Top 10 Stories of the Year

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The Nisqually Valley News used up a lot of ink and paper during 2013 bringing you the news of the day. The following are the top 10 stories, in order of significance and impact.

1. Yelm City Park Bond Fails Twice

Twice this year voters rejected a multi-million dollar request to make major improvements to Yelm City Park.

The bond would have raised $5.7 million, enough to build a modern park with a community center, water spray park, new memorial plaza to our military families, new restrooms, a stage with a PA sound system, expanded children’s play area, a relocated skate park and connections to both Cochrane Park and the Yelm-Tenino Trail.

The bond needed a supermajority of 60 percent yes votes to pass. It gained only 49 percent in the November general election after failing in the August primary.

Yelm Mayor Ron Harding said the city would regroup and “probably convene a workgroup” of community members and staff to look at options going forward.

Critics of the bond said there was not enough public input into the proposal, and asked the city to put together a group of community volunteers to discuss options.

2. Ramtha School of Enlightenment and Virginia Coverdale Face Off in Court

For much of 2013, former Ramtha School of Enlightenment student Virginia Coverdale and JZ Knight, Inc. found themselves in court.

Coverdale had put up a YouTube video of Ramtha which at least in one selected section disparaged Mexicans, gays and Catholics. JZ Knight, Inc. sought to limit the ability of Coverdale to distribute such information, citing a confidentiality clause signed by students.

JZ Knight, Inc. prevailed in court, and Coverdale was ordered to pay court costs of $600,000.

Coverdale was ordered to turn over her vehicle to pay for a small part of the fees, but sold it instead. As of deadline Tuesday (early Nisqually Valley News deadlines for the Christmas holiday), Coverdale was stating on Facebook that JZ Knight, Inc. was attempting to have her jailed during the Christmas holiday. This saga certainly will continue into 2014.

3. The Mazama Pocket Gopher

South Thurston County officials continued in 2013 with years of deliberations on protecting 16 prairie-dwelling species. The comprehensive habitat conservation plan, if approved, could be used for up to 50 years.

Among the most discussed species are the Mazama pocket gopher, the streaked horned lark and Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Conservationists state loss of habitat, such as the south county prairie land, is the most important cause of extinction.

The effort came about from a 2009 lawsuit and 2011 settlement in which the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife was ordered to work through 600 potential endangered species listings by 2016.

As part of the process, economic development must be part of the considerations.

Developers argue pocket gophers are thriving and can be found “everywhere,” adding listing the gopher as endangered would “shut down any and all development” in Thurston County.

4. Yelm Growth

As the Great Recession ever-so-slowly faded, Yelm again found itself on the edge of exponential growth after being one of the fasting developing areas of the past 15 years.

“What Yelm is experiencing is the leading edge of the economy uptake. The housing market has certainly changed and is booming at this time,” said Michael Cade, executive director, Thurston County Economic Development Council, toward the end of summer.

Close proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a booming housing market, new apartment construction and a rush of new businesses in Yelm has made it one of the fastest growing communities in Thurston County.

Not since before the Great Recession has Yelm experienced such a strong economic rise.

Grant Beck, city of Yelm community development director, said historically Yelm has been the fastest growing city in the county for the past 10 to 15 years.

“It’s an attractive place to be,” Beck said. “Certainly JBLM influences growth in Thurston County, particularly to Lacey and Yelm since we are the closest neighboring cities.”

Recent building activity of subdivisions, homes and new businesses coming to the city are adding to the uptake of the local economy.

“It’s been really busy,” he said. “One of the factors that I look at to show that it’s a healthy growth is when there are several different builders involved and that’s certainly the case.”

With the influx of new buildings, homes, businesses and a growing economy, Yelm is poised to continue to see growth in the future.

“Yelm is well-positioned to keep growing and increasing,” Cade said.

5. Red Wind Casino $45M Expansion

With construction underway and a completion date set for December 2014, the $45 million expansion of the Nisqually Red Wind Casino was both big business and big news in 2013.

The expansion will bring 70 new jobs to the area and will continue to fuel a significant economic boost that has occurred within the Nisqually Indian Tribe in the last year, said Cynthia Iyall, chair of the Nisqually Tribal Council.

