A new aquatics center in Chadron and pitched battles over the intersection of Highways 385 and 20 and the status of liquor licenses in Whiteclay dominated headlines in the region for much of 2017.
Over the next three week’s we’ll take a look back at 2017, four months at a time, to remember some of the year’s biggest stories but also recall other smaller items of note.
Discussions on constructing a roundabout at the intersection of Highways 20 and 385 inside the city limits of Chadron began early on in the first third of the year. Engineer Shane King of Olsson Associates unveiled a draft of his engineering study in February, which said that a roundabout was the “preferred alternative” from an engineering perspective. It was the second time in three years that a roundabout, which would have come with a price tag of more than $1 million, was prioritized over other options.
The proposal met with heavy resistance from a vocal group of citizens and business owners, but the Nebraska Department of Roads (now the Department of Transportation) informed the city in April that it essentially had two options: do nothing or approve a single-lane roundabout. The debate would continue to take up hours of Chadron City Council time until May when the council decided against supporting a roundabout.
The discussion on the handling of traffic at the intersection lasted until December, however, when the council, after negotiations with the DOT, approved reduced speed limits around the junction, which are expected to go into effect sometime in early 2018.
In March, Chadron celebrated the opening of the Chadron Area Aquatics and Wellness Center. The nearly $7 million facility was the result of a years-long process that included a feasibility study, a council denial to place a sales tax to fund the facility on the ballot and a petition drive that was capped by a 2-1 approval of that sales tax in 2014. In addition to the sales tax, roughly $1.5 million in grants and a capital campaign helped fund the facility.
The project enclosed Chadron’s existing outdoor swimming pool and added several features, including a diving board, a 75-foot slide, a zero-depth entry, a kids’ splash pad, therapy pool, updated locker rooms, a walking track and multi-functional space for meetings and parties, as well as an outdoor sundeck.
Fundraising for the facility, to ease the burden on sales tax payers continues, and the city also continues to apply for grants to add equipment to the facility.
The year 2017 also saw a continued fight over the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay. January kicked off the year with a debate on the issue in front of the Sheridan County Commissioners as they decided on whether or not to recommend approval of the liquor licenses issued in the border town. Four beer stores sold the equivalent of roughly 3.5 million cans of beer in the village annually, mostly to residents of the dry Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, having heard complaints for years, in 2016 ordered the four stores to reapply for their liquor licenses after questions were raised about law enforcement in the village.
An all day hearing before the county commissioners saw roughly six dozen supporters and opponents, evenly split, make their cases. Opponents of liquor sales in Whiteclay cited violence, open container violations, drunken driving and a worsening public health crisis as reasons to end the beer sales, as well as limited law enforcement presence. Supporters said the sale of alcohol was not the problem, addiction on the part of reservation residents was, and expressed concern that if Whiteclay stores were closed, problems faced in that village would spread to other northern Panhandle towns. They also cited what they believed is the beer store owners’ right to make a living. The store owners themselves testified that they follow state law and would continue to do so.
The commissioners eventually voted to recommend approval of the licenses to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The state commission, however, refused to renew all four, forcing the stores to close at the end of April. That set up a court battle, which the stores lost in September. A legislative task force on the topic of Whiteclay continues to meet and make recommendations on how to improve conditions in the border town.
Other headlines from the first one-third of the year:
In February, the parents of Fatima Larios sued Chadron State College under Title IX for failing to protect her from dating violence. Larios was found dead in the High Rise dormitory in 2015; her death was ruled a suicide. There had been reports that she and her boyfriend were involved in an abusive relationship, and Larios’ parents contend that the school did little to protect their daughter. The case is expected to go to court in 2018.
In March, White River Feed was named as one of 54 honorees by the U.S. Small Business Administration. They were named Nebraska’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year.
In other agricultural news that same month, Dawes County Assessor Lindy Coleman noted that agricultural property valuations, set to be formally released in June, were expected to stay mostly level for the first time in several years. In a continuing trend that impacted the Crawford school district, valuations for the Crow Butte uranium mine fell again, this time by more than $2.8 million. The mine’s valuation was set at $10.6 million for 2017, down from $75.9 million in 2011.
In April, a pair of burglaries, two in a long string of them that started in March, led to the arrest of one individual and the identification of three other suspects. The burglaries included instances of thefts from homes and vehicles and stolen cars. Gordon and Rushville experienced similar incidents during the same time frame.
Also in April, two Chadron citizens who rescued a woman from a brutal attack by five dogs were awarded Certificates of Valor by Chadron Mayor John Coates. Charles Gartner and David Nelson intervened to save the woman when they saw her being attacked on the sidewalk as they were driving by.
Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of the engineering firm responsible for the study of the intersection of Highways 20 and 385 to Olsson Associates. We apologize for the error.