It's official — 2017 is in the books as of midnight tonight.
Looking back on the year it was most certainly a 12 months packed with interesting, intriguing and important local news. There were a bevy of new jobs created in the Tri-State. There were concerns about public safety documented at the Boyd County Detention Center. There were plans formulated and put into place to revive the city of Ashland's downtown. And, there was the solidification of obstacles we as a region have yet to completely overcome. Today, then, is a day of reflection. It is a day to contemplate all that has come before us in the last 365 days for the purpose of gaining knowledge and learning. It is an endeavor of both contemplation and observation — an undertaking aimed at preparing us for the future to come.
With this in mind The Daily Independent brings you the Top 10 local stories of 2017.
#1 Braidy Industries
There is no doubt as to what the biggest story of 2017 is. It is simply put, the arrival of Braidy Industries.
On a beautiful April afternoon in Wurtland Gov. Matt Bevin called together a who's who of economic development and community leaders to make the big announcement. Braidy Industries Chief Executive Officer Craig Bouchard, Bevin and others detailed for the anticipatory crowd on hand an ambitious plan by Braidy to construct a 2.5-million-square-foot facility atop 380 acres of riverfront property just outside South Shore city limits in Greenup County. The announcement was made a short distance away from the rolling Ohio River as a train rolled down adjacent tracks, symbolizing the long, industrious journey ahead to create some 550 high-paying manufacturing jobs in the Tri-State.
Bouchard said the struggling state of northeastern Kentucky’s economy played a factor in the company’s decision to locate its aluminum rolling mill here. The Ashland Area, once a mecca for steel and oil jobs in Kentucky, has been pummeled by the departure of staple industrial companies, like Ashland Oil, Inc., that employed thousands of blue-collar workers.
"I’ve spent a lot of time here, come to known people here, I love the pride," Gov. Bevin said at the time. "There are many communities in Kentucky that have extraordinary pride. This region is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Even when on its heels, there’s also been a sense of optimism and hope … the ability to transform a community’s hope, its spirit, its convictions, its beliefs in itself, along with all the other economic expansions, that’s just gravy on top.”
An incentive package from the state of Kentucky, without question, played a significant role in landing the announcement. At Bevin’s urging, the General Assembly approved $10 million in tax incentives and a $15 million stock investment in Braidy Industries. Bouchard said an ambitious work force, the location and the ability for local educational institutions to train future workers made the Tri-State incredibly appealing.
“There is no word to describe the welcome we’ve received in Eastern Kentucky,” Bouchard said.” It’s astounding.”
Like the path of the Ohio River near where the announcement was made there have been a few turns along the way. The original plan to locate the plant in South Shore changed because of concerns about the ability of the land to house such massive infrastructure. Braidy thus decided to locate the plant in EastPark Industrial Center. Leaders of the Northeast Kentucky Regional Industrial Park Authority closed just this month on a transaction with Braidy for the purchase of the land at EastPark Industrial Center. The total sale price was more than $900,000.
The company has also invested heavily in its new corporate headquarters at the Community Trust Bank Building in downtown Ashland, leading Bouchard to call it “one of the greatest offices in Kentucky.”
Ashland Community & Technical College is preparing to help educate the future workforce and economic development leaders say they are working with Braidy to help make plans for 2018 -- and construction of the plant, go as smoothly as possible. Regional leaders are also working to identify and facilitate related economic growth spawned from Braidy's arrival.
#2 Boyd County Detention Center
While it was a good year for economic development in the Tri-State it was most certainly a very bad year for the Boyd County Detention Center. Troubling episodes of repeated escapes by inmates, drug overdoses at the jail and other internal problems led the state of Kentucky to stop housing state inmates at the county jail. Jailer Joe Burchett now faces a malfeasance investigation by the office of Rhonda Copley, Commonwealth Attorney for the 32nd District.
Just as alarming is the impact the jail's disorder is having on an already strained county budget. The loss of state revenue could cause the county to lose as much as $700,000 in revenue this fiscal year alone, county leaders warned.
The latest episode at the jail unfolded just this past week when four more inmates escaped through the ceiling of the detention center. As of Friday three of those escapees remained unaccounted for. There is at least some discussion of closing the jail down for good, although such a move would have a devastating impact on the county's courts and the employees at the jail.
#3 Opioid Epidemic
The ongoing opioid crisis enveloping the Tri-State showed no signs of slowing in 2017. In fact, it was the exact opposite, with all kinds of grim records being set, chief amongst them the sheer volume of overdoses in Boyd and surrounding counties racking up at a rate never observed before. The opioid epidemic, in turn, is rightly is generating nationwide attention and concern. President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency. Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader has become a very public face of the war against opioid overdoses, and although Huntington is across the river, all Tri-State residents know this crisis knows no regional borders.
