Year in Review: Top general news stories of 2012

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^ Posted 5 days ago

By Kim Walter

Jobs were created and jobs were taken away, local post offices closed and a new school project began. Education, health and business were busy news topics in 2012, and here is the Northern Virginia Daily's list of the top stories from those beats.

Edinburg School project approved

After months of work sessions, public hearings and meetings, the controversial Edinburg School project was approved by the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors in October. While some residents fully supported the project, others feared it would bring higher taxes and little benefit to the community's special needs children. The project also meant investing in over $4 million in bonds. In the end, the project passed 5-1.

The old Edinburg School will be renovated to accommodate United Methodist Family Services' Charterhouse School. Charterhouse specializes in working with those ages 10-24 who suffer from autism and severe emotional disabilities. The goal is not to completely remove students from the public school system, but instead work intensely with them for one to two years and return them back to public school. Charterhouse also works on preparing the students for real-world jobs, and plans to incorporate students from Shenandoah County and the surrounding area.

Some in opposition wondered why the recently vacated Community Christian School couldn't be used instead, as it would cut the cost of the project in half. In one of the last meetings on the topic, several reasons were given for why the building wasn't suitable as it was - the number of rooms, bathrooms and amount of space didn't meet state requirements that Charterhouse had to go by.

As for the cost of the project -- Superintendent B. Keith Rowland stood by the fact that the project would pay for itself. Charterhouse will pay rent to the county, an amount that could increase if the student population rate goes along with what is expected. The school should be open for the fall 2013 semester.

Valley Health plans to open cancer center

In early October, Valley Health CEO Mark Merrill announced that the company is looking to expand it's Winchester Medical Center campus with a proposed $34.7 million cancer center. The center would be an enhancement of services to include medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgical oncology and support, all under one roof. Currently, some of the departments are in separate buildings. The center also would include space for future radiological technology and additional surgical sub-specialties.

With the recent addition of a surgical oncologist and thoracic surgeon, the center will keep patients in town for diagnosis or treatment. During a public hearing on Oct. 10, no opposition was heard on the project. Merrill said he hopes to see construction on the 47,000-square-foot facility begin by the end of 2013.

Region, state struggle with math standardized testing

After the Virginia Department of Education released Standards of Learning passing rates by division, grade and subject in August, it was clear that the new math test proved most challenging for local students. The 2011-2012 academic year was the first in which students were tested under revised and more rigorous math standards, which were aimed at college and career preparation. Students across the state certainly had a tough time with the new tests, students in counties throughout the northern Shenandoah Valley struggled slightly more on average. In Warren County, 63.2 percent of students passed the math exam; Winchester City and Frederick County schools posted a 62.3 and 60.7 passing rate in mathematics respectively. Only Shenandoah County matched the state average.

The state's superintendent of public instruction, Patricia I. Wright, called the release of scores "both disappointing and encouraging news."

"Of course it's disappointing that the results in math are not higher," she said. "On the other end, in 2006 when the sixth and seventh grade math test was introduced, the first year of assessments were rather low. So while this year's are low, they aren't as low as they were in 2006. With more intense focus, these standards are attainable...ambitious, but attainable."

Former Avetex Fiber plant shows progress

Here is what progress looks like at the Superfund site in Front Royal formerly occupied by the Avtex Fiber plant: the EPA oversight inspector has left, and the frogs and butterflies are coming back.

Spring 2012 at what was once of the most forbidding stretches of land in Virginia has brought more optimism and hope than usual to John Torrence. Torrrence, who manages the site for FMC Corp., the company assigned by the EPA to clean up the toxic chemicals left by decades of intense industrial processes, spoke glowingly of the progress he sees all around him.

Such an outcome didn't seem likely in 1989 when bankrupt Avtex closed the plant, three years after the EPA added it to the agency's list of Superfund cleanup sites. The factory opened in 1940 as a response to the military's need for synthetic fibers in parachutes and other equipment that would be used in the war against Germany and Japan. The plant continued manufacturing materials such as rayon, polyester and polypropylene until its closure. Removal of toxic chemical residues from soil and water has continued since then, a project that included the demolition of 17 acres of buildings in 1997.

