For the second time in four years, Fredonia native Jenn (Stuczynski) Suhr has landed the top local news story.
Suhr won an Olympic gold medal in London over the summer for her pole vaulting performance. She won a silver medal in 2008 in Beijng, China. She wasn't the first Chautauqua County resident to participate in the Olympics, but she is the only one to ever win a gold medal.
Four years ago school mergers were the talk of the town as well. At that time, Westfield and Ripley discussed merging, as did Fredonia and Brocton. Both mergers eventually failed, but this time around Westfield and Brocton - the two communities that both rejected the mergers in 2009 - are considering merging schools.
AP file photo
Fredonia native Jenn (Stuczynski) Suhr celebrates after winning gold in the women’s pole vault final at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In 2008, there were seven homicides that year. This year there was only one in Northern Chautauqua County. A popular school superintendent from Clymer was murdered as well.
Talk of selling the County Home was a top story again in 2012, as it was in 2011. NRG's decision to mothball two of its four generators brought many politicians to the area, including Sen. Charles Schumer and state Sen. Cathy Young. Young, along with Assemblyman Andy Goodell is working with the state to help get NRG converted from a coal burning facility to a natural gas plant.
Other top stories included the warm winter and late frost, SUNY Fredonia's new president, a tragic pedestrian train accident and a fallen soldier from Fredonia.
Top stories locally
1) Jenn Suhr wins gold medal for pole vaulting in summer Olympics.
2) NRG mothballs two lines, could become gas plant.
3) Debate continues over selling County Home in Dunkirk.
4) Sgt. Jonathan "Nathan" Gollnitz of Fredonia is killed in Afghanistan.
5) Clymer School Superintendent is murdered.
6) SUNY Fredonia gets its first female president.
7) Brocton/Westfield start school merger discussions.
8) Two brothers killed by train in Westfield.
9) Fredonia murder is only Northern Chautauqua County homicide.
10) Warm winter, late frost destroys fruit crops.
Below are the OBSERVER's top local stories for 2012.
1) SUHR WINS GOLD MEDAL
Fredonia native Jen (Stuczynski) Suhr won the gold medal during the Summer Olympics in London. Suhr beat out Yarisley Silva from Cuba and Yelena Isinbayeva from Russia, a previous two-time gold medalist. Suhr's winning the gold medal brought the title back to the United States for the first time since 2000.
Following the gold medal win, Suhr embarked on a gold medal tour which included stops in Fredonia, Orchard Park and at Suhr's alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College. Each stop on the tour included a street pole vault.
During the Fredonia stop in September, Suhr jumped along with five other vaulters in a sanctioned competition. During the jump in Barker Common, Suhr cleared 4.83 meters which allowed her to have the highest lead in pole vaulting for 2012.
"I couldn't think of a better spot to jump the world lead in Fredonia, in my hometown with the crowd here," Jenn said following the jump.
Lawn signs in support of Suhr appeared across the region before the Olympics which support a scholarship fund set up after her 2008 silver medal win. After Suhr took gold, efforts quickly began to find ways to commemorate the win. The Fredonia Olympic Celebration Committee ordered a stone monument to be placed in Barker Common alongside the marker from Suhr's silver win in 2008.
Plans were also made to place a gold-colored ball atop the silver ball from 2008 on the flag pole in Barker Common. Discussions of plaques or other markers to be placed in the grounds of Fredonia Central School and along roads entering the village also took place, although no final decision has been made.
2) NRG CONCERNS
It was in February 1948 that Buffalo Niagara Energy announced it was going ahead with plans to build four coal-fired generating units in Dunkirk. That project, which ultimately turned into the NRG facility that some 60 years later invested nearly $200 million in back-end pollution controls, is now looking at another future.
A proposal to turn the NRG Energy Dunkirk LLC plant into a natural gas-fired operation is waiting to learn its future from New York state officials who will need to provide assurances of a market for the electricity. The project is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Energy Highway study for the future power needs in the state, and how to deliver that power.
