The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 30, 2012

Area’s top stories cover rebuilding, record drought and courtroom drama

From staff reports
news@joplinglobe.com

JOPLIN, Mo. — The year began with a bang.

Literally, the bang of hammers as Joplin and Duquesne charged forward with rebuilding after the 2011 tornado.

In January, ABC broadcast its two-hour “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” in which seven homes were built in the 2300 and 2400 blocks of Connor Avenue for victims of the tornado.

Another rebuilding milestone came early in 2012, too, when a $269.4 million permit was issued to Sisters of Mercy Health System for construction of a new hospital at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard.

It is the largest building permit in Joplin’s history.

Construction in Joplin since the tornado has pushed toward the $1 billion mark, and more construction is expected with the master developer’s projects and the city’s SPARK — Stimulating Progress through Arts, Recreation and Knowledge of the past — plans.

By year’s end, more than 80 percent of Joplin homes destroyed by the tornado were either rebuilt or had received permits for rebuilding, according to city figures.

Duquesne, too, heard the ringing of hammers. More than 40 of the 55 businesses the community lost in the storm were rebuilt, as were more than 150 of the 250 homes that were destroyed.

Dave Johnson, president of Construction Adventures, told the Globe this fall: “There is activity everywhere you look. So much money being injected into the community has just brought it to life.”

Regrowth was just one of the area’s big stories for 2012. The following stories, in no particular order, also were big headlines for the year.

HOSPITALS

Although the site blessing for the new Mercy Hospital Joplin took place in January, the last pieces of the tornado-ravaged St. John’s Regional Medical Center didn’t come down until July, and then only grudgingly.

Joplin’s Catholic hospital wasn’t the only one going through major changes.

Freeman Health System, experiencing its largest patient load ever in 2012, completed two major expansions.

“Everything about health care in Joplin has changed since May 22 (2011),” Paula Baker, Freeman president, said when Freeman Hospital West cut the ribbon on its fifth expansion in the spring. That project, valued at $8 million, added 29 private cardiology, medical and surgical beds.

Seven months later, the sixth floor opened, housing 29 intensive care and transitional care beds. It represented another $8 million investment.

Also in 2012, a large wooden cross bearing scars from the Joplin tornado was given a new home at Mercy McCune-Brooks Hospital in Carthage. McCune-Brooks became the 31st hospital in the Mercy organization when a 50-year lease of the city-owned hospital went into effect on Jan. 1.

Across the state line in Pittsburg, Kan., officials from Via Christi Hospital, the city of Pittsburg and others broke ground in the fall for a $20 million surgical center. The 40,000-square-foot center represents the largest expansion of its kind since the hospital was built.

ROAD TO PROSPERITY

In December, Southwest Missouri got its second interstate highway: Interstate 49.

The upgrade of 180 miles of U.S. Highway 71 was welcomed in Nevada, Lamar, Carthage, Neosho and Pineville.

The old highway became unsafe and inefficient as Southwest Missouri grew and traffic increased. The dedication of I-49 came only a month after Arkansas residents approved a sales tax increase to raise money for road work, including the first two lanes of the Bella Vista bypass.

Mark Elliff, president of the Carthage Chamber of Commerce, said the interstate will mean more jobs, economic growth and tourism dollars for communities along the I-49 corridor.

“It raises the profile for the whole region,” he said. “Like the old Route 66 saying, we are at the crossroads of America again.”

JOPLIN SCHOOLS

On the evening of April 3, Mike Wiggins said he was “flat excited.”

Voters in the Joplin School District had just approved a $62 million bond issue.

When combined with insurance payments, government funds and donations, it meant the Joplin district was going to spend $185 million to replace schools that were destroyed in the tornado. The largest of those projects — valued at more than $100 million — is a new high school and Franklin Technology Center.

In the aftermath of the storm, donations and volunteers poured in from all over the world.

For Wiggins, a Joplin businessman who then was the chairman of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, the vote signaled something to the rest of the world: While the community was grateful for all the help, he said, “We are willing to step up to the plate.”

Ceremonial groundbreakings took place the following month, on the anniversary of the tornado.

Eight months later, the work is well under way, and steel will soon be going up at some of the project sites.

OBAMA RETURNS

President Barack Obama returned to Joplin on May 21 to deliver a commencement address to 431 graduates of Joplin High School in a packed Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University.

“As I look out at this class and across this city, what is clear is that you’re the source of inspiration to me, to this state, to this country and to people all over the world,” Obama said.

The president met privately with the students before the ceremony, shaking hands with as many of them as he could.

It was Obama’s second visit to the city. One week after the tornado, he spoke at a memorial service at the university.

For many, the graduation ceremony was a sobering reminder of where they were a year before when the EF-5 tornado wiped away 30 percent of the town. It eventually would claim 161 lives.

C.J. Huff, superintendent of schools, told the graduates: “Never, ever forget that no matter where you are or what you do, your Joplin family loves you, believes in you. We are so very proud of you.”

ISLAMIC CENTER

Joplin found itself back in the national news during the summer of 2012.

The Islamic Society of Joplin’s mosque was destroyed in a suspicious fire on Aug. 6, during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The fire followed one that was set on July 4 by a man who was caught on surveillance video igniting a package and tossing it onto the roof of the mosque at 13th Street and Black Cat Road. That fire caused minor damage.

