By Nick Pedley
News Editor 

Looking back at the year that was

Skimming the biggest headlines of 2023


December 28, 2023


The deck around Hartley's never-opened new pool was torn up and replaced this year.

And just like that, the sun has set on 2023 and we're on to the New Year.

Though the pages of the Sentinel-News were filled with hundreds of stories over the past 365 days, some stood head and shoulders above the rest. They commanded multiple headlines throughout the year and impacted the community in unique ways.

With the page about to flip to 2024, it's time to fill the 2023 scrapbook. What follows is a rundown of the biggest stories to grace the pages of the Sentinel-News during past year.

Fire destroys downtown Spencer businesses

Area fire departments responded to a fire in downtown Spencer on Jan. 22 that destroyed several buildings containing businesses and apartments.

Three people were treated for smoke inhalation because of the fire. The cause of the blaze could not be determined by the state fire marshal following an investigation.

Firefighters were dispatched to 215 Grand Ave. Apt. #5 at around 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 22. The occupant called 911 and advised that she had just gotten home and that there was a lot of smoke in the apartment.

On arrival, firefighters found heavy smoke coming from the second floor windows on the front and rear of 221 Grand Ave. Firefighters deployed attack lines and entered the second floor of the building, where they encountered heavy smoke and high heat conditions as they pushed towards flames.

The roof started failing during the battle, which forced firefighters to evacuate the second floor of the fire building and transition into a defensive firefighting operation. Elevated streams from two ladder trucks were then used to bring the fire under control.

Multiple agencies assisted at the scene, including the Everly Fire Department and Clay County Sheriff's Department.

Parsons takes Iowa State Fair post

The longtime leader of the Clay County Fair departed after serving a dozen years.

Jeremy Parsons in January announced he had accepted the CEO and manager position at the Iowa State Fair. He served the same position in Spencer since 2011.

"It's the culmination of a lifelong dream," Parsons said. "My 'fair roots' were started at the Iowa State Fair."

Parsons has dreamed of leading the Iowa State Fair since he was a young child. He succeeded Gary Slater, who announced his retirement in October of 2022 after logging 21 years in the position.

While Parsons was thrilled about getting called to the big show, he remained grateful for his time in Clay County. He hoped local residents could be proud that their fair manager was chosen to lead the Iowa State Fair.

"Words cannot express my tremendous feelings towards The World's Greatest County Fair and the unbelievable experience I have had here," he said. "This is a great place, and it has taken a great opportunity to pull me and my family away from a job I truly have enjoyed."

Fair industry veteran Jerome Hertel was named Parsons' successor. He came to Clay County with 24 years of upper-level management experience in the fair industry, most recently as CEO of the Alaska State Fair since 2014. His experience with county, state and non-profit fairs also includes stints as the operations director of the Sioux Empire Fair (Sioux Falls, S.D.) and executive director of the South Dakota State Fair from 2008-2014.

"I have always found joy in bringing people together to be educated, to be entertained, to connect with one another, and to celebrate as a community," he said.

Lefty calls it quits after five decades

A legend at Everly Fire & Rescue hung up his helmet in March after 50 years of service.

Roger "Lefty" Ginger retired from the local department, where he served a variety of roles since his start in 1973.

"Being chief is always the best," he said. "Supposedly you get to tell everyone what to do, but they can tell you where to go, too."

With so many fire calls under his belt, Ginger had to pause when recounting the most memorable ones. Highlights include the elevator fire and the time Willie Hartmann's house burned down, but more mundane calls also made the list.

"We got called once to a lady's house because it was filled with smoke and she didn't know where the fire was," he recalled. "Turns out she left a skillet on the stove, but couldn't find it. That was pretty good."

While Ginger may be hanging up his helmet, he'll never forget the memories he's made during the past five decades.

"I'll miss helping people out and working with everyone as a team," he said. "It's a very rewarding feeling when you help people through fire and medical. The thank-yous that you get in return are just fabulous."

Changes at Hartley City Hall

Hartley's top administrative post changed hands in 2023.

City Administrator Erica Haack in April submitted her letter of resignation effective May 17. She held the position since February of 2019 and left to become a finance and contract analyst with Interstates in Sioux Center.

