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News Tribune's top 10 stories of 2016

Large trees were blown down by a July storm, some of which landed on this home at 5518 London Road. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Severe storms that wreaked havoc across the region, the first year of new leadership in the city of Duluth and a global honor for native son Bob Dylan top the News Tribune's list of the Northland's most notable stories of the year in 2016, as voted on by News Tribune staff.

As with last year, this year's "top 10" list actually includes 11 stories, thanks to a tie vote.

Here's a look back at what made news in the Northland in 2016, and a look ahead at how those stories may continue to play out in 2017.

1. Severe summer storms

Many Northlanders were startled awake in the predawn darkness on the morning of July 21 to the sound of hurricane force winds pummeling their homes.

In Duluth's northern and eastern neighborhoods and nearby communities, the destruction became obvious when the sun came up, exposing thousands of downed trees — many that had smashed homes, vehicles and power lines, and blocked roads.

Winds were clocked at up to 100 mph in Duluth. Tens of thousands of people were without electricity for days, some for nearly a week, as utility crews were called in from far and wide to repair lines and restore power.

Farther north, on Basswood Lake in Quetico Provincial Park, the same wave of morning storms was deadly, toppling a tree onto a tent, killing a woman and young boy from Texas who were part of a group on a canoe trip.

And that was just part of the region's summer of wicked winds and torrential rain. Other major storms included:

  • June 19: Storms in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness caused the death of one person and injured five others; a tornado damaged a farm near Jacobson.
  • June 25: Two people were injured by a falling tree as storms moved through Voyageurs National Park.
  • July 5: Another windstorm caused major damage in Deer River and in the Island Lake area north of Duluth.
  • July 11-12: Three people died after storms with torrential rainfall caused major flooding in Northwestern Wisconsin and parts of Carlton and Pine counties, including more than $10 million in damage at Saxon Harbor along Lake Superior. All three victims died when flooded waterways overwhelmed their vehicles.

In eastern Duluth and Rice Lake, five months later, the destruction from the July 21 storm is still obvious. In places such as Hartley Park and Bagley Nature Area, hundreds of downed trees — some snapped off, some uprooted — still criss-cross the woods. Most trails have been reopened, but the urban forests and landscape will never be the same.

Some of the wood debris from the storm has been chipped and burned for fuel in a Minnesota Power biomass plant in Duluth.

2. Larson's first year as Duluth mayor

Duluth swore in Emily Larson as the city's first female mayor this year, after she earned 72 percent of the vote, soundly defeating opponent Chuck Horton, in November 2015.

Larson, a 43-year-old native of St. Paul, attended the College of St. Scholastica and remained in Duluth upon her graduation. She landed a job as a social worker for CHUM, helping families who were either homeless or at risk of becoming so.

In time, Larson struck out on her own as a consultant for nonprofit organizations.

Motivated to make meaningful change in her community, Larson ran for an at large Duluth City Council seat and emerged as the top vote-getter in the 2011 local election. On the council, Larson's peers elected her president, and she launched her campaign for mayor nearly a full year in advance of the 2015 general election.

Incumbent Mayor Don Ness already had announced he would not seek a third term.

At her inauguration in January, Larson said: "I stand on the shoulders of generations of women — strong, determined and bold — who have created courageous paths of opportunity over generations and generations despite great odds, so that we, all of us here tonight, can be here in this way."

In April, during her first State of the City address, Larson stressed the importance of overcoming past disparities in Duluth, saying: "It's clear that we'll only move forward as a city, when we move forward together."

Looking to lead by example, Larson pledged to increase the diversity of the city's 850-employee work force.

Larson inherited a surplus when she took office and quickly announced plans to invest another $800,000 for street improvements.

She also launched an initiative to make city operations more energy-efficient by investing $500,000 in LED lights and other power-saving improvements. Larson laid out plans to use the savings from lower energy bills — estimated to be $100,000 per year — to fund additional measures that will further reduce the city's energy consumption.

3. Dylan wins Nobel Prize

A Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised artist won one of the top honors available to humans and responded in a way that was puzzling — yet completely on-brand.

In mid-October, the Swedish Academy honored Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize in Literature, and then waited and waited and waited for the singer-songwriter to respond. Dylan, who is well known for bucking expectations, eventually offered earnest thanks but said he would not be able to attend the ceremony.

