2017 in review: A year of tragedies, triumphs and progress

Parents wait for their children to get of buses at Lions Park in West Liberty after a shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School in January. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF
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Parents wait for their children to get of buses at Lions Park in West Liberty after a shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School in January. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF

New jobs and opportunities made headlines in 2017, but so did more tragic events.

A skyrocketing number of opioid deaths made headlines throughout the year not only across the nation, but here at home.

Clark County stands on the verge of having a record number of drug-related deaths, but the city is fighting the crisis with help from the state government. This story — like the shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School — gave us reason to reflect, but there were other stories which highlighted the strides made to improve the community.

As we march into 2018, here are some of the stories from 2017 that captivated us throughout the year.

1. The West Liberty-Salem High School shooting

The town of West Liberty was rocked in January when a school shooting disrupted the normally-calm atmosphere of the community.

On Jan. 20, Ely Serna, then 17, allegedly opened fire in a restroom and in the hallways at West Liberty-Salem High School. The shooting left two injured, including student Logan Cole, who ended up with over 100 shotgun pellets lodged in his body after being shot twice in the chest.

Students from the school called 911 and either fled the building or barricaded themselves inside classrooms during the shooting. Two school administrators are credited with stopping Serna and were honored for their efforts.

In the months since the incident, Serna has been indicted on 13 charges, including attempted murder, and will be tried as an adult. A judge ruled he was competent to stand trial in October, but ordered that he remain at Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare in Columbus, where he was sent because he posed a "substantial risk of physical harm to himself and others," according to court documents.

» READ MORE: Superintendent: Enough harm has been done, it’s time to heal

2. Wittenberg University finds a new president

Wittenburg University selected its 15th president in early February, filling a gap in the hierarchy left for nearly two years.

Dr. Michael Fransden was chosen to fill the spot vacated in November 2015 by former president Laurie Joyner, who abruptly stepped down with no official reasoning. Fransden took the reins of the private institution from Interim President Dick Helton.

Fransden came to the university after spending three years as the vice president for finance and administration at Oberlin College and began his role at Wittenberg in July. Almost immediately, he faced tough decisions regarding the university’s finances, which were already in the spotlight after Joyner made several million dollars in budget cuts.

Fransden said the goal of his first 100 days was to get to know both the “Wittenberg people” and the community as a whole so better changes can be enacted and he can form as many relationships as possible.

“The work that we are going to do are going to be done through people and relationships,” he said.

» READ MORE: Wittenberg selects new leader to tackle financial challenges

3. Topre and Silfex bring nearly 500 jobs to region

Springfield’s manufacturing industry got a big boost earlier in the first part of the year when two major investments came to the area.

Japanese auto parts manufacturer Topre had already made headlines in December 2016 when they announced they would be making a $10 million investment in the city and creating 20 new jobs at the Champion City Business Park, but the deal improved in March when the company said they would be purchasing the park entirely and planned to build a $55 million plant which could potentially bring 85 new jobs to the area. The site was chosen after it underwent an extensive clean-up project. The plant broke ground in May.

» READ MORE: Construction starts on $55M plant for major new Springfield employer

In September, Silfex, an Eaton-based company specializing in silicon products for solar, optical and semiconductor equipment, purchased the former Thirty-One Gifts plant near the PrimeOhio Industrial Park for $11 million, a move which has the potential to bring up to 400 new jobs to the Springfield region. Silfex had considered a number of potential sites, but chose Springfield because it had everything the company was looking for, according to a company statement.

4. Springfield passes income tax increase

After two attempts, 66 percent of voters in Springfield passed an income tax increase for the city in May. The 5 1/2 year levy raised the tax rate from 2 percent to 2.4 percent, which is expected to generate an additional $6.7 million annually for the city.

Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said the money will be used to bring back fire stations and police officers which were lost due to budget cuts last year, as well as maintain current services and fix roads.

“This is as good as it gets,” Copeland said. “I really was hopeful. I thought we were going to pass, but I had no idea it would be a 2-to-1 victory.”

Opponents of the measure said the increase will hurt Springfield in the long run by making the city unappealing to businesses and prospective residents.

» READ MORE: Springfield tax increase passes at polls, Enon police levy fails

5. Voters pass levies for new local schools

Voters in the Greenon Local and the Clark-Shawnee School Districts agreed to provide new schools to students in the areas when they passed two key bond levies this year.

Greenon Local passed a $36 million bond in May which will allow the district to build a new pre-k through 12th grade building. The bond will cost a $100,000 homeowner just over $20 a month. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission is also providing $18 million for the project, for a total of $54 million for the new school.

» READ MORE: Shawnee fails, Greenon passes on bids to get new schools

But voters initially voted down a $37.2 million bond for the Clark-Shawnee School District by 100 votes — on the same day Possum Elementary School was released early due to a gas leak. It was the second time the levy had failed. However, when the bond was raised again on the August ballot, voters approved the measure, which will allow the district to build a new school across from Shawnee High School and also let them renovate the high school. The state of Ohio plans to cover 30 percent of the cost of the project.

