Fire fighters and demolition crews worked to tear down parts of the Kent mill structure overnight Dec. 2. Photo by Gavin Friess
There were so many big stories in Portage County in 2022. There have been fires and tragedies of all sorts. The kinds that can hit the soul of a community and bring people together. And lots of moving acts of solidarity and courageous leadership.
There were some truly tragic incidents in Windham, with the murder of a young woman and the shooting death of a resident after a neighbor feud. We also had some very serious house fires in Streetsboro, including one in which a man died. As always, we had two elections in May and in November. There were school controversies and town hall controversies of various stripes. For instance, in Rootstown a beloved soccer coach was nearly fired and Crestwood made itself a spectacle over critical race theory.
So it was tough to pluck just 10 and say “these are the biggest stories of the year.” As a kind of rough methodology, I chose ones that a) got lots of interest from readers as measured by clicks and b) seemed to have an impact on the community. First, I sorted the top 200 most popular articles of the past year and then from among those I selected the 10 that seemed like they had or will have the biggest impact on Portage County people.
Of course with these kinds of lists there’s always room for debate, and if you think I missed a big story just let me know!
We had over 1.3 million clicks on The Portager website this year. Can anyone guess what the single most clicked article was? It wasn’t even close. I’ll tell you at the end of the article.
One of the biggest stories of the year is actually about something that never happened. Donald Trump asked the Randolph Fair board to hold a rally at the fairgrounds, and they said no over the objections of prominent Republicans in the county, including two of three county commissioners and the GOP chair.
This was a year of major fires. Back in April, Dussel Farm’s big red barn in Brimfield burned to the ground. A lot of people in Portage County have memories of going there with their parents and then going there with their kids. It took 80,000 gallons of water to put out the fire. The owners said they’re going to build it back.
The Davey Tree Expert Company bought 175 acres in Franklin Township and even convinced the city of Kent to annex the land. Meanwhile they’re massively expanding their corporate footprint here, building huge new facilities and pledging to work with the city to make North Mantua Street better for traffic and safer for pedestrians. This is going to remake that north part of town, and it signals a long-term commitment from Davey to the city of Kent.
The Palmyra Stagecoach is a beautiful piece of Portage County history. If you’ve driven by it you might have missed it. It’s an imposing brick building but it doesn’t have any of its former luster. A group of Palmyra locals calling themselves Friends of the Stagecoach Inn are working to save the building because they see it for what it is: a real piece of Americana. It was built in 1832 and was visited by John Brown and Buffalo Bill, with hidden rooms for people escaping slavery. The committee restoring it needs money and volunteers with skills.
You’d think Portage County, being centrally located in a relatively populous region of the country, would have widespread access to decent internet. But that’s just not the case. Thousands of people have been quietly suffering with extremely slow internet or no internet access whatsoever. Many of them rely on the network data from their cell phones to access the internet at home. But the county is finally taking this seriously under the leadership of the Portage County EMA and Ryan Shackleford, along with federal stimulus funding. This could actually get solved in the next few years, but the momentum really picked up in 2022.
These next couple stories are kind of sad. It’s obviously difficult when anyone passes away, and I know we lost some good people throughout the county this year. Most didn’t make the news, but some did and a few were actually serving their communities in leadership positions. In Aurora, Ward 5 City Council Member Kathi Grandillo lost her battle with cancer on Jan. 18. And then Aurora Board of Education President Gerald Kohansky died Jan. 24. In Garrettsville, Village Council Member Tom Collins died on Jan. 26 from Covid. There were also two deaths in late December 2021 that were still being felt at the beginning of this year: Hiram Township’s fiscal officer, Diane Rodhe, and Randolph Trustee and firefighter Roger Klodt.
This year was a stressful one for school communities and law enforcement as they’ve had to deal with false threats and other issues that have forced schools to go into lockdown. That’s a really scary thing for students, families and staff to have to experience, and unfortunately this kind of thing is happening around the country. I’m grateful for the professionalism and calm competence of our local administrators and law enforcement who have by all accounts given a masterclass in leadership during those moments.
For 34 years, Janet Esposito was almost synonymous with Portage County. A lot of people in this county end up serving for a long time, but she’s left a mark on her office as auditor that will last long after she’s gone. Oftentimes what happens is new leadership comes in and promises to change everything the last person did. Well in this case we had two people, a Democrat and a Republican, running for her vacancy swearing to continue running the Auditor’s Office with the same kind of transparency and openness that was her trademark for so long.
We’ve got a lot of people experiencing homelessness in this county, and there just aren’t enough beds for them. Miller House in Kent has a max capacity of 28, and there are at least four times that many people who have nowhere to live at a given moment in Kent and Ravenna. So The Haven finally opening after years of fundraising and remodeling work is a big step in the right direction for Portage County. Many community leaders have said they want to do more, and maybe that’ll be a top 10 story in 2023.
I woke up on Dec. 2 after 10 a.m. with dozens of text messages, emails and Facebook notifications telling me something was very wrong. Within an hour and a half we had the first version of the story published, and Wendy was downtown freezing her fingers off trying to write down as much as she could and take pictures.
This is one of those events that demarcate different eras of a community. In Kent we have pre-May 4 and post-May 4. We’ve got pre-redevelopment and post-redevelopment. We’ll probably have pre-mill fire and post-mill fire. You will get to define what characterizes the post-mill fire era. It will probably involve a lot more attention to parts of the community that have been waiting their turn, like North Water Street, the South End and North Mantua Street. We still don’t know what will happen with the building, but initial indications are good.
Either way, North Water Street is already on its way. To borrow a Ron Burbick phrase, we might look back on this as an unplanned Phoenix Project. And of course the best news of all was that nobody was seriously hurt or killed. And we have the Kent Fire Department and their colleagues from other communities to thank for keeping us safe and isolating the destruction.
So then, what was the most popular article of 2022? It was the video of the moment the Kent mill exploded. Who can help but to click a headline with the words “video” and “explosion”?