The year 2018 encapsulated the crossroads that is Eastern Oregon, with rodeo, big agriculture and legacy industry capturing our attention as much as local politics and drone development.
Here are the top 10 stories of the year, as voted on by the East Oregonian newsroom:
1. Round-Up expands footprint
2018 saw the Pendleton Round-Up in the spotlight beyond the second full week of September.
The Round-Up Association completed the purchase of the vacant Albertsons property next door to the rodeo grounds in January, confirming rumors they were interested in the land for expansion purposes.
But it wasn’t until June that the association announced its plans for the property, which involved demolishing the old supermarket to create more parking and building a retail and ticketing facility in the northeast part of the property. The Round-Up demolished the old grocery store over the summer, with the new facility to come later.
The association’s more ambitious plans lie to the west of the rodeo grounds, where it’s been buying properties along Southwest Byers Avenue and 18th Street. The Round-Up made a deal in October to acquire even more land in the area, allowing the association to lease land to Blue Mountain Community College for an indoor arena/classroom facility. The governor’s budget proposal includes funding the Blue Mountain Regional Training Center’s construction, but it has to survive the 2019 legislative session before proceeding.
To top it all off, the rodeo earned its fourth consecutive Best Large Outdoor Rodeo award from the PRCA and reported record ticket revenue.
2. Hermiston native not bound for 9th Circuit Court
A Hermiston High School graduate was pulled into the national spotlight this year, causing the partisan divide in the nation’s capital to hit home for Hermiston residents.
Ryan Bounds, an assistant U.S. attorney, was nominated by President Donald Trump in January for a seat on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one step removed from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nomination was initially rejected by Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley for lack of review by a bipartisan selection committee. It veered into more controversy in February, however, after the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice republished a series of Bounds’ college writings for the Stanford Review in which he criticized multicultural clubs on campus, among other things. Bounds apologized for the op-eds, calling them a “tone-deaf” product of his youth, and Rep. Greg Walden and others from Bounds’ past stood by the Hermiston native.
But Wyden and Merkley refused to return a customary “blue slip” of support for the nomination, and in June Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell withdrew the nomination minutes before a scheduled vote.
3. Lost Valley in deep manure
Less than a year into its operation, the Lost Valley Farm near Boardman went udders-up in 2018 after a wave of environmental infractions, state penalties, financial problems and personal troubles for its owner.
The mega-dairy ran afoul of state regulators almost immediately, being slapped with a $10,000 fine in January and being sued by the state for improperly discharging waste. The dairy settled with the state by agreeing to limit its wastewater production and expanding its lagoons.
But the larger financial problems were looming, as the Oregon state court in April ordered the liquidation of the nearly 15,000 cows so owner Greg te Velde could repay $60 million in defaulted debt to farm lender Rabobank. Te Velde, who also owned dairy operations in California, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to block the auction, then offered to sell the 7,300-acre operation with the cattle, hoping to bring in $95 million.
Before a sale could be reached, a bankruptcy judge in July declared te Velde “unwilling, or unable to comply with his duties as a fiduciary,” citing his continued drug use and gambling. He was arrested again in Hermiston in September for felony possession of methamphetamine.
The state came back in October with $187,000 in fines for a raft of violations at the property, causing the trustee appointed by the state to close and put the dairy up for sale. The auction is slated for Jan. 31, 2019, and a bid of nearly $67 million has been submitted.
4. Pendleton UAS Range takes off
Signs that the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range was in for a highlight year started early. A^3, a subsidiary of French aviation giant Airbus, tested its Project Vahana drone for the first time in February. It was a watershed moment for the UAS company, which is hoping Vahana will offer the world’s first automated air taxi.
A^3 wasn’t the only UAS company to make news in Pendleton. PAE was already testing at the range when it announced that it had secured a deal with NASA to develop and demonstrate sensory technology using its Resolute Eagle drone.
These developments came amid a breakout year for the range, which generated more than 60,000 labor hours from companies testing their unmanned vehicles. Beyond revenue the range generates through service fees, city officials touted the full-time jobs the range was generating locally and the secondary effects it had through increased business at local restaurants, hotels, and other merchants.
Early signs of success meant the city started discussing future ambitions. In May, the council started discussing a $3 million federal grant that would help the city build new hangars at the Pendleton airport to meet demand from drone companies. Steve Chrisman, airport manager and economic development director, said the city needed to prioritize the UAS range over the Airport Road extension, which he called “nothing tremendously special.” The council approved drafting plans to extend utilities to a UAS industrial park north of the airport, but the city estimates it would take another $25 million to extend utilities and increase capacity at the site.
5. Challenger unseats veteran county commissioner
Athena Mayor John Shafer unseated three-term incumbent Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens in May’s primary election. In the battle for position 2 on the board, Shafer won 52.6 percent to 47 percent. Nearly 12,000 voters cast ballots.
Although Shafer, a communications sergeant with the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, got a majority of primary votes, his name appeared on the November ballot because the county charter requires that voters must elect commissioners in November.
During the months leading up to the primary, Givens had cited his participation on state, regional and national boards as evidence he was working for county residents. Shafer criticized his opponent for failing to spend more time at home working on county business.