6. Navistar partners with GM and Volkswagen

Amid a roller coaster year for the company, Illinois-based truck manufacturer Navistar committed to bringing at least 300 new jobs and new production lines to the Springfield area.

The company reached an agreement with General Motors in June to produce the automotive giant’s new line of vans.

» READ MORE: Navistar to add 300 jobs in Springfield with second GM deal

GM had considered other sites, but due to efforts from Navistar’s Springfield labor union and upgrades to the Springfield plant, the company was able to cement their presence in the community, and combined with a previous agreement with the company, guarantee at least 600 jobs over the next several years.

More good news came in September when automotive producer Volkswagen purchased a roughly 17 percent equity stake in the company and agreed to a partnership with Navistar to produce a new line of electric semi-trucks.

There has still been no confirmation on whether the trucks will actually be produced in Springfield, so the potential impact the move could have on the region, if any, is still unclear. However, Navistar still remains one of Springfield’s largest employers with over 1,500 employees in the area.

7. Three Greenon HS teens die within two-month span

Members of the Greenon High School community mourned the deaths of three students from the school within months of each other.

Senior David Waag, 17, and sophomore Connor Williams, 15, were killed in an accident in August when the car they were traveling in lost control and overturned on a rural road. Both teens were pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the car, Trey Blevins, 18, was indicted on several charges, including aggravated vehicular homicide.

Two months later in October, junior Kendal "Kenny" DePhillip was killed when the car he was a passenger in went off the side of the road and clipped a telephone pole, then spun into another.

The community was left stunned by the deaths, but have created programs in the weeks since. The Clark County Combined Health District hosted a Teen Driving Symposium on Dec. 15, aiming to raise awareness about safe driving habits among teens.

» RELATED: Clark County takes action after 3 teen driving deaths

8. Jacob Drake dies in the line of duty

Tragedy struck Champaign County in August after learning of the death of Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Drake, who died when the U.S.S. John McCain crashed with a civilian vessel in the South China Sea. He was 21.

Drake, a graduate of Triad High School, was an electronics technician on the ship. He and nine other sailors died when the U.S.S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel near Singapore. According to a U.S. Fleet Forces Command report, partial blame for the accident was attributed to "poor seamanship" and "a failure to follow safe navigational practices."

Drake’s body was flown home in September and a procession through West Jefferson in Madison County drew a large crowd. Residents paid respect to the fallen sailor by waving flags and praying for Drake as his body was taken to the Rader-McDonald-Tidd Funeral Home. Some residents said they wanted to be there to show support for the family and to honor Drake’s sacrifice for his country.

» READ MORE: Body of Champaign County sailor who died in Navy crash comes home

9. Andy Grimm shot by Clark County deputy

A New Carlisle news photographer made headlines when he was shot by a Clark County deputy in September.

Andrew Grimm, a photographer for the New Carlisle News, was shot by Deputy Jacob Shaw as the deputy was performing a traffic stop. According to a release from the Clark County Sheriff's Office, Grimm, who was taking photographs of the stop, was shot because Shaw believed his camera to be a weapon.

Grimm was taken to Miami Valley Hospital where he was treated for his injury and released. He recently filed suit against Clark County, the city of New Carlise and Deputy Shaw in relation to the incident.

» READ MORE: Photographer shot by Clark County deputy claims lost wages, suffering

Shaw was placed on administrative leave after the incident, but returned to active duty in October after being cleared by a psychiatrist. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations is still has an open case surrounding the encounter.

10. Medical pot site granted to Mad River Twp., Yellow Springs

The medical marijuana industry made its local impact in November after the Medical Marijuana Control Program and the Ohio Board of Pharmacy granted two grower licenses to the Springfield region. Ohio Pure Wellness will utilize the former Eagle Beverage building on Dayton-Springfield Road in Mad River Twp., while another grower, Cresco Labs Ohio LLC, has already broken ground on a new facility in Yellow Springs.

Leaders in Mad River Twp. applauded the move, as it will make use of unused property inside the township and bring new jobs to the community. Some residents, however, expressed displeasure over the move.

“The only reason they want (to grow medical marijuana) is to make money,” Mad River Twp. resident Jeff Ballard said. “I’m thoroughly opposed to it.”

» READ MORE: Springfield, Yellow Springs to get large marijuana growing operations

11. Springfield’s opioid crisis

The Springfield region has been hit hard by the rise in opioid-related deaths over the course of 2017.

Clark County has seen 101 suspected opioid deaths this year — a record for the county. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has responded to 732 overdose calls, almost 75 percent of the total number of overdoses in the county, alone. Both police and fire officials have said responding to those types of calls have taxed their resources and made it more difficult to better serve the community.

New state funding is helping Clark County react to the spike. More than $700,000 in grant money has been given to the county to fund new programs and expand existing ones — like the McKinley Hall substance abuse treatment center — to help people find a way out of addiction.

In addition, a Good Samaritan law was also passed in Springfield which allows people who overdose the chance to avoid criminal prosecution as long as they seek treatment.

» READ MORE: Progress made against drug overdoses in Clark County but war not over

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