While Covid certainly once again dominated discussion throughout the last year, there were other news of note from the Isanti and Chisago County area that, at least for a while, were on the tip of many’s tongues. 

Going against our OCD inclinations to keep this list at an even 20, here are 21 events that took place in the year 2021. These are not in any particular order of importance and some are taken out of chronological order.

Arrowhead transit takes over bus service

In early January, it was announced that Arrowhead Transit would be taking over the area’s bus service from Heartland Express. The official transition took place on March 1.

Two Kwik Trips coming to Cambridge

Also in January, the City of Cambridge made the announcement that not one, but two Kwik Trips were going to be built in Cambridge. The first location — in front of Menards and right next to Arby’s on Highway 95 on the far east end of town, is currently well on its way to being completed. The second location is on the south side of town on the lot formerly known as Westrom’s Corner. While the vacant building has been demolished, construction of the new building has yet to start.

While Kwik Trip dominated that announcement, two other businesses were also announced as soon to be opening. The first was Harbor Freight, which took over the old OfficeMax location and is now open. The second was Busy Boys restaurant, which was remodeling the former Sonic/Little Caesars building. For unknown reasons, that business has yet to open.

The City of Isanti keeps building

In other construction/opening news, the City of Isanti Council approved constructing a new municipal liquor store, along with an amphitheater in Bluebird Park.

The new, larger liquor store, which is located just east of Highway 65, just south of Coburn’s, held its grand opening just before Thanksgiving. The new amphitheater had a ribbon cutting ceremony in October. The venue is hoped to become the centerpiece of a number of events and activities in the park, including a possible mini version of Duluth’s Bentleyville.

Kirby Ekstrom

Known as “Mr. North Branch,” North Branch School Board chair Kirby Ekstrom stepped down from his post due to his moving outside the district. The school board appointed Jesse LaValla to fill Ekstrom’s seat for at least the remainder of 2021, with LaValla then being elected to finish Ekstrom’s term in an uncontested election in November.

The district saw a second opening in December as Tanya Giese resigned in order to take another position at North Branch Area High School. Her seat will remain empty until the board appoints her replacement in January.

First vaccines administered

Isanti and Chisago County Public Health began administering their first doses of Covid vaccines in the middle of January, with the first doses going to essential city and county personnel. 

As the year went along, the list of who was eligible to receive doses continued to grow, plus a booster shot program was rolled out. Despite the eventual widespread availability of the vaccines, the area consistently ranked low in the state in the number of vaccines administered, much to the repeated chagrin of public health officials.

N. B. one act repeats as section champs

The North Branch Theatre Department scored the second-in-a-row (and only third overall) section championship with its performance of “Fighting Demons.” Due to Covid, however, the state one-act competition was held virtually, meaning the troupe had to present a video of their performance for judges rather than doing it live.

With this section championship, either North Branch or Cambridge-Isanti had claimed the last four Section 7AA championships.

Athletic achievements galore

As a whole, both North Branch and Cambridge-Isanti sports teams had successful seasons in 2021. Highlighting these accomplishments include:

C-I gymnastics winning the Mississippi 8 Conference. However, the Jackets did see their 11-consecutive section championship streak snapped.

North Branch gymnast Dakota Esget took fourth place at state on the bars.

Cambridge-Isanti girls basketball made their third-straight section championship game appearance, claiming the runner-up trophy.

North Branch softball claimed their second-ever section championship by defeating Chisago Lakes.

Cambridge-Isanti girls track and field won the section true team meet on their home track.

C-I boys high jumper Jacob Ziebarth took first in the event at state. C-I pole vaulter Ethan Hintermeister took second in that event. North Branch’s Paige Bauer too third in the girls pole vault. C-I’s 4x200 girls relay also took third.

In the fall sports season, both North Branch girls soccer and football teams claimed section runner-up trophies.

The C-I girls team claimed their first-ever Mississippi8 Conference championship.

Bluejacket girls basketball player Mikayla Aumor signed a letter of intent with the University of North Dakota, making her the first Jacket girls basketball player to earn a Division I scholarship.

High speed chase ends south of Braham

A high speed chase of a carjacking suspect that started in Blaine came to conclusion at the intersection of Highways 65 and 107 after the suspect crashed into the median. In the ensuing brief foot chase, the suspect would shoot at and wound a Anoka County K9 officer, prompting law enforcement to open fire, fatally shooting the suspect.

C-I Schools reduces budget, earns voter-approved referendum

For the third year in a row, the Cambridge-Isanti School District was forced to trim its budget due to revenue shortfalls. This year’s reduction was by $1.7 million.

Because of these reductions, the C-I School Board approved requesting an operating referendum from voters for the second-straight election. The results of the voting was the approval of both referendum questions by approximately 63% in favor.

