Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

December 31, 2012

Top 10 Stories of 2012

2012 Elections chosen as top story of the year

By Bob Belcher and Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun

Corsicana — The year 2012 will again go down as a year of “change,” a popular buzz-word from the last presidential election year.

And change in Navarro County is documented in our selection of the Top 10 Local Stories of 2012.

A change in leadership for Navarro County’s Sheriff’s Department, the change of commissioners in Precinct 1, leaving the commissioners court with an all-GOP lineup of elected officials. In fact, all of the offices in county leadership are now held by Republicans.

And change in the business climate also took place in 2012, with net gains in jobs and a $50 million plant expansion adding some 200 positions, a definite positive move for the Corsicana and Navarro County economy — combined with an overall increase in sales tax revenues helping fuel progress.

We lost some great folks in 2012 — people who have played a big part in the growth and quality of life in our county.

And there was some disappointing news in the year as well, yet overall, and we’ll document that as well.

Here’s our look at the Top 10 Local Stories of 2012, taken from the pages of your Corsicana Daily Sun.

No. 1: 2012 Elections

Ask any candidate and they’ll tell you — running for office is a tough job. But in Texas in 2012, it was an election that went into overtime for all concerned. Disputes over newly-drawn election lines pushed back the traditional March primaries to the end of May, adding another three months of campaigning and waiting for all concerned. And Navarro County went one step further, with a runoff election held at the end of July in one race, making the 2012 primary election season one for the record books.

The races for county government saw the resignation of an elected official in mid-cycle, when Precinct 3 Constable Brad Butler resigned over a pay dispute with the commissioners court, and the local GOP committee nominated Nicole McMahan, whom Butler defeated in the primary, to replace him on the November ballot.

Elmer Tanner was elected sheriff after winning a three-way race in the primary, and comfortable victory over the Democratic challenger, John Barlow, in the November vote. And with Precinct 1 Commissioner Kit Herrington’s decision not to seek another term, Republican Jason Grant joins the commissioners court after a 20-plus year career with the Corsicana Police Department.

Several incumbents were returned to office in 2012, including State Rep. Byron Cook, State Sen. Brian Birdwell, Precinct 3 Commissioner David “Butch” Warren, Tax Assessor/Collector Russell Hudson, District Judge James Lagomarsino, and appointees District Clerk Josh Tackett and County Court-At-Law Judge Amanda Putman were elected without opposition to their first full terms. All three incumbent constables also won another term, along with McMahan in her first bid for office.

While Navarro County and Texas held strong in support of the GOP presidential slate of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term in office, and his administration and the nation immediately faced dealing with a “Fiscal Cliff” that was still in question at year’s end.

— Bob Belcher

No. 2: Bypass funding approved

In late June 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation approved $41 million for a bypass around Corsicana on Texas Highway 31, an accomplishment that has taken at least 20 years to realize by local and state officials.

The next obstacle, getting the land needed for the route, also called the right-of-way, is next on the agenda, according to highway officials. The City of Corsicana and Navarro County will need to put up a $3.7 million match, or the right-of-way to make the bypass a reality.

Public meetings to unveil the route, and talk to landowners are expected to take place in the spring, a slight delay from what had been anticipated. The drawings are similar to those discussed in the 2000s and in the 1990s to address the seemingly perpetual issue of congestion in Corsicana.

The need to relieve congestion has grown more keen as the state has been rebuilding Seventh Avenue through western Corsicana, causing a variety of headaches for local businesses and drivers, alike.

Some landowners have expressed a willingness to donate land, which will save the city and county some cash in right-of-way purchases. Other matching funds can be covered by plugging the various oil and gas wells along the route.

The relief route or bypass is anticipated to go from just east of Pactiv, around County Road 70, and rejoin Highway 31 west of the city near County Road 1000, immediately in front of the TxDOT offices.

— Janet Jacobs

No. 3: Pactiv expanding lines, adding jobs

In a year plagued with sad employment news, closings and downsizings elsewhere, 2012 also had a big bright spot locally with the announcement that Pactiv was going to expand with an entirely new line of products at the Corsicana plant.

