Year in Review: 2021

As the new year begins, we take a look back at the stories which made headlines in 2021. 

by Marianne Gasaway

Before we raise a glass and kiss 2021 good-bye, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the stories which shaped our community in the past 12 months.  Here is the Mirror-Reporter’s look back at the top stories of 2020. 

The Pandemic

Just as it was in 2020, the Pandemic continued to dominate news both nationally and locally.  The year seemed to pick up right where 2020 had left off— with cancellations of key events.  In January the Surf Ballroom announced its Winter Dance Party had been cancelled.  

“With heavy hearts and after much thought and careful consideration, the Surf Ballroom’s Board of Directors has determined that for the safety of our patrons, volunteers and staff, it is necessary to cancel our 2021 Winter Dance Party event,” stated Jeff Nicholas, president, Surf Ballroom & Museum. “This was a very difficult decision, one that was not made in haste. Those who are familiar with the Surf family know how passionate we are about the Surf and this event.  Rest assured, we will celebrate these men and their music again. The music lives and so will the Winter Dance Parties at the Surf.”

In March, it was announced that Bicycle, Blues and BBQ will no longer be held.  “Although we did not realize it at the time, our 15th anniversary event in 2019 would be our last,” stated Tim Putnam, BBBQ Festival director, and Matt Curtis, BBBQ Race director in the message. They added that compounding concerns coming out of COVID would not allow the group to host the event to the standard it has over the past eight to 10 years.

Then there was some good news.   

The new year brought about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations to health care workers and long term care residents. On Monday, Jan. 4, 60 staff and residents received the first round of the vaccine at Country Meadow Place and CVS employees administered the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to over 100 residents, employees, tenants and others at the first COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at Oakwood Care Center on Jan. 5.  

A short time later Clear Lake High School students were allowed to attend varsity basketball games. However, Clear Creek Elementary and Clear Lake Middle School students were not unless they were on the spectator list with an adult.

In April, the Surf announced the return of live music to its stage after nearly 14 months of darkness. 

The return to normal continued, as the Chamber of Commerce announced in May that Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration would be held.  Huge crowds enjoyed every aspect of the six-day festival, making it a record-setting event.  Evans United Shows owners Tom and Nancy Evans said Clear Lake followed the pattern they have been seeing since the carnival was able to open its season in April— the public is anxious to put the pandemic in the rear view mirror and appreciate opportunities to gather and celebrate.  

The C.L.A.S.S. Car Club held its 35th annual Summer Dance Cruise and Car Show in August and after a year off due to COVID-19, participants were more than happy to get back to the fun the weekend brings to town.  Seven hundred and ninty-four cars participated in the cruise around the lake. The show brought in 402 cars to the downtown area.  

A December Derecho

December weather events  usually have to do with snow.  But on Dec. 15, a rare weather event took place in North Iowa — a derecho.  

To put things into perspective on how rare the event was, according to the National Weather Service it was the first time since record keeping began in 1986 that the NWS office had to issue both a severe thunderstorm and tornado warning during the month of December, with six and eight issued respectively.  In total, the weather event led to 189 warnings being issued across the central U.S., with 118 of those being for severe thunderstorms and the remaining 71 for tornadoes.   In the days following, the storm was categorized by the NWS as a derecho.

Locally, trees and power lines were downed, with 7,700 Alliant Energy customers without power for hours to days.  High winds took off not only shingles on some structures, but the roof on Charlie and Louise Norris’ home northeast of Clear Lake.  Damage was also reported to numerous grain bins and metal buildings.

Business is booming

For the first time in many, many years, Clear Lake’s Main Street storefronts are full and development is taking off along Highway 18 near Interstate 35.

The City Council has resurrected a business incubator plan for its downtown district and it is paying dividends.  Nearly a half-dozen businesses have qualified for the program, which is geared to retail businesses.  Qualifying businesses are eligible for maximum rental subsidy of $10,000 over 18-months. 

Thanks to a Clear Lake couple, a cornerstone of Main Street which was vacant for a number of years is being restored.  The former Thrifty White Pharmacy or Corner Drug Store is now home to Charlie’s Soda Fountain, White Barn Picket Fence and Nash & Ivy.  Building owners  Jessica and Austin Wood are also working to turn the upstairs of the building into apartments and have received a $500,000 state grant to help.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held April 13 for the Starboard Square Commercial Development project located in the Courtway Park Subdivision on the east side of Interstate 35,  The Starboard Square Commercial Development project is the third project underway in the area.  Old Dominion Freight Group and Fairfield Marriott Hotel are also being constructed in the subdivision located near the intersection of Highway 122, near its intersection with Interstate 35.

Groundwork began in December for a 51,000-square foot Hy-Vee store and convenience mart on six and one-half acres of land northwest of the intersection of US Highway 18 and North 20th Street.  Embree Development Group, of Georgetown, Texas will develop a six-and one-half acre parcel of property in the Willow Creek Urban Renewal Area, located north of Highway 18 near North 20th Street. The proposed project is an $8 million, 50,000 square foot commercial and retail building with a surface parking lot.  The completion date for the project is Dec. 31, 2022.

