Looking back at the top local events of 2019
The calendar is about to flip from the 2010s to the 2020s and as everyone awaits a new year, it seems fitting to look back at the past year and remember the biggest local news moments from 2019.
The year saw some transition in local leadership, some key additions to the community, some noteworthy losses and some moments that set the year apart from others in recent memory. Here are 10 stories or events that rose to the top.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy developments of the year happened near its end. Les Schwab Tire Centers announced less than two weeks ago that the 68-year-old company that launched in Prineville is considering selling. Chief Executive Officer Jack Cuniff said the board and shareholders, who are all relatives of founder Les Schwab, decided to seek new ownership.
The company hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to represent Les Schwab in the sales process, which is expected to take several months. The tire giant is working with an adviser to weigh alternatives such as divesting its real estate portfolio, which is worth at least $2 billion. The company has $1.8 billion in annual revenue and more than 450 locations in 10 states.
Cuniff notified employees of the decision on Dec. 23 in a companywide email.
"We believe bringing new ownership is the best way to honor Les' vision for the company and support its growth and innovation," he stated. "The Les Schwab family are responsible stewards, and the decision to sell the company was made after much consideration. It was not made lightly."
Cuniff went on to acknowledge that they expect employees to have many questions about this news, now and in the coming months.
"There will be things we know, but many more things we do not," he stated. "What I do know is our outstanding employees, our programs and our customers are what make this company valuable. A new owner will want to take advantage of all three and drive this company to even greater success in the future. I am excited to be a part of this transition with all of you."
After years of pining for a new jail to replace an aging jail in significant disrepair and waiting out some minor construction delays, the new Crook County Jail was finally introduced to the public in a grand opening event held in late June.
The tone of the event was joyous and lighthearted as multiple guest speakers took the stage erected just outside the front door of the new facility. Crook County Undersheriff James Savage led off the event, inviting several different county and law enforcement leaders past and present to speak. Speakers included current Sheriff John Gautney, as well as his predecessor, Jim Hensley, and Rodd Clark, who served as sheriff for many years before him. All three played critical roles in development of the new jail. Crook County Judge Seth Crawford and Commissioner Brian Barney also addressed the crowd, as did Mike O'Herron and Von Thompson who co-chaired a citizen-led public safety committee that helped move the jail effort forward.
The approximately 300 people in attendance were then invited to take a self-guided tour of the new 76-bed, $17 million jail. In various rooms throughout the facility, jail staff described different portions of the facility to visitors. Family members marveled at the new, modern facility, and several families took a rare opportunity to snap a photo of themselves or family and friends inside the new jail cells.
Crook County Sheriff's Office staff moved into the facility in early July and as the finishing touches were put on the building, corrections staff members prepared to house inmates.
In early August, county officials began moving inmates from the old Crook County Jail to the new one. Then finally, on Aug. 16, Gautney issued an announcement that the last of the Crook County inmates had been moved from Jefferson County's jail – where they had rented jail beds for years – to the Crook County Jail.
Local residents saw a few changes in local leadership in 2019. The retirement of a Crook County Circuit Court judge set off a chain reaction that ultimately altered who represents Crook County in the Oregon House of Representatives, as well as who sits on the bench in the circuit court.
The first domino to fall was the retirement of longtime Circuit Court Judge Daniel Ahern. He had served on the bench since 1996 and announced his retirement in March. The upcoming vacancy prompted a few different local attorneys to seek the governor's appointment to the position, including Powell Butte resident and House District 55 Rep. Mike McLane.
McLane was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown in late May, prompting announcement of his retirement from the Oregon Legislature, where he had served since 2011, many of those years as House Republican leader.
"It has been a privilege to serve in the House of Representatives and an absolute honor to get to represent my district," McLane said. "I am looking forward to serving as a judge and wish nothing but the best to my colleagues in the House and Senate. I am grateful to Gov. Brown for her confidence in me to serve on the bench."
With McLane set to leave office at the beginning of July, a process to find his replacement was launched. As required by several state statutes, the appointment was made by county courts or county commissioners in each county within the district. House District 55 includes all of Crook County and portions of Deschutes, Jackson, Klamath and Lake counties, so each county was entitled one vote for every 1,000 registered voters within the district, and the votes were portioned equally to each county commissioner in each county. Because McLane was a Republican legislator, his replacement had to have been a member of the same party for 180 days or more at the time the vacancy occurred.
