Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 30, 2012

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

From staff reports
----

---- — Editor's Note: A dam breach, weird, disruptive weather and a busy year at Traverse City public schools dominated Record-Eagle headlines in 2012. The following earned places among 2012's Top 10 local news stories, based on a poll of newspaper staff.

1) Brown Bridge Dam failure and Boardman River flooding

An effort to remove three decades-old dams from the Boardman River was supposed to be a model for such projects in Michigan and across the nation.

All that changed Oct. 6, when a mishap during the removal of the first structure, the Brown Bridge Dam, caused a 93-acre pond to rush into the Boardman River in a few hours. The torrent of water threatened bridges and public safety, swamped at least 54 properties, and reignited simmering animosity from many who opposed or questioned the project.

"We regret what's occurred," said Sandra Sroonian, senior principal engineer with AMEC and supervisor of the Brown Bridge Dam removal, a comment she made nine days after the flooding. "We want to get (flooded homeowners) back in their homes so they can continue their lives. It's unfortunate this occurred. The ultimate goal is to make things right no matter what the cause."

The tumult of Oct. 6 started just before 10 a.m. The plan was to slowly lower the Brown Bridge Pond into the river through a device known as a dewatering structure. The structure was constructed into an earthen embankment immediately adjacent to the dam, and it was supposed to slowly filter water from the pond, through the structure and into the river over a period of weeks.

But when the structure was engaged to accept water that morning, all hell broke loose. Workers noticed a three-foot drop in water levels upstream, then a sinkhole formed, and the pond quickly drained.

Construction workers scrambled to stem the flow by dumping rocks, concrete and other materials into the river. An emergency evacuation order was issued at 11:45 a.m. as water rose and threatened bridges.

Riverfront homeowner Connie Weese watched helplessly as the Boardman rose and swept away a dock at her residence.

"The water level had gone up about two feet in 25 minutes," Weese said. "I just watched it. In about 25 to 30 minutes, the dock was gone. It was underwater. You could tell it was rising very quickly, so I walked back to the house and grabbed my dog."

Authorities lifted the evacuation order at 4:30 p.m., but some residents who returned home found the flooding threat far from over. Claude Scramlin and his neighbor, Pam Hoyt, watched the river jump its banks at their homes on Boardman Plains Road just before nightfall.

"Instead of having a 20-foot-wide stream, we had a 100-foot-wide stream," Hoyt said. "We saw a raging river crossing the road. It was up to the second step of our porch."

Investigators haven't determined the cause of the breach. State officials notified members of the Boardman River Dams Implementation team that the breach constituted a violation of a permit issued for dam removal, and one veteran engineer questioned the wisdom of using the dewatering structure.

Public anger boiled over at a November meeting on the breach, yet plans continue for the removal of two more dams on the river — the Boardman and the Sabin, with the goal of returning the river to its natural state.

2) TIE — Bad cherry crops, low water levels

Wildly fluctuating spring weather destroyed northern Michigan's cherry crop in 2012. And then came the drought.

An unusually warm March followed by April frosts ravaged cherry blossoms, and left the 2012 tart cherry crop an almost total loss. Sweet cherries didn't fare much better — those crop losses were estimated at 80 percent or higher.

"We harvested about 1 percent of the crop," said Suttons Bay cherry grower Don Gregory.

It may be the worst local cherry growing season in recorded history. Only 1945 and 2002 compare, given the devastation to cherry farmers and their bottom lines.

"Really, really bad," said Nikki Rothwell, a horticulturalist coordinator at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center. "We had three years of short cherry crops before we hit 2012, so there was nothing in the freezer."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 72 counties disaster areas. A cherry shortage caused the price of processed cherries to skyrocket nearly 10 times the rate from three years prior.

The calamity did produce a bit of good news. A program was expanded that offers crop insurance to sweet cherry growers in two northern Michigan counties, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow led a movement to offer crop insurance to all cherry growers by 2014.

"It's very important for the region and the people who live there," Phil Korson of the Cherry Marketing Institute said of crop insurance. "We can't control the weather and our producers didn't do anything wrong this year."

Extreme weather also imposed another form of havoc on the Grand Traverse region in 2012: a months-long dry spell in the summer and fall drained Lake Michigan to the extent that water levels threaten the lake's all-time low water mark set in 1964. Low water exposed shorelines, made harbors too shallow for comfort, and prompted concerns about harbor dredging and a drop in tourism.

