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Carlton County's Top Stories of 2017

The new Cloquet Middle School features an eight-lane swimming pool with diving wells. Pine Journal file art1 / 7
Steve Stracek2 / 7
The match mill in Cloquet closed down this summer after the Diamond Brands line changed hands again, but the new company didn’t want the Cloquet facility. Pine Journal file art3 / 7
The new preK-12 school in Moose Lake opened to students in September. Pine Journal file art4 / 7
Mayor Dave Hallback5 / 7
Cloquet football players carry their Class AAAA second place trophy to the crowd of supporters waiting at U.S. Bank Stadium. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal6 / 7
An unidentified woman at the Memorial Day ceremonies examines the new commemorative wall at Cloquet’s Veterans Park. Pine Journal file art7 / 7

Politics dominated national headlines in 2017, as the nation, its elected leaders and citizens tussled with issues like health care, energy and the environment, outside influences and the eternal question of who or what to prioritize.

Carlton County seemed to mirror many of those national issues at a local level, as Cloquet City Council actions sparked a surge in community engagement and the question of whether or not the latest Enbridge pipeline proposal is good or bad for the environment and the county spurred ongoing debate. Schools made the news and so did the Frank Lloyd Wright Gas Station — which didn't sell after all.

We look back over what we think are the top stories of the year — in no particular order — and then some.

Match mill closes, building sold

Cloquet lost one of its oldest wood-based industries when Newell Brands — the latest in a long line of owners — sold the Diamond Brand product line, but not the facility.

A total of 85 employees lost their jobs when the factory closed its doors for good in August.

The original Diamond Match Company building was built in 1905. At one time, Cloquet was the largest manufacturer of wood matches in the United States. At its peak, there were about 600 people employed at Cloquet's Diamond match mill.

Mergers saw the name change. Diamond Match became Diamond Gardner, Diamond National and Diamond International. Jarden Home Brands bought the company out of bankruptcy in 2003 and continued to offer three Diamond products: toothpicks, kitchen matches and penny matches, as well as new products such as colored toothpicks and long-reach matches.

According to a Minnesota Department of Revenue certificate of real estate value, a locally owned company, LT Diamonds Inc., purchased the building Sept. 29 from Hearthmark, LLC (part of Newell Brands).

Len Lund and Mike Koski bought the old building and are renovating it; Halvor Lines is renting part of the warehouse space.

"We're just local boys trying to make it work," Koski said.

Mayor calls emergency meeting, council suspends police chief

Mayor Dave Hallback called a rare emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council on March 16, a meeting that was closed almost immediately so that Council members, the mayor and city staff could discuss allegations of "misconduct" leveled at then-Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek.

When the meeting reopened 50 minutes later, the council voted 4-1 (two members were absent) to place Stracek on paid administrative leave immediately pending an investigation, and 3-2 to appoint then police-sergeant Jeff Palmer as interim chief, bypassing the two commanders, Carey Ferrell and Derek Randall.

A mystery to anyone outside Council Chambers at the time, the Pine Journal soon learned that police union members had taken a vote of no confidence in the chief, and the meeting was called in response to a letter from the Teamsters.

Residents reacted quickly, packing the Council Chambers at subsequent meetings to question councilors and the mayor — a retired Cloquet police officer — about their actions, even calling a prayer vigil outside City Hall on April 18.

Councilors were mostly tight-lipped regarding the suspension. However, Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge read a statement at the April 4 meeting — the first following the suspension — expressing his disappointment that the meeting was called when he and At-large Councilor Adam Bailey were out of town and unable to vote.

The city hired an outside consultant to investigate the complaint in April, a process that took about two months and was not public. In the meantime, people continued to attend city council meetings and speak out both in support of and against the council's action and the people involved.

Investigation clears chief of any wrongdoing, but he agrees to leave

After interviewing 23 members of the Cloquet Police Department as well as Chief Stracek, investigator Michelle Soldo concluded that that the complaint against Stracek was "unfounded."

Surprisingly to some, that conclusion didn't mean the police chief resumed control of his department. After a marathon seven-hour council meeting June 6-7 (which was mostly closed to the public while Stracek and his attorney negotiated with the city), the police chief was reinstated, but agreed to retire early from the city's police department the following day. The agreement formally affirmed that Stracek was "exonerated of all such allegations," and both sides agreed not to speak badly of each other.

