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News from the week of August 11, 2004

School land proposed for housing development

Vacant school land east Tracy Elementary School is being considered as the site for a new residential housing development.

Robert Gervais, Tracy community development director, is scheduled to meet with the District 417 school board Monday, to discuss the possible purchase of school property. The Tracy Economic Development Authority and Tracy Board of Education have both discussed the possible land sale at recent meetings.

"It's in the talking stage," said Supt. Dave Marlette.

"This is one possibility," said Gervais.

The property is at the northwest corner of Pine and South Fourth streets, across from Tracy Elementary School. No specifics have been discussed as to how many acres could be involved in a sale, although it is understood that school athletic fields would not be encroached upon. The corner, which has some medium-sized trees, is not used for any specific purpose except as an overflow parking lot for the elementary school.

"They mow it, and that is about it," Gervais told the Tracy Economic Development Authority Friday.

Gervais said that informal discussions with Marlette and school board members indicate a willingness to consider a land sale.

The school site is near water and sanitary sewer hook-ups, Gervais said, but is not served by a storm sewer.

EDA members felt the school property held potential for housing development, and encouraged Gervais to talk to school representatives further about the potential land purchase. However, Fultz cautioned that drainage improvements would be needed The cost of those improvements, he said, would be substantial.

Marlette confirmed that the school has an interest in discussing the sale of unneeded land. The second-year administrator said that it is his understanding that the extra land between the elementary and high schools was once envisioned as the site for a middle school. However, school enrollments in the foreseeable future will not create a need for a third Tracy public school building, Marlette said.

"It's never going to happen," he said of a Tracy middle school.

Marlette said that personally, he felt that the school property would be a good location for new residential housing development. New homes between the elementary and high schools, he said, would create a positive image for both the school district and the community.


Subject of 1973 best-seller was friend of Tracy woman

For years, the letters, packages and postcards kept coming.

Dolls...doll clothes...books...postcards...neatly penned notes.

"I sometimes wondered why she took such an interest in me," reflects Muriel (Odden) Coulter.

The correspondence was unusual, even in an era when letter writing was more common. Her pen pal, a college friend of her mother's, was nearly 30 years her senior. The two never met. But the correspondence continued for 18 years.

The relationship abruptly ended in 1972, when Muriel's friend mysteriously disappeared. Coulter, a Tracy Public School teacher and mother of four, thinks that she finally understands why her friend took such an interest in her.

" I think that she was re-living her childhood through me. I had loving parents and had a wonderful time growing up. She didn't. That was something that she never experienced."

Her friend's name was Shirley Mason. Millions of other people know her by another name: Sybil.

• • •

One day in 1978, Muriel and her mother were browsing through books in a Granite Falls library. The daughter was looking for materials for a graduate school term paper. The mother randomly pulled a volume off the shelf.

"Oh, look, this is a book about our friend Shirley," Luella Odden remarked with surprise.

The book was "Sybil," a 1973 best-seller written by Flora Schreiber.

"Oh, no, that can't be," Muriel exclaimed.

A newspaper clipping was taped inside the book's cover. The yellowed article declared that "Sybil" was based upon the life of a Dodge Center native named Shirley Mason.

Luella Odden had no inkling what "Sybil" was about. Her daughter did.

"Sybil" was the sensational story about a gifted, but tormented woman possessed by 16 personalities.

Muriel had already read the book. She checked it out and read it again. Then she gathered the packets of letters that Shirley had written to either her or her mother over more than 20 years. She placed the letters in chronological order.

Muriel was shocked. The events, facts, and time-sequences referred to in Shirley's letters fit perfectly with the book.

EDA looks at acquiring vacant downtown site

The Tracy Economic Development Authority (EDA) continues to explore options to gain control of the former P Plus Asian grocery store building in Downtown Tracy.

EDA members would like to secure the building, so the property could be developed as a wellness center for Tracy Area Medical Services.

Friday, EDA members instructed Community Development Director Robert Gervais to continue to investigate the possibility of securing the property. Gervais indicated that representatives of Minnwest Bank South, which holds a first mortgage on the property, would be willing to relinquish their first position in a foreclosure action, if the EDA pays for the legal costs of the foreclosure. The EDA holds a second mortgage on the property due to an outstanding loan of about $15,000 from the former storeowner John Her of Walnut Grove.

Gervais said that TAMS representatives have a definite interest in developing the building as a wellness and rehabilitation center.

If the EDA doesn't act to gain control of the property, Gervais said that the building could stand vacant for years and eventually deteriorate. The building is now still in good condition, Gervais said. The steel-frame structure was built in 1954 for Rignell Hardware.

15 blocks added to Small Cities target area

The residential target area for Tracy's Small Cities grant project has been expanded.

Originally, owner-occupied houses had to be within a 10-block area bounded by Fifth, Rowland, Center, and South streets. The eligibility area has now been expanded to include roughly 15 more blocks. The new residential eligibility area is bounded by Emory, Center, First Street East, South, and Sixth streets. (See map).

Income-eligible homeowners within the target area may qualify for financing to do a variety of home improvement projects. The financing includes grant money that would not need to be re-paid if certain conditions are met.

Tracy's Small Cities grant program had $352,000 allotted for single-family, owner-occupied housing projects. The money is projected to be enough for 25 projects, at an average cost of $14,080 a house. The target area was expanded because not enough applications were received within the original target area.

