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Changes in the local political landscape dominated the news in 2012, with a new Columbus mayor and City Council headlining those changes. And late in the year, Columbus native Mike Pence was elected Indiana’s next governor.
Stories about Columbus’ economy and business environment also were significant, including a roller-coaster ride for Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc., the region’s top employer, and shuttering of the Dolly Madison plant on National Road by parent company Hostess Brands.
Which story was the biggest? Maybe it was on a topic other than politics or business. That’s where we would like your help.
From an original list of 40 stories, The Republic editorial board selected 10 semifinalists, which appear alphabetically below.
We’re counting on Republic readers to choose the No. 1 story of the year in Columbus and Bartholomew County, and your pick will be announced in the Dec. 31 edition.
Readers can vote one of four ways:
Deadline to vote is 5 p.m. Thursday, and we ask that you vote just once.
Here are the nominees.
In 2011, Bartholomew County Commissioners asked Columbus Regional Hospital to try to find a way to eliminate the nearly $1 million annual subsidies the city and county paid to the hospital for the emergency ambulance service. By May of this year, the hospital reported it was close to working out a subsidy-free plan. But city officials had other ideas. Columbus administration officials decided the city should oversee the ambulance provider, that they wanted dramatically reduced subsidies and then opened the process up for outside ambulance companies and the city fire department to bid on the contract.
The City Council insisted on a role in the decision process and brought up a 1980s law requiring an ambulance advisory board. The county pushed for the hospital to be chosen and brought up the possibility of the city and county going their own ways with separate ambulance providers. And the hospital faced letting about 80 employees go, if the city chose another provider
In the end, the city chose the hospital again as the emergency ambulance provider, but at a cost of only $150,000 each for the city and county for next year, and no subsidies thereafter.
Columbus job growth
The job market in Columbus was a nationally recognized success story in 2012. The community won accolades for job gains, ranking as the second-fastest growing metro area in the nation and as having the highest percentage of mechanical engineering jobs of any community in the country.
In October, local unemployment had dropped to 5.4 percent, the lowest in the past four years, and the number of people in the workforce increased to the highest levels ever. The jobless rate rose to 6 percent in November, still among the state’s most enviable rates. In the 12 months between November 2011 and 2012, the community added 4,000 jobs.
Several employers announced plans to add jobs here this year, including Sunright America (100), Toyota Materials Handling USA (100), NTN Driveshaft (50) and The Phoenix Group (50).
Cummins Marathon announced
The Mill Race Race and Mayor’s Walk ended its 16-year run as a standalone event in September, paving the way for a Cummins Marathon through the streets of Columbus next year.
The new race, scheduled for Sept. 28, will be a 26.2-mile run that will allow participants to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Organizers expect 4,000 people to take part, and tourism officials hope it will be a marquee event, boosting the number of visitors to the city.
The idea germinated in the halls of Cummins Inc., and the company became the main sponsor because the race was a natural fit for the company’s fitness focus. Tentatively, the starting line will be at the Cummins Corporate Office Building, and the run will wind its way through Columbus architecture on both city streets and the People Trail.
Cummins ups and downs
Cummins Inc. started the year riding high. In April it announced plans to expand operations in Seymour, and in May it touted glowing financial reports showing record revenues in the first quarter of 2012 — $4.5 billion, up 16 percent from a year earlier.
By the middle of the year, storm clouds were on the horizon, as the company saw contractions in the global market and bad news kept coming. In August, there was a slight sales decline. In September, the company instituted a hiring freeze. In October, the company had to revise its sales and earnings expectations for the year downward. Then it announced layoffs of 1,000 to 1,500 employees globally.
In the third quarter, sales for the company were off by 22 percent from a year earlier, and the decline spanned all divisions but were most pronounced in China and Brazil. The company’s expansion plans in Seymour and in Columbus continue, but about 150 of the layoffs have hit locally.
In May, Texas-based Hostess Brands Inc. notified the state that its operations in Columbus at the Dolly Madison plant were in danger of closing. The company, in bankruptcy for the second time in less than a decade, tried to get more concessions from employees to keep operations running.