Azita Raji, American ambassador to Sweden, read Dylan's prepared short-and-sweet speech at the December ceremony in Stockholm. It referenced his award-winning predecessors like Kipling, Shaw, Camus and Hemingway — though not Sinclair Lewis, who won the prize in 1930 and also briefly lived in Duluth. Dylan addressed the is-it, isn't-it literature question bandied about by the lit world and said he is often caught up in the mundane, technical side of creativity: which backing musicians, which studio, which key.

"Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, 'Are my songs literature?' So I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer," he said.

Fellow singer-songwriter Patti Smith performed "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," at the ceremony, a scene described by the New York Times as "fittingly imperfect."

4. Opioid abuse epidemic continues

The nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse continued to plague the Northland in 2016.

Coming into the year, St. Louis County had the highest per-capita rate of opioid overdose deaths in the state in 2015, with 13.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

A story on Jan. 9 seemed to set the stage for the new year. Kayla Jo Vranish, 22, who had no known address, was charged with murder on the allegation she sold a fatal dose of heroin to Kathy Ann Davis, 62, of Hermantown in 2014.

Vranish pleaded guilty to the third-degree murder in June and was sentenced to more than six years in prison in August.

Further developments as the year progressed told that the scourge from addiction to prescription opioids and street drugs like heroin was far from over, including:

  • During a heroin crackdown in April that was coordinated nationally by federal agencies, 41 arrests were made in the Twin Ports area. That was more than half of all the arrests made in Minnesota, said Lt. Jeff Kazel of the Duluth Police Department.
  • Duluth police arrested 29 people on heroin charges during the first three months of the year — 20 more than during the same time period a year earlier.
  • Duluth police started carrying Narcan — a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose — with them. During the first three weeks, officers made two "saves," Kazel said.
  • An uptick of opioid overdoses was reported in the Twin Ports on Thanksgiving weekend. Duluth police reported responding to six overdoses during the weekend. In Superior, a heroin overdose was suspected in the death of a 25-year-old man.
  • On Dec. 9, Robbin Damonta Alexander of Chicago was charged in Douglas County Circuit Court with felony possession with intent to deliver more than 50 grams of heroin. Police said they had found 151 individual bags of heroin with a street value of $15,000 in the trailer home where he lived while in Superior.

5. Presidential race visits the Northland

Long a bastion of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, the Northland was pressed deeper into battleground territory in 2016. A shifting political bent meant more visits from a more diverse group of political heavyweights, including one from President-elect Donald Trump to Superior during the primary election season.

Trump's live pitch to "Make America Great Again" resonated with voters in Wisconsin and in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, who later helped put him into office.

Bernie Sanders spoke to a huge crowd at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and donned a United Steelworkers windbreaker in Hibbing during the Democratic primaries, and came back later in support of Hillary Clinton. His ardent fans were more enthused and boisterous the first time around.

Dueling vice presidential visits made news, too, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence spent a night at the Radisson in downtown Duluth before greeting a throng of supporters at the Superior airport on the eve of the Nov. 8 election.

And Vice President Joe Biden's turn in Duluth on Oct. 28 helped to solidify Rep. Rick Nolan's bid to hold the 8th Congressional District for the DFL.

6. Oil pipelines spark controversy

Pipelines were in the headlines in 2016 as the Midwest played battleground in the fight over the Dakota Access and Sandpiper routes.

Enbridge wanted to bring Bakken oil across Minnesota to its Superior terminal via a new pipeline, something environmental groups opposed.

After a yearslong battle, Enbridge put the Sandpiper on indefinite hiatus in September following a court ruling and permit suspension from the Public Utilities Commission.

The company then pivoted toward the Dakota Access pipeline it had bought a stake in — a pipeline that was the target of a protest at North Dakota's Lake Oahe, north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, that gained strength through the fall.

Northlanders turned their attention to the pipeline protest as well, with a delegation of locals joining the North Dakota camp in September and the Duluth City Council unanimously voicing support for the protesters. Tribes and supporters from across the country sought to stop the largely completed pipeline, saying it would endanger a major water source and sacred sites.

Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December denied an easement to complete the last segment of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River reservoir, the fight is bound to continue under a new presidential administration in 2017.

7. City of Duluth, Fond du Lac band reach casino deal

The city of Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa put years of litigation against one another aside when they inked a legal settlement this summer.

