The Top 5 local newsmakers of 2013
From building trails to building mountains, school referendums to reservation reform, 2013 proved to be a year of change for Becker County.
But behind every headline there is always a person making that story a reality — and a person documenting it for future generations.
Though the list of local movers and shakers is long, there are five newsmakers who cracked the top five in 2013. Here they are, in no particular order.
For 17 years, White Earth Chairperson Erma Vizenor had a dream.
“My goal was for constitutional reform on White Earth,” said Vizenor, who saw that dream come alive this year.
In November, White Earth residents voted “yes” on a proposed constitutional draft that is to become the new law of the land.
It was a monumental moment that had White Earth pivoting towards self-governance. It will mean a revamping of the reservation’s governmental structure and an end to the blood quantum that kept membership requirements at 25 percent native blood.
These incredible changes now have reservation leaders, including Vizenor, working to figure out the best way to transition from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution that it shares with the state’s other five Chippewa bands into its own White Earth Constitution.
“It reaffirmed my work as what the people wanted,” said Vizenor. “It is a transformational change for good, accountable governance.”
Vizenor says she’s also very pleased to see another goal of hers come to fruition — the transition of many health and human services programs shifting from local counties to the reservation.
It was an initiative she went to the state legislature with two years ago, and this year, the transition began.
“It was a good year,” said Vizenor, “a very good year.”
Though Mark Fritz stepped up to lead the fundraising for the Bring Back Detroit Mountain project a couple years ago, he stresses that he is in no way the leader of the project.
“The real story should be the generosity and can-do attitude of this community as a whole,” he said. “This is truly a remarkable community, willing to make a difference, whether big or small.”
It’s everyone from the board that pushed to make the project happen, to the community and surrounding communities who have contributed to the project to the contractors who are making it come alive.
After the mountain closed a decade ago, the future of the mountain was in limbo for many years. From a housing development to personal ownership, the outlook for it becoming a ski hill again was dim.
“For the last decade, since it’s been closed, I thought about buying it because it’s a great piece of land,” Fritz said.
But Brian Berg, who was Becker County administrator at the time, in so many words told Fritz it was “an asinine” idea and that the land should be public.
So a few years ago, a group of people formed Detroit Mountain Recreation Area, Inc., and held a public meeting to see if there was interest in bringing back the mountain. There was.
Fritz said he’s always been a big advocate for Detroit Lakes, but the support the mountain group has received has blown him away.
Not only is the plan to bring downhill skiing to the area, the four-season recreation area will also include camping, bike trails, tubing, a new chalet and more.
The activities, he said, are fun and teach a healthy lifestyle at every age, whether kids realize it or not.
It’s an area that will be affordable, family-friendly and a first-class experience for everyone. Plans are to open in the winter of 2014.
“We want to build something we’re all going to be proud of,” Fritz said.
If anybody is familiar with the old game “Where’s Waldo,” where Waldo was always in the busy picture somewhere, then they could have played that game with Detroit Lakes Schools Superintendent Doug Froke this year.
Froke was the man out front of the effort to pass a building bond referendum for the Detroit Lakes School District.
His deep voice could be heard at just about every meeting, gathering and function imaginable throughout Detroit Lakes this year as he tried to make the case for a new elementary school and district-wide improvements to address some growing space issues among other things.
“I think we did 31 different meeting sites and presentations during the main three-month campaign, but there were a lot of other presentations done in advance of that, too, ” said Froke, who credits the district’s business manager, Nancy Olson, for sticking by his side during these numerous presentations.
Although the proposed $59 million bond referendum failed, Froke and his team of educators are not quitting.
“We’ve got issues in the district we need to resolve, and at some point we’ve got to find resolution that our public can support,” he said, “and we’re ready to delve into that.”
That means 2014 will very likely be filled with many more Froke appearances, as he helps forge the way to a community consensus on the future of the Detroit Lakes school system.
There are 23 miles of multi-purpose trails throughout Detroit Lakes that connect to another two and a half miles of county trails, and there are potentially 10 miles coming this summer with the Heartland Trail connection between Detroit Lakes and Frazee.
In 2016, with the reconstruction of Highway 10 west of town, there will be another four miles added along the new frontage road that will be built. Yet more potential miles are in the future, connecting the Heartland Trail and underpass at Highway 10 east of town to the new Detroit Mountain.
That’s a lot of trails.
Public Utilities Supervisor Brad Green has been pushing for those trails for the last few years, and is OK with maintaining them for the greater good of Detroit Lakes and its visitors.
“This is a vibrant community but we still have lots of seniors and those with special needs,” Green said.
And though he has advocated for trails and funding to build them, Green is by no means the only one involved.
“The park board has done a good job of long-range planning,” he said, adding that the council has also been good at being proactive when it comes to trails.
“Everything we do here helps the entire county,” Green said. “It really is for economic development and for people to be physically fit, and for special needs people to be able to get around.
“We are an outdoor city. If you live here, you want to be outside.”
When the 1 percent food and beverage tax was approved a couple years ago, the city was able to use portions of that money to grow the trail system without having to increase property taxes.
Though it’s good for the economic development of Detroit Lakes, trails are also a personal passion for Green.
“Personally, I love the outdoors,” he said.
And though the previously mentioned four have made headlines due to the projects they have been involved with in 2013, it’s Amy Degerstrom’s job to preserve those headlines for years to come.
As director of the Becker County Historical Society and Museum since 2010, Degerstrom has been working, and succeeding, at turning the image of the museum around after it floundered for a period of time.
In the last year or so, she has secured the museum as a spot for traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian (“Why Treaties Matter”), the Minnesota Historical Society (“Minnesota on the Homefront,” “Minnesota on the Map,” “”Minnesota Disasters” and “Electrify Minnesota”) and the Minnesota’s Historic Northwest, which involves 12 counties including Becker and they produce their own traveling exhibits.
“Faith Matters” was one of those exhibits and featured many area churches, and “Inventors, Innovators and Entrepreneurs,” which locally features Lakeshirts.
Degerstrom has also been working on outreach programs, whether it’s in the schools, in communities throughout Becker County or just inviting people into the museum for different programs like the Brown Bag Lunch, which takes place the second Wednesday of each month at noon.
“For me, I grew up in local history so it’s been important to me for people to know their stories matter,” Degerstrom said of growing up in Ada, where he mom worked at the local museum. She added that if people didn’t tell their story, history would just be objects with no information behind them.
During her time at the Becker County Museum, Degerstrom has also worked on collection maintenance, which hadn’t been organized in many years.
“I want to reacquaint people with the fact that their history matters and we find value in that story.”
Degerstrom brings years of experience in history from her schooling to work done at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth to work at Cincinnati Museum Center in Ohio, where she lived for a period of time.
She said she’s able to bring her experience from those much larger institutions and apply them to this smaller museum. And she works to diversify those coming through the door of the museum.
“History gets a bad rap sometimes,” she said of trying to make it more interesting for everyone.
One of those ways was by hosting Hidden History Happy Hour this year, which included topics of women’s lingerie and crime and prostitution in Frazee.
“It’s topics that aren’t always comfortable (to talk about) but I specifically wanted to talk about those.”
Besides more fun to listen to, those subjects are more fun to research as well, she said with a laugh.
“You come at 5 (years old) and then at 80. I want to bridge that gap in there,” she said of people coming to the history museum.
Most people think of history as something that happened decades ago, when really it’s anything in the past. Degerstrom said it’s difficult for people to think about documenting what’s going on now otherwise it will be forgotten history in time.
“It’s not just long ago is history. Their contemporary story is their history one day,” she said. “Every story is important and meaningful.”
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