For all its faults, 2020 inspired, challenged us

by Marianne Gasaway

It’s tempting to start the new year by blocking out the old one as quickly as possible.  But if we did that, we’d be shortchanging ourselves.  For all it’s faults, COVID-19 seemed to unite, inspire and challenge our community in a multitude of positive ways.

To commemorate the ending of such an eventful year — one that saw ground broken on new developments, an $18 million school bond passed to upgrade facilities, the school year cut short, and signature events canceled for the first time in their history, the Mirror-Reporter looks back on the top stories of 2020. 

The Pandemic

The headline read “March Sadness: COVID-19 changes life as we know it” when we first reported the World Health Organization declared the disease a pandemic on March 11.  Turns out, that was no exaggeration.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency March 17, activating the public health response and recovery aspects of the State Disaster Emergency Plan.  The plan included the closing of all restaurants and bars to the general public; in accordance with recommendations from the Iowa Department of Public Health, food and beverages could be sold if promptly taken from the premises on a carry-out or drive-through basis, or if delivered to customers off the premises; all fitness centers, health clubs, health spas, gyms, aquatic centers were closed; all theaters or other performance venues and casinos were closed; social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people were prohibited and planned large gatherings and events had to be canceled or postponed until after termination of the disaster. All facilities that conducted adult day services or other senior citizen centers were closed.

By April the closures had been expanded to include malls, tobacco or vaping stores, toy, gaming, music, instrument, movie or adult entertainment stores, social and fraternal clubs, including those at golf courses, bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, arcades, and amusement parks; museums, libraries, aquariums, zoos, race tracks and speedways, roller or ice skating rinks and skate parks, outdoor or indoor playgrounds or children’s play centers, and campgrounds.

With the governor’s blessing, some restaurants cautiously re-opened May 1.

In its March 17 daily report, the Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health reported that no cases had been confirmed in any northern Iowa county. Clear Lake city leaders urged residents to remain calm and follow state and federal guidelines to keep themselves safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. In an effort to maintain continuity of government, regularly scheduled City Council meetings were still held, however, the City Council chambers and other meeting venues were reconfigured to provide for more social distancing.  Eventually the meetings began to be live-streamed and continue to be broadcast in that manner.

Health officials confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 in Cerro Gordo County Sunday, March 22.  Both cases involved adults in the 18- to 40-year-old range. 

Learning continued for Clear Lake students, despite the closure of schools.  Superintendent Doug Gee reported that by the end of March all Clear Lake students, K-12, would have computer devices in their possession and would be ready for remote learning.  CL Tel offered to provide internet service for any families in need. The district also implemented an emergency food program and began making meals available at its bus stops.  The governor ordered schools to remain closed through the month of April.  Ultimately, the 2019-20 school year was completed without ever re-opening school buildings. Graduation ceremonies were delayed until June 21, with only parents attending. 

At a special School Board meeting held July 29, a “Return to Learn” plan with in-classroom instruction five days a week was approved.  A virtual learning option was available if deemed necessary by parents or the school district.  One month into the plan, the school district reported little impact from the COVID-19 virus.

A new normal

By April, Clear Lakers were tolerating social distancing, self-isolating, sheltering-in-place, quarantining and all of the other suggestions being made to quell the spread of coronavirus very well.  Examples of local families and friends using their talents and time in creative ways were all over the news.  

With a shortage of medical supplies, many were busy at their sewing machines making hospital masks for hospitals, nursing homes and clinics that were short on supplies.  Bear hunts became all the rage, as residents began putting stuffed bears in their windows for children to search out when they were on a drive or going for a walk. Facebook Messenger Video Chat, Google Meet and Zoom became essential ways to stay connected with friends and family. And neighbors began to make it a date to step outside every evening at 5:30 to say hello and check in with each other.  Some families would use spray chalk to create inspirational messages on their driveway, such as,  “Honk if you’re happy” and “Jesus Loves You.”  

