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News from the week of March 9, 2005

High school searched after bomb threat

Dozens of locker padlocks had to be cut during a search of Tracy Area High School Saturday afternoon. The three-hour search by Tracy Fire Department, police, and school officials was necessitated by a written bomb threat found in a boys’ bathroom at the school Friday night.

No bomb was found.

Supt. David Marlette said that because of the possible safety threat, there was no choice but to search the school. He said that “more than 100” student-owned padlocks had to be destroyed during the search of hallway and locker room lockers. In a bomb threat last year that occurred during a school day, students were given the opportunity to unlock their lockers prior to a school search.

At a student assembly Monday morning, students were warned about the seriousness of last week’s threat. The offense is viewed as a crime, not a prank, students were told. Kids were warned that the perpetrator faces not only criminal charges, but also thousands of dollars in restitution expenses, and the likelihood of expulsion from school.

Students with knowledge of the Friday bomb threat were asked to come forward. Such testimony, students were told, is not tattling, but helping ensure the safety of everyone at the school.

“What’s frustrating is that we know that 99 percent of our students are outstanding young men and women. It’s the other one percent that can cause problems for everyone else,” Marlette said Tuesday.

The superintendent said that he has “strong suspicions” as to who is responsible for the Friday threat.

• • •

A rash of vandalism and thefts have occurred on school property recently, including a broken windshield, items taken from cars, and loosened wheel lug nuts.

School staff members are researching the costs of installing security cameras at a variety of locations, both inside and outside the high school.

The District 417 school board had previously authorized the purchase of locker padlocks to be issued to students. Students will pay $6 for locks, and be able to get $5 back at the end of the school year. The school-issued locks could be opened with a master key in a school search, eliminating the need to cut the locks. Those locks are expected to be issued to students soon.

The student-owned locks were in use prior to the Friday bomb threat because the original combination locks on high school lockers had been removed because many did not work.

Sun sets on Mediterranean

Tracy landmark closes doors

An icon is disappearing from the Tracy business scene.

The Mediterranean Club—a dining out staple in Tracy since the 1969—closed this weekend. Owners Tom and Sue Morin say that, except for a March 19 Minnesota Waterfowl Banquet, the Mediterranean will remain closed, unless a buyer is found.

The Subway Restaurant located in the Mediterranean building will remain open.

“When we bought the Med, we thought that someday we would sell it somebody else and the Med would go on the way it always has,” said Sue Morin last week. “But it is not working out that way.”

She said that rising operating expenses, and a declining business, had made the business unprofitable.

She and Tom worked long hours and tried many different things to keep the Mediterranean open, she said.

“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” she said, of their 15 years of ownership.


Changing economics

Business conditions have changed dramatically since they took over the Mediterranean in 1990, Tom Morin said.

Competition increased significantly during that time span, with more restaurants and caterers vying for business in the same market. Indian—owned casinos emerged as a popular dining and entertainment destination. More young couples chose to get married somewhere besides their hometown, cutting into their wedding banquet business. Even some high school class reunions started migrating out-of-town.

Local demographics reflected an aging population that went out for a meal or a drink less and less. More retirees headed south for the winter months.

Tom said that he and Sue appreciated their customers, and the support they have received over the years. However, he said, today the Med simply doesn’t have enough customers. Ten years ago, the Mediterranean employed 50 to 55 people, Morin said, compared to 20 to 25 before last week’s closing.

On a typical Saturday night a decade ago, the Mediterranean would serve 300 to 400 meals, he said. Six or seven people would be needed to work the kitchen and seven waitresses to take care of the tables. This past year, most Saturday nights averaged 100 to 125 meals, with a 150 meal night being a busy night, Morin said. The staff was reduced to about three waitresses and three people in the kitchen.

At the same time, Morin explained, many of the Med’s fixed operating expenses, ranging from liability insurance to utility costs, steadily increased. Utility bills at the 8,500 square foot facility averaged $3,000 a month. Property taxes were about $500 a month. Insurance costs were about $24,000 a year, he said.

