Top Ten Stories of 2017
It was an event unlike anything we will ever experience again. Community leaders led by Karla Niedan-Streeks and Brenda Leisy planned for a year to welcome the visitors that would be here and while many of them chose to view it outside of Scottsbluff and Gering, the 2017 solar eclipse did not disappoint.
During a post eclipse debriefing done by the committee that planned the activities associated with the event, organizers said the number of visitors that went through Scottsbluff and Gering probably reached an estimated 20,000 or more. Scotts Bluff National Monument Superintendent Dan Morford said Agate Fossil Beds National Monument staffers estimated they hosted 15,000 people on eclipse day. With the estimated 3,500 people at the three visitor locations in Scottsbluff and others who viewed the eclipse from north of Scottsbluff-Gering, law enforcement had to deal with a three hour traffic jam on the south edge of Gering as the visitors, many from Colorado, all tried to exit on Highway 71.
Alliance had a similar issue as those who chose Carhenge to view the eclipse tried to leave following the event. Governor Pete Ricketts and his family watched the amazing event at Carhenge.
Violent storms which included tornadoes, straight line winds, and hail caused damage in many areas across the panhandle and eastern Wyoming on the evening of June 12th, but the community of Bayard was certainly hit the hardest. The city did not get power restored to all sectors for several days, and the north part of town suffered structural damage.
Chimney Rock Villa suffered extensive damage, including to its roof, forcing evacuation of residents to other facilities. There were a number of trees toppled in the town’s cemetery and golf course. Chimney Rock Public Power lost an estimated 150 poles. The tornado did the most significant damage to a farmhouse about 6 miles northeast of Bayard, where the home’s roof was taken off and numerous exterior walls were destroyed. A detached garage was swept clean and a flat bed and horse trailer were lifted 100 yards.
The weather service said the tornado, with winds estimated at well over 100 miles per hour, traveled east along L-62A producing widespread damage to outbuildings, rolling a mobile home and semi-tractor trailer, twisting center pivots, and damaging more trees.
Volunteers and equipment from surrounding communities converged on Bayard and within a couple days had miraculously cleaned up much of the town’s debris. The Bayard Fire Department and Fire Chief Mike Harimon were honored by Lt. Governor Mike Foley with one of Nebraska’s 2017 “Be Prepared Awards” for their response to the storm. Chimney Rock Villa held a Grand Reopening in September after repairs and renovations.
Former Scottsbluff High golf coach Mike Klein was sentenced to 24 to 32 years in prison after he entered no contest pleas last month to four counts of first degree sexual assault of a minor.
The 62 year old Klein initially faced 20 charges, 15 of them felonies, following a lengthy four month investigation by Scottsbluff Police, begun after one of the victims came forward due to the risk to other victims. The second victim was identified in the course of the investigation.
Klein eventually agreed to plea guilty to the four counts as part of a plea bargain arrangement with the prosecution. Klein is eligible for parole in twelve years with good time.
The assaults also produced a civil suit, filed by one of the victims against Klein, the Scottsbluff School District and the Scotts Bluff Country Club, where the girls practiced.
A Scotts Bluff County District Court jury deliberated for three hours in November before finding 65 year old Lucio Munoz of Scottsbluff guilty of first degree murder of then girlfriend Melissa May on New Year’s Eve of last year at the R.C. Scot Apartments in Scottsbluff. May’s body was not found until January 3rd.
Munoz was also found guilty of use of a dangerous weapon to commit a felony.
The victim was found stabbed multiple times in Munoz’ apartment. Evidence and testimony during the trial indicated Munoz stabbed May because he falsely believed she was cheating on him. He quickly left the area to visit his brother in Bradley, Illinois, where he was arrested and he agreed to be extradited back to Scotts Bluff County for trial.
During the trial, testimony about statements Munoz made to his son, brother, and Police amounted to a confession. Munoz faces life in prison when he is sentenced January 8th.
The community is hoping that Skywest, flying as United Express, will be the answer to Scottsbluff’s continuing essential air service
Community leaders were excited when Alaska Based PenAir was announced in 2016 as the airline to replace troubled Great Lakes Aviation as Scottsbluff’s essential air service carrier for daily flights to Denver. But as the year went by the same reliability, plane and pilot issues occurred as PenAir had difficulties expanding what had been a reliable service in Alaska, the Northwest and New England to the Midwest.
