Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nominees for top story of the year

By The Associated Press

Published: Monday, December 7, 2009 12:00 AM CST

Downtown Master Plan Approved -- In January, Owensboro City Commission members unanimously approved a municipal order to support the $80-million downtown master plan, which calls for a convention center, hotel, arts academy and other amenities to be built along the city's riverfront. Two days later, Daviess Fiscal Court approved a similar resolution. By year's end, Fiscal Court had approved funding for a downtown convention center, and officials were considering bid proposals for a downtown hotel.

Ice Storm -- A steady rain coupled with subfreezing temperatures led to an ice storm in late January unlike any ever seen in Kentucky, and particularly ravaged the western part of the state. Trees and power lines buckled under the strain, leaving tens of thousands of local residents without power for days, and caused Gov. Steve Beshear to declare a state of emergency and President Barack Obama to declare the state a major disaster area.

Economic Woes -- The Owensboro area, like much of the country, has seen unemployment soar into double digits this year, reaching the highest level in more than 25 years. More than 800 manufacturing jobs have been lost and another 350 or more are already scheduled to disappear in 2010. Two plants that have been part of the local economy since 1945 -- GE and HON -- will close in 2010.

McRaith Steps Down -- After serving the Diocese of Owensboro for 26 years, the Most Rev. John J. McRaith's resignation was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI. McRaith, 74, cited his health as the main reason for his retirement in January. The Diocese of Owensboro covers 32 counties in the western third of the state, serving more than 60,000 Catholics.

Insurance Premium Tax Increase -- The Owensboro City Commission and Daviess Fiscal Court voted in February to raise the city and county's insurance premium taxes to pay for the downtown development project. The city's tax rate increased from 4 percent to 6 percent in 2009 and will increase again to 8 percent in July 2010. The county's tax rate increased from 4.9 percent to 6.9 percent this year and to 8.9 percent next year. The tax applies to auto, homeowners, boat and casualty insurance policies, but not health insurance plans.

City Buys Big E, Then Implodes It -- The Owensboro City Commission approved purchasing the Executive Inn Rivermont property from Marshall Investments for $5 million. In June, a company hired by the city began selling furniture and memorabilia still inside the closed hotel. And in November, a big crowd watched as the Big E was imploded as part of a documentary that will appear on The Learning Channel.

Flights Return -- Commercial air service returned to the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport in February as Allegiant Air began flights between Owensboro and Orlando, Fla. The service proved popular, and by year's end, Allegiant was offering flights for as low as $9.99 in an effort to help the airport reach 10,000 passengers and qualify for a $1 million in federal funds. Later in the year, Kentucky Skies began offering commercial flights between Owensboro and Nashville.

OMHS Honored -- In February, Owensboro Medical Health System received the HealthGrades Distinguished Hospital for Clinical Excellence Award for 2009, an honor that put it among the top 5 percent of rated hospitals in the United States. OMHS was one of five Kentucky hospitals to receive the award.

CATS Overhaul -- The way schools are measured in Kentucky was drastically overhauled in March, when the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, which eliminated the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System and charged the Kentucky Department of Education with developing new standards and a new test for the 2011-12 school year based largely on lawmakers' mandates.

River Wall Work Begins -- The first piles for the river wall project were driven in April. The wall is the primary component of a project that will triple the size of Smothers Park and include an inlet and waterfall feature and overlooks at the foot of Frederica, St. Ann and Allen streets. By year's end, city officials predicted the entire riverfront project would be completed by 2012.

OMU Rate Hike -- OMU officials proposed a 27 percent increase on residential electric bills in April, but the proposal was met by skepticism from the public and city officials. Eventually, the Owensboro City Commission called for an outside expert to look at the proposal. The City Commission later approved the rate increase, though it was slightly lower than what was originally requested.

Mullen Murder Mystery Solved -- A Christian County jury convicted three men in May for the 1987 slaying of a Central City woman and handed down the maximum possible sentences for each of them.

Former Central City Police Officer Billy Fields, Jeff Boyd and Jimmie Cramer were found guilty on charges related to the death of Corinna Mullen, whose nude, mutilated body was found in the trunk of her car parked behind the municipal garage in Central City, on Oct. 2, 1987. The jury handed down a 60-year prison sentence for Cramer and life sentences for Boyd and Fields.