Local elected officials have been working on getting the state's support, including a petition drive.
State Sen. Cathy Young has met with the governor's office and will be meeting with the state Public Service Commission, a key player in the implementation of the Energy Highway proposal. Young has said there is no time frame for an announcement about the repowering project, which, along with other state concerns, was set back by the damage Superstorm Sandy left in its wake.
"I assume the governor will start working on energy issues in January, after session begins. The repowering project is alive and well," she has stated.
National Grid, which brings power to Western New York from various power producers, is looking to upgrade its transmission lines so it won't need power from NRG Dunkirk. Currently, two of four generators at the Dunkirk plant have been mothballed as a result of a reliability study done by the Public Service Commission. Another aspect of Cuomo's Energy Highway Task Force is the upgrade of transmission lines to New York City.
Young has said the NRG project is not dependent on line upgrades as there is a reliability need in Western New York for power.
"We need to have a power producer in our region to grow our economy, especially manufacturing. If you lose your ability to produce power it limits your ability to grow the economy and that's one of the key reasons why we need to keep the NRG plant operating," Young explained. "The transmission lines upgrade is a longer-term goal and the governor has made that a priority."
3) LAWMAKERS WEIGH OPTIONS TO SELL COUNTY HOME
The debate on whether to sell the Chautauqua County Home has been a hot topic for legislators for more than a year and through two budget cycles. According to County Executive Greg Edwards, the Home loses $9,000 per day.
Last December, the legislature opted to support the firm Marcus & Millichap to market the County Home.
The firm found Altitude Health Services Inc., owned by William "Avi" Rothner, as a potential buyer. Rothner offered $16.5 million to purchase the Home.
In September, the Center for Governmental Research completed a feasibility study on the County Home, which outlines possible savings.
Rothner spoke at the October legislature meeting and answered questions. Legislators were expected to vote on the proposal to sell the Home to Rothner in December. In order to sell the County Home, two-thirds of the legislators' votes would be required.
However, in November, the CSEA asked to negotiate a contract with Edwards; a response Edwards had been waiting for since January and had expected by April.
In late December the CSEA put forth a three-year proposal including $400,000 in annual savings for the County Home. The county is reportedly still in a fact-finding stage in the negotiation process. Edwards will continue to work with CSEA officials.
Legislators have yet to decide what will happen with the County Home, however, either way it is too late for the 2013 tax levy, and therefore tax bills, to be affected by a change.
4) FREDONIA SOLDIER KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN
The 1,999th soldier to die in battle in the war in Afghanistan was an area native, and hundreds came out to pay respects.
Sgt. Jonathan "Nathan" Gollnitz, a Fredonia native, was killed in Pul-E Alam, Afghanistan on Sept. 26 in a roadside bombing. S. Sgt. Orion Sparks, 29, of Tucson, Ariz. was killed alongside him in the attack. The two soldiers, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, were assigned to the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Schweinfurt, Germany. According to the Department of Defense, the two died of injuries suffered when an insurgent wearing a suicide vest detonated the device near their patrol.
After graduating from high school, Gollnitz served in the Navy for six years before enlisting in the Army to, in his words according to family and friends, "be closer to the action." He previously spent a tour in Iraq and was deployed to Afghanistan only months before his death.
A local service was held on Oct. 13 at the First Baptist Church in Dunkirk. Central Avenue in Dunkirk was lined with hundreds of people that afternoon, many holding American flags and others in military uniform, who came out to pay respects to the fallen soldier.
Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe declared the week of Sept. 30 through Oct. 7 as Jonathan Gollnitz week, and asked that all American flags be flown at half-mast. Around the area, flags were flown at half-mast on government buildings as well as private businesses and homes. Students from Central Christian Academy participated in lowering the flag to half staff in his honor on the day of the funeral.
