(Fremont County, Wyo.) – While not necessarily the most read stories of the past 12 months, the County10.com editorial staff has picked a dozen stories we believe are noteworthy due to their respective impact on the county.
In no particular order, the staff’s picks are as follows:
• Riverton Justice Center. The Fremont County Annex on South Federal Boulevard was a former animal show barn for the county fairgrounds across the street. It was converted decades ago into an office building. In August of 2012, a bullet was shot through the thin metal skin of the building into the Ninth Judicial District’s Circuit Courtroom. To protect the workers inside the building, a series of Conex metal shipping containers were placed around the building and discussions began on how to replace the inadequate facility. The new Justice Center would house the Riverton Circuit Court, the Riverton office of the Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney and the Riverton station of the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department. All of those entities share the current old facility. The new center is proposed to be located on a parcel of Land at the SW corner of the intersection of Major Avenue and Gasser Road in NW Riverton. In their last vote on developing construction documents for the facility, the county commissioners split on a 3-2 vote to proceed. Funding for the facility has not yet been firmed up, although the Wyoming State Legislature is expected to address the issue in its 2014 session.
To read County10.com’s latest story on the center, click here.
• Central Wyoming College. Opening of the new voter approved Health and Science Center and the looming retirement of the college’s long-time president, Dr. Jo Anne McFarland were big news at the Riverton main campus this past year. Ground on the newest campus building was broken on May 12, 2012, and the $18 million building was ready for occupancy in August of this past year. The new facility was funded by a voter approved bond issue for $11.5 million and a state matching grant of $6.5 million. The facility houses the college’s renown Nursing program and simulation labs on the second floor plus physics, biological sciences and geology laboratories on the ground floor. The new Health and Science Center building marked the first upgrade to the college’s laboratory facilities in some four decades.
To read about the dedication of the center, click here.
McFarland had been at the Riverton campus 41 years, rising from a faculty position to the college’s president, a role she held for the past quarter century, making her Wyoming’s most senior community college president. McFarland’s resignation will become effective on June 30, 2014. The college board of trustees is expected to begin the process to find a new college president late this month. In her resignation letter, presented at a Board of Director’s meeting in December, McFarland wrote, “I have always believed that the college should be enhanced by my presence, but not diminished by my absence. With a strong and capable board of trustees, an experienced and talented administration, and a hardworking and dedicated faculty and staff, I strongly believe that the college will nurture the seeds of possibility already planted and see these seeds of possibility burst into full bloom.”
To read about the resignation, click here.
• Wind River Job Corps Center. After six long years of anticipation, the long-awaited Wind River Job Corps Center in Riverton finally became a reality and construction of the campus began in August. At the center’s ground breaking ceremony, Senior U.S. Senator Mike Enzi praised the effort and the individuals and organizations who fought for the center, which included a coalition of Riverton, Fremont County, Wind River Reservation and State of Wyoming interests. Enzi also said he was happy to support the project because of the benefits that it would bring to Wyoming in the form of a trained workforce for those who need the jobs the most. The U. S. Department of Labor awarded the construction contract to build the center to Rafter H. Construction of Rexburg, Idaho for $41,303,762 on July 2nd. Wyoming was the last state in the Union to receive funding for a Job Corps Center.
In related infrastructure projects, the Wyoming Business Council funded $1.5 million in utility infrastructure to the site and the City of Riverton, through a Wyoming Water Development funded project, extended a city water line, added a pump station and built a 2-million gallon water tank just below the campus, to serve both the Job Corps and the Western section of the city. The reconstruction of Airport Road is also in the works to provide a better access to the Job Corps Site, situated on the second bluff north of the Wind River overlooking Riverton.
To see photos and read about the ground breaking, click here.
• Lander Community Center. Construction of the 15,000 square foot, $5.4 million Lander Community Center began this past summer after a devastating electrical fire destroyed the community’s largest meeting space in July 2012. Since the fire, the city collected an insurance reimbursement, $1.2 million in grants and loans from the state and many many individual donations, but find themselves still about $1.4 million short of their fundraising goal. The Lander City Council is looking at ways to make up that balance, including investigating a bank loan, using some of the city’s cash reserves or a self-loan from the enterprise fund. Completion of the new center is expected by August 2014.
