Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 31, 2012

Drought, Chrysler lead big stories of 2012

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— In a year dominated by the weather and apocalyptic conversations, it’s tempting to say that the freakish drought this summer was the biggest story of the year.

Well, except for the fact that Kokomo fared better than many places in Indiana, and the corn harvest in northern Tipton County came in fairly well. And that who wants to have a natural disaster as the story of the year if you can help it?

No, we’d rather stay positive, which is why the continuing renaissance at Chrysler Group LLC is a better story. It dovetails with the national recognition Kokomo has been receiving for quality of life improvements — and it means jobs and prosperity for a community which faced near extinction in 2009.

 

1. Chrysler keeps improving

When Chrysler officials announced in November 2010 their intention to invest some $1.3 billion in Kokomo’s powertrain manufacturing facilities, it was such a huge announcement that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both traveled to Kokomo to help break the news.

That investment alone might have been enough for the decade, but two years later, Chrysler officials were back to say that the initial expansion investment might not be big enough.

Chrysler is now poised to invest close to another $400 million between the Kokomo facilities, and the company’s newly-acquired plant space in Tipton County.

At the 800,000-square-foot building at the intersection of U.S. 31 and Ind. 28, Chrysler officials say they’ll manufacture 9-speed transmissions at the facility, eventually creating 850 new jobs in the community. In Kokomo, the investment at existing plants is expected to top $162 million. Chrysler sales have been soaring, and the Kokomo area workforce is one of the biggest reasons why.

 

2. How dry I am

Farmers in Indiana like to brag about how this area is one of the best places in the world to grow crops, and they’re right. But even Indiana wasn’t immune to the drought sweeping the nation this year.

After months in which most of the state was classified as in a severe drought condition, rains finally fell in time to save much of the soybean crop. But corn was impacted throughout the state.

Bob Nielson, a corn specialist with Purdue University, said for most of Indiana the drought was serious.

He said there are large areas of the state where the yield was 100 bushels per acre, about 38 percent below a normal harvest.

“There were areas around Kokomo that caught some rain,” Nielson said. “There were also parts of northwest Indiana that received some late rain.”

The bad news is that the drought story is continuing, as food prices have risen. All of the Midwest was impacted; only the Northwest, Florida and a narrow band from New England south to Mississippi escaped the drought.

 

3. The city expands

It took three years, but as of January, Kokomo gained another 11,000 residents through the West Side and East Side annexations, making the City of Firsts the 12th largest city in Indiana.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight showed he wasn’t stopping there, however, when mid-year he proposed annexing another 6 square miles of territory to the east of the newly expanded city boundaries.

Goodnight said he wants to protect the existing Kokomo business district from uncontrolled development along the new U.S. 31 bypass. Three of the new bypass’ main interchanges would be included in the proposed Southeast Annexation.

While the annexations are expected to keep property taxes stable for city residents, county school districts and Howard County officials worry that tax caps, combined with the addition of city property taxes, will produce a revenue drop they won’t be able to handle.

Kokomo officials counter that a healthy, growing city will be the rising tide which lifts all boats, including in the county. Some of the 1,500 residents of the targeted Southeast annexation have vowed to fight.

 

4. Big plans for ‘the Y’

There hasn’t been a better downtown neighbor than the Kokomo Family YMCA, and through cooperation between the city and Howard County, the YMCA leadership made the momentous decision to stay downtown.

This year we learned of plans to build not only a new downtown YMCA, but also a downtown parking garage to compliment the project.

Almost in spite of themselves, city and county officials set aside differences to reach a funding accord, with county officials accepting 80 new spots in the city’s planned garage, in return for honoring the Howard County Commissioners’ pledge of $500,000 toward the project.

Until that agreement, it looked as though the county would spend $800,000 to purchase another downtown building and all of its parking spots. Now that the city and county are working together, Y officials are even more enthusiastic they’ll be able to make strong inroads as they begin fundraising for what is expected to be a $15 million investment in downtown Kokomo.

 

5. Glenda and Joe win big

We knew David Galvin was a sharp guy from his time working for Greg Goodnight, but perhaps no one saw the power of social networking quite like Galvin did. The proof was political newcomer Glenda Ritz’ shocking victory over the well-funded campaign of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Galvin led the Facebook/Twitter guerrilla campaign which put Ritz over the top.

Another Kokomo connection, our soon-to-be former congressman, Joe Donnelly, beat the odds (with considerable help from his opponent) and became Indiana’s next U.S. Senator.

Locally, there were no surprises. Probably the biggest development was the renewal of Dick Miller’s control over the Howard County Council, through the election of key ally Jim Papacek, and the retirement of wild card Joe Pencek.

Howard County closely mirrored the state in the big races, with a slight majority choosing Mitt Romney for President, in a state which was always going to revert to red. The big question next year is what the Republicans will do with their supermajorities in the Indiana House and Senate.

 

6. Not sure what happened

One day, Michael Harris was the dynamic leader of Indiana University Kokomo, keeping the school constantly in the press through new programs and Harris’ penchant for weighing in on the major topics of the day.

And the next day, Harris was gone. School officials wouldn’t say why, and Harris was unavailable for comment.

In the history of key community leaders moving on, Harris’ resignation stands alone in terms of sheer mystery. Most of the community quickly concluded something negative had happened, and school officials didn’t do much to dispel that prevailing notion.

Many leaders said they appreciated his hard-driving style and his desire to affect change quickly. Whether he simply didn’t mesh with IU leadership or whether there was more to it than that, Harris’ tenure will go down as a strange, hopeful subchapter in the school’s history.

 

7. Downtown shooting spree

In a year which will sadly be remembered for the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., we have to remember Kokomo’s own mass shooting, which happened on the near east side of downtown in January.

The two-day shooting spree left two people dead and two others injured. After the gunfire had settled, Kokomo police arrested 36-year-old Turama Stitts and charged him with two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

Police believe the two-day shooting rampage near downtown was a random act of violence, and the charging information against Stitts indicated family members were concerned about his mental health. Shockingly, one of the shootings occurred as police combed the neighborhood, looking for a killer. The killings were two of the five murders reported in Kokomo this year.

 

8. Wind farm draws a crowd

The largest public meeting of the year occurred in northern Tipton County, where plans to install wind turbines over the 10 square miles between Sharpsville and the Clinton County line created turmoil.

Many county residents had no idea the wind farm would extend to the east side of U.S. 31 until a Kokomo Tribune story which came out just two weeks before a final vote on a key tax incentive package.

An estimated 400 people showed up at Tri-Central High School, where project supporters and opponents squared off. In the end, the Tipton County Council voted 4-1 to pass a tax abatement on the project, moving it closer to reality.

 

9. Selling the hospital

The trustees of the former Howard Community Hospital racked up about $50 million in debt expanding the formerly taxpayer-owned hospital, then cited the looming Affordable Care Act as one of the main reasons they needed to sell the facility to the Indianapolis-based Community Hospital network.

Community took over ownership of Howard in return for assuming all of the hospital’s debt. The acquisition came after talks to turn the hospital over to the IU Health network fell apart.

 

10. UCT youth baseball league’s success

First, UCT squad H.P. McPike won its second straight David A. Kasey Memorial Tournament, a Kokomo Tribune-sponsored tournament for the 40-plus major league teams in Howard County for ages 9 through 12. And then, UCT’s 12-year-old all-star team reached the Cal Ripken World Series where it placed third. This was the first local team to make the World Series since the mid-90s.