Full military honors were performed during the ceremony, and most veterans appeared in uniform. Representatives from the U.S. Army, Blue Star Mothers, the American Legion and the Dunkirk Joint Veterans Honor Guard were part of the services.
In addition to the local service, military service with full honors was held in Mission, Texas on Monday October 8, when his ashes were interred at the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery, near where his uncle and aunt, Martin and Diane Kennedy, live.
5) CLYMER SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT IS MURDERED
On Sept. 24, Keith Reed Jr., the Superintendent of Clymer Central School, was found dead outside his home by the Chautauqua County Sheriff's K-9 Unit. Reed was reported missing days earlier by friends and co-workers.
Three days later, Anthony Robert Taglianetti II, 42, of Woodbridge, Va., was named as a suspect in Reed's death. It is believed Taglianetti thought Reed was having an affair with his wife.
On Sept. 29, Reed's funeral was held in Salamanca.
That same day, Taglianetti was located and apprehended.
A handgun was discovered Taglianetti's vehicle, however, police could not definitively say it was the weapon used to fire three gunshots that killed Reed. Taglianetti was formally charged with second-degree murder.
In October, Taglianetti refused to waive extradition back to New York, leaving him in Prince William County, Va., until an extradition hearing is conducted.
Police also learned that Taglianetti may have visited the Clymer school where Reed worked the day of his shooting.
Taglianetti was extradited back to Chautauqua County on Dec. 18. The next day he was arraigned in Chautauqua County Court before Judge John T. Ward.
Taglianetti, represented by Ned Barone, Chautauqua County public defender, pleaded not guilty.
Bail, at the request of Foley, was set at $2.5 million in cash or $5 million in real property.
A pre-motion conference will be held Jan. 28, when a scheduling order will be released. Foley said a trial for Taglianetti would not likely start until the summer.
6) SUNY FREDONIA WELCOMES FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT
SUNY Fredonia welcomed a new president after Dennis Hefner retired, and Dr. Virginia Horvath is now its first female president.
Horvath earned a B.A. in English from SUNY at Buffalo and her M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Kent State University. She also spent many years in the classroom as a professor of English literature before becoming vice president of academic affairs for seven years.
Frank Pagano, chairman of the College Council and former Fredonia mayor had high praise for Horvath during her official investiture ceremony on Sept. 21. He said people had "many reasons to celebrate the 13th president of this great college," because, among other reasons, she is the first woman to serve as president, a Western New York native, and a graduate of the SUNY system.
"Over 50 applicants came forward, ... but President Horvath had the clearest set goals ... with the students at the center of those goals."
7) BROCTON, WESTFIELD SCHOOLS DISCUSS MERGER
During much of 2012 Brocton and Westfield school districts have been engaged in a process that could lead to a consolidation of the districts in 2014.
In March, it became obvious that a regional high school was not a possibility for the 2012-2013 school year. The Westfield Academy and Central School Ad Hoc Committee on Strategic Planning recommended consolidation or annexation with another district.
Westfield interim Superintendent Peggy Sauer reached out by letter to the school districts bordering Westfield - Brocton, Chautauqua Lake, Ripley, and Sherman - to ask each district if it was interested in exploring consolidation. Brocton answered it was.
Since then, the two school boards have met jointly under the direction of BOCES District Superintendent, first with interim Superintendent Robert Olczak and then newly appointed Superintendent David O'Rourke. In August, the boards selected Western New York Educational Service Council to conduct a feasibility study, a step required by the New York State Education Department before a vote can be taken.
Each district appointed 12 members to a district advisory committee which has met with the consultant team four times in the fall and winter. In addition, the consultants have conducted focus groups with segments of the public in each district.
The next step is the Advisory Referendum, or "straw vote" which would be held in June. If both districts approve the proposed merger, the process continues to a formal centralization referendum, possibly in October. The earliest a new district would be accepting students would be September of 2014.
