By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Winsted officials are cautiously exploring the possibility of keeping skydiving in town under the ownership of Kristin Merritt, but they’re not jumping into a new agreement just yet.
“There just hasn’t been enough information,” Council Member Bonnie Quast said at Tuesday’s work session.
Council Member Tom Ollig added that before approving anything, “We all want to see the new contract and what’s in it.”
He noted that he has no desire to put a local entity out of business because of what one person did, and that his aim is also to protect the city and the other hangar owners.
The “one person” he referred to is former Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson, who was indicted by a Colorado grand jury in March for his involvement in an extensive drug ring.
Merritt said she had been in a relationship with Johnson until about two years ago. After their relationship ended, she continued to be involved in Westside Skydivers, which has locations in Winsted and in Texas.
“I considered leaving, but I’ve been here since day one, and I’ve invested a lot of my own money into the business,” she said.
City Attorney Fran Eggert said Merritt has a restraining order against Johnson, preventing him from coming within 300 feet of her or the hangar where she works.
Council Member George Schulenberg noted he doesn’t want Johnson on the airport property at all, and Eggert responded that he has already e-mailed Johnson’s attorney, Brian Toder, to ask if this is a possibility.
Toder had also been representing Merritt, but Eggert said that is no longer the case. Eggert also noted that some people thought Merritt and Johnson had two children together. He explained that while Merritt does, in fact, have two children, they do not belong to Johnson.
Merritt said there were many things Johnson did that she did not agree with, and she hopes to start fresh.
“It’s a lot of damage control for me,” she said. “I’m up for it, and I know I can do it.”
A couple who lives near the airport, Randy and Linda Nelson, attended Tuesday’s work session to voice their concern about the airplanes used for skydiving.
“It is extremely noisy, going over my house all day,” Linda said, adding that she works nights, and the noise makes daytime sleeping difficult.
Merritt took the couple’s phone number, and said she will look into that to see if there is anything they can do.
“I’m sure I won’t be able to please everybody, but I’ll do my best,” she said.
“You have an opportunity to right a lot of wrongs,” Mayor Steve Stotko told Merritt, explaining that it will take time to gain back trust.
“If you’re willing to give me a chance, I would appreciate it and my staff would appreciate it,” Merritt said. “I think we can do some really good things.”
Skydive the Lakes
Merritt said she would like to call the new operation “Skydive the Lakes.”
“I love skydiving, I love what I do, and we have a good business here,” she said. “There’s nowhere to go but up.”
At the regular council meeting following the work session, Gerald Gray, who lives on County Road 9 southeast of the airport, spoke in favor of allowing Merritt to operate the business.
“I’m here to support the skydiving operation,” he said, adding that he brings a group out there to jump each fall, and hopes to do that again this year.
If a new agreement is signed, under a new LLC, it would most likely be valid through the end of 2015. From there, the council could determine if the arrangement should continue into the future.
The agreement would likely include language that prevents Merritt from selling the business without written consent from the council, and a clause stating that any illegal activity would be grounds for termination.
Although Merritt’s new contract would be separate from Westside Skydivers, the city has been working with federal entities to determine if Westside Skydivers violated its contract. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) referred the City of Winsted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for this case. After an investigation has been completed, the council will look at the findings to determine if additional action needs to be taken.
For background on this story, see articles printed on page 1A of the March 30 and April 13 editions of the Herald Journal.