Wellness Center opening delayed

The much anticipated opening of the Clear Lake Athletics and Wellness Center has been pushed back, due to material delays.  The $10.6 million building, being constructed by the Clear Lake School District and leased by the City of Clear Lake, was expected to open just after the start of the new year, however delivery of construction materials and equipment have been delayed, forcing the opening to be put on hold.

In June, the City of Clear Lake named Adam Long, of Liberty, Mo., executive director of the Wellness Center. He will lead and manage all facets of the facility.  Long was among 15 candidates who applied for the wellness center executive director position.

National attention

The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake as a National Historic Landmark in 2021, recognizing its enduring role in the history of American music.  The ballroom is best known for hosting the last concert of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson before their fatal plane crash in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959, a date Don McLean immortalized as “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”  National Historic Landmarks are buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects that have been determined to be nationally significant in American history and culture. The ballroom’s nomination was officially approved on Jan. 13.

150 years of service

The Clear Lake Fire Department celebrated 150 years of service to the community  in 2021.  According to department records, the only fire fighting equipment available when the town’s first significant fire broke out was buckets and long poles.  That was Jan. 4, 1871, when the Coates Bros. Furniture Store burned at a loss of $5,000 and a building near it belonging to McGrows, at a loss of $1,500.  A bucket brigade was formed and long poles were used to shove the walls of the burning building in, only hoping to keep the fire from spreading.  This serious destruction by fire caused immediate clamor for a fire department and immediately upon the town becoming incorporated one of the first tasks was the establishment of the fire department.  This occurred on Oct. 21, 1871 by Ordinance 13.  

The department held an open house in June and invited the public to come in to see all of the modern equipment used today.  CLFD members also served as Grand Marshal of the July 4th parade.

Senior Center closes

Some called it a victim of COVID; others say it’s the times we’re living in.  Whatever the reason, after 38-years at its South 4th Street location and more than 75-years as an organization, the Clear Lake Senior Center is no more.   The center closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.  Its kitchen remained in use preparing meals for home delivery until July 1.  In August, shortly after Site Manager Linda Matson informed the board her health would not permit her to continue directing operations at the center, the building  was put on the market.  The organization’s board decided it did not have the manpower to continue.

Prior to purchasing the building at 105 S. 4th St. in 1983 with the help of donations from the community, local seniors met in the basement of the former Halford’s Cafe on Main Avenue.  The move gave the group twice as much space and a ground floor entrance, making it more accessible. Improvements continued through the years, thanks to generous donations.

Election outcome

The race for a position on the Clear Lake School Board was the only contested race local voters decided in the Nov. 2 General Election.

Incumbent Chyrl Bergvig was returned to the board by voters, but challenger Greg Southgate narrowly claimed the second open seat on the board with a 13 vote victory over incumbent Tony Brownlee.   Bergvig, who was seeking a third term on the board, was the top vote-getter with 511 (35.19 percent).  Southgate and Brownlee earned 473 (32.58 percent) and 460 (31.68) votes respectively.  Brownlee was seeking a second term on the board.

All three incumbents in Clear Lake city government ran unopposed in the November General Election.  Clear Lake Mayor Nelson Crabb was returned to office for a fifth term.  Second Ward Councilman Bennett Smith and At-large Council representative Dana Brant joined him.  

Classical School buys Sunset

Clear Lake Classical, a private Christian school located in Clear Lake, announced the purchase of the former Sunset Elementary School from Waterloo/Cedar Falls developer Dolly James LLC in June.

In December 2020, Dr. Cory Gerdts, headmaster of CLC, shared the news the school would be leasing the Sunset building on Mars Hills Drive.  Necessary zoning changes were completed in early 2021 and renovation work prepared the facility for Pre-kindergarten through fourth grade classes to occupy the building in the fall.  

Jim Sulentick and Brent Dahlstrom purchased the school site in June 2018 and agreed to not close on the property until the school district had completed an addition at Clear Creek Elementary.  That move was made in 2019 and since that time the building sat empty.

A new city park

A new city park  will enhance Clear Lake in 2022.  

The City of Clear Lake purchased the former Cerro Gordo County shed at 109 S. 15th St., for $250,000. The land acquisition sets the stage for expansion of the Aquatic Center and creation of the Everybody Plays Playground.  Recently, Kristy Sagdalen King, of Bergland + Cram, Mason City, presented ideas a local committee developed for an all-inclusive playground. The playground will be designed to provide children and families of all physical, mental and social abilities and ages an opportunity to play together in an integrated, sensory-rich environment without the barriers that traditionally exist on a playground. The nearest similar playgrounds are located in Cedar Falls and Ames.

The South 15th Street neighborhood is experiencing a great transformation.  A housing project is underway on the east side of the street where a former city storage building was located.

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