Darkness over the prairie
One story eclipsed the rest as the top event of 2017 in the Sunland.
The Aug. 21 total solar eclipse was deemed the biggest tourism event in Nebraska history by state tourism officials, with Gage County and the Homestead National Monument of America serving as ground zero for many eclipse viewers.
Running from the northwest to southeast part of the country, the path of totality, or the area experiencing total darkness from the eclipse, fell directly over Gage County.
It was estimated that more than 20,000 people visited Beatrice for the event. In anticipation of the large crowds, officials began planning for the eclipse years in advance.
The county and law enforcement implemented special parking regulations for county roads near Homestead and a free shuttle service was set up to transport spectators to the National Park Service site where special guests, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, were stationed.
Homestead had a weekend of activities for the event, including several NASA scientists giving out of this world presentations.
The national monument had an estimated 12,000 visitors for the eclipse, though the time of total darkness was only about 2 ½ minutes.
Statewide, the Nebraska Tourism Commission estimated more than 708,000 people traveled to watch the eclipse in Nebraska, and about 87 percent of those people came from out of state. The commission also estimated that the eclipse made a $127 million economic impact on the state.
Attendance was so strong at the Homestead that officials issued a statement at around 10 a.m. on the day of the eclipse asking spectators who weren’t already there for the 1 p.m. eclipse to find a different viewing area, due to overcrowding.
The shuttle at the Gage County fairgrounds, one of three locations in Beatrice where people could get a ride to the Homestead, had a line of more than 1,200 people at one point.
Area schools had programs and viewing events for the eclipse, and numerous businesses held their own promotions to take advantage of the tourism boom brought by the darkness.
Even though cloudy skies hindered viewing for some areas of the county, officials say the event brought a significant economic benefit to the area and very few problems.
While there was traffic congestion in some areas, calls to law enforcement were minimal, and both Beatrice police and the Gage County Sheriff’s Office reported no major calls.
June storms cause area damage
A strong storm system left its mark on Beatrice and surrounding areas in June, damaging trees and power lines in its wake. While there were no confirmed tornadoes, there were recorded wind gusts in excess of 80 miles per hour. Much of Gage County was without electricity for a period of time during the June storm. Beatrice officials reported that 4,200 meters in the city were without power at some point, out of a total 5,500. Beatrice electric department employees worked through the night to restore power to the area.
It was ultimately determined that straight-line winds were responsible for the damage, rather than a tornado.
About 80 power transmission poles were damaged during the storm, and NPPD received help in righting the poles from neighboring South Central Public Power, Perennial Public Power, Polk County Rural Public Power, Butler Public Power and Cornhusker Public Power districts.
Several streets were blocked by down trees following the storm, prompting the city to open a dump site for residents to take downed tree branches and limbs.
Beatrice Fire and Rescue officials indicated the night of the storm was the busiest shift they’d had in the last 15 years, and maybe ever, as far as calls for service go, with 32 calls coming in between 10 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.
Tornado sirens sounded briefly in the southern parts of Lancaster County, warning residents of a storm near Wilber capable of producing a tornado. As the storms moved south, the Beatrice airport recorded a wind gust of 85 mph.
Beatrice 6 case continues
The saga of six people wrongfully convicted of the killing a Beatrice woman continued this year, as the county awaits a court of appeals ruling in the case.
Attorneys for Gage County and the six made arguments before a three-judge panel at the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in November, which will decide whether the original decision will stand. The decision awarded $28.1 million to the six people, who have come to be known as the Beatrice 6, who served time for a murder they didn’t commit.
A decision regarding the appeal could come in the next 30-60 days.
The case dates back to the 1985 brutal rape and murder of Helen Wilson, which occurred at her apartment in Beatrice. Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor and Thomas Winslow each spent nearly 20 years in prison for the crime, and James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden spent five years in prison, before a 2008 DNA test proved that Bruce Allen Smith had committed the crime and the six were exonerated. Smith died in an Oklahoma prison in 1992.
The Beatrice 6 sued Gage County and two sheriff’s deputies, saying their constitutional rights had been violated. They were awarded $28.1 million by a jury in a U.S. District Court trial.
Attorneys for the six say the lead investigator, Deputy Burt Searcey, recklessly fed details of the crime scene to co-defendants, who feared facing the death penalty.
The attorneys also say that a reserve deputy, Dr. Wayne Price, who worked with mentally fragile co-defendants, told at least two that details of the crime could come back to them in dreams.
The six sued, saying the investigation had been so shockingly reckless that it violated their constitutional rights.
New life for an old building
One of the largest vacant commercial buildings in Beatrice was put to use when Worldlawn Power Equipment moved into the building formerly used by Husqvarna.
Around one year after purchasing the building in north Beatrice, Worldlawn transitioned from its former location in the Gage County Industrial Park to the 274,000-square-foot building. The company held a ribbon-cutting and open house in June to celebrate the transition.
The building was empty for about six years, following an announcement that Husqvarna was closing the Beatrice factory.
Worldlawn Power Equipment is a mower company that was established in California in 2004 and it has been in Beatrice since 2011. Around 30 people work for the company.
The company manufactures outdoor power equipment from its new location, including professional and commercial lawn mowers, residential lawn mowers and snow throwers.
The building is nearly triple the size of its former location in the Gage County Industrial Park, which was formerly used by Encore Manufacturing.
The larger facility allows for diversification, expansion, warehousing and solidifying the company’s long-term goals.
For the birds
Gage County welcomed a new business to the area that’s expecting to hatch millions of eggs.