Morin said it was difficult to raise prices in the Tracy market to offset the increased operating expenses.

The Morins made three major changes to the Mediterranean during their tenure. They added a game room, and then a large ballroom, before adding the Subway restaurant about eight years ago.

The game room did well initially, Morin said, but ten pool and dart leagues have dwindled to two. The ballroom also started out strong, but banquet business is now only one-third of what it once was, he said.

“The community has been great,” Morin summed up. “But the numbers just aren’t there anymore.”


Subway remains open

Operations of the Subway Restaurant will be unaffected by the closure of the Mediterranean, Morin stressed. He and Sue will be the main full-time employees at Subway, which will have about eight full and part-time positions. Former Mediterranean employees will have first chance at openings at Subway, he said. Tom Morin will continue a job as a regional field representative for Subway.

The Morins hope to lease remaining space in the Mediterranean to other businesses. The future of the Mediterranean’s catering business has not been decided. Tom Morin said that they would like to continue catering operations, but it is uncertain whether that will be possible.

The Morins indicate that they are deeply appreciative of their Mediterranean employees.

“You spend so much time working with them, they are just like a second family to you,” Sue Morin said.

She said that while it was difficult to close the Mediterranean, they are maintaining a positive attitude.

“Your own attitude it the only thing that you can control,” she said. Besides, she added, running a business is not the most important thing in life. “I’ve had a son safely return not once, but twice, from a combat zone,” she said of her son, Justin, who served two combat tours with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Long history

The roots for the Mediterranean Club go back to 1935, when Andrew Gullickson established a small gas station at the site. A café, the Neon Inn Café, followed in 1940. Gullickson’s son, Orville, took over the cafe-gas station operation after World War II. In subsequent years, the Neon Inn Café became the first Tracy restaurant to offer innovations such as air conditioning, broasted chicken, and soft-serve ice cream.

In 1969, Robert Stellmach bought the Neon Inn, remodeled the facility, and opened a fine dining restaurant called it the Mediterranean Club. Operating in an era before the city issued split-liquor restaurant licenses, the Mediterranean was a “bottle club.” Restaurant patrons who wanted an alcoholic drink with their meals kept bottles of liquor at the Med, which served “set-ups” to patrons.

Gary Tholen, who had managed the catering and deli department for Hy-Vee in Marshall for five years, bought the Mediterranean from Stellmach in 1979. Changes instituted during Tholen’s 11-year tenure included a complete remodeling, a more casual family-dining atmosphere and menu, the addition of pizza ovens, and the offering of video movie rentals.

Tholen said that the closing of the Mediterranean, is a big loss for Tracy.

“Under Tom and Sue, all I ever heard about the Med was that it had good food and good service.”

Last-night patrons toast Mediterranean staff

The Mediterranean didn’t look anything like a restaurant that would soon be closing Saturday night.

Every dining room table was occupied. Virtually every chair was claimed. Diners stood in line at the buffet. Busy waitresses hustled between tables and the bustling clatter of the kitchen. Two bartenders filled drink orders.

Yet a hand-written bulletin-board notice from owners Tom and Sue Morin confirmed that Saturday was the Mediterranean’s last official night of business.

The evening was anything but business as usual.

At about 10 p.m., customers turned the tables on the Mediterranean staff. Like mutineers seizing control of a ship, customers seated the entire Mediterranean staff at a central location. George and Lori Hebig, Kim and Donna Daniels, Keith and Julie Rayman put on Mediterranean aprons and served champagne to Med employees. Customers then joined together in offering a toast to Mediterranean staff. For about a half-hour, people took turns singing the praises of the Mediterranean.

“We are sure going to miss this,” said Marge Robinson, dining with three friends in their regular corner table. “We’ve been coming here for a long time.”

• • •

Debbie Johnson, who has waitressed at the Mediterranean for 24 years, said Tuesday afternoon that she still hopes that something will happen to allow the Med to re-open.

“I just loved going to work there,” she said. Tuesday would normally be her night to return to work after the weekend, and Johnson said it “felt weird” that she didn’t have a job to go to.

