Like a one-sided baseball pennant race, the only drama in choosing the top local stories for 2020 is the race for second place.
Let’s face it: COVID-19 was North Platte’s biggest story of the year. It’ll probably be 2021’s biggest story as well.
The pandemic permeated virtually everything that happened after February — even the many local examples of “good news” that thankfully broke through the dark clouds of America’s worst health crisis since 1918.
So no one will be surprised at The Telegraph’s choice for 2020’s No. 1 story. Feel free to quibble with our lineup for the others; quite honestly, the rest could easily be shuffled in any order.
And, like we said, most of them could be rolled into the top story anyway.
Let’s start with the best and latest news: The first COVID-19 vaccines arrived Dec. 15 at Great Plains Health. Shots for front-line GPH workers started the next day.
"This vaccine will give me some peace of mind with fighting this every day and seeing what it does to people,” said Mel Pendleton, charge nurse in the emergency department at Great Plains Health.
Lincoln County had its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus on St. Patrick’s Day, almost exactly nine months before Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine began going into local arms.
Frank Naranjo, 92, was the county’s first confirmed COVID-19 death on March 30. As of last week, 32 COVID-19-related deaths were confirmed in the six-county West Central Health District, and 18 others were under investigation.
The rest of this pandemic’s story, of course, lies ahead during 2021.
Filing deadlines for the 2020 elections had barely passed when COVID-19 struck and upended candidates’ campaigning expectations.
Kelliher, chief information officer at Great Plains Health, had 59.6% of the vote in partial unofficial returns to 39.9% for retired North Platte business leader John Hales.
But Lincoln County residents took advantage of every legal method of casting their ballots, smashing previous records for early voting in both May’s primary and November’s general election.
On the morning after a long election night, North Platte’s next mayor was starting the task …
North Platte voters experienced their first all-mail election in February, a month before the pandemic, while rejecting North Platte Public Schools’ request to effectively transfer patrons’ expiring high school bond tax to the building fund to speed up “safety and security” projects.
November brought five fresh faces to North Platte City Hall as voters seated four first-time City Council members and chose Brandon Kelliher to succeed retiring Mayor Dwight Livingston.
City voters also gave more than 3-to-1 approval to another 10-year renewal of the Quality Growth Fund, which sets aside a portion of city sales taxes for economic development purposes.
County government’s election highlight came during the May primary, when Commissioner Joe Hewgley of North Platte clinched his ninth consecutive four-year term. Hewgley, originally appointed to his District 1 seat in 1985, currently ranks second in seniority among members of Nebraska’s 93 county boards.
As 2020 ended, people who remembered how North Platte’s downtown looked last New Year’s had multiple reasons to be astounded at its transformation.
It had a new name — the Canteen District — to accompany its July listing on the National Register of Historic Places of all or parts of 13 blocks on both sides of the Union Pacific tracks.
It also bore the combined fruits of the 7½-month-long reconstruction of six blocks of downtown streets — while reusing most of their 1916 bricks — and continued restoration and freshening of storefronts that began in 2018.
Developer Jay Mitchell opened the doors to the Hotel Pawnee Thursday, letting the public gets its first look at North Platte's old gem as his crews continue to restore the Canteen District building.
While Paulsen Inc. crews tore up and rebuilt nearby streets, the once majestic 1929 Hotel Pawnee sat quietly awaiting its own turn at resurrection.
It arrived Oct. 12, just five days after the last rebuilt Canteen District streets reopened, as California historic redeveloper Jay Mitchell and a four-man restoration team came to start work.
Pawnee owner Jay Mitchell and his restoration team plan a 6-9 p.m. open house Thursday in the lobby — featuring a 17-foot-tall decorated Christmas tree — so community residents and downtown shoppers can peek at their recovery work.
North Platte’s grande dame is slowly opening the doors of her classic wardrobe.
Mitchell, who acquired partial interest in the Pawnee after its August 2013 closure, had bought the rest in October 2019 after the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp. untangled the debts left by its failure as a retirement hotel. His planned March start was scuttled by COVID-19’s outbreak.
Buffeted for three years by “big box” retail closures and Bailey Yard job reductions, North Platte leaders entered 2020 expecting to reach several major milestones in renewing and redirecting the city’s economic base.
They mostly got there — though the pandemic threatened to unravel it all.
Downtown’s “bricks” reconstruction was launched in late February — just before COVID-19’s arrival — but statewide “directed health measures” April 1 halted public gatherings and greatly restricted business activities for six weeks before they slowly began to ease.
Whatever isn’t spent for COVID-19 small-business loan assistance from a $250,000 Quality Growth Fund allocation will support a gift-card program instead, the North Platte City Council decided Tuesday night.
Community leaders fought to help small businesses batten down. Local bankers, like their counterparts statewide, quickly funneled just over $38 million in forgivable loans to 596 North Platte businesses through Congress’ emergency Paycheck Protection Program.
An additional 140 businesses benefited from a May emergency gift-card program — putting up to $4,000 in each participant’s coffers — launched by the chamber and supported with matching funds from the Quality Growth Fund.