Republicans from the five counties came up with a list that included Prineville real estate broker Vikki Breese Iverson, who had previously worked in different roles at the state capitol; Deborah Tilden, a local resident who chairs the Central Oregon Federation of Republican Women; and Pete Sharp who has run multiple times, unsuccessfully, for Crook County government positions.
In August, Iverson was selected and sworn in, and she will hold the position for the remainder of McLane's term, which concludes at the end of 2020. She is running for election to another term after the current term concludes.
While drug and substance abuse issues in Crook County are not new, certain substance concerns rose to the forefront in 2019. For years, meth had been the most problematic drug, spurring criminal activity and causing health problems, but during the year more and more overdoses and crimes had occurred due to opioid use, including heroin.
Federal and state officials had both already labeled the current abuse of opiates an opioid crisis, prompting legislation that would reduce the number of opiates prescribed and limit the duration people could legally take them for pain problems. Locally, health leaders began to more closely scrutinize when they prescribe opiates, whom they provide them to, and for how long.
"At St. Charles, as well as emergency physicians in general, we try to be very cautious to balance the risk and benefit of a medication, and opiates are obviously a very risky medication," said Dr. Torree McGowan, site lead for St. Charles Prineville and Madras. "So, if patients are on medications for long term ,and certainly if they are using them for chronic pain, we usually encourage them to go back to their primary doctors. Generally, we don't refill medications if they have been lost or stolen – we encourage them to go back to their primary doctors."
Meanwhile, local law enforcement has continued to see an increase in heroin abuse.
"Back in 2008 and 2009, you really didn't hear about that," recalled Prineville Police Sgt. James Peterson.
That began to change a few years ago, right around the same time that Crook County's congressional delegates began focusing on what they called an opioid crisis statewide.
"We had a couple cases trickle in, most an overdose," Peterson said. "Now, it is getting more and more common. On subject stops and vehicle stops, heroin is one of the drugs that people are using and carrying around with them."
At local schools, e-cigarette use has become a growing problem, prompting education leaders and public health officials to specifically target vaping in hopes of reducing its prevalence. According to Jason Ritter, the high school's student service coordinator, it has instead become the primary means by which high school and middle school students are getting nicotine. In the words of Ritter, educators have seen "an absolute explosion" in e-cigarette use since last school year.
At Crook County High School, roughly two months into the new school year, about two students per week were getting caught with vaping devices, and Ritter is convinced those numbers are only scratching the surface.
"When we speak to those students who are willing to talk to us about the situation, they believe that easily half of their friends are regular users of vaping devices," he said.
It has become the primary discipline issue at the school.
Crook County Middle School leaders are not seeing the same level of vaping – at least not on school grounds.
"To a large degree, the middle school environment is a largely supervised type of environment," said Principal Kurt Sloper, "so it's more difficult to bring something to school that you are not supposed to have and keep that a secret."Sloper is aware of just a handful of incidents this school year where students have been caught with vaping pens or flavored oils.
But off school grounds might be a different story. Sloper suspects that more of the middle school-age vaping happens off campus. He noted that word of mouth from students as well as information gleaned from the school's anonymous tip line, which is available to all students, suggests use is growing away from school.
Craig Woodward, a Crook County timber leader and community icon, died suddenly in late April at age 72.
He left behind a local legacy celebrated by many family members, friends and colleagues. He is remembered as a standout wrestler whose prowess earned him all-American and hall of fame accolades. He was a highly successful timber executive who owned multiple sawmills, ranches and timberland, and bought and sold timber for years. He owned the local Prineville Sawmill Co. as well as a sawmill in Burns and a large chipping plant.
He was honored as the Crooked River Roundup Grand Marshal in 2010, and when Prineville was highlighted as an eclipse-viewing destination in 2017, he offered up his Big Summit Prairie property to host the Oregon Eclipse Festival, an event that drew more than 70,000 people to Crook County.
"He was proud of the fact that he did logging in North America, South America and Central America," said Stan Rogers, his lands manager. Woodward completed a hurricane damage logging job in Belize, logged in Bolivia, and worked on a wildfire cleanup logging project in Hawaii.
