Steel plant shuts down
From an economic point of view, 2008 will undoubtedly go down as one of America's worst. The stock market crashed, real estate values plummeted, businesses small and large failed and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs.
Locally, the Granite City area seemed to be holding its own until the final month of the year when the bombshell hit: U.S. Steel was shuttering - at least for a while - its Granite City operations.
The news hit the city and region hard. Most of the plant's 2,500 workers are expected to be out of work through at lest the early part of 2009.
As the year ends, there is still no clear timetable as to how long the idling will last. In announcing the plan in early December, officials of the Pittsburgh-based company would say only that the closing was temporary, with work being concentrated in the company's other plants.
"Market conditions will dictate when the facilities will be brought back on line," said company spokesman John Armstrong. "We'll only keep enough staff on hand (at the Granite City plant) to maintain the facility in safe working order."
Of course, the shutdown was just part of the bad economic news that area residents were dealing with.
The subprime home mortgage disaster was one national story being felt locally.
By August, Madison County Sheriff's deputies were averaging a home eviction a day.
"It's going up," Sheriff Robert J. Hertz said at the time. "We just have to hustle with the more we've got."
Earlier in the year, restaurant owners started to see sales nosedive, prompting many to roll out deals and specials to lure customers back.
Through the summer, fuel again took center stage as costs pushed towards $4 a gallon in some areas. The hike taxed small business owners and municipalities that faced new charges. Especially hurting were car dealers and companies that used large amounts of petrol, such as landscaping companies. Even amusement park firms took a hit.
"All of our expenses have gone through the roof," said Andy Schoendienst, president of Caseyville-based Luehrs' Ideal Rides, which sets up fairs and carnivals across the country.
Still, the wavering economy also had a silver lining for some.
By the end of the year, gas prices had dropped below $2 a gallon.
Jewelers and scrap yards saw more business as gold and copper prices increased, and as winter approached, those who sold wood also saw a spike as more turned to wood-burning stoves instead of using gas.
A Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois study late in the year also showed the region was performing better than expected and pointed to big projects in the works, such as the $3.6 billion expansion of the ConocoPhillips Wood River Refinery, $573 million proposed The Fields soccer stadium proposal in Collinsville and the $640 million new Mississippi River crossing to St. Louis.
Leadership Council Executive Director Patrick McKeehan said projects will better position the region in the future.
"That will sustain us during this downturn," he said, adding later, "We are continuing to see interest and investment discussed in our region."
Still, some are bracing for the worst.
"The economy is in bad shape," said Richard Sexton, 62, of Maryville, outside a Walgreens in Glen Carbon last month. "I'm waiting for the bottom to fall out."
Real-life crime drama
It was a scene out of a TV crime show: A fight in a tavern parking lot escalates into a shooting. Then when police arrive, a man with a gun refuses to put his weapon down. Police have no choice but to shoot him, even though he is an off-duty cop himself.
Sadly for a variety of people, the scene played itself out in real life in November on the parking lot of Mack and Mick's Bar & Grill in Pontoon Beach. The damage: two men seriously wounded, one man charged with aggravated battery and three St. Louis police officers fired.
And, of course, nationwide negative publicity for the area.
The off-duty St. Louis officers were among a group who came to the bar late on Nov. 8. Incidents inside the bar apparently led to a confrontation outside, according to witnesses. Off-duty officer Bryan Pour ended up shooting a Granite City man, Jeffrey Bladdick, who apparently was only trying to help him during a fight with others.
When Pontoon Beach officers arrived on the scene, one of Pour's colleagues refused to put down his gun and was shot by a Pontoon officer.
In December, a Madison County grand jury cleared the Pontoon Beach officer for the shooting. It indicted Pour, charging him with one count of aggravated battery with a firearm. He and two other St. Louis officers were fired.
Both Bladdick and the wounded St. Louis officer survived.
In a fitting commentary on the case, Madison County State's Attorney William A. Mudge later noted the dangers of mixing firearms and alcohol.
"I urge the St. Louis City Police Department to adopt stricter policies regarding the possession and use of department-issued weapons while its officers are off-duty," he said in a statement.
Downtown redevelopment gets under way
Granite City started making progress in redeveloping the downtown area in 2008. But city officials were disappointed that more was not accomplished.
They pointed to a sluggish economy as part of the reason for the lack of progress.
City officials had hoped for a little more than $11.3 million from the sale of tax increment financing bonds to redevelop downtown, most notably around City Hall. But when the bonds were sold, they had to settle for $9.1 million.
The City Council, consequently, decided to put financing on the youth center and the renovation of the old YMCA building on hold to allow for the remaining $4.8 million in bond funds to be used for the construction of a theater on Niedringhaus Avenue and smaller projects.
The council, prior to the sale of the bonds in October, had already earmarked $4.3 million for the renovations of the Police and Fire departments.
"We are going to have to make hard decisions that everyone isn't going to be happy with," Alderman Virgil Kambarian said in October. "In my opinion, we should go with what we have (and not use other revenue resources for all the redevelopment projects planned for downtown). We have $9 million that we didn't have before. We're in good position, but not as good as we would like to be."