Gastenveld Replaced, Lawsuits Follow -- Paula Gastenveld was removed as president of Owensboro Community & Technical College in May and reassigned to the offices of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System in Versailles. KCTCS President Michael McCall gave no reason for the change. Gastenveld later filed a lawsuit against McCall, some administrators at OCTC and several local officials. In an effort to learn more about why Gastenveld was dismissed, the Messenger-Inquirer filed several open records requests for documents pertaining to the performance of Gastenveld and others named in the lawsuit, but those requests were denied. The state Attorney General's Office ruled the documents should be made public, but KCTCS sued the Messenger-Inquirer in order to block their release. As of December, both lawsuits are still pending.

Swine Flu -- The H1N1 virus, or "swine flu," was on the minds of health officials and residents alike as the pandemic that hit tens of thousands of people around the United States began showing up locally. In May, Daviess County health officials recorded the first case of swine flu in the county. In August, the H1N1 virus hit Muhlenberg County hard, with about 50 cases reported. And by October, area residents were lining up to get the limited doses of the vaccine for the H1N1 virus.

Riverport Sale Considered -- Mayor Ron Payne announced the formation of a committee in June to study whether the Owensboro Riverport should be privatized. The committee met several times throughout the year, and in December issued a series of recommendations that, while stopping short of calling for the port to be sold, could significantly alter how the port is operated.

Haire Bowing Out -- Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire, who has held the position since 1998, announced in August that he would not seek re-election in 2010. "I sense it's time to transition to new individuals," Haire said.

Ice Arena Opens -- The Edge Ice Center, Owensboro's $6.5 million public ice skating arena between the Sportscenter and National Guard Armory on West Parrish Avenue west of Moreland Park, opened to the public in August.

Muhlenberg Merger -- After months of discussion and planning, the merged Muhlenberg County High School opened its doors to students in August.

Extreme Home Makeover -- Thousands of community volunteers came together with Thompson Homes in September to build a new home for the Steven Mattingly family of Maceo as part of the ABC reality TV show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Mattingly, a Yelvington volunteer firefighter, was struck by a car in December 2007 while directing traffic at a fire. His wife, Melissa Mattingly, witnessed the accident and used her EMT training to give him CPR and keep him alive.

Bypass Extension Begins -- Gov. Steve Beshear came to Owensboro in September to break ground for the first phase of the U.S. 60/U.S. 231 bypass extension, which will extend the highway from Kentucky 54 to U.S. 60 East near Hawesway Truck Plaza. That phase will cost $34.2 million and should be finished in 2011. When completed, the bypass extension will become part of a new four-lane corridor from Owensboro to Interstate 64 at Dale, Ind.

New Hospital Moves Forward -- OMHS faced several challenges to its plans to build a new hospital between Daniels Lane and Pleasant Valley Road, but eventually those hurdles were crossed and the project continues to move forward. As part of that process, the Owensboro City Commission approved an ordinance giving its go-ahead to OMHS to borrow up to $575 million in state-issued bonds.

Principal Charged With Sex Crimes -- Allison Brant, a former principal at St. Mary of the Woods Catholic school who resigned after allegations were made, was charged in October with rape and sodomy, after police said she had sex with a 15-year-old boy. Police would not confirm if the boy was a student at the school. Brant pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Moving Wall Returns -- The Moving Wall, a traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, returned to Owensboro in November for the first time in 10 years. The Wall, which was set up in Moreland Park, contains 71 names of Owensboro-area men who were killed in Vietnam between 1965 and 1971.

Convenience Store Robbery, Killing -- In November, Suba Singh of Henderson was shot and killed during a burglary of the Bon Harbor Convenience Store. Brock Antonio Hanley, 27, of Owensboro was later arrested in Louisville and charged with murder.

City Buys State Office Building, Ben Hawes Park -- The City Commission reached consensus in early December to buy the state building from the state for $1.74 million. As part of the deal, the city will also take possession of the 553.5-acre Ben Hawes State Park.

The state office building, at Second and Frederica streets, is on the spot where the master plan for downtown revitalization calls for a convention center hotel to be built.