For Longview and East Texas, 2017 was a year of change. It was a year marked by progress and by the generosity of its residents. It also was a year of great loss.
Here are the News-Journal’s picks for the top stories that shaped East Texas in 2017.
Good Shepherd merger
1In February, Good Shepherd Health System officially joined Christus Health in an answer to the nonprofit hospital’s struggling finances. Within six months, Christus Good Shepherd reported it had returned to profitability, through a number of steps that include changes in contracts for supplies and managed care with insurance companies.
The hospital also announced a $13.5 million capital campaign that includes a new system for nurses and patients to communicate in the hospital and the purchase of two new MRI machines. A new surgery center also is planned at the hospital’s NorthPark facility in a joint venture with a group of independent physicians.
Dollar General investment
2Local officials sealed a deal this month with Tennessee-based Dollar General that will see the company invest $70 million in a 110-acre, 1-million-square-foot distribution center in Longview’s North Business Park.
The facility is expected to open in a little more than a year with at least 100 full-time employees — with that number planned to increase to 400 by 2022. An economic development package of tax abatements and other incentives helped lure the company here.
3East Texas was heartbroken when an August boating accident on Lake O’ the Pines claimed the lives of three area Boy Scouts: Thomas Larry, 11; Heath Faucheux, 16; and Will Brannon, 17.
The boys were electrocuted when the mast of a sailboat they were navigating came in contact with a power line over the lake. East Texans rallied to support the boys’ families, and Scouts gathered with Thomas’s family to mourn his death and celebrate the gift of life he offered to others through organ donation.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has refused to release a final report on the incident through an open records request and has requested an attorney general’s opinion, citing the age of the victims.
Texas Legislature makes waves
4Lawmakers in Austin passed legislation this year on a variety of issues that directly affected East Texans.
Pro-education rallies in the summer — including an event July 13 at the Gregg County Courthouse that attracted 700 people — were noted as influencing actions taken in the Legislature’s special session, such as addressing retired teachers through the Teacher Retirement System and providing funding to lower teacher retirees’ health insurance costs.
Lawmakers also passed a statewide texting-while-driving ban that went into effect earlier this year.
Former Longview Mayor and freshman state Rep. Jay Dean was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, the panel charged with writing the state budget, and also wrote four pieces of legislation that were signed into law, including a bill that combats the manufacturing of synthetic marijuana and opioid drugs.
New school campus, programs
5Longview ISD consolidated its Head Start, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten Montessori program under one roof at its newly constructed East Texas Montessori Prep Academy.
The $31-million, 150,000-square-foot campus houses Montessori programs previously at each elementary school in the district, with the exception of Johnston-McQueen Elementary School. That campus continues to offer a traditional kindergarten program.
The district also has received grants that will help create two new charter schools within the district — one that will expand the Montessori program to a single first- through fifth-grade campus and another to create the Longview STEAM Academy — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math — at Bramlette Elementary and Judson Middle schools.
New travel option
6The second and third sections of the George Richey Road extension opened, providing a new way to travel between U.S. 259 and Gilmer Road.
It also provides new access to the North Longview Business Park, while accommodating pedestrians with a sidewalk and a bicycle lane. Future projects will widen the road between Gilmer Road and White Oak Road.
Homelessness task force
7The city of Longview implemented several recommendations from a task force that Longview Mayor Andy Mack created early in the year to address a number of issues related to homelessness in the city.
The City Council adopted ordinances outlawing solicitation by coercion throughout the city and solicitation in or within 50 feet of cash machines, restaurants, other public places and establishes four solicitation-free zones: on East Marshall Avenue between Sixth Street and Industrial Boulevard; downtown; a 5-mile section of Loop 281; and on West Marshall Avenue between Gilmer and Fisher roads.
House of Disciples, one local ministry that works with homeless people, has contracted with the city to implement a work program for homeless people to pick up litter at certain locations in Longview.
New parks under development
8The Longview Arboretum and Nature Center, which will be adjacent to Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center, and The Green, a new 9-acre park at Spur 63 and Texas 31, took big steps in 2017.
The Green, with a pavilion, walking trail and educational areas, is expected to celebrate its grand opening March 16.
The Longview Arboretum and Nature Center this year purchased a former daycare on Cotton Street that will serve as its administrative and cultural center, and Gregg County crews cleared a pond area and walking trails. A strategic plan for the new park will be presented to the council in January.
East Texans respond to Harvey
9East Texans opened their hearts when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Coast. Multiple organizations conducted drives to send needed supplies to cities affected by the hurricane.
Some local residents took boats to the area to assist in rescues, and East Texas first responders helped in emergency response as well. Evacuees found refuge in Longview hotels, churches and area campgrounds.
Since the disaster, local churches have made trips to the coast to help with ongoing recovery efforts.
Kilgore College changes
10The past year brought a number of changes to Kilgore College. The institution eliminated three programs — surgical technology, drafting and design course and commercial photography — in a cost-saving measure. The college severed ties with the Small Business Development Center, instead opting to house its own business education and training services in its Business and Computer Division.
The college also hired a new chief financial officer after longtime Vice President Duane McNaney resigned amid performance and misconduct issues, according to documents the newspaper obtained from the college.
And don’t forget …
Those weren’t the only important stories in East Texas in 2017. Here’s a look at a few others:
A feasibility study determined Longview could support an amphitheater built along Interstate 20. A group of private business owners formed a foundation to pursue the project.
Several area school districts — Carthage, Hallsville and West Rusk – struggled to fill budget gaps after the Legislature ended the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction program. The program was created in 2006 to provide additional funding to schools after lawmakers reduced property taxes by about one-third.
The City Council adopted small area plans for downtown Longview and the Interstate 20 corridor designed to help development in the two areas.
U.S. Steel restarted operations at its No. 2 Welded Pipe Mill that had been shut down a year earlier at Lone Star Tubular Operations. About 200 employees were recalled.
Saigebrook Development of Austin received federal housing credits to redevelop the long-vacant Petroleum Building in downtown Longview into an affordable housing apartment building.