Because Stracek was not disciplined, the Soldo report did not become public data; however, the former police chief later released the entire report to the Pine Journal.

In her general/overall report findings, Soldo wrote that the allegation that "a failure in leadership by Stracek fostered 'a law enforcement environment dominated by fear' and low morale, creating officer and public safety issues is NOT substantiated," (emphasis Soldo).

Her report found that Stracek's actions were within the scope of his authority and discretion as the city's chief law enforcement officer and consistent with Council direction that he implement the recommendations set forth in a January 2014 consultant's report evaluating police department operations. She also reported that police department employee morale is low, due to poor communication and a continuing pattern of sergeant and officer resistance to change.

In October, the council voted 4-3 to remove the interim portion of the title and appoint Jeff Palmer full-time police chief, bypassing the recommended hiring process.

Although attendance at city council meetings declined in the latter half of the year, the debate over city actions regarding Stracek continues to simmer. At least two residents have contacted different state agencies to request they investigate.

Two new schools open, one closes

Both Cloquet and Moose Lake debuted new schools in September.

Moose Lake opened a brand-new $34.7 million preK-12 school on higher ground — the building referendum was approved after portions of the old school were damaged in the 2012 flood and the state picked up a larger share of the costs. Cloquet Middle School students and teachers got a new school, too. The final cost of the new middle school and swimming pool came to nearly $40 million. The district also spent nearly $7 million on improvements and additions to the existing schools.

Past and current students held a special ceremony May 31 to mark the closing of the old Cloquet Middle School, which opened as a high school following the 1918 fires. The building at the corner of Carlton Avenue and Sixth Street had been a school since 1920.

Cloquet Schools Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said the sale of the old middle school to Roers Investments was completed the last week in December. Roers plans to create affordable apartments in the building, and will keep the auditorium and gymnasium as part of the historic structure.

School referendums fail in Wrenshall, Carlton and Cromwell

Three building referendum votes failed by substantial margins in Carlton County this year.

First, 657 voters in Wrenshall cast "no" votes on a $12.5 bond referendum April 18, versus 250 who voted yes. The referendum would have paid for remodeling and renovation to existing facilities, plus a new recreation building.

Second, Residents of the Carlton School District sent a strong message Aug. 7 when 71 percent voted against a $23.6 million proposal to create a combined preK-12 school for Carlton students at the district's South Terrace site. An even larger number (73.4 percent) voted no to a second question that would have approved an additional $3.3 million for an auditorium and improved athletic facilities.

Third, Cromwell-Wright School District residents voted 442-228 against a $5.08 million building referendum for school facility improvements Nov. 8.

Cloquet football team wins its way to the Prep Bowl

The Lumberjacks football team capped an undefeated season with their first trip to the Prep Bowl since 1976. Although Cloquet lost the Minnesota Class AAAA state championship game 14-0 to Holy Angels Academy on Nov. 24, but they won the hearts of their fans by playing with guts and talent through all 13 games.

Thousands of hometown supporters attended both the semifinal and final game at U.S. Bank stadium.

Honorable mentions

Pipeline proposal sparks debate

The proposal by Enbridge to replace its Line 3 pipeline — changing some of the route — yet leave the old pipeline in the ground sparked protests across the Northland, and visits to both the Cloquet City Council and Carlton County Board of Commissioners by opponents and supporters of the pipeline. The state has yet to determine if the pipeline will be permitted. It's route does come through Carlton County.

Cloquet parks shine

Residents and visitors enjoyed the improved Veterans Park and the stunning memorial wall all summer long. The Voyageur statue went to a spa in Wisconsin and returned to a new location in Spafford Park all shiny and refreshed. Meanwhile, work at Voyageur's Park (sans statue of said Voyageur) is partly completed, with a new skating ribbon and shelter completed, and a new playground well underway.

State declares dry cleaning location a Superfund site, scuttles sale of FLW station

News that the former D's Fabric Care site was added to the state's Superfund list after finding perchloroethylene (PCE) in groundwater samples impacted the sale of the adjacent historic gas station — the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station operating in the world today. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency believes the contamination can be remediated.