Instead of shriveling amid the pandemic, North Platte’s net local sales-tax collections reached record highs in three of the four summer months.
As the Canteen District blossomed anew, downtown business owners Jeff and Shae Caldwell bought Parkade Plaza as September ended to become the strip mall’s first local owners since its 1978 opening.
Mike Works, a Lincoln developer with west central Nebraska ties, led a new ownership group that bought the 1972 Platte River Mall in November. Commercial and residential projects announced in 2019, including single-family and apartment projects and Chief Development Inc.’s three-pronged development plan, continued to make progress during 2020.
City officials began negotiating with Grand Island-based Chief in October to buy or lease Iron Eagle Golf Course, promising to settle a 26-year-long controversy over the city’s ownership of the flood-troubled course.
And chamber leaders in June announced they had secured a site near Hershey for a Lincoln County “rail park,” offering fresh hope to retain industrial workers idled by railroad layoffs and furloughs since 2018.
North Platte set its all-time monthly record for sales taxes in June — a net $801,290 — despite losing its entire “festival month” to COVID-19.
The Miss Nebraska and Miss Rodeo Nebraska pageants for 2020 were canceled entirely, following the leads of their parent national organizations.
Nebraskaland Days delayed its 2020 edition until August while managing to reschedule most of its signature events and even line up replacement concert acts. But the revised celebration had to be scuttled for good after a fresh but unrelated COVID-19 outbreak. Even so, the Buffalo Bill Rodeo finished its 74th annual run without spectators its final three nights.
The pandemic’s March arrival immediately drove home the vital place of school sports and extracurricular activities in small-town Nebraska’s cultural life.
“West Side Story,” North Platte High School’s spring musical, was canceled on dress rehearsal night. The state speech meet was canceled, as were all spring sports and fine-arts contests — chronicled in The Telegraph’s “Lost Season” series — and in-person school attendance itself for the rest of 2019-20.
But even as the area’s spring rites of passage were being erased, Hirschfeld’s in downtown North Platte promised to stage summertime high school proms for interested schools if health measures could be eased by then. They were, and Hirschfeld’s kept its promise for nine area schools — including NPHS and St. Patrick High School — in late June and July.
Both schools staged belated 2020 graduations as July turned into August, clearing the stage for a memorable fall as North Platte students finally returned to school buildings.
The Bulldogs shot a 660 over the two-day competition, beating out second place Lincoln Pius X by 23 strokes. Three players placed in the Top Ten individually: Karsen Morrison, Baylee Steele and Maya Lashley.
NPHS saw virtually all its fall sports teams qualify for state tournaments or meets, led by a Bulldogs Class A girls golf title and softball runner-up finish. St. Pat’s football team made the Class D-1 state playoffs, while the Bulldog football squad won its first playoff game in years.
As fine-arts students got used to performing with masks, the NPHS Marching Band won superior ratings in its only two contests — one live, the other recorded — and the Bulldog one-act play cast qualified for state.
Five homicide cases were added to west central Nebraska judicial dockets during the year:
» Authorities found the body of 42-year-old Kimberly Ermi of Greeley, Colorado, in a North Platte pond on March 3.
Authorities two weeks later charged her fiancé, William H. Stanback, 41, of Greeley, with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty June 1 in Lincoln County District Court.
» A May 22 confrontation on a North Platte street ended with the shooting death of 25-year-old Brett A. Torres. Keith L. Allen, 44, of North Platte pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder of Torres July 20.
» Kathleen E. Jourdan, 32, a resident physician from Omaha, pleaded not guilty in Dawson County District Court Aug. 17 to second-degree murder of her 35-year-old husband, Joshua. He was shot June 17 as their family drove on Interstate 80 near Cozad.
» Alva C. Decker, 33, of Indianola pleaded not guilty in Red Willow County District Court Nov. 3 to first-degree murder of 30-year-old Steven L. Weaver. Weaver’s body was found by authorities Oct. 8 as they investigated a wreck that killed the car’s driver.
» Harlie E. Sathoff, 19, of North Platte has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with a Nov. 12 fight that ended with the fatal stabbing of Bryce Wood, 20. She faces a preliminary hearing Monday in Lincoln County Court.
Court action in other notable regional deaths also climaxed or moved toward climaxes during the year, including the September 2018 shooting death of Ethan Pohlmeier of North Platte.
Jesus A. Martinez, 18, of Grand Island pleaded no contest Oct. 29 to second-degree murder of Pohlmeier and possession of a stolen firearm.
Fellow 18-year-old Brayden Turner, a former North Platte resident, pleaded no contest the same day to lesser related charges. Sentencings for both were delayed until after the new year.
A major eastern Nebraska murder case also wrote one of its chapters in west central Nebraska.
After receiving the case in a change of venue, a Dawson County jury Oct. 14 convicted Bailey Boswell, 26, of first-degree murder in connection with the 2017 death of Sydney Loofe of Lincoln. Boswell and co-defendant Aubrey Trail, convicted of first-degree murder in the case in 2019, await sentencings.