Loss of the Community Center was a huge blow to the community, but none more so than the One Shot Antelope Hunt which had paid for a major expansion of the facility several decades ago. The community center was the headquarters for this nationally renown hunt, held each fall on the first day of antelope season, and drawing national and international celebrities, athletes, astronauts, business leaders and others to the community.
A progress report on the community center construction can be found here.
• New Riverton Elementary School Site chosen. One of seven districts statewide with a shortage of capacity for its number of students, Fremont County School District #25 received approval this fall from the Wyoming School Facilities Department, and a $400,000 grant, to purchase a 16.5 acre parcel for a new elementary school. The money will also be used to begin planning and design of the new school. The land is located at the west end of West Monroe. Construction and site development funds, however, have yet to be allocated by the Wyoming State Legislature, a task that is expected to be done in the 2014 session. The new school is being built to accommodate 360 students and it will help Riverton achieve a legislatively mandated goal of a student teacher ratio of 16 to 1 when it opens. Currently, the FCSD#25 primary school ratio is 19.1 to 1. The School Facilities Department earlier in 2013 had approved funds to remodel Rendezvous and Jackson elementary schools for security enhancements and the old Lincoln Elementary was demolished. Future plans for that parcel have yet to be developed.
A report on the purchase can be found here.
• Gannett Peak Elementary opened in Lander. After two years of construction, and an earlier contentious debate over the demolition of the former South School, the new Gannett Peak Elementary finally opened in Lander this past fall. The $14.6 million school serves all of Lander’s kindergarten through third-grade pupils. The opening of the school allowed Pathfinder High School to move from a wholly inadequate cottage at the Wyoming Life Resource Center to the former North Elementary, which also now houses the district’s Lights On activities. The future of the former Starrett Junior High, and for two years the temporary home of Gannett Peak, is still to be decided. Lander moved to grade level campuses after the new Lander Middle School, with grades 6-8, opened in 2012. Baldwin Creek Elementary houses grades 4 and 5.
The dedication of the new school was held in the school’s gymnasium. See the story here.
• Optional One Cent Tax Issue Projects begin. After voters approved the optional one cent tax issue for infrastructure improvements one year ago, the county and municipal governments created citizens committees to advise the elected representatives what their priorities would be for the use of the funds. Separate accounts were set up for the one cent tax revenues by each governmental body and citizens committees were chosen. Within the first year, since the tax monies only started coming in after July 1st, only Riverton has started projects funded by the tax. Fremont County has established a plan to begin projects this spring and the City of Lander is just now prioritizing their planned projects. The county’s smaller municipalities are also lining up projects, but those won’t commence until enough sales tax revenue has been collected to allow the work to begin. In Riverton, the resurfacing of Watt Court was done with one cent tax revenues and concrete work was started in the Woodridge Subdivision.
To see the post about the start of one cent projects, click here.
• Warm Valley Assisted Living Center opened in Dubois. The long-awaited assisted living center opened this summer in Dubois thanks to generous local donors and a state grant. The facility features 21 separate one and two bedroom suites and two respite care suites. Three meals are served a day at the center and it offers 24 hour a day nursing care to its residents. The facility also includes such amenities as a beauty shop and hair salon, a whirlpool and massage spa, weekly housekeeping and linen service and more. Governor Matt Mead attended the ribbon cutting for the new facility. He emphasized the importance of assisted living facilities, like Warm Valley Lodge, which he said he has supported since it was first planned 9 years ago. “Wyoming’s residents will need places to live just like this one,” he said. “Wyoming has a long tradition of helping each other, and this facility certainly continues that tradition.” Standing with the Governor as he cut the ribbon was Carol Petera, who has led the project since it began in 2004
To see photos of the new Warm Valley Center, click here.