Woodward was also very fond of his family and made time for all the events in which they participated.
"He made sure we never missed a tennis match or a track meet or a wrestling meet or a football game," Rogers said. "We were expected to be with our kids because it all goes by so fast ... He loved his family more than anything."
A dispute between Crook County Fire and Rescue administration and members of a recently formed union continued into 2019 following adjudication of an unfair labor practice complaint during the fall of 2018.
The Crook County Firefighters Association, a union comprised of multiple CCFR employees that was formed in September 2016, filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the local fire district in April 2018. This was the second complaint filed with the Oregon Employment Relations Board against CCFR.
The association alleged that Smith voiced his opposition to forming a union on multiple occasions and claimed that he has retaliated against members of the union since its inception. Smith was accused of levying stricter discipline against union members and initiating investigations for issues that had historically not prompted them. The association also stated that he has withheld promotions from union members who met the qualifications for the positions the district was filling.
A three-day unfair labor practices hearing took place in October 2018 at the Crook County Fire and Rescue building, and a ruling was issued about five months later. In a Recommended Rulings, Finding of Facts, Conclusions of Law and Proposed Order document dated March 15, Julie Reading, the Employment Relations Board's administrative law judge, sided with the Crook County Firefighters Association regarding multiple complaints of anti-union behavior by the fire district.
The Employment Relations Board ordered the district to cease and desist from violating the state statute, and to remove any instructed supervisory notes placed in supervisory files of the union president, Chad Grogan, and vice president, Sam Scheideman, between Oct. 25, 2017, and April 23, 2018. In addition, the district was ordered to post a notice of its violations via email to all union-represented employees.
The parties had about one month to object to any of the findings. During that time window, the district learned through a disclosure submitted by Reading that she had been talking to the union's attorney, Jason Weyand, about an opening in his Tedesco Law Group law firm. This prompted CCFR to appeal the decision and the union likewise appealed the decision, seeking additional punitive action against the district.
In early December, the Employment Relations Board issued a ruling that again sided with the union. The board upheld its order for the district to cease and desist from violating union-related state statutes and to remove the supervisory notes.
The Prineville community gained one noteworthy recreational amenity in 2019 and two other longtime park structures got a long-awaited upgrade.
The Kiwanis Club of Prineville overcame delays and funding needs in its quest to add a splash pad to Stryker Field, completing the new attraction just in time for use at the tail end of the summer.
On a day in late August when temperatures soared into the upper 90s, local families were able to cool off at the new attraction as Kiwanis Club members celebrated completion of the ambitious project.
Kids wasted no time, hurriedly moving from one water feature to the next, standing in the path of cooling sprays, trying out all the moveable parts and, in some cases, targeting other friends with a blast of water.
Parents and other supervisors, meanwhile, got acquainted with the terraced seating that was partially shaded by nearby trees. On the south side of the splash pad, Antonio Sombrero Balloons gave away free balloon creations, and Legacy Dance Company provided free glitter tattoos. On the other side of the pad, families could receive tickets good for hot dogs or hamburgers as well as other beverages and goodies, and Kona Ice provided snow cones.
"I'm really excited to see the turnout," said project coordinator Wayne Looney as the sound of music and playing children nearly drowned out his words. "Twenty-four hours ago, I was still getting the last inspection, so we couldn't know for sure if we were even going to do this."
The festivities concluded with a Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting ceremony.
Almost a month later, the Crook County Parks and Recreation District finally opened its expanded skate park to the public.
The skate park expansion doubled the footprint of the existing park, and all the metal ramps were replaced with concrete ones. The plaza-style park was built primarily above ground and has bowls, ramps, a step feature and railings. Dreamland Skateparks designed the park with the help of about 60 local kids who weighed in during public sessions regarding what they wanted the expanded park to feature.
The project broke ground in the spring, and the park was closed throughout the summer months, making the grand opening more momentous and drawing hundreds of skaters and other visitors.
The skate park expansion was one of several upgrades planned for the area. A pickleball court renovation took place just south of the skate park. It was finished in the late fall, after outdoor pickleball play was common, but the new courts are expected to get plenty of play once the weather warms up.