Working at the Mediterranean, first for Gary Tholen, and then for Sue and Tom Morin, was like being part of “one big family.”

“I’ve spent a lot of nights, a lot of weekends, and a lot of holidays out there.” In her entire adult life, she has never had a Mother’s Day when she did not work at the Med.

• • •

Beatrice Maeyaert remembers helping bake 40 pizzas an hour at the Med.

“Pizza really went over when we first put that in,” she remembers. “We were the first place in Tracy that had pizza.”

A cook at the Med for 26 years before retiring in December, Maeyaert also remembers when it was common for the Med kitchen to crank out 300 to 400 meals on a Saturday night. The last Mother’s Day she worked, she made 180 pounds of hamburger into Swedish meatballs.

“It took a lot of teamwork,” she said of the kitchen preparations. She said she was “very sad” to hear the news that the Mediterranean was closing.

“This is really going to be a loss for Tracy.”

The closing is especially unfortunate, she added, because the Morins are extremely hard working people, who put in many long hours, often working seven days a week.

When she retired, Tom Morin had calculated that she had worked over 6,700 nights at the Med. What kept her coming back?

“I enjoyed working. I liked the people.”

• • •

Anna Mae Mickelson’s 32 years as a waitress spanned three owners at the Mediterranean. She was hired by Bob Stellmach, the founder of the Mediterranean, and subsequently worked for both Gary Tholen and Tom and Sue Morin.

“Working at the Med was a lot of fun,” she said. “It was my joy. I put my whole heart into it.”

She said that she always enjoyed coming to work.

“I guess I loved to be around people.”

The closing of the Med, she said, “makes me very sad that it has come to this. I don’t really understand it.” Not having the Med, she said, will be a big loss for Tracy.

“Tom and Sue were certainly wonderful bosses. My heart goes out to them,” she concluded.

• • •

Kris Knott, a waitress for the past three years, will also miss her job.

“We had so much fun. Tom and Sue were great to work for.”

That wasn’t to say, she said, that sometimes when work grew hectic, tempers couldn’t become frayed. But when everything had calmed down again, Knott said, the Mediterranean staff were able to laugh about it later.

Gas line location becomes issue in industrial park sale

The location of a natural gas pipeline has added a new wrinkle to a proposed sale of City of Tracy land used as a softball field.

The Tracy City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing Monday, March 14, at 7:10 p.m., on the possible sale of a 1.84 acre parcel of land in the Tracy Industrial Park. For the past three decades, the land has been used as a softball field. Tim Kulow, owner of the Tracy Area Funeral Home, has expressed interest in buying the property and building a 4,000 to 5,000 square foot funeral home at the site. The Tracy Economic Development Authority has recommended to the council that the land be sold to Kulow.

But a logistical obstacle to construction on the softball field site emerged last week. The main natural gas feeder line into Tracy slices through the center of the property.

Tracy Public Works Director Rick Robinson says that the location of the underground gas line would make construction on the site difficult, it not impossible. However, he said, it would be possible to move the pipeline.

“Anything can be moved.” He declined to speculate on what the cost would be for the gas company to relocate the line.

City Administrator Audrey Koopman said Monday that she guessed that moving the gas line would be very costly. She said that no one from the city has asked Aquila, the natural gas company that serves the city, for a cost estimate on moving the gas line.

• • •

Tracy Economic Development members discussed the gas line and the proposed land sale briefly Friday.

Sandi Rettmer, who also serves on the council, felt that the gas line would make the proposed funeral home construction on the south softball field a moot point. Some EDA members wondered if Kulow might be interested in another lot in the industrial park. Others felt that the Hwy. 14 accessibility was what made the softball field an attractive site for the new funeral home.

The site being proposed for the funeral home is the most southerly of two city-owned softball fields industrial park.

The softball fields date from the establishment of the Tracy Industrial Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The softball fields were built on lots that were platted as part of the industrial park, under the understanding that if the land was needed for commercial development, the recreational fields could be moved.

Tracy Bakery expected to re-open soon

If all goes as expected, the Tracy Bakery will re-open later this week.