Haack was involved in a variety of projects since taking the city administrator job four years ago. She noted the Highway 18 West Industrial Park, pool project and starting a comprehensive flood mitigation planning process as highlights.

"I have enjoyed working with the mayor and council, my co-workers, and all of the community members who selflessly volunteer their time on various boards and committees that help make things happen," Haack said. "All of these people share a common goal in making Hartley the best it can be."

Roxann Swanson succeeded Haack. She was one of two people to apply for the job.

Swanson resigned from her post on the city council to take the administrator job. She had served on the council since 2016.

"I love the small town living and the people of Hartley," she said. "It is wonderful to live in a community where we know and care about each other."

Swanson previously worked at IBM in Rochester, Minn., as a software engineer and later transitioned into a career in project management. She has been a certified Project Management Professional through the Project Management Institute since 2006.

A Primghar native, Swanson moved to Hartley in 2009 and joined Spencer Hospital's IT department as their IT project coordinator, where she served for a decade. In 2019, she joined SAP Concur as an Implementation Project Manager.

Greg Cotter was appointed in July to fill out the remainder of Swanson's council term, which expired at the end of the year.

Turkey turns heads in Hartley

A bird of a different feather became Hartley's unofficial mascot this year.

A female turkey took residence in the City With a Heart this spring and stuck around throughout the summer and fall. No males or chicks were ever seen near her, making her the loneliest turkey in town. The hen was spotted all over the place, even near downtown.

O'Brien County Conservation naturalist Lindsey Craig explained Hartley's visitor wasn't exactly unique.

"Turkeys seem to have a mind of their own and have been spotted in other towns too," she said. "I recently heard a story of a sighting in front of a hospital where they made it hard for people to get inside."

Royal relinquishes water utility

Following months of discussion, the City of Royal got out of the water business this year.

The council in May agreed to turn responsibility for operating and maintaining the city's water utility over to Iowa Lakes Regional Water (ILRW). Costly infrastructure upgrades and other improvements were needed, and the council believed relinquishing control to ILRW was in the best interest for customers.

"We won't be in the water business anymore," said Maintenance Superintendent Sherman Nielsen.

The council honored its commitment to have the exterior of the water tower painted. That took place later in the summer.

New administrators start H-M-S tenures

Two new faces joined the Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn administrative team in July.

Heidi Douma started her new role as the middle school principal, succeeding Matt Van Voorst. It marked the first administrative position of her career and she was excited to get started.

"I am learning already that I will be surrounded with an outstanding group of teachers and staff members at H-M-S Middle School who are resilient and committed to working collaboratively to do the important work of educating our children," she said.

Douma first worked as an early childhood special education teacher following graduation from college. She later taught TK and preschool at Sibley-Ocheyedan for 12 years, then in 2017 became a professor of practice in the education department at Northwestern College. Prior to coming to H-M-S, she worked as a special education consultant for NWAEA.

Douma lives west of Sanborn with her husband, Kent, who farms. They have three children, the youngest of which is a freshman at H-M-S.

The high school also landed a new principal this year. Blake Wendt joined the staff to succeed Nate Hemiller, who served the post since 2016.

The move into the H-M-S High School principalship was Wendt's first administrative gig of his career. He previously taught math at Chamberlain, S.D., and later Okoboji, where he served for the past three years.

"Teaching in Okoboji, I knew of the good reputation H-M-S had and that there were a lot of really good things going on here," he said. "I knew once I met the great people here, I had found the place I wanted to be."

Wendt is a Le Mars native and believed his familiarity with northwest Iowa made him a good fit for the job at H-M-S.

"We have a great staff established at the high school and I look forward to watching these dedicated and professional educators work with our students," he said.

Hartley pool finished, again

After more than a year of uncertainty, Hartley's never-opened new pool was finished for the second time this fall.

Crews tore up and removed the cement decking that surrounded the basin in August and poured its replacement in October. The move came after the Iowa Electrical Examining Board (IEEB) in July approved a remediation plan to address issues with equipotential bonding that led to a failed safety inspection in 2022 prior to its grand opening.

"Right now we just want to get it done," Hartley Mayor Rodney Ahrenstorff said in August.