The primary loss spurred Givens supporters to launch a write-in campaign. Givens permitted the group to add the words “write in” to his campaign signs. Givens supporters also took over Givens’ re-election campaign Facebook page. Shafer seemed unfazed at the effort.
“The people spoke in May,” he said. “Now they’re going to get the chance to speak in November.”
The write-in campaign wasn’t nearly enough. The November election brought only 783 write-in votes, with Hermiston delivering 256, Pendleton 199, and Milton-Freewater 109. Shafer garnered 15,808 votes.
6. Lamb Weston strikes deal with Hermiston
In January, potato processing company Lamb Weston and the city of Hermiston struck a deal over the company’s planned expansion of their french fry plant.
The city voted unanimously to give the company a 15-year tax break on its proposed $225 million expansion project, the first Long-Term Rural Enterprise Zone Agreement. In exchange, Lamb Weston agreed to pay $1 million per year, split evenly between the city and the county, in lieu of property taxes. Those dollars will total about 42 percent of what the company would have paid in property taxes over 15 years.
The expansion is expected to open in spring 2019 and bring at least 140 new jobs to the area, and as per the agreement, those jobs are required to meet or exceed the county’s average wage, currently around $18 per hour. A few months later, the city voted to invest the first few years’ payments from Lamb Weston into a water tower and distribution system in northeast Hermiston.
Gov. Kate Brown in April visited the site on Westland Road, where she presented members of the company with a check for $500,000, an award from the state’s strategic reserve fund. The money will go toward infrastructure, as well as workforce development and training.
7. New Neal takes Port of Morrow helm
After nearly 30 years at the helm, Port of Morrow general manager Gary Neal retired in the fall, and was succeeded by his son, Ryan Neal. The senior Neal has been credited with much of the expansion and development at the port, which has grown rapidly and become one of the region’s largest drivers of economic development, with companies such as Lamb Weston and Amazon locating there. In 2017, the port had an economic output of $2.77 billion, more than double its output a decade ago.
The younger Neal, who was previously the manager of warehousing operations at the port, was selected from a group of applicants, four of whom made it to the final round and met with community members. Ryan Neal has said he hopes to continue building on the port’s successes by maintaining the infrastructure of available lands at the port, making it easy for new tenants and businesses to move in quickly, and seeking out diverse industries to locate at the port.
8. Wildfires put a damper on summer
This summer’s fire season kept Eastern Oregon residents indoors for days in August as wildfires across the western United States and Canada shrouded the region in a toxic haze. The Umatilla County Health Department classified the air quality as “hazardous,” putting a damper on tourism and causing high school sports teams to practice indoors.
Oregon fires cost the state millions of dollars to fight, and local firefighters headed to places like Sherman County, where the 78,425-acre Substation Fire wildfire burned through 2 million bushels of wheat and killed an area farmer. The fires’ effects rippled through the state’s economy, particularly in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and heightened debate about the best way to manage forests and fund firefighting efforts going forward.
9. Turnover churns at Pendleton fire chief position
Including interim appointments, the Pendleton Fire Department had three different fire chiefs in 2018.
The upheaval started in April when Fire Chief Mike Ciraulo, who played a public role in passing a $10 million bond to build a new fire station, abruptly retired.
Both the city and Ciraulo declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding his departure, but a public records request revealed conflicts between Ciraulo and Police Chief Stuart Roberts, who oversees the fire department as the public safety director.
In Ciraulo’s performance evaluations, Roberts criticized the former fire chief for going over his department’s budget while Ciraulo used his self-evaluation to question why he continued to report to Roberts instead of the city manager.
After Ciraulo left the department, the city received disapproval from members of the firefighter union, who said they opposed the move at a city council meeting in May.
Assistant Fire Chief Shawn Penninger filled in as the department’s leader while the city searched for a replacement, and in September Paul Berardi was brought in to take over as interim fire chief.
Berardi had just retired from being the fire chief of Kansas City, Missouri, a department with more than 43 times more personnel and a coverage area that contains 25 times more people. He will have to apply for the Pendleton job permanently when it opens it January.
10. Boy dies from flesh-eating infection
Liam Flanagan died of necrotizing fasciitis in January after wrecking his bike and cutting his leg. After being stitched up in the St. Anthony Hospital emergency department, the Pilot Rock boy seemed on the mend. Then an infection started to rage, attacking the 8-year-old’s soft tissue.
At Portland’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, surgeons tried to stay ahead of the rare, deadly infection, by amputating parts of Liam’s body.
“Almost his whole right side was gone,” said his mother, Sara Hebard. “They kept cutting and hoping. Cutting and hoping.”
In a last-ditch effort to save the second-grader, he was transferred to Randall Children’s Hospital so another team could take a look. Liam’s health continued to decline. He died on Jan. 21.
The boy’s death prompted angst from parents on social media asking if they should worry.
Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations with the Oregon Health Authority, talked to the EO and cautioned against overreacting.
He called necrotizing fasciitis “very, very uncommon.” The bacteria, however, is widespread and causes strep throat in children. Occasionally it goes on the attack, entering a break in the skin and wreaking havoc. He advised parents not to waste time worrying, but if their child experiences redness, heat, swelling and pain that seems out of proportion to the injury, act quickly.