“We've got to work together, there's only a river that separates us” Rader said during an event in downtown Ashland aimed at discussing solutions in October.
While pharmeceutical distributions make most of the headlines, a chief culprit in the Tri-State is the surging presence of heroin, often laced with the lethal Fentanyl. Former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressed the situation during an appearance in Portsmouth in August.
"What's going on in America…where so many people seek solace in drug addiction and when many people know dependency on opioids and heroin only lead to death and jail?” Sanders said. "It has a lot to do with hopelessness, with lack of community, feeling isolated and alone, and going nowhere in a hurry.”
Needle exchange programs have cropped up throughout the Tri-State and are realizing success. Local law enforcement are diligently making arrest after arrest. Yet the epidemic clearly has a grip on the region and showed no signs of abating anytime soon.
#4 New Marriott in downtown Ashland
The city of Ashland and developers are embarking on big plans for the old Ashland Plaza Hotel on Winchester Avenue. Those big plans made for a big story in 2017.
Jim Nizzo of New York-based WB Hospitality his partner Andy Spiros officially bought the Plaza Hotel in September. It is certainly a property with both history and potential including its spectacular top-floor views of the Ohio River. The purchase was announced alongside city officials and Ashland Community and Economic Development Director Chris Pullem, who spearheaded efforts to entice the developers along with a lot of help from city and economic development leaders. The sale price was $3.6 million. The renovation will be top to bottom, Nizzo said. Every room will be “gutted,” the lobby staircase will be knocked out and a new restaurant and two cocktail bars will be opened based on design plans. The Delta Hotel will have 152 rooms – three more than the Ashland Plaza Hotel. The new owners plan to employ between 115 and 125 people.
The city will provide about $4.6 million to the business developers through bonds to help with construction costs, about 1/4th of the developers’ total investment in the project. Funding for the incentive is set to come from a 20-year Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, program launched in downtown Ashland this summer by the city and the Boyd Fiscal Court.
TIF is an option taken frequently by government bodies to attract businesses and capitalize on major developments. The TIF program allows the city to capture anticipated increases in city, county and state tax revenue generated inside the downtown TIF district, and use the funds for public infrastructure improvements or incentives for private businesses. Tax rates will not be raised as a result of the TIF program according to city officials.
City leaders are optimistic that the exciting new project will help a transformation of the downtown Ashland core -- an area, like the hotel property, with magnificent growth potential if all aligns correctly.
“The product they’re going to put here on this block is going to be phenomenal for small town America,” said Ashland Mayor Steve Gilmore. “It’s going to be a place that Braidy’s not going to hesitate – nor other companies we can snag in this area – to bring their people in, to bring buyers in and sellers in, and have a great place to stay.”
#5 -- Kentucky pension crisis
The numbers are shocking both statewide and locally. Statewide, Kentucky taxpayers need to pay nearly $1 billion extra over the next two years to keep solvent a retirement plan for most state workers. The Kentucky Employees Retirement System board of trustees told state lawmakers Thursday they need to spend $2.8 billion per year on a retirement plan that covers state workers and police officers. That’s $954 million more than was required the previous two years. Ancillary retirement plans across the state are in dire straits.
What does this mean? Huge, stunning burdens on state taxpayers and local goverments. In a special report produced by The Daily Independent in September, the city of Ashland faces combined payment increases of nearly $2 million for just one year to pay pension obligations for hazardous and non-hazardous employees in the CERS starting in Fiscal Year 2018-2019. In Fiscal year 2017, the city's contributions to the CERS system were a combined $3.3 million. By fiscal year 2019 that number is projected to jump to a combined $5.3 million for one year. The city of Flatwoods faces a nearly $100,000 increase, or 50 percent spike, in just one year to meet its pension obligations for non-hazardous employees. The city of Morehead is looking at nearly $300,000 in increased costs for a single year to fund its pension obligation for hazardous and non hazardous employees. In Greenup and Carter counties, public institutions are looking at the same types of numbers -- the Greenup County Board of Education faces a $400,000 increase in pension obligations in just one year. The Carter County Board of Education is looking at a $583,000 increase in just one year.
In just one small example the city scrapped its curbside recycling plans. Perhaps more ominously, pension obligations combined with anticipated budget cuts have some school districts trying to fend off the dreaded L word -- layoffs. The how are we going to pay these pension bills question is now being asked at every layer of local government in the Tri-State and there are no easy answers.