Buy-In Clear Lake

Within hours of the coronavirus crisis spreading nationwide, the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce was already thinking about the impact it would have on local business.  Chamber President and CEO Stacy Doughan said she had been thinking about how to make it possible for businesses to sell discounted gift cards as a possible means of providing businesses with an influx of cash while they might be closed.  At the same time, Chamber member Austin Pehl, of Atura Architecture, reached out with the idea of doing a gift card giveaway to inject some positivity into the current situation. 

Doughan had reservations about her plan, which would have invested the Chamber’s money into the promotion as a way to discount cards.  Pehl’s plan offered another option.   He had the idea of asking other businesses to step up and fund the discount and make more gift cards available. Doughan reached out to the Chamber Board of Directors and immediately had five additional businesses step forward.  On March 17, 220 $30 gift cards were made available for $20. The cards sold out in 60 minutes.

From there, the initiative snowballed.  On March 18, 640 cards sold out in 12 minutes.  Thirty-one sponsors funded the $10 gaps for a total of 860 cards.  As of March 30, the Chamber had 31 sponsors for the “Buy-In Clear Lake” promotion and gift cards were purchased from 61 Clear Lake businesses.  As a result, $25,800 was distributed to area businesses.

In early April the North Iowa Corridor EDC also announced the launch of a Small Business Recovery & Continuity Fund in partnership with the City of Clear Lake, the City of Mason City, and Cerro Gordo County to provide financial relief to small businesses through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cancellations & more change

Governor Reynolds’ partial lifting of restrictions May 1 was encouraging to some Clear Lake event organizers, but others pulled the plug on their 2020 spring and summer events. Two major events in May, the Clear Lake Fishing Club’s Walleye Classic and TRI Clear Lake, were cancelled.

For the first time in its 149-year history, Clear Lake did not hold a Fourth of July celebration.  Jim Tjaden, founder of the Lakeside Dixiefest, had been named as the Grand Marshal for the parade that didn’t happen.

Bicycle, Blues & BBQ, the 42nd annual Art Sail, Paddlefest, the Noon Lions Chicken Barbeque, Evening Lions Hamburger and Sweet Corn Feed and C.L.A.S.S. Car Club Summer Dance Cruise, Festival of Trees and Christmas By The Lake all followed suit.  Event cancellations continued until the bitter end of 2020, as the Surf Ballroom announced before year-end the 2021 Winter Dance Party is cancelled.

The Aquatic Center did not open for the summer. 

The Color the Wind kite festival was held in February 2020, but will not take place in 2021.  When the event resumes in 2022, the Chamber of Commerce will take over as organizers.  The original organizers of the event, Larry and Kay Day announced in February they would step down.  

You can’t keep a good town down

Despite all of the uncertainty of 2020, optimism was high about Clear Lake’s future.

In June, Clear Lake Mayor Nelson Crabb was thrilled to be welcoming people to Courtway Park.  The centerpiece of the new subdivision east of Interstate 35 is a Marriott hotel.  At the groundbreaking Crabb noted there has not been a new hotel built in Clear Lake in this century.  JSM Investment LLC, a Des Moines developer, is expected to open an 85-room hotel and conference center in 2021.

In September, the City Council unanimously approved a development agreement with Flatrock Group LLC which will facilitate a $3 million project in the newly opened Courtway Park Subdivision.  An economic development project identified as the RAKA building, will be located on Lot 1.  It will be a 14,536 square foot pre-engineered metal one-story structure, with 5,671 square feet designated for offices, conference room, support staff area and showroom.  The remaining 8,865 square feet will be used for service bays, wash bay, parts storage and support.

New housing permits also set a new record in 2020, according to City Building Inspector Mike Ritter.  Thirty-five new construction housing permits were issued.

The City also set the stage for development of a new park in 2021 and future expansion of the Clear Lake Library by purchasing property on North 15th Street and the former Woodford Lumber & Home downtown.

School upgrades

Voters in the Clear Lake School District continued their tradition of strong support for school issues  by overwhelmingly passing an $18 million bond issue in March.  The funds will be used to fund a wellness center, to be built in partnership with the City of Clear Lake, as well as various school security measures and improvements to school buildings and the Lions Field complex. Sixty-nine percent of the voters approved.   