The bakery has been closed since Tuesday, March 1, because of health problems encountered by owner and chief baker Ray Hay.

“Ray is on the road to recovery,” said his wife, Robin, on Monday. “We’re just waiting for doctors to give him the okay to go back to work.” She hopes that the medical green light will be given later this week, and that bakery operations can resume on about Friday.

Robin Hay said that her husband, 43, experienced a small stroke March 1. He was taken by ambulance to Tracy Hospital, after feeling nauseated and dizzy, she said. He was taken to see specialists later in the week at Sioux Valley Hospital, Sioux Falls, S.D. She said that Ray, 43, is feeling better, and that doctors are optimistic that the stroke was caught before inflicting any permanent damage.

The bakery has been closed, Robin Hay explained, because Ray is the only person at the bakery familiar with many baking operations. Their goal, she continued, is to continue running a bakery in Tracy.

The long-established downtown bakery specializes in homemade breads, rolls, cakes, and cookies. It is one of only a handful independently-operated “made from scratch” bakeries in the region. It employs five people.

Lake sewer clears hurdle, septic inspections backed

By Valerie Scherbart Quist

The Murray County Commissioners narrowly voted to move forward with planning for a Shetek-area centralized sewer plan Tuesday.

The commissioners approved, on a 3-2 vote, a resolution drafted by the Shetek Area Water and Sewer (SAWS) Commission that gives the go-ahead for an Environment Assessment Worksheet. Voting in favor of the motion were Lyle Onken, Alfred Gertsema, and Bill Sauer. Voting against the motion were Kevin Vickerman and Robert Moline.

Gertsema, the commissioners’ chairman, said the resolution was necessary to ensure available funding can be received if the project does move forward. According to the SAWS resolution, “the MPCA has to sign off of the EAW/EIS review to determine the eligibility for low interest PFA funds.”

“This resolution is protection more than anything else,” said Gertsema. “It doesn’t say we will do the centralized sewer.”

The SAWS Commission approved the resolution Monday recommending the commissioners move forward with the environmental review.

SAWS Chairman Dean Salmon told the commissioners that a few changes had been made to a resolution that the commission had passed last month. The number of homes within the Shetek Area Sewer District located in a flood plain was changed to approximately 200, Salmon said.

A paragraph was also added to reflect recent research on alternative options for the centralized system that could potentially reduce costs, Salmon said. Research has recently been done on a vacuum-type system as opposed to the gravity system outlined in the original centralized sewer plan.

The resolution states, “Whereas, the Shetek Area Water and Sewer Commission is interested and committed to providing the best central sewer system and value for the lowest cost. We will explore and work with Air Vac and their engineers on any other central system that can provide comparable service and installation at time of bidding.”

The resolution includes a proposed cap on the cost to individual homeowners at $15,000 for existing homes. Salmon said this is a goal of the SAWS Commission, and is not set in stone. The $15,000 figure does not include hook-up costs.


Inspections possible

A second commissioners’ motion directed the Shetek sewer and water commission to “seriously consider” moving forward with septic systems inspections in the sewer district.

The motion was approved unanimously.

Following the decision to approve the SAWS resolution, Moline made a motion to start inspections in the sewer district effective immediately, and to use an inspector from outside the county to avoid conflict of interest. Commissioner Vickerman seconded the motion, and following discussion about who would pay for the inspections, Moline pulled the motion.

Moline then made a second motion that inspections would begin immediately, and assessed to property owners.

County Auditor Gary Spaeth told commissioners that if the county wants to assess something to taxpayers, the assessment must reflect an improvement or result in increased value for the taxpayer.

Some questions were also raised as to whether the board of commissioners could make the call on moving forward with inspections, or if it was up to the sewer and water commission.

Following a recess for a county ditch hearing, Moline pulled the second motion as well, and the commissioners agreed to direct the SAWS Commission to look into inspections.

The commissioners also discussed the ordinances for centralized and non-centralized systems that would be needed if the county moves forward with the inspections, and who would pay for those ordinances to be drafted and published.

No motions were made on the ordinances.