The pool failed a safety inspection last year due to missteps made during the construction process. Certain electrical inspections could not be completed because all concrete work pertaining to its shell and most of the surrounding decking was finished prior to the necessary inspections being requested by the responsible contractor. Phillips Electric, Inc., of Spirit Lake, was subcontracted to perform electrical work on the project, including installation of all required equipotential bonding equipment.

General contractor Eriksen Construction appealed the failed inspection. After nearly a year of review, the IEEB in June approved a proposal by Eriksen to address issues at the pool.

In addition to removing and replacing the pool's perimeter decking, the remediation plan reconnected all conductive fixtures to a rebuilt bonding ring. According to the IEEB's report, the plan addresses any concerns about potential equipotential bonding failures and alleviate risks to user safety.

Hartley has been without a pool since the swimming season closed in 2020. The new aquatic center is slated to open in late spring of 2024.

"There is nothing that would stop us from opening the pool next spring," said City Administrator Roxann Swanson. "It's awesome. We're just really excited and plan to have it open in the spring."

Progress – and problems – with downtown Hartley buildings

The City of Hartley made progress on removing eyesore properties from the downtown landscape this year.

The former Create-A-Craft building was demolished on Nov. 2. It was acquired by the city in recent years from former owner Mary Rons, who failed to complete repairs and upgrades on the building after it was deemed hazardous because of its dilapidated condition.

Asbestos and other hazardous material was removed in the summer at a cost of $28,855. Demolition was estimated at $51,425.

Unfortunately, the demolition revealed issues with another business to the south. Real Reflections owner Tricia Elgersma discovered significant portions of her north wall were rotten due to moisture infiltrating the space between the two buildings over the decades. It was previously unseen and undetected, as Elgersma never had any internal moisture problems to hint at an issue.

The hair salon owner noted a portion of her building was starting to sink following demolition. With structural issues concerning her, she moved operations of her business across the street into Salon West.

"Everything has been happening pretty fast," Elgersma said in early December. "For the safety of me and my customers, I decided it was best for me not to be in there."

The future of Real Reflections' building remains unknown. It was built in 1880.

Additionally, asbestos and other hazardous material was removed from the former Capitol Theatre building this summer. The city plans to demolish it in the future as well, as it was deemed dangerous and beyond repair.

The city acquired the property in 2020 from Dwight and Darla Jacobs, of Spirit Lake.

Elections bring change to local city halls

A variety of new officials were voted into office during the November city and school elections.

In Hartley, Greg Cotter, Matt Dolphin and Kenny Embrey ran for two open council seats, with Cotter and Dolphin winning. Incumbent Mayor Rodney Ahrenstorff also won another term.

In Everly, Denise Cook, Roger "Lefty" Ginger, Tatum Geerdes, Tara Patrick and Josh Seaman ran for three open council seats, with Cook, Geerdes and Patrick reigning victorious. Incumbent Mayor Ron Thompson defeated Council Member Tracey Grigg-Schuver for another term.

In Royal, Mayor Josh Toft secured another term and ran unopposed. Also running uncontested and winning were incumbent council members Jim Virelli and Jeff Van Westen along with newcomer Alec Nielsen.

Incumbent Allyn Heikens and Amber Campbell won seats on the Clay Central/Everly school board, and incumbent Kyle McCarter and write-in candidate Kari Van Es earned spots on Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn's board.

Proposed pipeline canceled

A carbon dioxide pipeline that rankled many Iowa landowners was canceled in October.

Navigator CO2 had proposed to build a more than 1,300-mile pipeline system to transport captured carbon dioxide from ethanol plants and other facilities in five states to Illinois for underground sequestration or other commercial purposes. The bulk of that system was planned for Iowa, and the route would have crossed itself southwest of Hartley.

Many landowners affected by the route pushed back against its construction. Ultimately, Navigator withdrew its permit application with the Iowa Utilities Board citing "unpredictable nature of the regulatory and government processes."

The two remaining pipeline proposals are by Summit Carbon Solutions and Wolf Carbon Solutions. In response to Navigator's announcement, Summit said it "welcomes and is well-positioned to add additional plants and communities to our project footprint." Navigator had planned to connect to more than a dozen facilities in Iowa.


A fire in downtown Spencer destroyed several apartments and businesses in January.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2024