Jan. 12—While the world continued to deal with the coronavirus as 2021 rang in with little fanfare, vaccines and masks continued to be the recurring theme throughout the year.
Statistics from the Laurel County Health Department as of Dec. 31 showed the county had logged in 14,756 total cases since the first was identified in March 2020. During the year, a new strain of the virus, the Delta variant, emerged and made the number of cases skyrocket. Despite taking vaccines, many people still became infected with the virus, with Laurel County reporting a total of 97 breakthrough cases by Dec. 31. The total number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the county reached 54, while 26,237 residents were fully vaccinated.
Despite the ongoing health pandemic, Laurel County saw much economic growth over the year. London welcomed Local Honey and Butcher's Pub eateries in the downtown area, while several specialty shops such as Moody Cows, Revive Protein Bar and A & C Deli Mart made their debut in the area.
The retail stores also made a huge impact on the county's shopping options. Dollar General continued to establish stores in rural areas of the community, with its latest in the Lily area. Harbor Freight, after some delays in completion, opened as did Studio 303. Studio 206 continued to thrive, expanding from its original location to fill the entire 200 block of downtown London with sewing, painting, clothing and other shops. The industrial scene also made a huge impact in 2021 with lots in Greer Industrial Park selling out and with four new businesses slated to locate in 2022. Rowland Acres off KY 192 is the newest industrial park to add to the area, with construction and excavation beginning in late 2021. The eCommerce industry also thrived, with 30 new businesses and services establishing in the area.
Relocations and expansions marked the continued success in the community. According to statistics by the London Laurel County Economic Development Authority, there were 34 relocations of businesses and 17 expansions. Among those relocating are RRJ Solutions, Bluegrass Class, Alexander & Associates. 20/20 Eye Care, Laurel Financial and Hacker Bros. London Women's Care expanded its space and services into the front building of the medical park located off West 5th Street, while CBD Hemp opened a second store.
Many of the traditions that mark American life returned to Laurel County in 2021, while the community welcomed several new events.
Town Center Park opened for numerous activities, with the monthly concerts beginning in June and continuing through August. Performers included Starship, Dangerous Dan and the Funktown Horns, and local bands My Finest Hour, Sneaky Pete, and West Wind Drive.
The Red White and Boom Independence Day celebration returned many of the favorite attractions from past years with the skyjumps, inflatables, food, and live entertainment on stage, ending with fireworks that rival any in southeastern Kentucky to kick off the Fourth of July celebrations, while the London Community Orchestra delivered a powerful patriotic concert in their usual tradition.
The Redbud Ride, held in April, brought in nearly 900 cyclists from various states, although the crowd was somewhat smaller than in past years. The World Chicken Festival returned in September with good weather and crowds. The Laurel County Homecoming was enhanced with a summer carnival staged at the former fairgrounds property, which is undergoing renovation and planning for future events and facilities. The ASA tournament drew in thousands of archers and their families and is heralded as the largest tourism event in Laurel County.
The Battle of Camp Wildcat celebrated its 160th anniversary in 2021. The battle was one of the first Union victories in Kentucky and the second engagement of Union troops in the state.
Lights Around London, a display of holiday lights at homes and businesses across the county, returned for its second year with huge success.
Some new events that came to London in 2021 were the Kentucky Heritage Music Series, which hosted Kentucky singer/songwriters for a three-part concert series in March and a two-session series in October. Celebrating Flowers Bakery as the largest producer of honeybuns prompted a Honey Bun Run in October, offset by the first-ever Cider Night celebration at Farmers Market. Mistletoe Market, held the Saturday after Thanksgiving and in conjunction with Small Business Saturday, offered shoppers some early Christmas shopping with handmade crafts and goods from various vendors.
In-person classes for area students began in late August, with students, staff and parents happy to return to the traditional instruction. The former HCI classes were not offered, as students were encouraged to attend in-person classes. All students, staff and visitors were required to wear masks and spacing out students and changing the activities where students formerly gathered in large groups was revised in order to accommodate the "social distancing."
As more and more people were vaccinated, both Laurel County and East Bernstadt Independent students were allowed to remove their masks in the classroom while seat spacing continued. Students were required to wear masks on the compacted space on buses. The "test to stay" program, which allowed students and staff who had been exposed to the coronavirus to be tested daily, proved beneficial in keeping many students and staff in school.
Graduation ceremonies took a new look in 2021 with high school graduates bringing in two persons for a walk-through ceremony. The achievements of the Class of 2021 were phenomenal, with Laurel County graduates earning over $4 million in scholarships. Somerset Community College held its first-ever Fall Commencement in December at London First Baptist Church auditorium.
London and Laurel County also had its share of controversy in 2021. The London City Tourism Commission pulled away from the City of London's oversight and established itself as a Special Purpose Government Entity (SPGE), hiring its own employees for the parks and projects under its financial realm. The London City Council came under scrutiny for an adult entertainment ordinance, which was done to restrict those facilities from locating in certain areas. The London City government and London City Tourism Commission were also subjected to an extensive audit by the Kentucky State Auditor's office. That audit is still ongoing.
Crime also made its mark on the community in 2021. The court system, which had been closed for several months, opened again in April, with a huge list of indictments released in the first session. Two men charged with abusing a stray dog, torturing it and resulting in its death, were found not guilty by a Laurel jury in July. The case had been pending for two years and made state headlines after a video of someone striking a dog hit social media.
In August, a man was charged with murder after a female was found in his residence, bound to a mattress in the back bedroom of his residence.
A former South Laurel High School choir director began serving a five-year sentence in late November for sexual abuse of a former student. Mark Felts pled guilty to one count of first-degree sexual abuse in the summer. He was originally indicted for sexual abuse involving two victims as well as a sodomy charge with one of them.
In November, a 21-year-man London man Christian A. Shrader was charged with murder following a head-on crash that took the lives of two 20-year-old passengers in an oncoming vehicle. He was indicted in December and remains incarcerated. That incident marked the 10th and 11th traffic fatalities of 2021, with a total of 12 deaths for the year.
In December, a former South Laurel girls basketball coach began trial for sexual abuse, but as the second day of trial began, the case was set for a retrial after a juror realized that one of the witnesses was an acquaintance. The trial for Jonathan Walker is now set for January 31.