A hay shortage from the lack of rain also left cattle farmers and horse enthusiasts scrambling for alternative ways to feed their livestock.

"The price of everything has gone up," said Melissa Hirt, of Northern Pines Farm in Maple City. "For people who don't have hay storage, they are in trouble. Exceptional hay is very hard to find. It's a severe shortage."

2) TIE — Freak March storm

Rusty Warren said the Girl Scouts motto of "be prepared" pulled her through the freak storm of March 1-2, 2012.

Warren was ready with a generator when the skies let loose an unrelenting dump of cement-heavy snow that downed power lines and trees. Two to three feet of snow darkened nearly 200,000 homes and blocked roads and driveways.

"When I flipped the switch on, the life blood of the house literally came on again. Talk about giving a house CPR," said Warren, of Thompsonville.

Last winter's storm gave people a new perspective of how electricity ruled their lives. No lights, no heat, no coffee.

No deaths were reported, but Harry Clark, the beloved owner of Beulah's Cherry Bowl Drive-In, recently died as a result of a storm-related injury.

Cathy Herman, of the Leelanau County Commission on Aging, recalled how one man was reclined in an assistance chair when the power went out. He couldn't get out of it.

She was impressed how community members and families came through for each other, from shelters to checking on neighbors. Others with generators became a haven for the powerless. Hundreds sought refuge in motels and hotels.

Home Depot General Manager Andy Dickinson said the store's supply of generators quickly sold out. The store ordered an emergency shipment.

"We sold every single solitary one of them overnight. We stayed open Saturday night, clear into Sunday morning and sold generators the entire time. It was nuts," he said.

Traverse City Light & Power wasn't ready for the storm's sheer scale, said Jessica Wheaton, marketing and community relations coordinator.

"We pay attention to weather to the extreme now. We assigned duties for all the staff members, so now we have a set procedure of how we call employees and work though the issues," Wheaton said.

The massive number of phone calls clogged TCL&P's phone lines. The utility now has a new phone system, she said.

"We've also created efficiencies to get crews better aligned with what's happening in the field," she said.

Cherryland Electric Cooperative General Manager Tony Anderson said the utility has more outside crews at the ready to better respond.

The cooperative hasn't changed its phone system, but is developing a smart phone application for release around April, he said.

"We'll be able to have thousands of people reporting an outage at the same time," he said.

Cherryland was one of the last utilities to restore service to its customers after the storm. Warren, who was out of power for six days, was among them. On her last trip for generator gas, she cried when she saw everyone else's lights on. Forgotten once again, she thought.

"I came home and they were fixing the lines as I pulled in. I told them how grateful I was. They couldn't have been nicer."

4) TCAPS millage campaign and defeat

Voters crushed a $100 million Traverse City Area Public Schools bond proposal by roughly 7,000 votes in November, dashing district officials' hopes for major renovations and construction projects at several schools.

The TCAPS Board of Education asked voters to increase the current 3.1-mill bond levy by up to 0.8 mills. The proposal would have generated $100 million over the next 10 years.

The district hoped to use $26 million on improvement projects at Central High School, TCAPS Chief Financial Officer Paul Soma said. The bulk of that money — $18 million — would have funded construction of a state-of-the-art, 1,200-seat performing arts center. The rest would have paid for smaller renovations like moving the principals' and administrators' offices, and redesigning the building's front entrance.

Renovation projects at Central Grade School and Interlochen, Eastern and Montessori elementary schools also were slated for millage funding. The district would have spent any leftover money on maintenance, technology upgrades and buses.

The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce publicly supported the millage increase, arguing the proposed projects would attract families to the region and ensure TCAPS students receive the best education possible.

But many voters said they opposed the tax hike because of poor economic conditions and a sense that the $18 million performing arts center wasn't necessary.

The final vote came in with about 25,000 against and about 18,000 for the bond measure.

Since the election, school administrators and board members analyzed what worked with the millage, what didn't and what the district should do differently to promote future millage proposals.

Board President Kelly Hall said TCAPS plans to float another proposal soon, though she did not know when.

"We've made no secret that we plan to come back for another bond request," Hall said this month.

For now, the district will have to dump "short-term money into long-term problems" when it comes to nagging infrastructure needs, Soma said.