In September, the Teamsters union narrowly voted to approve a new contract, but the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International voted against the contract, citing deeper pay cuts, higher insurance costs and pension problems.
In November, the bakers union employees decided to strike. The company threatened to shut down plants if the strike didn’t end immediately, and on Nov. 17 the company made good on its threat, ending operations at a plant tracing its history to the 1960s and locally made Sap’s Donuts.
Mayor’s first year
Kristin Brown, a Republican, swept into office after a landslide election win and the retirement of former Mayor Fred Armstrong. Brown ran on the strength of her plans to revamp, streamline and open the inner workings of Columbus government to public scrutiny, all while saving taxpayers money.
Brown sometimes ruffled the feathers of the City Council, county council and county commissioners, also all Republicans. But she also plowed ahead with $2 million in cuts to the city budget, the end of unpopular projects and a new cultural arts district designation for the city.
In her quest for transparency, one of her main targets was elimination of Columbus Downtown Inc., a nonprofit company created by the previous administration to negotiate leases, make deals and own downtown property. Brown appointed herself to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and named Board of Public Works and Safety member Susan Fye the head of CDI. By the end of the year, CDI was on its last legs.
Mike Pence elected governor
Although his intentions were clear heading into 2012, Columbus native Mike Pence, a Republican congressman, made it official in January, putting his name on the ballot and setting his course to become the next governor of Indiana. In February, the last of his possible Republican primary competitors could not garner enough signatures to make the ballot, and Pence’s path to the Republican nomination was cleared.
Although Pence maintained a home in northern Bartholomew County during his time in Congress, the family decided to rent a home northeast of Indianapolis in July as the campaign progressed. Pence defeated his Democratic opponent, John Gregg, maintaining a positive, pro-Hoosier business message.
Election Day saw Pence defeat Gregg by about 75,000 votes, or 49 percent to 46 percent. In December, the Pence family announced that its next home would, in fact, be the governor’s mansion.
Outdoor sports complex killed
A proposed outdoor sports complex was a prized development by the outgoing city government of 2011 and an albatross to the incoming city government of 2012. The complex, to be built off of Water Street, was plagued by its location in the flood plain, a lawsuit from neighboring property owners and public concerns about the $8.56 million price tag.
But a series of severe setbacks in January ultimately doomed the project: Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. withdrew its offer to give $1.2 million to make the project happen; a flood study showed that the project would increase the potential for downstream flooding, and Brown County Judge Judith Stewart reversed the Columbus Plan Commission decision that approved the site plan for the project.
Columbus Redevelopment Commission decided Jan. 31 to kill the project, but the City Council hesitated to return the already-approved loan funds, despite a cost of about $1,000 a day in interest. In August, the City Council decided to redirect the now-depleted $7.2 million in loan funds to pay for repairs to parks and roads.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. recognized an educational trend: Children who attend a prekindergarten program were better prepared to start kindergarten. In fact, the benefit seemed to continue throughout their school career. A pilot program, the Busy Bees Academy, added further evidence in addition to a federally funded Title I preschool program. So the school officials and the heads of local industry and nonprofits came up with a plan to make prekindergarten programs available to any family who wanted to send their children.
The Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County and the Community Education Coalition promised to pay for private school scholarships, if voters would agree to a referendum — a 5 cent property tax increase — that would allow Busy Bees to expand and turn the Title 1 program into a five-day-a-week program. Voters disagreed with the plan, voting it down 54 percent to 46 percent.
School district officials said this month they have figured out a way to keep Busy Bees operating for another year — although parents will pay more — and hope to find ways to continue and expand the program after that.
The city-collected fees for trash collection were unpopular when they were instituted in 2010 and led, at least in part, to a wave of defeated and retiring City Council members in 2011. The new group of City Council candidates campaigned on promises to eliminate the fees, originally instituted to patch holes in the city’s budget.
At the first City Council meeting of the year, a large crowd turned out to welcome the new officeholders and to demand the revocation of the trash fees. Mayor Kristen Brown announced in March she had found enough savings in the city budget to cover the $927,000 in annual revenue the fees generated. By April, the fees were gone.
By July, only 95 households in the city had voluntarily chosen to continue paying the fee.
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