Homeowners within the target area can get more information by calling Jill Houseman at Western Community Action (1-800-658-2448) or Robert Gervais at the Tracy Chamber of Commerce (629-4021). Western Community Action is administering the program for the city.

There are two other components to Tracy's Small Cities program: commercial and rental. A total of $252,450 is allocated for commercial projects, and $198,000 for rental rehab. Existing applications are expected to exhaust money in both categories, so the commercial and rental target area was not expanded.

Commission asked to consider charges against police chief

The Tracy Police Commission has been asked to hear charges against Police Chief Bryan Hillger.

Acting at a closed July 26 meeting, Tracy City Council members voted 4-3 to file charges against the chief.

The specifics of the charges have not been made public. However, it is known that the council, in considering whether to file the charges, was responding to a complaint lodged by Tracy resident Gary Tholen. Tholen, in correspondence to the council earlier this year, charged that Hillger acted improperly last summer and fall during an investigation as to whether Tholen's then 15-year-old daughter was entitled to a farm-work driver's permit. (The Minnesota Dept. of Public Safety subsequently determined that Tholen's daughter complied with state requirements in obtaining the permit).

"I can't comment because I still don't know what they (the charges) are," Hillger said Tuesday morning. "I still don't think I have done anything wrong."

Jan Arvizu, Tim Byrne, Mike Fraser, and Russ Stobb are the council members who voted to file the charges against Hillger. Those who voted against filing the charges were Robert Caron, Greg Torkelson, and Mayor Steve Ferrazzano.

According to city charter, it is the responsibility of the Tracy Police Commission to hear charges filed against a police officer. The commission is to try the charges after no less than 10 days' written notice to the accused. Proceedings of the commission's trial are to be open to the public. The commission has the power to issue subpoenas for witnesses and evidence. An officer who is found guilty of "inefficiency, breach of duty, or misconduct, may be removed, reduced, or suspended," according to city charter.

When the Tracy commission meets to consider the charges is uncertain. As of Monday, the three-member police commission had only two members: Bernie Holm and Thad Lessman. The third commissioner, Dale Johnson, resigned last week. Council members Monday night agreed to offer the position to Todd Radke, who had applied earlier for a commission vacancy.

In a July 27 letter from City Administrator Audrey Koopman to commission members, Koopman wrote that the charges against Hillger "should be held in strictest confidence" among commission members. Commission members, she wrote, "will be advised of the appropriate time to serve these charges upon Chief Hillger and when the same may be made public."

Koopman has recommended that the police commission hold a closed meeting with Assistant City Attorney Jim Kerr and herself. The purpose, she explained to the city council Monday, would be to educate commission members as to the procedures and policies that should be followed in weighing the charges against Hillger. Commission members would also be supplied with the materials that the council used in reviewing the complaint against Hillger.

The goal, she told the council Monday, is to make sure that everyone understands the correct procedures, so that everything is done properly.

'Wheels' continues to tell story

By Brady Averill

On the edge of the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum, a sign reads, “Oops, you missed Wheels Museum.”

The sign, like the museum, often goes unnoticed by the thousands of people who drive by every day. They have no idea what's in store at the museum like an original 1906 Auto Bug, one of two in existence today, or a 1915 ALCO steam engine. Both are consistent with the museum's theme: wheels.

The famous red barn hails a plethora of Tracy and area history from the edge of U.S. Highway 14. But its local memorabilia, antiques and machinery, and historic buildings sometimes go unseen. The stories that Curator Mary Lou Ludeman likes to tell about the area sometimes go unheard. It's in the backyard of area communities, a forgotten treasure.

But it stays open. Visitors continue to trickle in, with the usual throng during Labor Day weekend. Work doesn't stop, whether it's trying to find a saloon or tending the flower gardens.

“A lot of work and effort goes into it,” Ludeman says.

Open since1985, the museum attracts 3,000 visitors each summer. “It's not a fantastic number, but for us, it's good,” Ludeman says.

This Labor Day weekend, the museum will have an antique tractor show and will sell Box Car Day buttons exclusively.

Ludeman, who is one of the museum's pioneers says, “I have a passion for the stories. I love to tell them, and I love to hear them.” The stories are also why she has volunteered at the museum year after year.

“We tell a good story, and it needs to be told,” she says. Telling new generations the story of settlement in Southwest Minnesota is the museum's mission, she adds.

The Tracy museum weaves its story through the common theme of wheels, which encompasses agriculture, transportation, fun and anything that has to do with wheels, like bicycles and skates, she says.

“We've tried to stay true to that since the beginning,” she says. But she has never been able to turn people away who bring various memorabilia in, which often stray from the wheels theme. Plus, the museum tells how people lived between the 1860s and 1940s, and it hardly tells all stories through just wheels.

There are no personal tours at the museum. The museum can't afford them. It has a shortage of volunteers and sending a volunteer on a tour would leave the museum's main building unstaffed.

But Ludeman says a guide isn't necessary. When she sits in the main building, she can hear grandfathers telling their grandchildren about the farm machinery, and how difficult farm work was back t

“We like to say we have something for everyone,” Ludeman says. But then again, it depends on who walks through the door, she says. Whatever they're looking for, Wheels Across the Prairie Museum probably has it.

The museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Its hours are 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.