Mayor Emily Larson and interim Band Chairman Wally Dupuis announced the accord on June 8. Under the agreement, the band will pay the city $150,000 per year in lieu of taxes for public services provided to the Fond-du-Luth Casino in downtown Duluth.

In turn, the city agreed to drop all legal suits against the band.

Duluth and the band had been at legal odds since 2009, when band leaders decided that a longstanding revenue-sharing agreement with the city could not be justified. They decided to cut off payments that at the time totaled about $6 million per year.

The National Indian Gaming Commission ruled that the revenue-sharing agreement did not pass legal muster.

As it fought to recover casino revenues, the city also opposed the band's plans to tear down the neighboring Carter Hotel and declare it Indian country.

Those legal disputes have now been set aside, but not before Duluth racked up $945,000 in legal costs.

Meanwhile, the Fond du Lac Band is proceeding with plans to demolish the Carter Hotel, but it hasn't yet disclosed its plans for the property.

8. Nolan beats Mills in rematch

The election rematch for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, featuring incumbent Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills, was closer and drew more spending than the same race in 2014 — but the result remained the same.

Amid $22 million spent mostly on back-and-forth attacks, Nolan won by slightly more than half a percent. It was not enough to trigger an automatic recount; Mills initially announced he would fund a recount before declining to pursue it at the 11th hour.

Most notable about the 72-year-old Nolan's latest congressional victory — his sixth in a career that started in 1970s — was how far he outpointed the only Democrat above him on the ticket. Nolan bettered Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by more than 40,000 votes among 8th District voters. That disparity, more than anything, explained the 2,009-vote difference between Nolan and Mills.

When all was said and done, Nolan's campaign manager Joe Radinovich wrote the epitaph on the election when he said: "The fact is Rick Nolan is just a strong candidate."

9. UMD lawsuit developments

The ongoing controversy over the University of Minnesota Duluth's women's athletics programs made headlines for a third year in a row.

The year started with Shannon Miller, Jen Banford and Annette Wiles — three former coaches suing the school for alleged discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation and national origin — demanding a combined $18 million in damages.

The university has denied that the coaches were subject to discrimination, arguing that Miller, who won five national championships in 16 years at the helm of the women's hockey program, was dismissed on the basis of performance, and that the other coaches left voluntarily.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in September 2015, has been slowly working its way through the discovery process and could go to trial as soon as August.

Meanwhile, the university was hit with a second discrimination lawsuit in June. Angie Nichols, the former director of the UMD's Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services Office, alleged that she was forced to resign after facing months of discrimination based on her sexual orientation and disability.

That case, filed in State District Court in Minneapolis, is scheduled for trial in September.

10. (tie) Duluth school facilities proposals, debate

The Duluth school district's ongoing property woes continued into 2016 as potential buyers — deemed the wrong ones by the School Board — sought to purchase empty buildings.

A controversial offer was made on behalf of Duluth Edison Charter Schools — which is planning a new high school — for the Central High School property. The board opted against suspending a longtime policy that says it won't sell to competition, and never delved into negotiations for the $13.7 million property.

Other offers were made for former schools by Many Rivers Montessori, a private school serving toddlers to middle schoolers. Board leadership initially rejected the offers based on past action, but the full board has taken the issue under consideration following the request of some members.

The district has several schools sitting empty following its massive school closure, consolidation, building and renovation plan. While some have sold, offers from housing developers for others have fallen through.

The extensive repair and preservation needs of Historic Old Central High School also came to light in 2016, to the tune of $18 million. The board is addressing those needs on a yearly basis.

10. (tie) Continued economic roller coaster on Iron Range

Things got better for Minnesota's iron mining industry in 2016 after a crippling 2015, and 2017 promises to be better yet.

U.S.-based steelmakers are churning out more steel again as foreign-based producers, especially from China, have been knocked back with steep tariffs imposed by the U.S. government after their steel products were found to be sold below cost.

The American Iron and Steel Institute reports that steel mill utilization has gradually bounced back. Production hit nearly 1.5 million tons in the week ending Dec. 10, up 12.7 percent over the same week in 2015 and a sign that more Minnesota taconite iron ore will be in demand to make steel.

And that means more life across the Iron Range.

Cliffs Natural Resources has brought back hundreds of workers at both its Northshore Mining and United Taconite operations, and is investing in new technology at United to solidify contracts for years to come.