Some Isanti County Commissioner decisions become ‘controversial’

The Isanti County Commissioners became the subjects of scrutinization for a trio of decisions made in 2021.

The first was its voting to make the position of auditor/treasurer an appointed position rather than an elected one. This action raised the angst of a number of residents who felt their right to vote was being taken away. Later in the year, when the subject of doing the same with the County Recorder, that vote failed due to a lack of a super-majority. Both actions were part of an effort by the county to streamline its services and make them more “customer friendly.”

The third debatable decision was the spending of Covid relief money on a mental wellness program dubbed “The Orange Frog Project.”

Vehicle, train collision causes minor injuries

In late March, three juveniles escaped serious injuries after the car one of them was driving collided with a train at an intersection north of Isanti. 

North Branch turns on city-wide broadband

After a bit of financial maneuvering in order to make the installation of signal towers economically feasible thanks to federal Covid relief money, the City of North Branch turned on a ceremonial “switch” that enables every area of the city to have access to high-speed internet service.

Lynda Woulfe retires

After 15 years of serving as city administrator for the City of Cambridge, Lynda Woulfe officially retired from her position. Woulfe has kept busy since her leaving her position, however, taking on the role of interim city administrator while Pine City — her city of residence, conducted a search for a new permanent city administrator. Woulfe is currently filling a similar role with the City of Braham after its city administrator departed.

Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, Assistant City Administrator Evan Vogel took over Woulfe’s position. And after having it briefly filled, the city is conducting a search for a new assistant city administrator.

Highway 95 construction

Commuters between Cambridge and Princeton spent the entire summer traversing a long detour as almost that entire stretch of Highway 95 was under construction. Included in the work was the addition of a roundabout at the intersection of Highway 95 and County Road 47.

Body of missing Isanti woman found

At the same time as the celebration of Grace McCallum, the City of Isanti made statewide headlines following the disappearance of Amanda Jo Vangrinsven after she was last seen leaving the Isanti VFW. Following a five-day search for her, Vangrinsven’s body was found on the property of Richard Melvin Peterson, who was also identified as the last person seen with Vangrinsven.

One week after finding her deceased, Peterson was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Peterson is still in jail awaiting trial on the charge.

North Branch starts absorbing Water and Light

Following even more “drama” within North Branch Water and Light that included a severe staff shortage following multiple resignations (including two NBW&L Commission members), the City of North Branch began the process of absorbing all functions of NBW&L. This process, which the city said could take at least a year to fully implement, will most likely lead to the city council calling for a referendum vote on the abolishment of the commission. 

The most important results of these actions, however, is the projection of significant decreases in customers’ bills.

Isanti makes the Olympics

Isanti gymnast Grace McCallum qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, helping the U.S. team claim the silver medal. Upon her return, the city declared Aug 7 to be “Grace McCallum Day” and honored their Olympian with a welcome home ceremony during the intermission of the street dance. McCallum has since participated in a national exhibition tour and is currently preparing to compete for the University of Utah in their upcoming season.

North Branch experiences vape shop headaches

In the duration of three months, the City of North Branch revoked the tobacco license of Cloud X Vapes due to selling to minors and other discovered violations; upheld that revocation; declined a tobacco license for a “new” owner of the store due to multiple irregularities involving the sale of the business; approved a tobacco license to a former employee who wanted to purchase the business; and finally revoking that license after discovering continued violations of selling to minors.

Braham man named Minnesota Outstanding Senior

Braham’s Art Kounonen, who along with his wife Edie were named both the 2020 and 2021 Isanti County Outstanding Senior Citizens, was selected as the state of Minnesota’s Outstanding Men’s Senior Citizen of the Year during a ceremony held during the State Fair. Edie was also named as the Minnesota Outstanding Woman’s Senior Citizen of the Year Runner-up during the same ceremony.

C-I Schools change busing schedule

Another action taken by the Cambridge-Isanti School Board was meant to be a cost-cutting and streamlined service for students, however it hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.

The action taken was to rearrange the school days at each of the schools in order to incorporate a two-tiered schedule so that younger students would be picked up earlier, brought to school, and then the older students would get picked up.

This system, which has been proven to be effective in other districts, has yet to achieve the desired results due to the severe shortage of bus drivers experienced by most districts across the state and nation.

Popular events return

With the lifting of most Covid restrictions and distribution of vaccines, life began to somewhat return to normal, including the return of several summertime staples.

The most popular returning events for the area included in-person graduation ceremonies, Memorial Day services, the North Branch Midsummer Days, the Isanti Rodeo/Jubilee Days, both Isanti and Chisago County Fairs, the Cambridge Customer Appreciation Day, the North Branch Fall Fest, and the Cambridge Lighted Snowflake Parade.

Hopefully all of those events, plus even more will return for 2022.

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