• Gabriel Drennen murder charges dismissed, prosecutor faulted for his use of plea bargains: The Riverton man was convicted of murder and aggravated assault in connection with the 2010 Riverton shooting death of 29-year-0ld Leroy Hoster. He was found guilty by a Fremont County District Court Jury one year later. Drennen was charged with shooting the unarmed Hoster multiple times in a landlord-tenant dispute. But in October, the Wyoming Supreme Court ordered a new trial, citing prosecutorial misconduct in statements made to the jury. New Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett (who was appointed in March) then in December filed amended charges of Possession, Manufacture, or Disposition of a Deadly Weapon with Unlawful Intent, but then filed a motion with Ninth District Judge Norman Young to dismiss all charges on the basis that, in his mind, Drennen acted in self defense. The judge signed the order and Drennen was released from prison.
Parents upset over a plea bargain when their children were shot at while in a vehicle on the Sinks Canyon Road called for Bennett’s resignation after the plea agreement was filed with the court without their knowledge. Thirty-five-year-old Jeremy Cunningham originally faced three counts of second degree attempted murder and three counts of aggravated assault and battery in connection to the Jan. 31 incident. However, per the agreement, Cunningham’s charges were reduced to two counts of aggravated assault and battery. That plea agreement was rejected by the court and a new agreement has been filed.
In August, 66-year-old James Jagers had spent 144 days in the Fremont County Detention Center in connection with the theft of missing person Larry Marvin Morris’s vehicle 40 years ago. Jagers was connected to Morris’ disappearance and he told investigators in 1983 that Morris was dead and he offered to disclose where the body was. Morris was extradited back to Fremont County, but he was released after charges were reduced to a misdemeanor.
Other plea bargains Bennett successfully negotiated resulted in guilty pleas from four individuals charged in the double-murder of a Hudson couple which saved the county the expense of costly trials, and he successfully prosecuted a murder case against a Shoshoni man this fall charged with hitting a man over the head with a beer bottle resulting in a fatal subdural hematoma.
See read County10.com reporting on the dismissal, click here.
• East Pavillion Water Well Contamination. Following a nearly two year-long investigation, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft report that indicated hydraulic fracturing could be the cause of several dozen contaminated household water wells east of Pavillion. After state government and oil and gas industry companies challenged the study, the EPA abruptly said they would abandon the study and suggested the state take over. In June of this year, Governor Matt Mead announced that the state would, in fact, lead a review of all the data collected on the East Pavillion Gas Field and bring in other experts to analyze the data. The state Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission were named to spearhead the data review, which has been underway since June. The state, however, has failed to meet benchmarks for releasing preliminary reports on what has been found and those Pavillion area residents impacted with contaminated wells are becoming increasingly frustrated.
• CSM Kevin Griffin Memorial Established. A native son and star athlete of Riverton was killed in 2012 in a suicide bomb attack at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Less than a year later, a permanent memorial to CSM Griffin was dedicated to his memory under a light drizzle with Governor Matt Mead and a host of state and local officials attending, along with Griffin’s extended family. “In this special place, Kevin will be remembered close to home in Riverton – where he grew up, went to school, excelled in sports and formed the traits that made him a great soldier,” Mead said during the ceremony. “It has been a privilege for me to join the family and friends of Command Sergeant Major Griffin, the City of Riverton, and the Army in dedicating this Memorial today.”
To read about the memorial, click here
• EPA Boundary Decision on Wind River Indian Reservation. In a late breaking story from December that promises to have repercussions well into the new year and beyond, the Environment Protection Agency ruled a 1905 Congressional Act that withdrew a portion of the Wind River Indian Reservation from Tribal Sovereignty did not alter the reservation’s boundaries. The tribes sought a”state” designation for Indian Territory for the right to control air pollution sources within 50 miles of the reservation boundary. The EPA ruling effectively said Riverton, Kinnear, Pavillion and all areas north of the Wind River were, in fact, Indian Country. Governor Matt Mead said the state would not abide by the ruling and has asked the state’s attorney general to appeal the decision.
To read the story on the ruling, click here.