This solution could lead to spending cuts in other areas, unless a viable long-term solution for infrastructure funding is found.

5) Marc Morris sexual assault case

TCAPS officials violated the district's nepotism policy when they hired the son of a Board of Education member four years ago.

But the consequences of the violation did not surface until a criminal investigation this summer revealed former East Middle School custodian Marc Morris maintained a sexual relationship with a female student who was 13 when the relationship began.

Morris pleaded guilty in October to two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person 13 to 15 following an investigation into the relationship that started 2010.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power sentenced Morris to seven to 15 years in prison. He remains incarcerated at a Michigan Department of Corrections facility in Muskegon Heights, with an earliest possible release date of June 30, 2019.

The district hired Morris as a custodian in 2008. He worked for five months as a substitute janitor before he became a permanent employee.

His father, Gerald Morris, served as TCAPS board president from 2002-07. Gerald Morris' last school board term expired the year his son was hired. District policy at the time prohibited the hiring of children of school board members on a permanent basis, but Marc Morris was elevated to permanent status in November 2008, one month before his father left the board in December.

Superintendent Stephen Cousins said in the wake of the arrest the district violated its own hiring policy when it gave Morris a job. Cousins suspended Human Resources Director Cindy Berck for a week without pay because she approved Marc Morris' hire.

He also suspended Cathy Meyer-Looze, TCAPS director of professional development and former principal at East Middle School, for two weeks without pay because she failed to aggressively pursue and document misconduct allegations against Marc Morris during his employment with the district.

6) Concerns about local homeless people

Homeless people and their visibility in and around Traverse City attracted plenty of attention this year.

The city always has hosted a relatively large homeless population, but the issue came to a head this fall when city commissioners banned alcohol in several parks after ongoing problems with public drinking. The move was designed in large part to discourage homeless people from panhandling and causing disturbances in areas used by families and visitors.

The commission included Lay and Hannah parks on Union Street just south of the Boardman River, American Legion Park off Cass Street across from United Methodist Church and the Jay Smith Walkway in downtown. All are frequented by homeless people, many of whom consume alcohol.

A movement also is afoot to build a so-called "wet house" in which homeless people could stay and consume alcohol. Most homeless shelters don't allow drinking, so those who are too drunk or want to keep drinking are forced to stay on the street or find shelter elsewhere.

City commissioners weren't warm to the idea when they discussed it at a December meeting.

7) TIE — Fire services merger

Traverse City's interest in joining the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department rose from the ashes in 2012, following a burnout the previous year.

City commissioners, under heated criticism from city fire department supporters, refused to consider formal talks in 2011. But mounting budget pressure led commissioners to reconsider and enter into talks with the three-township authority that controls Metro.

Township supervisors showed little interest in taking on city fire services and talks appeared to be on the wane. Then, in late November, the possibility of state money to aid consolidation sparked a breakthrough.

Metro applied for a grant to help fund a feasibility study and its leaders promised to make a formal, written proposal to the city on the conditions and costs needed to join Metro. Metro officials said they prefer to start by providing services to the city under a contract before allowing it to join the authority as a full partner.

City voters would have to change the city charter to allow contracting for fire services. Joining Metro as a partner would not require a vote.

Regardless of which option is chosen, the city would disband its own department. Its highly trained and unionized paramedic/firefighters would not be guaranteed even a part-time job with Metro, which does not have a union.

Metro also won't provide advance life support services to the city. Metro provides basic life support and has no interest in providing two levels of service, Metro officials said.

There is no deadline for Metro to provide a proposal.

7) TIE — Local men die in combat

Grand Traverse County lost two of its sons to combat in Afghanistan.

U. S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Matthew S. Schwartz died in January when an improvised explosive device, or IED, struck his vehicle. The blast also killed two other U.S. servicemen. Justin Hansen, a United States Marine and Kingsley native, was shot and killed in July.

Hansen, 26, was a 2003 graduate of Kingsley High School and a standout athlete there. He was a captain on the successful 2002 football team, and also ran track and wrestled. He died during his second tour in Afghanistan, but also served in the Iraq war.

Schwartz, 34, graduated from Traverse City Central High School in 1996. He was killed during his sixth tour in a war zone. His numerous awards and decorations included three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

Local residents turned out in droves for both men's funerals. Hansen's was at Kingsley High School, where the school's gym was packed and visitors waited for hours to pay their respects. Hundreds of friends, family members and other visitors gathered at Christ the King Church in Acme for Schwartz's funeral.