But there are lingering problems. Five Iron Range operations that employed more than 1,000 people as recently as 2014 remain shuttered — including U.S. Steel's Keetac operations in Keewatin, the Mesabi Nugget iron nugget plant near Hoyt Lakes, the Chisholm iron recovery operation that supplies Mesabi Nugget (co-owned with Magnetation) and all three of Grand Rapids-based Magnetation iron recovery and processing operations.

Magnetation shut down its last of three iron ore concentrate operations in October after 18 months of bankruptcy protection. And Essar Steel Minnesota in Nashwauk still sits idle five months after the company filed for bankruptcy more than $1 billion in debt with the project only half finished.

There's possible good news on both those fronts, however. A Roanoke, Va., millionaire has offered to buy Magnetation out from under bankruptcy, pay off some of its debt and restart operations. And SPL Advisors, a California company, is trying to wrest Essar Steel Minnesota out of bankruptcy with a deal to pay some debt, finish the project and put some 350 people to work.

Meanwhile, the proposed PolyMet copper mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes continues to move toward state and federal permits which could be awarded in 2017. The proposed Twin Metals copper project near Ely faces a tough road after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service withdrew critical mineral leases in mid-December. It’s unclear how this federal action will hold up under the incoming Trump administration.

Copper promoters say the incoming Trump administration is expected to favor mining projects and may more quickly remove barriers among federal agencies to both projects.

News Tribune reporters John Myers, Peter Passi, Christa Lawler, John Lundy, Brady Slater, Brooks Johnson, Tom Olsen and Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

Other notable Northland stories

These stories also made headlines in 2016:

  • Major fire damages Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
  • Ojibwe poet and author Jim Northrup dies
  • DECC celebrates its 50th anniversary
  • Two young men from Hibbing die in separate, brutal homicides
  • Maurices opens its new headquarters in downtown Duluth
  • New downtown Duluth Transit Center opens
  • New Duluth police, fire chiefs named
  • Tall Ships Duluth draws thousands of visitors
  • Local military units — 148th Fighter Wing, 312th Engineer Company — deploy overseas
  • Legislature lifts Lakeside neighborhood liquor sales ban
  • Data reveals disparities in how students are disciplined in Duluth schools
  • Increasing need for mental health services in the Northland
  • MNsure estate liens surprise some Northland residents; premiums soar
  • Legislature fails to pass bonding bill; many Northland projects left in limbo

Around the state

Stories from elsewhere in Minnesota resonated in the Northland in 2016, including:

Jacob Wetterling's remains found

A mystery that gripped Minnesota and the nation for nearly 27 years came to an end in September, when a suspect led authorities to the remains of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.

Jacob had been abducted at gunpoint near his home in rural St. Joseph, Minn., in October 1989 — and never seen again. In September, Danny Heinrich confessed to abducting, molesting and killing Jacob. He was later sentenced to 20 years in federal prison under the terms of a plea deal approved by the Wetterling family.

Thousands of people gathered at the College of St. Benedict in late September for a community memorial service for Jacob.

"We wouldn't have survived the past 27 years without the love and support of all of you," Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, told the crowd. "Jacob, we will always carry you in our hearts, and our love for you will never die."

Prince dies at age 57

Fans in the Northland and around the world were stunned and left in mourning when iconic Minnesota musician Prince died on April 21 at age 57. Authorities later said he died from a self-administered accidental overdose of the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

Prince was born in Minneapolis and spent most of his life in the Twin Cities, even after he shot to international stardom with hits such as "Purple Rain," "1999," "Little Red Corvette" and "When Doves Cry."

In Duluth on the night of April 21, Enger Tower was lit in purple and Prince fans flocked to the park to grieve and reminisce.

A tribute concert was held in St. Paul in October, and Prince's Paisley Park estate and studio opened to the public, allowing fans to see memorabilia and pay their respects.

A look back: Top 10 stories of 2015

1. Mining industry downturn

2. Controversy involving UMD athletics

3. Larson elected mayor of Duluth

4. Duluth Diocese declares bankruptcy in wake of verdict

5. Fond du Lac Band wins court rulings

6. Construction boom in Duluth

7. Ambitious plans for St. Louis River corridor

8. (tie) Continued drug problems in the Northland

8. (tie) Fatal bus crash downtown

10. (tie) U.S. Postal Service changes in Duluth

10. (tie) Johnston sues Duluth School Board

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