It was announced last June that Hybrid Turkeys was building a hatchery in a northwest area of the industrial park. Then, in October, company officials celebrated the completion of the building with an open house.
Hybrid Turkeys is part of Hendrix Genetics, a multi-species breeding company with primary activities dealing with turkeys, layers, pigs, aquaculture and traditional poultry.
Headquartered in Boxmeer, in the Netherlands, Hendrix Genetics provides expertise and resources to producers in more than 100 countries, with operations and joint ventures in 24 countries and more than 2,400 employees worldwide.
The facility will hatch 2.5 million parent females.
The company worked with a variety of officials from Beatrice, and also the NGage economic development group and the city, which approved a $100,000 LB840 loan to Hybrid Turkeys in May.
Many of the birds will come from rural Odell, as Turkey Run Farms will welcome its first birds in January for egg production.
Planning for BSDC’s future
A hearing was held at the state capitol in May to discuss the future of Beatrice State Developmental Center, the state-run home for those with developmental disabilities.
The preliminary recommendation was a combined service array, under which BSDC would continue to support its 109 residents.
The recommendation also called for enhancements to crisis intervention support and acute crisis stabilization.
It also called for continuing to locate operational and functional inefficiencies, the goal being to address service needs and gaps.
Closure was listed as a possible option for BSDC, but was not the recommended course of action.
The hearing was held as a result of legislative bill 895. Passed in 2016, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Division of Developmental Disabilities was required to hold a public hearing regarding the Beatrice State Developmental Center.
The hearing is part of a larger report that will include an analysis of BSDC, including the ability to serve residents in the community. The plan will take into consideration the preferences of the residents, nationwide trends in similar facilities and the cost efficiency of services.
The study was to include a cost analysis of the buildings and their current uses, evaluation of vacant buildings and demolition costs, a review of residents’ needs and conversations with families regarding their preferences.
The hearing followed employee cuts in April, which reduced the staff by 39 full-time employees and also prompted the closure of Carsten’s Cafe, a public restaurant located on the campus and operated by BSDC staff and residents. It was stated at that time that BSDC had 481 employees.
The cuts were expected to annually save an estimated $1.6 million.
BPS hires superintendent
Beatrice Public Schools will have a new leader next year, after the School Board approved hiring a new superintendent.
Jason Alexander was one of four finalists interviewed to be the superintendent of BPS earlier this month, following an announcement that Pat Nauroth will be retiring next June.
Alexander is the current superintendent of Ord Public Schools in central Nebraska. He was previously an elementary principal, served as the elementary administrator at Burwell Elementary School and taught sixth grade, in addition to coaching four sports.
His resume states he’s helped get student achievement NeSA scores above state averages in every subject. Alexander said he sees those same trends at Beatrice, but said scores aren’t everything.
Coming into Beatrice, Alexander said the two biggest challenges he sees facing the district are the age of some facilities and declining enrollment.
Finding ways to grow the district will be a top priority when he begins as superintendent.
After the district failed to pass a bond to build a new elementary school in Beatrice, retiring the current four outdated schools, Alexander said it’s important to get everyone on the same page regarding the schools' facilities.
Changes were made at the beginning of the school year to restructure the elementary schools in Beatrice, converting Cedar Elementary into a preschool-only facility.
Part of the plan included adding classrooms to Paddock Lane Elementary School, while focusing preschool efforts on Cedar in west Beatrice.
Changes included building an addition at Paddock Lane consisting of six classrooms. Four of those are to replace portable classrooms currently in use, and the other two would be additional classroom space.
It was estimated that the addition to Paddock Lane could cost up to $600,000, with renovations at Cedar bringing the total near $800,000.
The move to make Cedar a preschool building was driven by failed attempts to pass a bond to build a new elementary school, retiring the outdated buildings currently being used.
Out with the old
Plans are in place to demolish the old Beatrice Community Hospital building in central Beatrice in 2018.
Workers began the preliminary processes this month, including removing asbestos from the building. Once demolished, houses and duplexes will be constructed at the site to house 16 families in the area of 10th and Arthur streets.
The structure is planned to come down in spring 2018, and the total project is expected to be finished in early 2019.
In the meantime, construction may start on residences that are going to be built on current green space near the old hospital.
The old hospital building has been vacant since Beatrice Community Hospital and Health Center moved to its new location north of Beatrice on Highway 77. The new 144,000-square-foot, $45 million hospital was put into service in February 2012 and has since been added on to.
The Beatrice City Council previously approved economic development loan agreements for the residences.
A $70,000 loan agreement to Midwest Housing Initiatives will go to build eight duplex units. A $100,000 loan agreement will be for workforce housing units, built on the site of the former hospital’s parking lot by Porter Housing LLC, which is a subsidiary of Excel.
In with the new
The Beatrice Humane Society celebrated a milestone this year with the opening of its new animal shelter.
The facility, located on the west side of Beatrice, is situated across the highway from Southeast Community College's Beatrice campus. The new facility at 534 S. Reed St. takes up five acres of space and stretches from Highway 136 to the Gage County Fairgrounds. Behind the building, there are three separate fenced-in yards. One yard is prepared for dogs that aren’t ready for adoption, one is for small dogs and the other is for large dogs.
The 7,000-square-foot facility is nearly twice the size of the old shelter and is able to house more animals. It includes amenities such as animal visitation rooms, an air filtration system, quarantine rooms and unloading bays.
The building was constructed entirely from donations, which are still being accepted to assist in the ongoing maintenance and operation of the shelter.
More than $1.3 million had been raised when the shelter opened in May, and $650,000 of that, in addition to the land, was provided by two donors who wished to remain anonymous.