PenAir eventually declared bankruptcy and stopped providing service September 30th, leaving Scottsbluff without essential air service until January 30th when SkyWest will try to do what others have not using a 50 seat jet.
In March, a $24 million bond issue to renovate Gering High School passed. The final numbers were 1,366 in favor of the bond issue and only 544 against, an overwhelming majority.
The bond issue is scheduled to fund an addition that will move 150-170 ninth graders to the high school and make needed renovations to the 51 year old school, including major physical upgrades to the HVAC system and a more secure front entrance area.
In January, it was a monumental day for Scottsbluff High School, as district officials ushered in a new era for their newly renovated school with a ribbon cutting ceremony to commemorate the completion of Phase I of their $29.2 million renovation project. The second phase is expected to be complete next spring.
It was a difficult year for some local restaurants. During the last two months, five local restaurants closed.
The Gering Pizza Hut, Whiskey Creek, The Shed in downtown Scottsbluff, Papa Johns, and M.J.’s all closed.
Many of the Pizza Hut employees moved to the Scottsbluff Pizza Hut. At Whiskey Creek, owner Jim Gardner said he lost $100,000 since a quarter million dollar renovation last year and couldn’t take the hit anymore. Papa Johns was the victim, at least in part, of being connected to the franchise’s sponsorship of the NFL and unpopular player protests during the national anthem.
Wendy’s on the Scottsbluff-Gering Highway also closed unexpectedly at the first of the year.
It may be over on Tuesday, but Croell Incorporated’s effort to locate a regional office and batch plant has been in the news for much of the year.
Initially the company wanted to locate in the new Gering Industrial Park, but a reluctance on the part of the Gering council to act on the company’s request brought criticism of the council from many residents and business people. It also brought back old wounds from people upset the city had invested over $2 million for parcels on the east end of town designated for future economic development.
Eventually Croell agreed to locate on land owned by the city of Scottsbluff three miles east of town, but that was opposed by family members and supporters of an organic health farm next to the property purchased by Croell. The issue is now in the hands of the county commissioners, who are expected to decide Tuesday on whether to grant a conditional use permit for the project.
A forme music teacher convicted of scamming her students and their parents out of thousands of dollars for a trip to Disney World that was never booked was sentenced to prison.
34-year-old Stacia Keener, whose acts impacted many families including one who had paid $8,300 up-front for the trip, was sentenced to 4 to 8 years in prison on two felony theft by deception charges. She was also sentenced to one year in prison on five misdemeanor theft by deception charges. All seven counts will run concurrently.
Keener also agreed to pay more than $29,000 in restitution to the families she stole from.
Once she is released from prison, her sentence for stealing roughly $250,000 from her grandfather will begin. Keener was sentenced to five years of probation in that case, and restitution was not sought.
Keener was arrested back in April after her grandfather reported the missing funds. An investigation revealed that over a four year period, she had conjured up stories about financial trouble, and asked her grandfather to help her out. During the course of that investigation, authorities discovered the embezzling of funds from her music students after Keener had taken vacations to Hawaii, Disney Land, Disney World, and two-and-a-half weeks to Europe.
10. Reason to Cheer
In April, the community received word that a group of Gering High students led by teacher Justin Reinmuth were among the three national winners at the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow national awards luncheon in Washington, D.C.
Reinmuth and his students were honored for their innovative project that involved putting herbicides into an aerosol, with targeted application being done using a drone.
As one of the three national winners, Gering High School received $150,000 in technology products such as LED TVs, laptops and tablets. Additionally, Gering earned a $20,000 donation from the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research & Extension Center.
Then this fall, Reinmuth’s students were the state winner in the 2018 Samsung contest for their three-stage filtering system that catches micro-plastics from your clothes normally disposed into the water system when you are washing them. They will now compete again in the national competition.
The other reason to cheer, the announcement this month by Old West Balloon Fest Executive Director Colleen Johnson that Mitchell, Scottsbluff, and Gering will host the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships for three years from 2019 through 2021.
The projected overall economic impact from the event is a combined $1.2 million.