Lots going on in Big Spring during 2012

By STEVE REAGAN Staff WriterDedications, construction, elections, crime, death and drought — this was the year that was.Soon after the calendar flipped to 2012, the Veterans Administration Medical Center was renamed after Big Spring's only Medal of Honor recipient, and just before the year drew to a close, a long-awaited re-opening nearly four decades in the making took place.In between, there was 12 months full of news, good and bad, but no news was bigger in 2012 than what happened one night in early November when local residents headed to the polls.Here are the top 10 stories of 2012, as voted upon by the Big Spring Herald editorial staff:No. 1: The EDC election — Simply put, Big Spring voters were asked to decide, in large degree, on the economic future of this community.At stake was whether funds from the local Economic Development Corporation would remain strictly ear-marked for economic development purposes or if the money also could be used for community improvement projects.The issue caused much heated debate (and more than a few hurt feelings) in the weeks leading up to the election. Proponents of the change argued that community improvement projects would serve as incentives to attract new businesses, while improving the quality of life for everyone. Opponents, on the other hand, feared changing the EDC's mandate would effectively choke off economic development efforts in Big Spring.By the time all the votes were counted, it was clear local residents weren't in any mood for a change — more than 60 percent chose to keep the EDC as it was.No. 2: The Settles re-opens — It was a day many residents had dreamed of but secretly feared would never occur.The Hotel Settles, built in 1930, has long been Big Spring's most recognizable landmark, but for most of the past 40 years, the building had also been the butt of derisive comments and/or jokes.That's because it had been vacant since the 1970s and had fallen into a serious state of disrepair in the intervening years.Enter Brint Ryan.Ryan, a Big Spring native and owner of the seventh-largest tax services firm in the United States, put millions of dollars of his own money into a multi-year restoration of the dilapidated landmark, vowing to return it to its former splendor.More than two years and some $30 million later, Ryan made good on his promise — on Dec. 28, the hotel re-opened its doors with a special lighting ceremony and welcomed overnight guests the following night. Hotel officials promise to maintain much of the building's historic touches while also offering modern touches, as well.No. 3: New schools — In August, Big Spring Independent School District's elementary campuses entered the 21st Century.When the school year opened Aug. 27, students at Goliad, Moss, Marcy and Washington elementaries were welcomed into brand new buildings, the centerpieces of a $60 million district-wide renovation approved by voters two years earlier.The new campuses are basically everything their older counterparts weren't — more spacious, more secure and much better equipped to meet modern educational needs.The 75,000 square-foot campuses are designed to hold around 550 students and each house 27 classrooms, a library, computer labs, a combination cafeteria-auditorium and gymnasium.“This is awesome — that’s the word that keeps coming to mind,” Marcy Principal Rita Faulkner said, looking around her new workplace. “We have a wonderful campus that kids are going to love. And if the kids love coming to school, they’re going to learn.”No. 4: Crime — Unfortunately, not all the news was good in 2012.The new year got off to a bad start when Christopher Castanuela became the first homicide victim of 2012 on New year's Day, and another Big Spring man was ruled the victim of a hit-and-run homicide a few days later.Among the other lowlights of the year:• Former KBST News Director Kyle Guthrie received a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a charge of online solicitation of a minor.• Howard County resident Edgar Dale Whitt received a 10-year prison sentence for prohibited sexual contact after law enforcement officials discovered he had fathered a child with his daughter.• Chris Daniel Marquez, 19, was arrested in late October and charged in the shooting death of 33-year-old Luis Pena.No. 5: Enrollment booms — In the words of a Big Spring ISD trustee, “Thank goodness we built those new schools.”All that extra space the new elementary campuses provided was put to use as the 2012-2013 school year unfolded. The oil boom brought more than workers to West Texas — it brought the workers' families, also. The result was a veritable explosion in enrollment, particularly at the elementary level, for BSISD.October's overall enrollment exceeded 2,000 students, the first time that had happened locally since 2000. Figures have tapered off slightly since that time, but the school district still faces an increase of more than 200 students from this time last year.It is a good news/bad news situation for BSISD — more students mean more state money for the district, but it also requires administrators to hire more teachers. And facing a tight job market, officials were scrambling to find new teachers at year's end.No. 6: Wastewater facility improvements — The city of Big Spring’s proposed $13 million overhaul of the municipality’s water and wastewater facilities received overwhelming voter approval in the May 12 municipal election.The measure passed with 1,182 ballots in favor — 71.51 percent of the vote — with 471 casting their ballot against the proposition, accounting for 28.49 percent of the tally.The project will be funded by both the city and the local Economic Development Corporation.As part of the agreement between the council and the Big Spring Economic Development board of directors, the EDC will provide $750,000 a year for the first two years, and then 40 percent of its sales tax revenue — with a floor of $500,000 and a ceiling of $750,000 for the following 18 years — with the city of Big Spring picking up the remainder of the tab.No. 7: Hogue honored — Local, county and state law enforcement officials honored a fallen hero in 2012.Troy Hogue, a Big Spring native and former Department of Public Safety trooper who was murdered in the line of duty in 1994, was honored locally when the new joint law enforcement center — which houses both the Big Spring Police Department and Howard County Sheriff's Office — was named after him.Also in 2012, the DPS honored Hogue by naming one of its four new interceptor patrol boats after the Big Spring native. The boat will be used for border patrol and drug interdiction efforts along the Rio Grande River.No 8: VAMC name change — The Big Spring VA Medical Center’s name was officially changed to the George H. O’Brien Jr. VA Medical Center. O'Brien is the only Medal of Honor recipient who ever called Big Spring home. U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. O’Brien was presented the medal on Oct. 27, 1953, exactly one year after he spearheaded the capture of an enemy-held hill while wounded by enemy fire in Korea. O’Brien continued to serve in the Marine Reserves where he ultimately received the rank of lieutenant colonel.A statue of O'Brien is situated near the entrance to the medical center.No. 9: Water restrictions eased — The drought that has plagued this area for the past few years didn't magically go away, but enough rainfall was received to allow officials to loosen water rationing regulations.Increased deliveries from the Colorado River Municipal Water District allowed the Big Spring city council to downshift from mandatory to voluntary water rationing in late 2012.The shift from mandatory restrictions to voluntary restrictions means the city will no longer issue citations for misuse of water. However, officials said the municipality will be looking at usage levels very closely.No. 10: Human remains found — A grisly discovery of human remains at the city airpark in mid-March led many to believe the body of missing Colorado City teenager Hailey Dunn or some other long-missing area resident had been located at last.After examination by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office, however, the remains were determined to be that of an elderly male.Contact Staff Writer Steve Reagan at 263-7331 ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@bigspringherald.com