In all, 42,700 square feet of gaming space will be added to the current 95,000-square-foot structure. A remodeling of the parking structure will add 600 spots. The expanded space will include a smoke-free casino.

Only about 1 percent of the roughly 400 employees at the casino are members of the Nisqually Tribe, Iyall said. Many of the tribe’s 766 members are employed in tribal government positions; there are about 300 such positions.

“We rely on the surrounding community for employment, and it seems to be a good partnership,” Iyall said at the time of the expansion announcement.

The remodeled and expanded casino will carry on with a natural elements theme begun with the construction of the Tribal Center. That building’s roof is curved to reflect the back of a fish and the flowing Nisqually River. The old tribal building behind it is being remodeled with a pitched roof, which is reflective of a mountain, Iyall said. The upgraded casino building will incorporate grass-like elements because the Nisqually Tribe’s historic name, Schally-Absch, means people of the river and people of the grass country, Iyall said.

The original casino, which was built in 1997, is the tribe’s economic engine, Iyall said, and revenues from that business have allowed the tribe to expand its economic presence in the region. Four new tribal businesses have opened within the past year alone. The tribe has a new construction company called Nisqually Federal WHH Construction.

The tribe opened a seafood processing plant, called She-nah-num Seafood, in Tumwater about six months ago. Tribal fishermen sell their catch to the plant, which processes it and prepares it for retail sale. Then the seafood is purchased by casinos, buffets and fine-dining restaurants up and down the coast.

The tribe has also opened two convenience stores, the Nisqually Market in Lakewood and the Nisqually Market Express in the Nisqually Valley near Interstate 5. Both of those have opened within the past year, Iyall said.

6. Wilcox Family Farms Roy Silo Collapse Leads to Fatality

Officials identified Steven Green, 44, as the Wilcox Family Farms worker who died after a silo at the farm’s feed mill collapsed in early November, putting a chill across the community just before the holiday season.

Green was initially missing after the silo collapsed and spilled 500 tons of corn.

Green leaves behind a wife, three daughters and son. Green worked for Wilcox for about a year as a maintenance technician.

Rescuers draped a U.S. flag over his body once it was recovered as an improvised way to honor Green as both a person and a military veteran.

A memorial fund was established for the family at Key Bank under the name Steven Green.

Labor and Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer stated the department’s inspection must be completed within six months. When a fatality is involved, it’s not unusual for the investigation to take the full six months, she said.

Wilcox Family Farms released a statement expressing their condolences to Green’s family.

“This is a devastating loss to our company and our community,” the statement said. “Steve was an exceptional person and employee. Our family and all the Wilcox employees share in grieving his loss. We will support his family members every way we can during this difficult time. This includes setting up a memorial fund with contributions from our company and employees.”

The statement said the company would provide grief counselors to its employees. It states the company will fully cooperate with response teams and investigators.

“We want to learn why and how this tragedy happened so it will never happen again,” the release stated.

7. Cadillac Ranch Race Track Denied

The Thurston County Hearing Examiner denied a permit for an off-road vehicle track in Rainier in late summer dubbed the Cadillac Ranch Race Track.

The debate became contentious at times, as track owner representatives called neighbors opposed to the tracks nonsensical liars.

The owners of the track — Jeff, Bob and Damian Mahan — submitted an application for an athletic facility special use permit to construct and operate an off-road vehicle riding track on the family farm at 12307 Vail Cutoff Road S.E. The Mahans indicated in part the track would help save the farm.

The county approved a SEPA Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance for the project, meaning it would have a minimal impact on the environment.

The Rainier-Vail Neighborhood Group, which opposes allowing the track to operate, appealed that determination.

According to the hearing examiner’s decision, the applicants did not demonstrate compliance with special use permit criteria and the proposed use of their land did not comply with the underlying zoning district.

Jeff Mahan said he was unhappy with the hearing examiner’s decision, and said his family isn’t sure what the fate of the track or their farm is.

The family is still allowed to use the track for four personal social events throughout the year, he said.

“It’s really upsetting. You know, you can’t do anything on your own property these days,” he said. “It’s really frustrating because there really is so much support for this and the closest neighbors support it and most of the neighbors support it. The people against it, they fight everything here.”

