Roads and EMS aside, economy dominates
After a year of mixed messages about economic development, new businesses and more jobs remain the chief concerns of Marion County residents interviewed about their hopes for 2016.
National retailers decided the county was fertile ground for expansion, establishing outlets in Hillsboro and Marion. The January opening of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market filled a void left by the demise of Heartland Foods in Hillsboro, while a new Dollar General that opened this month in Marion was a long-awaited successor to bankrupt Duckwall’s.
Florence filled the old Opera House with a new food store, Flint Hills Market and Bakery, and Central Ag Air, a crop spraying service, took up residence at Marion Airport. J&M Liquor Store opened in Peabody.
Two county pharmacies, Marion Heath Mart and Don’s Drugs in Peabody, were purchased by new owners, and a third, Greenhaw Pharmacy in Hillsboro, purchased ground with plans for expansion.
Festivals designed to attract people to the county enjoyed good attendance. Increasing interest in sainthood for Father Emil Kapaun drew record numbers of visitors to Pilsen.
Hillsboro Community Hospital set the stage to begin construction of a new $11.4 million facility at US-56 and Industrial Rd. by securing a primary lender, and Hillsboro approved issuance of $1.3 million of bonds to cover infrastructure construction. Once sale of bonds is completed, construction can commence.
HCH also opened a downtown clinic and welcomed hometown-product Alisa Schmidt as a new physician.
Physician Tim McVay joined the staff of St. Luke Hospital’s medical clinic in May, but the hospital will enter 2016 looking for a new physician to replace Paige Dodson, who will be leaving in March for a position in El Dorado. The hospital enhanced its services adding telemedicine support, sleep studies, and a wound care clinic.
However, setbacks were to be found as well.
Alco in Hillsboro closed when its parent company folded, and no replacement tenant has been found.
Marion’s foray at acquiring a national-brand hotel fizzled when Cobblestone Inn, which would have required more than $1 million from local investors, pulled its interest after its feasibility study was called into question in a Marion County Record article.
Marion economic development efforts took a double hit at the end of the year.
Marion Chamber of Commerce president Don Noller announced in October that the cash-strapped organization would dissolve by year’s end. After longtime secretary Margo Yates took a new full-time parks and recreation position with the city, the board determined resources were insufficient to continue.
City economic development director Terry Jones resigned in November. Coupled with the mid-summer retirement of Clint Seibel in Hillsboro, the county’s largest communities were without full-time developers at year’s end.
Road woes and wins
Issues with poor conditions of rural county roads that began in December 2014 with prolonged heavy precipitation boiled over in mid-summer, after a late May deluge again made many roads impassable as harvest was getting under.
About 300 disgruntled patrons packed a July town hall meeting at the county lake to express concerns and level criticism at how problems were being handled. Following the meeting, grader operators and rock haulers were put on extended shifts to combat the problems.
Beleaguered road and bridge superintendent Randy Crawford resigned in October, and was replaced on an interim basis by Jesse Hamm in December.
Two major highway safety projects were completed in 2015.
The most notable was the opening last week of an innovative roundabout at the US-56/77 and K-150 junction. The intersection, called the most dangerous in the state by KDOT, claimed the lives of Marie and Forrest Anderson of Burdick in April, about a month before construction of the roundabout began.
US-56 north of Hillsboro was widened to create a turning lane for the Adams St. intersection. A major sidewalk overhaul also increased safety for schoolchildren walking to Hillsboro Elementary School.
It was a tumultuous year for the county EMS service under new director Brandy McCarty.
Medical director Paige Dodson stepped down after only a few months in the position.
Commissioners forced Tampa crew chief Jesse Brunner out of that position, claiming he would not cooperate with McCarty.
The state EMS board opened investigations of three county EMS technicians, including McCarty, alleging violations of implementing procedures not allowed by their certifications. The board also initiated an investigation of the EMS service as a whole.
Commissioners in October fired Peabody paramedic Larry Larsen, setting off a backlash among Peabody citizens who feared losing the town’s EMS services.
A subsequent request to reinstate Larsen, presented by commissioner Randy Dallke, occupied time at three consecutive commission meetings without being resolved.
McCarty resigned as director in November, and an interim director was appointed in December.
While the county had its unfortunate share of crime, fires, and fatality accidents in 2015, there were also plenty of inspirational stories of tragedies averted and achievements made.
A toddler in Peabody and a 7-year-old at Morning Star Ranch near Florence were saved from drowning in June and July. So, too, was a Canton-area family whose boat capsized and sunk at Marion Reservoir in June.
Hungry citizens found relief at the expanded Marion County Resource Center and Food Bank in Marion, relocated to a building on E. Main St. and staffed by dozens of volunteers.
St. Luke Hospital Auxiliary Shoppe received so many donations that it had to temporarily stop taking them in August. In turn, the Auxiliary donated $20,000 to the hospital to complete renovations to the radiology area.
County school districts weathered state funding cuts with some difficult belt-tightening and, in some cases, local tax increases. Marion High School made Newsweek magazine’s list of the country’s top high schools for a second consecutive year.
Many high school athletes qualified for state-level competition, with wrestler Kyle Palic of Marion and pole vaulter Marah Franz of Hillsboro bringing home championships. Topping the list was the 44-0 1A champion Goessel girls’ volleyball team.
Tabor College broke ground in May for the Shari Flaming Center for the Arts, funded by a $16 million capital campaign. Site preparation has commenced, with construction expected to commence in the spring.