The company is building a 150,000-square-foot addition to the plant on Highway 31 that will also bring 200 new jobs to the city’s workforce over a three-year period. The Texas Enterprise Fund is giving $930,000 to the company to help with the expansion, and the Texas Capital fund is putting up a $1.25 million grant. The City of Corsicana, Navarro County and Navarro College are all giving the company a tax break equal to five years’ worth of appraisals on the new portion of the plant. The company is investing about $50 million in the Corsicana project.

 The company will be making expanded polystyrene cups and containers in the new section. The company already has a  plant near Chicago, Ill., that makes the coffee cups. Corsicana’s will be the second plant, according to Kevin Quinn, vice president of operations and engineering for Pactiv.

The company makes disposable plates, cups, bowls and packaging for fast food companies, for grocery stores, and the food service industry. Ninety percent of the company’s goods are made in the U.S., Quinn said.

— Janet Jacobs

No. 4: Navarro Generating pulls plug on plant

This year marked what was at least for the foreseeable future the end of the power plants in Navarro County.

In August, Navarro Generating pulled the plug on its requested air permit from the state’s environmental arm, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Navarro Generating was a proposed $600 million project to build a natural gas power plant.

The company has kept its land on Pisgah Ridge, however, in case the economics of the project improve, according to company officials.

The economics of building power plants in Texas, with the electricity structure the state has now, didn’t make sense, along with a battle for the permits necessary, company spokesman Chris Shugart said.

The decision to pull the air permit followed the pulling of the company’s application for a wastewater permit in 2011.

The company first applied for permits in 2009, but was met with local opposition from nearby property owners and homegrown environmentalists worried it would affect property values and health.

Another project, Pin Oak Creek Energy, an LS Power project, was officially canceled in 2009.

—Janet Jacobs

No. 5: Courthouse restoration

The long-discussed restoration of the 100-plus year old Navarro County Courthouse rode a roller-coaster of actions and reaction in 2012.

The county received word in January it had been awarded $4.5 million from the Texas  Historical Commission to help fund the project, estimated to cost about $9 million.

In July, on a 3-2 vote, the commissioners court voted to accept the grant, and began studies on moving the project forward with temporary locations, re-drafted plans, and talks on how to fund the county’s share of the work and pay for a temporary location for courthouse operations during the proposed work — estimated at about 30 months.

In November and December, a vote to sign the agreement for funding stalled, as commissioners further debated the pros and cons of the move and financing the county’s share of costs. As well, discussions of having to buy or build a courthouse annex building to house offices that a restored courthouse could no longer accommodate added to financial concerns, and added to the county’s share of costs for the project.

At the court’s Dec. 10 meeting, commissioners voted to sign the agreement after being told the grant could be pulled should the county not move forward with the project by January. A financial advisor was also hired to help craft a certificate of obligation issue for the county to consider.

County Judge H.M. Davenport Jr. also indicated there were several groups that had indicated a desire to financially support the restoration project.

— Bob Belcher

No. 6 — Kohl’s closes call center

The community received some bad economic news in 2012 when Kohl’s announced it was closing it’s call center in Corsicana — moving the unit’s 180 jobs to other locations.

Company officials said the lack of ability to expand at the Corsicana site was a factor in the decision to close the center.

Unaffected by the move was the company’s distribution center in Corsicana. The distribution center opened in 2001 to service stores located in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. It employs about 180 as well.

The company offered displaced employees positions at call centers in San Antonio or Milwaukee, and also provided what it called “generous severance packages.”

— Bob Belcher

No. 7 - War on Terror hits home again

In August, word of the injury of another Navarro County soldier involved in the War on Terror surfaced.

Kevin Wear, 30, a graduate of Rice High School, was seriously injured while on routine patrol in Afghanistan when an IED — improvised explosive device — hit the vehicle Wear was in.

Wear was taken to an Army medical facility in Germany before being moved to Brooks Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. He had been in Afghanistan for four months when he was injured.

A local effort to raise monetary support for Wear was launched by Vicky Prater, and the event held Sept. 30 raised $25,000 for Wear and his family.

Wear continues his rehabilitation.