The public watched the transformation of Lions Field during the summer months and a large crowd was on hand as the facility was officially opened for the first home football game in August. Dean Snyder Construction, of Clear Lake, was the general contractor for the $4 million project, which included artificial turf, new bleachers and press box.

Ground was officially broken in September for the new Community Wellness Center.  The 85,000 square foot facility will adjoin Clear Lake High School on its south side. Dean Snyder Construction again was the lowest of eight bidders for the project.  The school district and city have executed a 28E agreement where the school owns the center and leases it to the City for at least a 25-year period.  The City will be responsible for day-to-day operation of the center, with the school having priority usage for practice times, educational courses, or programs, for various portions of the facility.  Approximately $11 million of the $18 million school bond will fund the wellness center.  The City of Clear Lake will contribute $1 million using general obligation notes not to exceed $700,000 and a general fund contribution not to exceed $300,000. 

Political fireworks

There was Caucus Chaos in the state, but the process worked as designed for those choosing to caucus in Clear Lake. All those hoping to take part were registered and ready to participate when the clock struck 7. Democrats in Clear Lake’s three voting precincts clearly chose Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg as their favorites for the party’s presidential nomination.  Three-hundred and twenty-seven registered Democrats filled the gymnasium and two lunch rooms at Clear Creek Elementary to participate in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest.  

In November, Clear Lake voters largely supported Republican candidates in the General Election.  In addition to contributing to President Donald Trump’s victory in the state, local voters favored G.O.P. candidates in U.S. House and Senate races, as well as Iowa House District 54.  Clear Lake City Councilman Bennett Smith ran for the District 54 seat as an Independent candidate, but was defeated by Republican Shannon Latham. She will fill the seat vacated by Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake).

Rough water for city dock

How much commercial use should be allowed on the city’s new public dock at the end of Main Avenue?  That was the question dominating news in July.  The Clear Lake City Council heard criticism from Jim Flick, owner of Movement Solutions in Clear Lake, about an ordinance the city was considering which would restrict the use of the dock by his patrons. On a 4-1 vote in early August, the Council approved an ordinance which limits commercial use of the dock.

More changes

The Garner-Hayfield-Ventura School Board voted in February to move students in grades five to eight from its middle school building in Ventura to Garner. The vote followed a public meeting at which Superintendent Tyler Williams told district patrons the school district is facing an estimated $850,000 in budget cuts for the 2020-21 fiscal year.   Reductions were made in the areas of personnel, transportation, and use of facilities. Williams emphasized he is not interested in selling or shutting down the building at Ventura, but rather, suggests looking for ways to “repurpose” the building.

The former Sunset Elementary School will again be an educational center.  Dr. Cory Gerdts, headmaster of Clear Lake Classical (CLC), a private Christian School currently housed at the Evangelical Free Church on Highway 18, said the school will expand its operation into the building in fall 2021. CLC is in its sixth year of full time operation and has grown to 100 students, Pre-Kindergarten through 10th grade.  In  June 2018, the Clear Lake School Board approved the sale of Sunset Elementary School, 408 Mars Hill Dr., to Cedar Falls/Waterloo developers Jim Sulentic and Brent Dahlstrom. 

On the lighter side

Mirror-Reporter contributor Lowell Washburn declared the Red Fox Clear Lake’s newest permanent resident in 2020. Reports were frequent throughout the year about the dramatic invasion of red fox into residential neighborhoods.  Fear has largely turned to amusement, as photos are frequently posted on social media of their whereabouts.

At commencement, Riley Cooney, a member of the Clear Lake High School Class of 2020 told her classmates, “Looking back to sixth grade, we should’ve known our grade wasn’t going to have it easy. Like how can you cancel a trip to Adventureland and replace it with an ethanol plant and landfill tour? That just wasn’t fair!” 

And finally

The year ended with the good news that MercyOne North Iowa received its first shipment of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 21 and proudly began vaccinating health care colleagues with their first dose on Dec. 22.

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