8) BROTHERS KILLED IN TRAIN ACCIDENT
A train accident in Westfield killed two and injured a third on April 6. Brothers Brian Reed, 25, of Westfield and Justin Halpainy-Livermore, 20, of Jamestown were killed when they were struck by a train on the Norfolk Southern tracks between North Gale and Oak streets. A third brother, Ben Reed, 26, of Westfield was injured.
The brothers had been walking across a trestle while searching for spots to go fishing in Chautauqua Creek. Brian's widow, Amy Reed, wanted to dispel rumors following the accident that the brothers were playing chicken or risking their lives.
"There was nothing there that would have provoked them to do anything other than just trying to get home because they knew I had company coming and they were trying to find a short cut. ... It was just a freak, tragic accident," Amy said.
Ben had fallen off the trestle and does not remember anything after the accident except waking up on a rock. He remembers pulling Justin in front of him and telling him to run. He suffered broken bones, including a fractured skull, and a collapsed lung.
9) FREDONIA MURDER
The case involving the only 2012 murder in Northern Chautauqua County is still working its way through the court system
District Attorney David Foley recently told the OBSERVER that the two men charged in the death of 73-year-old Fredonia resident Frank T. Slate Jr. have been released on bail. Dunkirk residents Christopher T. Grant, 27, of 57 Kosciuszko Ave. and Theodore M. Wickham, 45, of 142 King St. were charged with second-degree manslaughter after Slate was found dead in his Porter Avenue home on Sept. 15.
Fredonia police responded to a call of an unresponsive subject at Slate's residence. After an investigation, it was determined Slate was killed with one round from what was believed to be a 16-gauge shotgun.
Grant and Wickham were reportedly visiting with Slate at his residence during the overnight hours of Sept. 14-15 when an argument began and the situation deteriorated to the point where Wickham shot Slate once. Wickham and Grant then allegedly fled the scene before being found at their homes by police officers.
A preliminary hearing for the pair in Village of Fredonia Court was held Sept. 19 and they were sent to Chautauqua County Jail in lieu of $50,000 cash bail. Chautauqua County Coroner Richard Mackowiak testifed concerning the cause of death, a single gunshot wound.
"Obviously, they were charged initially with manslaughter in the second degree. Whether or not that would be upgraded it's too premature to tell. That's why I wanted to get the autopsy and I want to talk to the medical examiner," Foley explained. "I anticipate a grand jury in January or February. We still have time. I just got the autopsy report, we're working on it. I met with the family."
Foley said a date for trial will depend on when the suspects are indicted and the case goes into the court system.
10) FRUIT FREEZE
An unseasonably warm winter which encouraged early growth, followed by frosts in March and April and drought conditions in July played havoc with fruit crops this year.
Dr. Jodi Creasap Gee of Lake Erie Regional Grape Program explained there is water in the bud tissue of plants, and when the temperature drops below freezing, the water freezes, expands and ruptures the tissue cells. Frost not only affected grape plants; it also damaged cherry, peach, pear and apple trees.
Frosts impacted grape production, first damaging the primary buds and then damaging the secondary buds. The damage varied by area with Cattaraugus County near Versailles experiencing 100 percent loss. Harvest season was very short this year and local processing plants were not open as long as usual.
Cherries were down 81 percent in the state, and neither sweet nor sour cherries grown locally were available. The area farms known for their u-pick were closed.
Peach and pear production was at a record low statewide, and local fruit stands did not have the variety or quantity usually expected.
Apples declined statewide from 2011 by 52 percent and production was at the lowest level since 1948. Locally, apples increased in price at the farm stands that had them as well as in grocery stores.
Eventually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued federal agriculture disaster declarations for New York counties that experienced crop damage as a result of a spring freeze. Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and Erie counties were all named as counties experiencing damage. This declaration allowed the federal government to provide aid and loans to farmers affected.
Compiled by Gregory Bacon. Contributing to this report were Gib Snyder, Shirley Pulawski, Nicole Gugino, Samantha McDonnell and Diane Chodan.
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