Dec. 31--Greeley's economy remained one of the sturdiest in the state throughout 2017, thanks to the rebound in the oil and gas industry as well as the city's substantial population growth.
The unemployment rate got as low as 2.1 percent in April and September for the Greeley Metropolitan Statistical Area, which covers all of Weld County, and it averaged just a little higher than that throughout the year.
The oil and gas bounce-back helped, several experts say. The price per barrel at the end of this year will be about $56, though that's still not as high as the $80 per barrel pre-2014.
The city's sales tax revenues also showed the shopping districts in the city grew or stayed the same this year. According to city financial documents, Northgate Village, CenterPlace Plaza, Greeley's downtown and St. Michael's Town Square saw the most growth in retail sales, respectively. CenterPlace remains the city's growth powerhouse, and the popular shopping district saw several new additions this year, ranging from Fuzzy's Taco Shop to most recently MOD Pizza.
Greeley's strong growth is projected to carry on in 2018, according to a state economist, along with other communities in northern Colorado.
A DEADLY DAY IN APRIL
One day in April rocked the oil and gas industry so much, it would permanently change how industry players operate.
That one day, April 17, 2017, was the day a home in Firestone exploded, killing two people and injuring a third inside the house: Mark Joseph Martinez, 42, of Firestone, and Joseph William Irwin, III, 42, of Frederick; Erin Martinez was severely injured. The Martinez's son, Nathan, 11, also was inside the house at the time of the explosion, but made it out alive.
Investigators determined the home, only 2 years old, was built 178 feet from an oil and gas vertical well that had been there for 23 years. A natural gas flowline, severed not 10 feet from the basement of the house, yet thought to be abandoned, was still connected to the well, which had been turned off for much of 2016. Operator Anadarko Petroleum turned it back on just a couple of months before the explosion, and the gas seeped into the home's basement through the French drains. Natural gas is not naturally odorized, and the men inside would have had no way of knowing there was a buildup. Martinez and Irwin were working on a water heater, a spark from which set off the explosion.
In response, the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered companies to locate, inspect and repair any damaged flowlines among their infrastructure across the state. Some companies, such as Anadarko, went a step beyond and abandoned certain flowline practices that led to the explosion and shut off older wells permanently. Of the more than 250,000 flowlines inspected throughout the state, operators reported minimal failures.
In September, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed seven changes to existing practice, some which will require simple rule-making, and others that will require legislation. He wants the changes to happen within the next year.
As late as December, organizers of a proposed ballot initiative to require all wells to be located 2,500 feet from existing occupied buildings and residences were seeking public support.
Drama in county government
Infighting in Weld County government was a staple of the 2017 Weld County diet, with commissioners fighting commissioners, county council members fighting county council members, a two-part performance audit and the near-disbanding of the council.
It started in January, when Commissioner Sean Conway's fellow commissioners opted not to give him a department to oversee. The unprecedented move centered on Conway's leaking of emails that cast commissioners in a bad light.
From there, Conway was accused of harassing Weld County staff, and a 150-page investigative report from a third-party group came to the same conclusion.
In the midst of all of this, the Weld County Council, an elected watchdog group, ordered an independent performance audit of Weld County commissioners and the Weld County Clerk and Recorder's office. The office found nearly two-dozen problems with the clerk and recorder's office, and it found a handful of problems with county commissioners. Throughout the process, Conway made nearly 300 phone calls with two county council members, raising questions about the fairness of the audit, which focused on commissioners as well as Conway's niece, Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes.
As the audit release approached, four of the five commissioners voted to put the council's fate in the hands of voters Nov. 7. Residents struck down the question
District 6 finally got its MLO
Greeley-Evans School District 6 asked voters once again for a mill-levy override, and in 2017, the third time was the charm.
The override is a property-tax hike and the only way public school districts can raise more money than the state has allotted them.
The MLO passed in a blowout, 59.21 percent to 40.79 percent, giving the district $14 million more per year to raise wages for bus drivers, custodians and kitchen workers, to update curriculum and to pay for badly needed building renovations.
They fought the Law ... and won
Going up against an asphalt and concrete giant, as well as the full force of the Weld County government, a group of Johnstown residents and neighbors surrounding a proposed concrete and asphalt plant didn't look to have much hope in their legal challenge of the plant.
But a three-judge Colorado Appeals Court panel in late November overturned the Weld County commissioners' decision to allow the Martin Marietta Materials plant in a location adjacent to a single-family home subdivision, a wedding venue and an organic farm.
The appeals court decision may be an expensive one for Martin Marietta Materials, as the company was nearly finished with construction on the $20 million site.
Weld County has appealed the decision.
Judge defends against accusations
Greeley Municipal Court Judge Brandilynn Nieto was at the center of controversy that ended after a chaotic due process hearing before the Greeley City Council.
Nieto was accused of ethical violations after encouraging co-workers to post positive reviews for a local bail bonds business. She was initially suspended with pay. She was found not guilty in Larimer County, but then Greeley Mayor Tom Norton found she had violated city rules and suspended her without pay in the lead-up to the city council hearing.
Nieto's lawyer, Denver-based David Lane, claimed corruption among police and civic leaders. In the end, the council decided to reinstate Nieto.
