead of seeking a third term to his city post; Alderman Michael Thom took over as mayor.
When asked what the major issue facing the school district was Crombie said it was clearly money.
“We have three buildings that are all about 50 years old or so,” he said. “They had additions, but we have old buildings. New buildings, new facilities, renovations, all cost money.”
With the state placing limits on the amount of new revenue a district can raise, Crombie said it will be a challenge for Columbus to address its facility needs.
City Economic Development Director Dave Carlson left for a similar post in Whitewater in May. In December, Columbus hired Matt Schreiber as the city’s director of planning and economic development.
Part of Schreiber’s job will be leading the city’s economic development efforts, which include the revolving loan fund, working with Columbus’ two Tax Incremental Districts and other ways to spur economic growth.
4. Columbus high school track unsafe; renovations planned
The Columbus High School track was deemed unsafe, and all home track meets were cancelled during the 2017 season.
The school district originally planned to have a new track surface ready for the 2018 season but when projected costs came in above Columbus’ budget, the school board decided to switch gears. Columbus still plans to renovate the track, but work won’t be completed until next summer, forcing the track and field team to compete away from home for a second-straight season.
3. Assisted living facilities expand
This year also saw the expansion of three assisted living facilities in the Columbus-Fall River area, all focusing on assisting residents with memory care capabilities.
In January, Home Again opened its new 12-room memory care building next door to its assisted living facility on Stuart Street in Columbus.
Staff showed off the spacious, sunlit and secure building at an open house in late December, 2016.
The Larson House Memory Care and Assisted Living center unveiled two new additions to its facility in Columbus.
On Nov. 1, the Larson House opened a 14-suite memory care wing and a 14-suite assisted living community. Platinum Communities, owners of the Larson House, held a grand opening and tours Oct. 26 to celebrate with employees and the community.
Matt Teresinski, financial analyst for Platinum Communities, said the new additions cost about $3 million. Platinum Communities, based out of Brookfield, owns six assisted living centers in the state, primarily in southeastern Wisconsin. Tina Jones, Larson House administrator, said with people living longer and cases of memory loss more prevalent, the expansion was needed to facilitate more residents.
The Meadows of Fall River recently opened a memory and advanced care wing, primarily to support seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The new facility opened Sept. 5. The 18-unit wing is considered a community-based residential care facility licensed to address memory care residents. The Meadows Director Marilyn Green said she is excited to see the unit open because it will offer more care to residents already living in the facility and the chance to attract new residents.
2. City continues to expand west
As Tax Increment Finance District No. 4 on Columbus’ west side continues to grow, the city is making plans to extend Hall Road from Highway 16 to Columbus-Fall River Road and to apply for a state grant to help pay for the project.
The City Council passed a resolution supporting the submission of a Wisconsin Department of Transportation Facilities for Economic Assistance Grant Application, commonly known as a TEA Grant, and approved a contract with Ruekert Mielke to prepare the application.
The city will work on the project with Drexel Building Supply and Fromm Family Foods, both of which are building on property in the TIF that is adjacent to the proposed road extension.
Drexel has been busy building its facility, which expects to be open in the coming months. Fromm celebrated a large expansion earlier this year and Duffy Fleet Services, also located in TIF 4, held an open house to unveil its new building this year as well.
1. James Street construction affects traffic for months
Columbus’ main downtown corridor underwent an extensive street project that began in March and finally wrapped up in late November.
Construction made it a headache for drivers and delivery trucks to get where they wanted to go, and a slanted sidewalk on the 100 block of East James led to many complaints from business owners and patrons along the street. It was eventually removed and replaced with a step.
Local officials believed the work was long overdue, however, and the renovated surface is a nice gateway into Columbus’ historic downtown.
Due to years of heavy traffic, the roadway was in rough shape. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation had plans to renovate the roadway for several years, but Columbus had to wait its turn in frustration. Finally the city was granted the work and residents and visitors can finally enjoy the renovation.
While the DOT will cover most of the cost, the city designated funds for colored crosswalks throughout downtown.
“It was money the city had available that they wanted to use specifically for that,” said JT Cestkowski, who served as a construction liaison for the city.