The design phase for a theater is well under way, Mayor Ed Hagnauer said, although it likely will be a three-screen facility instead of four.
It's been Hagnauer's dream since he was elected mayor more than three years ago to build a new theater in town because he said it is important to the youth of the community.
He said he still remains confident the old Press-Record building will become a youth center.
Alderman David Partney made it known this year that he opposed the theater because of operational costs. He would like to see bond funds used for the theater go to the youth center.
The old Press-Record building was slated to be renovated into a youth center at a cost of $400,000 and the old YMCA building renovated at a cost of $700,000. The city also wanted to use another $120,000 in bond funding for road improvements.
Hagnauer said the city didn't get as much for the bonds because of the downturn in the economy. Nevertheless, he was happy with the sale.
"I'm sure the council will use the tax increment financing funds in a way that they feel is right for downtown's development," said Hagnauer, who added the Police and Fire department renovations are going well despite the cold weather, but much more work is needed before the renovations are completed in 2009.
Police Chief Richard Miller said he had hoped that some funding from the sale of the bonds could have been used for a police sub station at the north end of town, but is happy with the renovation work at the Police Department because it includes new jail cells and storage areas.
Fire Chief Tim Connolly said he is happy with the renovations taking place at the Fire Department because they will put it up to standards of the 21st century.
"This building needed work. It's more than 40 years old," Connolly said recently.
Route 3 development gets started
The long-awaited development of the Illinois Route 3 corridor began in June with an archaeological study on the 117,000 square-foot plot where a Lowe's home improvement store is now under construction.
City officials said the construction of Lowe's should be complete by the fall of 2009, if not sooner.
Lowe's is the anchor of the $40 million commercial project, which will be called Granite Park Center. It will include at least one sit-down restaurant and possibly as many as eight retail shops.
In June, Granite City Economic Director Jonathan Ferry said he would not divulge what retail shops were interested in locating in Granite Park Center.
Ferry recently ruled out a Steak & Shake, but again refused to name any of the retail shops.
"The development of the corridor is an important step to achieve one of our primary goals for residents to buy goods without leaving the community," he said. "We are negotiating with two well-known sit-down restaurants and are in discussions with other retailers that would bring in hundreds of part-time and full-time jobs."
Granite Park Center is one of three commercial developments that Ferry said will redefine the Route 3 corridor.
The other two are the renovation of the Wal-Mart into a Super Center and the construction of Gateway Village, which will abut Granite Park Center.
The renovation of the Wal-Mart, which will be done by the company at a cost of about $12 million, will begin in 2010.
The development of Gateway Village is now slated to get under way next year. Gateway Village will be developed at a cost of about $40 million by Quadrant Properties, of St. Louis.
It will consist of at least one anchor store, Ferry said, and about 10 retail shops.
The total cost of the three commercial projects will come to about $90 million, Ferry said.
While Ferry and other city officials expressed excitement about the Route 3 development, not everyone was happy. During a Planning Commission meeting in August, a number of residents and union members voiced opposition to the plans for Wal-Mart.
School bonds voted down
The February primary election was obviously overshadowed by November's historic election. But for Granite City school officials, February's was an important one. Unfortunately for them, it was also an unsuccessful one as voters - by fewer than 700 votes - rejected a $22 million bond issue for school renovations.
The referendum, which was promoted by district officials as a way to fix aging buildings and improve security, was defeated 54 percent to 46 percent. It would have funded a laundry list of fixes in 10 district buildings, including $1.6 million in security improvements and $10 million in new construction.
School district officials portrayed the bond as necessary, but some community members questioned its scope, saying some of the proposed construction was unnecessary or too expensive.
One of the most controversial was a proposed $4.5 million facility at Granite City High school that would have replaced the existing gym annex, which was built in the 1960s.
If successful, the referendum would have raised taxes on a $100,000 home by about $132 per year.
Public housing gets an upgrade
Times are changing at the Kirkpatrick Homes - and much for the better, according to city officials.
In November, 10 multi-unit buildings off Nameoki Road were ready for occupancy.
The public housing buildings are called Granite City Commons. Most are already filled.
"The new housing will improve the quality of life for our residents," Housing Authority Director Sharon Mathes said in August. "It is the hope that it (the new units) will be perceived as the beginning of change for the agency by continuing to provide affordable housing."
Residents who lived in the old units were required to relocate to other units of the Kirkpatrick Homes until the new units were ready for occupancy, said Mathes, who added the relocation process went smoothly.
In August, Mathes, Housing Authority board members, and city officials attended a ribbon cutting in which the new units were showcased.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom energy-efficient units are easy to maintain, Mathes said, and come with a refrigerator and stove, air conditioning, washer-dryer hookups and closet space.
The older units do not have washer-dryer hookups or air conditioning and are not energy efficient, she said.
The new units are part of the Housing Authority's plan to redevelop the Kirkpatrich Homes. The older units were constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
This year, 300 units at the public housing site were demolished. Mathes said the Housing Authority will continue to try to procure funding for the remaining 151 units to be demolished for the construction of others like those built at Granite City Commons.
Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer, who attended the ribbon cutting, said he was pleased with the new units. Hagnauer let it be known that he wants the remainder of the old units razed for the construction of new units, even if the Housing Authority had to look at private funding.
12-year-old shot, killed in Madison
What police described as a possible dispute over drugs led to the Oct. 7 shooting death of a 12-year-old Madison youth.
Delarrian Davis was doing homework at his home on Skeen Street shortly after midnight when his home was hit by gunfire. Davis was struck twice, according to police.
According to police at the time, the intended victim was most likely Kevin Campbell, who was dating Davis' mother. Police said that the dispute may have started in Venice, moved to a Madison tavern, and eventually to the house on Skeen Street where the fatal shooting took place.
The St. Louis Area Major Case Squad was called in, and the alleged shooter, Marcus "Butterhead" Powell, 27, of East St. Louis, was arrested a few days later after police tracked him to a trailer park in O'Fallon, Mo.
He was extradited back to Madison County, where he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.
Two others, Cortez Davis, 25, of East St. Louis; and Campbell, of the 2000 block of Skeen Street, were also charged.
Campbell was charged with armed violence, aggravated discharge of a firearm and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. Cortez Davis, who was an alleged associate of Powell's, was charged with aggravated discharge of a firearm.
According to Madison police, there is a possibility that at least one other individual was involved, and the case is still under investigation.
A year of fatal accidents
The year 2008 will also go in the books for its series of fatal car accidents on area roadways.
In November, Granite City resident Donald Lee Legens, 34, and his infant son were killed when his sport utility vehicle was struck by a hit-and-run driver near Pontoon Road.
Alexander P. Starbuck, 22, a Marine from Waterloo, also died in a single-car crash on Interstate 255 near Collinsville in September.
A surprising number involved head-on collisions, including four deaths on the McKinley Bridge in Venice. Andrew T. Fuhrman, 20, of Granite City, died Dec. 6 when his vehicle crossed into oncoming traffic, hitting a sport utility vehicle; Milton Dowell, 26, of Venice, and Rico Newsome, 23, of Madison, were killed Nov. 25 when their Toyota Camry swerved and hit a Ford Escape driven by Jerry E. Nuckolls, 48, of High Ridge, Mo., who also died.
In Collinsville, Courtney F. Sherfy, 20, and Tara Wilson, 20, both of Granite City, died last when the car they were in drove into oncoming traffic on Belt Line Road.
Investigators said the rash of head-on accidents were strange, but not a trend. State Police Master Trooper Ralph Timmins called it a fluke.
"Head-on crashes are always the most dangerous crashes," he said.
Prank leads to student's death
The Granite City High School 2008 senior class remembered the late Matthew Evans at its commencement ceremony in May.
Evans, 18, a senior, was killed in May when he leaped on top of the hood of a friend's car, landing in what police called a "belly flop" and holding on. The driver instinctively slammed on the brakes, which threw Evans to the asphalt street. His head hit the pavement near 2436 Delmar Ave., said Brett Glass, a neighbor who heard the accident.
Prior to that, Evans and a couple of his friends were in the car, honking and shouting as they drove around Delmar in celebration of the upcoming graduation.
Evans was killed about 10 days before he would have graduated.
"Our hearts go out to his family," said Principal Jim Greenwald.
No charges were filed in Evan's death. Granite City Assistant Police Chief Maj. Jeff Connor said Evan's death was a prank "gone wrong."
On the day of the graduation, a makeshift memorial was set up near the football field. Hundreds of students stopped by to pay tribute to Evans, leaving flowers and saying prayers.
Evans was an honor student who ran cross country, played the drums in the school band and was an umpire for the Granite City Park District.
Students described Evans as energetic and compassionate.
Teachers plan suit against Madison district
The reprimand of two teachers in October at Madison Accelerated High School is expected to result in a lawsuit against the district.
Bernard Boyer and Dennis Coy were giving a "notice of remedial warning" after the Madison School Board met in executive session for more than 90 minutes at its Oct. 16 meeting.
Coy was accused of sexually harassing another teacher, and Boyer was accused of helping Coy retaliate against that teacher.
According to Attorney Chris Kolker, who is representing the two, Coy put his arm around another teacher on the first day of school. According to union officials, that teacher never filed a complaint. The complaint against Coy was filed by an administrator.
Kolker also said that no evidence was presented at the Oct. 16 hearing before the board voted on the reprimands. The votes were 4-2 in favor of Boyer's reprimand, with James Newsome and Celena Browley voting no; and 5-1 in favor of Coy's, with Newsome the only no vote. Board member Joe Garcia was absent.
District officials have declined comment on the issue, citing worker privacy.
Kolker said last week he intends to file a lawsuit on behalf of the two teachers within about a week or so.
The issue with those teachers was part of a larger dispute between the district and the Madison Federation of Teachers, including the lack of a contract since the end of June.
Board President Carol Hamm said last week that the district and union officials have had several recent meetings, and will meet again Jan. 20.