Top Tribune stories of 2021: Year defined by confusion ends on hopeful note

·7 min read

Dec. 31—Whether we liked it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic once again defined the year, which started with a national rollout of vaccines and is ending with another surge of a new COVID variant.

Two of our top stories look back at how the pandemic directly impacted the community and the city's largest employer. It's also the background for the county receiving the largest infusion of federal dollars in history, which also made our top list.

Beyond the virus, a controversial flag and the opening of a major development also took a spot in the Top 5.

Here's more on all the stories that defined a scary, hopeful, confusing and beautiful year in Kokomo.

Vaccine rollout changes course of pandemic

The pandemic took a major turn in January when the first people received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Howard County.

On Jan. 9, Heather Wells, a registered nurse and manager at Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo, became the first person in the county to receive her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, making her fully inoculated against the virus.

Vaccines quickly became available at major retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, CVS and Sam's Club.

The biggest move to get residents jabbed came in February, when the county health department set up a mass vaccination clinic inside the Kokomo Event and Conference Center, which eventually had 20 booths available for shots.

Even so, the county's vaccination rate only sat at 43% in August, leading the city and county to sign a resolution urging residents to get a shot during a major spike in new COVID-19 cases. The resolution said the goal was to have 80% vaccinated.

The number of residents getting a vaccine lay stagnant throughout the summer but began climbing again in November and December as many received their booster shot.

On Thursday, just under 48% percent of eligible residents had been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Stellantis workers face year of uncertainty

The region's largest employer issued a slew of furloughs all through the year as the global microchip shortage threw the nation's auto industry into chaos.

Stellantis initially furloughed about 1,800 local workers building 9-speed transmissions at the local plants in early February. The move came after the company paused production of the Jeep Compass, which is assembled in Mexico and uses the 9-speed transmission.

Thousands of local workers continued to remain or go on furlough for the next eight months as the company pivoted to adapt production schedules based on the availability of microchips and other parts.

The furloughs were the main reason the county often had the state's highest unemployment rate throughout the year.

In October, United Auto Workers Local 685 reported nearly all employees had returned from furloughs and were on regular production schedules.

At the same time, Stellantis also confirmed it had eliminated around 200 positions at the Tipton Transmission Plant as a result of the global microchip shortage.

'F--- Biden' flag lawsuit draws statewide attention

A Kokomo man hanging a flag in September protesting President Joe Biden led to a lawsuit and a group of supporters traveling to the city to protest the city's attempt to take it down.

Brandon Adams put up the flag on or around Sept. 9 on the side of his home, which faces the Seiberling Mansion on West Sycamore Street.

According to a complaint filed by Adams, he received a formal abatement notice around Sept. 16 from the city building inspector and code enforcement officer, stating that the flag was in violation of the city's laws.

The notice also contained the comment "children and parents visiting the Seiberling Mansion observed the flag and we cannot allow the profanity to be publicly displayed," according to the complaint.

Adams eventually filed a lawsuit against city and county officials, saying his First Amendment rights were being violated due to the city trying to get him to remove the flag, which he said was protected political speech.

The city tried to dismiss the suit, but in December, Adams and the city reached an agreement that left the flag flying.

The agreement says neither side admitted to any wrongdoing, but the city can't take any further action against Adams regarding the flag on his property.

In October, a caravan of around 12 vehicles drove from Evansville to protest the city attempting to force Adams to remove the flag.

Championship Park grand opening kicks off new developments

Championship Park saw its grand opening in April with a series of baseball and softball games that are set to kick off a slew of new developments at the $11.4 million outdoor sports complex.

Championship Park and plans for a neighboring commercial development were originally announced in the summer of 2019 and aimed at taking advantage of a booming youth sports tourism industry.

Crews broke ground on the project, located at 600 S. Goyer Road, in June 2020. The complex now includes four high-school-sized and four youth-league-sized fields, concessions, parking and restrooms.

All the fields are outdoors and are meant to also support soccer and other sports. The Kokomo Girls Softball League held the inaugural game at the park in April.

The city owns the land and has contracted with Bullpen Tournaments to manage the day-to-day operations at the sports park. The company also manages Westfield's sprawling 31 multi-purpose field called Grand Park.

The opening in April set the stage for other major developments to come to the area.

In November, the Kokomo City Council fast-tracked a handful of property rezonings for a Planned Unit Development on 35 acres just east of the park owned by Westfield-based Henke Development Group.

Brad Henke, who handles commercial development for the company, said the development around Championship Park will mirror what is currently happening around Grand Park, which Henke Development Group also developed.

The rezoning of the area allows the group to develop a maximum of 40% of the land as residential.

Influx of federal relief dollars leads to major projects

The city and county this year received in total $36 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, marking the largest infusion of federal dollars in history that will be put toward a slew of projects.

In October, Kokomo Mayor Tyler Moore gave the first glimpse at what the city had planned for its share of the money.

Moore said $3 million is earmarked to build the wastewater infrastructure for the new downtown hotel and conference center. The city and county are still in talks with its preferred developer on how to proceed with the project.

Another $3 million will go toward the wastewater infrastructure at the new industrial park site, located on the north side of the city near Stellantis' Indiana Transmission Plant.

Other money was earmarked for Ivy Tech Kokomo to develop programs to train people in manufacturing; new lighting along the paths in Jackson Morrow Park; flood mitigation on Boulevard; and replacing revenue the city lost during the pandemic.

Howard County received $16 million provided by the American Rescue Plan that will fund over 20 major projects, including building improvements, new grant programs, broadband expansion and electric-vehicle training.

The largest amount was allocated for a $1.5 million overhaul of the Howard County Highway Garage, which hasn't seen any major improvements in over 50 years.

Another $750,000 will go toward installing a new courtroom inside the courthouse to be used by the magistrate judge. The plan also calls for $500,000 to be spent on building out sewer and water infrastructure for the new industrial park.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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