The progress now clears the way for the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority to begin formally offering 162 acres at the site that has been reserved for business development.

Wayside Inn looks for new owner

Three-and-a-half years after buying the 215-year-old restaurant and inn at auction, Lois and Jacob Charon have listed the Wayside Inn for sale on the market for $1.5 million.

The couple's winning $1 million bid for the inn came in April 2009 - about eight months following the death of the Leo Bernstein, the inn's longtime owner. A week before Thanksgiving, Mrs. Charon said the couple had "temporarily closed" the Wayside's dining room prior to Thanksgiving due to being unable to keep on staff. She didn't mention the sale.

As of December, there have been several inquiries on the property, which sits on 3 ½ acres. Sager Real Estate agent Butch Barnes is working the listing, and said he would hate to see it be used as anything else but an inn and restaurant. "Since the 1700s it's been used as that. That's pretty much its historical nature. Of course, I don't have any say. Whoever buys it can turn it into whatever they want," he said.

Mrs. Charon said, "there's no price" on the inn and added she didn't want the price given to allow room for negotiations.

Economy forces area businesses to close

High-end Winchester furniture crafters Henkel Harris closed at the end of November, putting 130 people out of work. Employees included Bill Henkel, CEO and president of the company, as well as his three sons. Henkel's late parents, Carroll and Mary Henkel, and their friend, John Harris, started the company in 1946, and it kept growing, according to the Henkel Harris website. The firm's craftsmen create reproduction 18th-century furniture out of cherry and mahogany. There are no plans to sell the 300,000-square-foot plant, he said, but the equipment may be sold.

"The economy really is not conducive to people spending money," Henkel said. "We always considered that being made here in America [that] that was a plus, but that's not the case evidently because people, they're going to Costco and buying import furniture. The companies that are making it are very low-end. People are going out and buying cheap stuff and living with it. High-end furniture just doesn't have a place in this country anymore."

Another long-running Winchester business made plans to shut down, putting roughly 120 out of work. Federal Mogul, a facility that manufactures brake materials for motor vehicles, announced the closure in late June. At one point the plant employed close to 1,000 people, but hasn't had that many workers for years. The plant began operations in the 1940s. Federal Mogul informed employees that it also plans to close its facility in Michigan which produces blades for windshield wipers.

Local post offices struggle to maintain operations

In May, the United States Postal Service announced a new plan that could potentially save a number of rural offices from being closed. Post offices in Fishers Hill, Star Tannery and Fort Valley were included on a list of about 2,000 offices across the nation that were in danger of closing. The plan was created to keep the offices open through shortened hours or modified locations, and would be carried out over the course of a two-year-phased implementation period, which should be completed in the fall of 2014. The USPS estimated a savings of half a billion dollars annually given the plan is successful.

A mobile unit was opened to serve as a temporary office in Fisher's Hill after the original location's lease was terminated. The unit allows individuals to send mail and packages, and also purchase some shipping supplies. However, no mail can be received at the facility, and only cash is accepted. Options for offices in Winchester and Star Tannery are still being considered, while residents of Fort Valley learned in November that hours of operation likely will be cut in half. While the fate of these offices is up to the USPS, community members have taken a firm stance on what they would like to see happen -- keep the post office open.

New cinema, facelift coming to Apple Blossom Mall

Apple Blossom Mall is getting its first facelift since it opened 30 years ago. Along with the aesthetic changes to the mall, a new 12-screen cinema featuring a "BIGD" auditorium is being built. The six-screen movie theater attached to the mall was demolished to make way for construction of the new one, Carmike Cinema Inc. eastern divisional manager Thomas Bridgman said following a press conference at the mall in May. The auditorium will feature a screen stretching more than 60 feet wide and three stories tall, 7.1 surround sound, a "cutting-edge Christie Brilliant 3D flash projector," and leather seats arranged stadium style, according to a news release from Carmike.