The community responded with support for Joplin’s Muslims, including a rally at Landreth Park organized by an Ozark Christian College student that attracted hundreds.

The mosque participated in an online fundraising effort to seek donations with which to rebuild, with a final total of more than $400,000. Indiegogo.com listed the campaign as one of its top 12 fundraising campaigns of 2012.

Members of the mosque have voted to rebuild the mosque inside the city, but no location has been announced. No arrests have been made in connection with either fire, despite reward offers totaling $60,000 by the FBI and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

EXTREME DROUGHT

The worst U.S. drought and heat wave in decades dried up farm ponds and pastures, wilted crops and caused some communities in Southwest Missouri to implement voluntary water conservation measures.

The U.S. Drought Monitor continues to show that roughly 62 percent of the continental U.S. remains in some form of drought.

The drought, which hit in May, grew in intensity. On July 23, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency that would continue until Nov. 15. Nixon announced an emergency cost-share program to help farmers get water by drilling new wells or by deepening existing wells. Nearly 6,000 applications were approved, totaling about $29 million in assistance.

Despite those efforts, scant hay, bald pastures and heavy heat pressured many farmers in the state’s $3.6 billion cattle industry to thin their herds.

The heat wave this summer was severe. On 30 days, temperatures in Joplin ranged from 100 to 109 degrees. Joplin is on track to have its warmest year since record keeping began in 1902.

SHERIFF'S RACE, COUNTY RIFT

After serving more than nine years in office and leading the drive to pass a law enforcement sales tax, Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn lost his bid for a third term.

Dunn was defeated by Randee Kaiser, assistant police chief in Carthage, in the Republican primary in August. Kaiser then defeated a Libertarian challenger in November.

A retired Missouri State Highway Patrol officer, Dunn originally was appointed to fill a vacancy created when Sheriff Bill Pierce retired after an investigation launched by the Missouri attorney general’s office.

Dunn led efforts to propose a quarter-cent law enforcement sales tax, including raising money that put the measure before county voters. After the tax was passed in 2005, the additional revenue was used to expand the sheriff’s operation, including adding workers, boosting pay, and upgrading equipment and technology.

A rift between Dunn and the County Commission started with budget disagreements in 2010, then expanded in 2011 when the commissioners dismantled, and replaced with their own appointments, a board created to allocate grant funds from the law enforcement sales tax. Dunn filed a lawsuit to challenge the action, arguing that the move was counter to pledges made to voters when the sales tax was proposed.

The conflict expanded to additional disagreements over the sheriff’s budget, jail operations and Dunn’s decision to move county inmates to other jails, citing overcrowding issues. The commission refused to pay those bills, and another lawsuit was filed in 2012 by Henry County in an attempt to recover its costs for housing the Jasper County inmates.

Neither lawsuit has been resolved.

ROWAN FORD CASE

The murder case of 9-year-old Rowan Ford, of Stella, reached separate climaxes this year. A jury in March convicted Chris Collings, and he was sentenced to die for the crime. Prosecutors in September dropped rape and murder charges against the girl’s stepfather, David Spears.

In the week following her slaying in November 2007, both men had confessed to raping and strangling the girl. But they were conflicting confessions at best. Collings, 37, always insisted that Spears, 30, had nothing to do with the crime.

Prosecutors used a combination of forensic evidence and Collings’ own confessions to sway jurors at his trial in Rolla. The jury found Collings guilty of first-degree murder and decided that he should receive the death penalty.

The conviction of Collings put the prosecution in a difficult position with respect to Spears, who was scheduled to go to trial in November in Waynesville.

Spears had recanted his confession shortly after his arrest, and his attorneys maintained it was a false confession obtained by investigators after a week of accusatory interviews. The state had some forensic evidence to corroborate Collings’ confessions, but the same could not be said for the case against Spears.

Barry County Prosecutor Johnny Cox announced in September that he was dropping the rape and murder charges against Spears. He cited a lack of evidence in Spears’ case and the courts’ prohibition of inconsistent theories in the prosecution of co-defendants.

Spears was allowed to plead guilty instead to child endangerment and hindering prosecution. He was assessed 11 years in prison and could be eligible for parole within a couple of years.

TIF DISTRICT

Joplin wrapped up the year the way it began: with rebuilding on the agenda.

Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, the master developer for the city, at the beginning of October proposed a tax increment financing district to spur redevelopment projects in the wake of the May 2011 tornado.

The TIF district, which encompasses about 3,000 acres through the tornado zone and downtown Joplin, is projected to bring in $57 million over its 23-year duration, according to David Wallace, the CEO of the development firm. That money is to be used to secure bonded indebtedness to help finance some of the $800 million in projects that are planned.

Most of October and November was spent by the developer, the city and the Joplin School District finding solutions to what school officials said would be “financial challenges” for the school district as a result of the freezing of tax revenue within the TIF district.

Projects proposed by the master developer include housing, mixed-use residential over retail and commercial space, a medical office building, a new Joplin Public Library/theater complex, a performing and visual arts center, and Union Depot restoration.

Joplin City Council members on Dec. 28 gave the project a green light.

The TIF district is the largest in the state of Missouri and ensures that the pounding of hammers will continue through 2013.