8. Former Mayor Rivas Dies

Former Yelm Mayor Adam Rivas, an active and social resident who left his mark on his family and this community, died of complications from leukemia on June 20 with his family by his side.

He died about a month after turning 50.

His obituary described him as a “feisty, enigmatic and wayward spirit” from birth.

A popular man who served on many city boards including the planning commission and city councils of Yelm, Rivas was mayor from 2001-05. He was also active on countywide boards such as the Thurston County Economic Development Council.

During his tenure Yelm was undergoing a time of growth and development. He oversaw obtaining $33 million for Phase 1 of the Yelm Loop and shepherded the completion of the traffic corridor Yelm Mini-Loop. During his term he worked on the expansion of the progressive water reclamation facility along with improvements to the city’s water system.

9. Salmon Runs on the Nisqually River Called ‘Historic’

Nisqually River pink salmon runs were pegged at about one million toward the end of summer, with fisheries experts calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience to witness the runs.

Native American folklore has it that salmon were once so abundant in America’s rivers, people could walk from one side of the river to the other on their backs when they spawned.

Overfishing and declining habitat made such stories almost unbelievable in this day and age. But this year, the thought of walking on the backs of salmon may be a lot more believable for those who need to see it to believe it.

“This is that year with pink salmon” in the Nisqually River, says David Troutt, the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources director.

“People are going to see fish all over the Nisqually Watershed,” Troutt said in September.

10. Tenino Mayorjuana Strawn Finally Resigns

It took a while but by the end of May, then-Tenino Mayor Eric Strawn walked out of City Hall and finally resigned after a tumultuous reign, which many would consider an understatement.

His exit speech before the city council ran the gamut of emotions, from the elation Strawn said he felt after winning the election, to the hurt of feeling unwelcome in City Hall to the hatred and mistrust he has come to feel for certain city council members.

Through it all, Strawn emphasized one point: Tenino’s problems began before his year-and-a-half in office and will continue long after.

“It’s not just me. Just so the citizens know, your problems will still exist. There will be arguments up here,” Strawn said, gesturing to the semicircle of councilors.

Strawn left City Hall immediately after his speech. Following his departure, the city council voted unanimously to accept his resignation.

Even before taking office in November of 2011, Strawn had become a source of controversy. Long-haired, casually-dressed and unabashed about issuing colorful soundbites, Strawn brought a new attitude to City Hall, one that didn’t sit well with everyone.

City council first publicly expressed its displeasure with the mayor in the summer of 2012. At that time, the council issued a vote of no confidence, citing Strawn’s alleged attempts to intimidate councilors and denial of public information requests. Strawn expressed frustration with the vote.

“There are many times I would’ve liked to work with the council members,” he said. “But there’s a certain animosity. Since Dec. 13, 2011, there was a consensus that apparently you don’t know me. After six months, you obviously don’t want to get to know me.”

Three months later, Strawn was caught in a compromising position.

On Sept. 17, the Lacey Police Department received a report of a Tenino police officer allegedly receiving oral sex inside a car parked in front of the Christian-based Health Wiz Gym.

When police responded, they found Strawn and a female friend in the city vehicle.

In the aftermath of the incident, Strawn admitted to making a poor choice but denied the sexual contact allegations.

“The truth is I kissed a girl that wasn’t my wife,” he said. “Am I embarrassed about it? Yeah, I’m embarrassed I got caught kissing a woman that wasn’t my wife.”

Strawn was not charged in the incident.

The mayor again made headlines, a month later, when he was given a new title: Mayorjuana.

The name, bestowed by Tenino artist Jaime Hadley, was publicized in the form of Mayorjuana T-shirts that featured Strawn’s face, two pot leaves and the Hawaiian flag. Strawn — whose criminal record includes a conviction for marijuana possession — previously had spoken about his use of medical marijuana.

Earlier this year, Strawn took ownership of that title, using it as a stage name for his newly-launched side career as a standup comedian.

City councilors were not amused with the mayor’s new act. The routine — parts of which poked fun at Tenino citizens and the city council — was an embarrassment to the city, said several councilors.

That’s our top 10 list. Cheer’s to what is sure to be another interesting set of stories unfolding in 2014. Happy New Year!

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