While the theater is expected to be completed by Spring of 2013, the mall renovation was expected to be finished by Black Friday. The work included new ceilings, floors, lighting, doors and signs, a renovated food court and a large play zone for small children, architect Nicholas A. Middleton, partner and CEO of CUBE 3 Studio LLC said. The current entrance to the food court will become the mall's primary entrance, and the food court will be expanded and will include outside seating and a new plaza next to the movie theater.

Randy Collins, CEO and president of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber, urged area residents to support the mall. "The importance of retail in any community is paramount to the economy," he said. "The mall, kind of like the hospital, is taken for granted. [Apple Blossom Mall provides] a lot of jobs, [pays] a lot of taxes, and it's a place people can come and get done what they need to get done. These types of projects are not inexpensive."

New jobs strengthen local economy

Navy Federal Credit Union, the world's largest credit union, is investing millions of dollars to build another facility on its Winchester campus and add 400 jobs, according to a news release from Gov. Bob McDonnell's office in August. It said the city was competing for the project with Florida.

Patrick Barker, Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission executive director, said the project is one that everyone should be very pleased about.

"There's not many other indicators on how well an area is performing economically until you have expansion," Barker said. "I think that's really just a testimony to an area's successes.

And, 400 "is a big number" when it comes to new jobs at one time, he said. The credit union has about 500 workers at its site on Security Drive in Winchester.

Berryville Graphics' payroll will expand by about 165 employees during the course of the next three years as a result of a consolidation within its parent company. Gov. Bob McDonnell's office had announced in June that Bertelsmann AG -- the Germany-based parent company of Berryville Graphics -- had chosen to consolidate printing operations at the Clarke County plant rather than one in Kentucky. McDonnell, who is on a marketing trip to Europe, met with Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe in Germany and was able to "personally close this important deal for Virginia," a news release from the governor's office states. Bertelsmann will be investing $10.6 million into its book-printing operation.

A $45 million manufacturing expansion at Carmeuse Lime & Stone in Frederick County will bring jobs and cleaner air to the area, according to the mining company's announcement in June. Jim Bottom, area operations manager for Carmeuse facilities in Clear Brook, Middletown and Strasburg, said the expansion will lead to 25 new jobs, which will have salaries in the $40,000 to $60,000 range. Gov. Bob McDonnell approved a $250,000 grant from the Virginia Investment Partnership, according to the governor's office. It states Carmeuse is investing $45 million into the expansion project. The plant is now in a position to be able to keep mining for at least another 40 to 50 years.

In August, M&H Plastics Inc. announced plans to invest $6.2 million and expand at its facility at 485 Brooke Road, Winchester, by 50,000 square feet. M&H manufactures plastic packaging for personal care and health care markets. The expansion should create about 20 jobs. M&H maintains its headquarters and manufacturing operations in Beccles, Suffolk, England. The company opened the Frederick County facility, its first in the United States, in 2005, and made a $2 million expansion to the plant in 2009.

Drive-in theater faces long road to digital projection

As technology threatens to drive it out of business, the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City turned to its fans for help. The two-screen outdoor cinema needs to raise about $140,000 to pay for the conversion to digital projection, according to Jim Kopp, who has been leasing it for several years from Tim Dalke, whose father built it along U.S. 11 south of Stephens City in 1956.

"The studios are saying we all have to go digital," Kopp said. "Right now, they haven't set a particular date. The best speculation from the industry says it will be mid-2013."

Kopp said he believes one of the screens will require a $59,000 projector, while the other will need a smaller one that costs around $55,000. The need to upgrade the sound systems, and to put in heating and cooling systems in the projection booths, will further drive up the costs, he said. The Family Drive-In is offering various items, such as T-shirts, cups and other collectibles for sale, according to its website. Finally, those who donate $15 or more to the campaign will have their names added to a trailer that will be made next year.

"I don't expect the public to raise all $140,000 of it," he said in July. "Whatever they help us with...We have a lot of folks that love that theater. It's all appreciated. We just want to keep it alive."


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