Bengtson Column: Wins for Crookston in 2021

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

Holy moly, what a year 2021 has been. So many changes for the Crookston Times, for myself and my family, and even for the community. There have been some wonderful celebration-worthy happenings and that is what this column will focus on. Mind you, I’m not naive. There have been some unfortunate circumstances for our area as well with COVID-19 still running rampant and upping the virus-related deaths in our own county to 91 and over 10,000 deaths for the state of Minnesota, prices on what seems like everything skyrocketed, fires displaced families, accidents put people in the hospital, crimes put people behind bars, plus other negative occurrences. But… let’s not focus on the latter.

In no particular order, here are a handful of 2021 Crookston wins:

1. Ox Cart Days catches national attention from Hershey’s: You’ve seen the articles, you’ve flipped through the photos and you may have even watched the video produced during the annual summer festival in Crookston. Hershey’s, yes, that Hershey’s, came to Crookston in 2021. It all started with brainstorming at a festival committee meeting and discussing an idea stemming off a Hershey’s commercial that involved s’mores and a community coming together. The idea was followed by months of planning, a custom design, and construction of fire tables by Crookston High School teacher Travis Oliver and his Industrial Tech students. With local media attention being shared around the country, Hershey’s picked up on the Times’ story and unique event idea, and reached out to see if they could somehow get in on it whether that meant supplying chocolate for the s’mores event or gathering more information about how it all came together. Well, that first conversation turned into a few more and before the town of 7,800 people knew it Hershey’s announced they would be coming to Crookston to participate in the Ox Cart Days Community S’mores event! After that mind-blowing announcement came another insane offer to send a pallet of chocolate bars. 40,000 to be exact. Wait, what? At first some of the committee members didn’t think it would be possible, but the Crookston Visitors Bureau board took the mic and told festival leaders to “bring it on.” Soon it was August, the whole town was buzzing, the fire tables made their debut in the pouring rain under canopies at the Crookston Sports Center, Hershey’s was there with video cameras and a production crew in tow, and a pallet of chocolate was delivered by forklift to the center of the CSC event arena floor with the community in awe. It was glorious. The whole thing. The whole festival. But Hershey’s made it that much more special.

2. Highland Elementary School recognized as one of the top schools in Minnesota: U.S. News & World Report analyzed 1,789 schools in Minnesota, and recently came up with the top ranked schools of 2021. Crookston’s Highland Elementary’s high ranking earned them eligibility to display U.S. News “Best Elementary Schools” award badge for this school year! Highland was among the top 30% of elementary schools in the state and the rankings were a composite of how well students did in reading and math state assessments as well as how each demographic performed. Former Highland principal Ray Dusek told the Times he can’t think of a time the school was ever ranked that high and that the current principal and all the teachers and students should be proud of their accomplishment. Mayor Dale Stainbrook even proclaimed Highland as a “Best Elementary School” for the 2021-2022 school year at a recent City Council meeting. This honor is now at the top of the attraction list for families interested in our community and the school district should continue to shout it from the rooftops. Congrats again, Highland!

3. Crookston Visitors Bureau leads effort for new welcome signs: After the new CVB was formed, there was a laundry list of items that turned into goals for the nonprofit’s first year including updated visitors guides, a new website, giving out marketing grants, hiring a Tourism Coordinator and coming up with the 2022 budget. (All checked off, by the way) What they didn’t expect to do was lead the effort for new welcome signs on the north and south entrances of Crookston. Sure, the old welcome signs were aging and one was even crumbling but they still seemed to be holding their weight. Yet a new organization meant new leaders and new ideas, and the effort to renew Crookston’s welcome signs to something more attractive and contemporary sprang up. Many partners were brought in from CHEDA, MNDOT, City of Crookston Council members and reps, a Crookston High School Industrial Technology teacher, local landscaping business owners, a local print shop and designer, a local sign manufacturer, and others who were interested in making it happen. A group effort brought the project forward fast and the end result was something unique and somewhat cost effective. The new signs were put into place this summer and shine a renewed light on the city as it looks toward the future. There are also plans to add a third welcome sign at the east end of town. Wondering what happened to the old signs? Don’t worry. The old sign that was salvageable was placed at the Downtown Square and received a fresh coat of paint to help extend its life and remind residents that everyone is welcome in Crookston.

4. Minnesota Department of Transportation and City of Crookston work towards making downtown safer: Discussions about Crookston’s downtown and its safety have been ongoing for years, and MNDOT and the city made a step forward late this fall by removing the right turn lane from Robert Street onto Broadway and took out some of the parking spaces nearest that corner to allow for wider safer turns by industrial vehicles. The move was unfortunately done after a tragic, but thankfully not fatal this time, accident on that corner where a 10-year-old girl was hit by a semi and dragged over a block. The city and state entities have also moved forward with a corridor study to evaluate transportation and pedestrian needs of Highway 2 in Crookston, and possible solutions could come to light in the summer of 2022 after work sessions by a community review panel and other open houses and public surveys are complete. What comes from the study we will find out soon and where the money will come from to get the work done will also be answered before the potential project begins in 2024. What we do know is that these entities are working towards making Crookston safer and we should be thankful even if the wins are smaller before the bigger ones can happen.

5. Crookston Times purchased by media company who wants to open our doors back to the community: What feels like 84 years ago in 2019, your local newspaper was part of a $1.1 billion takeover where GateHouse Media purchased USA Today publisher Gannett and formed the country’s largest newspaper company. The merger brought over almost 300 daily newspapers and hundreds of weeklies including the bi-weekly Crookston Times which has been publishing print editions since 1885. The almost two years after that were tumultuous, meaning they were loud, confusing, exciting, uproarious and disorderly. COVID happened, the company’s belt-tightening happened, our office doors closed due to the pandemic and early retirements and buy-outs were offered to almost all of our employees. The buy-outs picked off Times employees one-by-one and resignations started to happen, too. In the end it left yours truly, one brand new sports reporter and our delivery driver. We tried to keep a positive attitude about the situation and wondered if we kept our heads down far enough that the big corporate giant wouldn’t see us and cut that last string closing our doors for good. And then, suddenly, a knight in shining armor in the form of CherryRoad Media showed up to save the day. They’re going to let us open our doors to the community again and finally enjoy those conversations we’ve been missing, they’re letting us hire a part-time office manager to better communicate with our readers, subscribers and advertisers; we’ll be simplifying our website, that awful phone tree is gone, and we’ll have the freedom to do what we love which is connect with the Crookston area and publish local and regional news for anyone who wants to read it. When one door closes another opens, right? Here’s to a fresh start in 2022. Thank you for sticking with us.

Times Editor Jess Bengtson