Both were remembered as helpful, friendly, service-oriented individuals.

9) Munson's Cowell Family Cancer Center

Munson Healthcare's ambitious plan for a new $45 million cancer center hit the ground running with $12.5 million in donations, along with city approvals that will allow it to expand on its Sixth Street campus.

The hospital targeted the spring of 2014 for groundbreaking.

Nearby residents raised concerns that the Cowell Family Cancer Center will bring an unprecedented amount of traffic to the surrounding area.

Munson expects to complete a traffic study in coming months and is meeting with neighborhood associations, said Dale Killingbeck, a Munson spokesman.

"I feel Munson is learning how to be a neighbor," said Kima Kraimer, a resident who lives near the Munson entrance. "And part of that is reaching out and listening to our concerns."

Environmentalists praised Munson for "daylighting" Kid's Creek as part of the overall project, that is, putting some underground sections of the creek above-ground.

Work on the Kid's Creek project will resume in the spring. The creek will be moved into the new channel next fall, Killingbeck said.

"There will be lots of green things planted, including many trees, in the spring," Killingbeck said.

The Cowell Family Cancer Center is named after Casey Cowell, who made the lead $5 million gift. There's strong momentum, but Munson still needs to raise about $10 million, said Desiree Worthington, president of the Munson HealthCare Foundation.

"It has to be something the community owns," Worthington said, suggesting that groups run bake sales, runs and walks to benefit the center.

Munson already removed a former medical office building, Members Credit Union Building, the Patient Accounts and Business Office building and the former Sixth Street Drugs building. Employees were transferred offsite to reduce traffic, Killingbeck said.

The schematic of the new center won't be finalized until the end of 2013, but the cancer center's driving concept is to bring a wide spectrum of cancer physicians under one roof.

"The whole philosophy is to surround a patient who is going through the most difficult time of their life with people who can help them," Worthington said. "Now we're working on the size of the building and where and how it will flow. What will be in it and what's not. A lot of talk is going on with physicians and oncologists."

The hospital isn't waiting for the cancer center to begin a team approach, said Derk Pronger, vice president of operations administration.

Breast cancer specialists gather for weekly meetings to review patient cases. The same will soon happen for lung cancer patients, Pronger said.

"We bring up the patients' images, pathology reports, and we determine what the best options are," Pronger said. "It gets the best meeting of the minds on the latest treatments."

The center will provide offices for physicians who specialize in cancer treatment, such as radiologists and oncologists. Patients will not stay at the center. The Biederman Cancer Treatment Center will be folded into the new cancer center, while the Smith Family Breast Health Center will remain. Children will still have to go out of town to receive radiation treatment from partner hospitals, Pronger said.

10) Spirit of TC moves on

Traverse City's last passenger train — a miniature version that managed to carry more than 17,000 mostly youthful passengers each year — left town not on a rail, but the back of a flat-bed truck.

City commissioners voted in January to remove the The Spirit of Traverse City steam train from its waterfront home of almost 30 years to accommodate the redesign of Clinch Park. The decision led to six months of speculation and sometimes heated debate about the train's future.

Even Grand Traverse County officials weighed in and considered putting the train at the Civic Center. Concerns about errant foul balls hitting train passengers as they circled the ball fields eventually eliminated the train from consideration there. Other potential sites included Hull Park and the Great Wolf Lodge, but Hull didn't have the space and Great Wolf passed.

City commissioners sought train bids and eventually agreed to sell it to the The Northwest Michigan Engine & Thresher Club for $20. The club will house and operate the train at The Buckley Old Engine Show south of Traverse City. The city rejected a proposal from nonprofit group Save the Spirit of Traverse City Fund, whose members wanted to relocate the train to the corner of Division and 11th streets and operate it as a destination park.

The group wanted a year to raise funds and gain city zoning and park approval to operate the train at its preferred location.

But city commissioners didn't like the park location and chose Buckley as the next closest option out of seven bids for the train. The last vestiges of the train and its tracks were removed from Clinch Park in July, just two days after the Cherry Festival ended.

Record-Eagle staff writers Glenn Puit, Anne Stanton, Michael Walton, Art Bukowski and Brian McGillivary contributed to this report.