#6 President Visits Huntington
President Donald Trump made a historic visit to the region in early August, holding a rally for a packed house at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Trump focused on the economy and the middle class and continued his pledge to get coal miners back to work in West Virginia and Kentucky.
“I’ve kept that promise,” Trump said. “As president we are putting our coal miners back to work. We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal. We’ve stopped the EPA intrusion. American coal exports are already up more than 60 percent this year.”
Trump said the auto industry is showing strength with new auto jobs in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He cited significant gains in the stock market and other economic numbers to make the case his administration has helped the economy grow.
“Economic growth has surged to 2.6 percent nationwide…3 percent growth in West Virginia,” Trump said. “West Virginia —you are leading the average. When was the last time you heard that?”
Trump also addressed a story threat that has persisted to this day -- allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 election that landed him in the White House. He mocked the claim, calling it a manufactured story by the “fake news.”
“Have you seen any Russians in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania?” Trump said. “ Are there any Russians here tonight? They (the Democrats) can’t beat you at the voting booths, so they are trying to cheat you out of what you want.
“The Russia story is a total fabrication,” Trump continued. “It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.”
Trump said he’s committed to reform in Washington D.C.
“I didn’t come to Washington for me,” Trump said. “I came to Washington for all of you. Your dreams are my dreams. Your hopes are my hopes. And your future is what I’m fighting for each and every day.
“We don’t need advice from the Washington swamp,” Trump said. “We need to drain the swamp.”
#7 -- New Ashland City Manager
Seventh on our list is Ashland’s decision to hire a new city manager, Michael Graese, in June.
The commission found the man they believe is the right individual to lead the municipality for years to come this summer. Graese said shortly after he started the job that infrastructure, customer service, capital and long-term strategic plans were big on his agenda.
"There is no place I'd rather be," said Graese, adding he's been overwhelmed by the incredibly warm welcome he's received from the public, the City Council, the mayor and city staffers.
Hiring Graese followed an unfortunate series of events when an initial selection abruptly changed his mind, stunning city commissioners and sending them scrambling for a replacement.
When the commission hired Tri-State native Gary Huff in March, all signs pointed to a long and fruitful tenure in Ashland But a few days after his hiring, Huff backed out, clearing the way for Graese, a former U.S. Army base commander with an extensive resume featuring military leadership experience.
#8 Paulus Acquitted
Our eighth-ranking story is the astonishing denouement in the trial of Ashland cardiologist Richard Paulus on charges he performed unnecessary heart procedures and falsified records in order to collect insurance payments.
If his supporters were shocked when Paulus was convicted of health care fraud, the entire Tri-State was stunned when a federal judge reversed the guilty verdict and acquitted him of the charges.
Paulus, who has an army of dedicated supporters, many of them former patients who credit him with saving their lives, has long been a medical icon in the Tri-State.
King’s Daughters Medical Center, where Paulus centered his practice, named its heart and vascular center the Richard E. Paulus M.D. Pavilion.
But Paulus and the hospital had been under a cloud for some time over allegations of medically unnecessary cardiac procedures. Hundreds of former patients sued in 2014 over the allegations.
#9 Needle Exchange
Ninth on our top 10 list is the apparent success and widespread use of Boyd County’s needle exchange program and the launch of a similar program in Greenup County.
Boyd County’s program was launched in July 2016 and already was growing by the early months of 2017, and by November the program had collected nearly 74,000 contaminated syringes from 310 people this year alone.
The volume is considered a success because the intent of the program is not to fight drug abuse itself but some of its side effects.
Instead, it attempts to help rid streets and parks of dirty needles, fight the spread of virus, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, and lead drug users to help.
Greenup’s exchange was launched in November so there is little data yet on use, but the goals are the same.
Both programs offer clients anonymity along with clean syringes. Nurses are on hand during exchange hours and peer counseling is available through the Pathways Inc. treatment provider, which has an office in Greenup.
#10 Conn apprehended
Finally, a lawyer who spent six months on the run after pleading guilty in a huge Social Security fraud scheme was flown back to Kentucky after he was captured in Honduras in December.
The lawyer, Eric Conn, once had an office in Ashland.
The Associated Press said the flamboyant attorney had been on home detention while awaiting sentencing, but he disappeared while in Lexington, Kentucky, at the permission of federal authorities to meet with his attorney and prosecutors.
Conn pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the federal government and bribing a judge in a more than $500 million Social Security fraud case. His sentencing went on without him last summer, when he was given a 12-year prison term — the maximum possible.