UNC President Kay Norton announces her retirement
The average tenure of a university president, according to the American Council on Education, is 6.5 years. Norton will have spent 15-plus years on the job by the time she steps down in June.
She took the University of Northern Colorado to unprecedented highs -- it transitioned to Division-I athletics, more than quadrupled the amount of financial aid it offers, broke ground on its Campus Commons project and saw its enrollment climb to its highest totals in a decade -- but also oversaw significant controversy.
She clashed with students, who demanded her resignation, and faculty, who saw her as opaque and dishonest. She froze faculty salaries when UNC failed to meet its lofty financial goals. The university's Bias Response Team was accused of violating students' and professors' First Amendment rights. The NCAA sanctioned the UNC men's basketball team for academic fraud.
But Norton endured it all.
City council chaos
The Greeley City Council election in 2017 featured competing candidate slates, a contentious appointment process and revelations of one candidate's criminal past.
At the beginning of the process, the most interesting aspect of the race appeared to be a slate of liberal candidates versus a slate of conservatives. The liberal candidates, including Stacy Suniga and Lavonna Longwell, adamantly denied being part of a slate. But they shared volunteers as well as notable donors like Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and the Weld County Democratic Party.
On the conservative side, Mayor John Gates, Ward 3 Councilman Mike Fitzsimmons, Ward 2 Councilman Brett Payton and at-large Councilman Eddie Mirick all were supported by a Denver-based independent expenditure committee that raised money from the oil and gas friendly Vital for Colorado. Greeley for a Stronger Economy, the Denver-based group, spent more than $130,000 on the Greeley City Council race and paid for what's thought to be the first television ad in Greeley municipal election history.
That was just the start. Former Ward 2 Councilman Randy Sleight resigned his seat toward the end of the summer, paving the way for the Greeley City Council to appoint Payton to the seat over residents' objections. Residents said appointing a known candidate for the seat would unfairly disadvantage Longwell, who was Payton's opponent. As it turns out, Longwell lost by two votes.
Finally, just days before the Nov. 7 election, The Tribune reported Mirick pleaded guilty to felony forgery nearly 40 years ago, potentially disqualifying him from serving on the council, per city rules.
Mirick won the race, and a challenge his eligibility is working its way through Weld District Court.
Meeker Elementary School was ravaged by flood
For Meeker, November started with a surge up a fire-protection water line that sent two inches of water and mud seeping up through the school's floor. Meeker suffered millions of dollars in damage, and the school has been closed since.
The flood also kicked off an ongoing insurance battle between the City of Greeley and Greeley-Evans School District 6 over who will pay for the damage.
Amid all that, the community rallied around the displaced students and teachers. Generations Church has let them use its building as a makeshift school. Teachers, parents and students from around the district have held fundraisers to replace Meeker's lost supplies and books.
The NCAA dropped the hammer on UNC men's basketball
B.J. Hill presided over the most successful season in the history of UNC men's basketball, a 21-11 campaign in 2011 that culminated in the program's first Big Sky Conference championship and the only NCAA Tournament berth in its history. Now, according to the NCAA, that never happened.
The Bears were forced to vacate their wins -- and their $167,000 check for making the tournament -- after the revelation that Hill and his assistants had completed coursework for recruits to make them academically eligible. UNC also was placed on probation and forced to give up scholarships, and Hill and his assistants were fired and given show-cause penalties, meaning any school that hires them will have to prove why they should not be subject to the same sanctions the NCAA slapped the Bears with.
In September, the downtown hotel and conference center opened across the street from Lincoln Park.
City departments were displaced, and other construction projects took shape in the shadow of the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel and Conference Center.
The Downtown Development Authority, the High Plains Library District, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Department of Local Affairs, Greeley-Evans School District 6 and 11 big names in Greeley all played a part in not only how downtown looks now, but how it will look in the coming years. Greeley City Council, the municipal court, the information technology department, the Lincoln Park Library, the city's public access television station and Fire Station No. 1 all moved.
Fire Station No. 1 now occupies a new building. Some city services will have a new home when construction of City Center, Phase 1 is complete.
The others will play musical chairs for a bit longer as downtown Greeley continues to take shape.
Windsor residents were shaken by the loss of the historic Windsor Mill, which burned down in an overnight fire during the early hours of Aug. 6.
Everyone was excited for the transformation underway at the mill, so the fire was a disappointment to many residents and town officials. Fort Collins-based developer Blue Ocean was working toward a fall opening of a brewery, restaurant and office space in the building.
Although officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the fire was intentionally set, no suspect or suspects have been named.
But residents say they are excited Blue Ocean will continue its plans to build on the site, on Main Street near 1st Street.
UCHealth Greeley campus takes shape
UCHealth broke ground on the UCHealth Greeley Campus in July.
Once finished, it will be the second hospital established in the city in about 100 years. The $185 million project will be made up of a $135 million, 53-bed hospital and a $50 million medical office building off 65th Avenue and U.S. 34 bypass.
The four-story, full-service, 153,000 square foot hospital has room to grow, as does the three-story, medical office building. It's estimated that the hospital will create 300 new, permanent jobs.
The project reached a milestone Dec. 19 when the construction crew installed the highest beam at the topping-out celebration.
Marilyn Schock, the president of the hospital, said she expects the hospital's first patient to enter the doors in the first quarter of 2019.
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