On Dec. 13, a young soldier with family ties to Navarro County was killed in Afghanistan in a similar attack.

Army Staff Sergeant Nelson David Trent was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan by an Improvised Explosive Device on Dec. 13, 2012. The Taliban has taken credit for the car bombing.

Nelson had served in the military for 12 years on active duty. He was assigned to the 56th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division, Fort Worth.

He was honored at a memorial service in Tyler on Dec. 23, and interment at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. will be held at a later date.

Nelson, 37, was posthumously award the rank of Sgt. 1st Class. He leaves behind a wife and two children. His grandparents, the late P.E. and Esther Trent, formerly lived in Corsicana.

Nelson’s aunt and uncle, Wanza Warren and David Trent, live in Corsicana.

— Bob Belcher

No. 8: Graves of 26 unknowns moved

In January 2012, the graves of 25 people who are believed to have been former slaves or their descendants, were moved from the shores of Richland Chambers Reservoir to the evidence room of the Corsicana Police Department.

The small cemetery of mostly children and babies had been revealed by a drought in 2009 that caused the lake’s shore to recede. But as rains returned, the waterline threatened to reclaim the site, and state archeologists rushed to remove the bones.

In late May, the bodies were reinterred in Woodland Memorial Cemetery in Corsicana. Markers were added to the graves in December 2012. Historical markers are expected to be added in 2013.

In order to allow the burial of the remains in Woodland, the city had to have the cemetery approved as a perpetual care site in district court. Local residents who recalled the former Montgomery Hill community, formerly a pre-Civil War plantation, recalled some of the African American families who lived there.

Amateur history and genealogy researchers believe that their descendents moved to Corsicana and are buried in Woodland.

— Janet Jacobs

No. 9 — Youth minister pleads in sex charge

The community was rocked by a scandal involving the youth minister of a local church after allegations of an improper sexual relationship with a young girl surfaced.

Gary Welch, 42, youth minister at Northside Baptist Church in Corsicana, was arrested on March 19 on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

More charges were added on March 24 in connection with the case, and on March 26 the church announced it had fired Welch from his post.

Welch was indicted on March 28, and three weeks later, on April 14, agreed to a plea bargain with the Navarro County District Attorney’s office, sentenced to 55 years in prison.

District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson said Welch had “groomed” his victim and taken advantage of her age and his position of authority. The victim, a 16-year-old female, said the assaults by Welch dated back to 2009.

Thompson also spoke out on rumors circulating on social media blaming the victim.

“She was not at fault,” Thompson said. “I want to make sure the public knows that Mr. Welch gave a full confession in this case, and that in no way, was the victim at fault.”

Welch had been with the church for five years, and was married with two children. He’d previously served congregations in Palmer and Ennis.

Welch will not be eligible for parole until the age of 70.

— Bob Belcher

No. 10: Big Tex goes up in flames

It was a tragic and public end to a Kerens native when Big Tex caught fire on the last Friday of the 2012 State Fair season.

Big Tex had once been the Kerens Santa, a 52-foot-tall reminder to shop local before being sold to the State Fair where he moved to the big city and got a shave and some pretty cowboy duds.

Tex caught fire when an electrical short shot sparks up his left leg, consuming the figure within minutes. Now, however, the rebuilding is commencing and it turns out Tex was woefully underinsured, valued at $180,000, when the actual replacement cost is going to be closer to $600,000.

Underappreciated, underinsured, Big Tex was the face of the fair. The meeting place for generations of lost kids and their parents, the friendly “Howdy” when you got onto the grounds, the cheerful reminder that fairs are meant to be fun.

Once the fire had been extinguished, nothing was left but the metal frame underneath and his arms, which still bore his Dickey’s shirt sleeves. The craggy face, the stiff upper lip, and his too-wide shoulders were black ash that settled over the fairgrounds. Even the frame was removed within a few hours of the fire, a sad reminder quickly whisked away.

A makeshift memorial appeared in Kerens following the fire.

He’ll be replaced, they promise. He’ll be back, better than ever, but this new Tex won’t be Kerens’ Tex, which is their loss.

— Janet Jacobs