Leading into late February and early March, the Crook County area had experienced a fairly pedestrian winter, raising concerns about a minimal mountain snowpack and future drought. That all changed in a dramatic way when the community was hammered by snowstorms that left Prineville buried in nearly 2 feet of snow as March began.
The storms forced three consecutive days of school closure, school plays had to be rescheduled, and multiple high school sports events were canceled as traveling became a significant challenge.
Government facilities closed as road plowing crews worked around the clock to help clear the way for motorists, and many businesses shut their doors because employees were unable to get to work, and potential customers were few.
Crook County has had its share of epic snowstorms in the past, but never has the area seen such an onslaught so late in the winter. Jim Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pendleton ,highlighted the previous, longtime records that the storm had crushed. The most snowfall Prineville has ever received on Feb. 25 – the day the storm concluded – was a mere 1.5 inches, almost a century ago in 1928. The record for Feb. 26 wasn't much higher at 2 inches, a high dating back to 1960.
The total snowfall from Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, by contrast, officially totaled 15.4 inches. That 24-hour total not only obliterated the previous daily records, it topped the record for total snowfall in the entire month of February, which prior to 2019 week was 12.9 inches, set in 1938.
"Everything's a record," Smith quipped.
In late October, Eastern Oregon University revealed that students and faculty had spent several days on property belonging to Crook County residents Craig and Lucy Woodward removing the remains of a prehistoric mammoth.
Workers from Knife River Corp. had leased the land to extract sand and gravel,when they uncovered tusks about 30 feet below the surface. Woodward died in late April, shortly after construction workers uncovered the fossils, but members of his family still carried his enthusiasm about the discovery forward. They worked with university leaders and faculty to make Craig's final donation of the remains official with a memorandum of understanding.
Months later, students and faculty from Eastern Oregon University spent four long days excavating mammoth remains. About 30 students joined three faculty members near Prineville to remove the front quarter of mammoth.
Joining the Eastern Oregon students was Nash Porfily, who is Craig and Lucy's grandson. A senior at the school, he had already visited the site when the remains were first discovered, and he wanted to go back with some of his archaeology classmates and help with the excavation process.
"We had a short timeline," he recalls. "Everybody understood that, put their nose down and dug as hard as they could to try to get it all uncovered before the deadline."
Looking back on the experience, Porfily said, "It was cool to come back and be a part of it even though my grandpa couldn't be there to see it.
"It's not every day you get to see a mammoth," he said.
A frequently used but aging bridge was replaced this past summer and fall, restoring full use of the structure while improving pedestrian access and improving the aesthetics of the bridge.
The Elm Street bridge was the only remaining wood pile-built bridge remaining in Prineville. Built in 1946, its supports were rotting and the wooden sidewalk alongside the road was in such a state of disrepair that the city of Prineville had closed it years ago to public foot traffic.
Removal of the old bridge began during the first week of July, closing that portion of road until the new bridge was complete in early November. The new structure was designed to closely match the Main Street bridge over Ochoco Creek and the Highway 126 bridge over Crooked River in appearance and quality. It features new sidewalks, similar lighting and colored pavement.
Additional plans during the bridge replacement process included the installation of a water line that would cross Ochoco Creek underneath the new Elm Street bridge. Also, new ADA-compliant accesses were built for the Hotshots firefighter memorial and the war memorial that grace Ochoco Creek Park near Elm Street.
About a month later, a new pedestrian bridge was finally installed, connecting the Ochoco Creek path to Court Street near the newly installed splash pad.
"When we started down the process of the Elm Street Bridge, being ODOT funds and being government, we had a requirement that is called the temporary pedestrian route requirement," said Scott Smith, street supervisor for the city of Prineville. "We started exploring the idea of a permanent bridge, and we worked with Oregon Department of Transportation and if it would fit within the grant money we got from ODOT."
The bridge was premanufactured, with weathered steel and a concrete deck. It is 80 feet from end to end across the creek and 8 feet wide so that Crook County Parks and Recreation and the city of Prineville can maintain the bike path, but a full-size car cannot access the bridge.
"It will just blend everything — it will be a new connection over to the Splash Pad," Smith said. "I'm really excited. It's in place. It will be a nice addition."
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