The top 10 news stories of 2022
Before the calendar rolls over into a new year, the Craig Press wanted to take a look back on 2022 and some of the most impactful, widely read stories of the year in Moffat County.
1. Moffat County School District Superintendent
The Moffat County School District went through a leadership shake-up this year as the former superintendent and the school district separated in May, and an expedited search for a replacement landed longtime educator and Craig local Jill Hafey in the role in July.
Former MCSD Superintendent Scott Pankow and the school board agreed to separate on May 10 after Pankow was placed on administrative leave on May 3. The Moffat County Board of Education said in a statement that Pankow’s departure was the result of irreconcilable differences and not related to any sort of misconduct or behavior issue.
The board approved the separation at a special meeting with a 6-1 vote, and while several board members said they were displeased with the situation, the board agreed that the action was in the best interest of the district, community and Moffat County students.
With an aggressive hiring timeline, the district narrowed the search to three candidates by June 30, and held final interviews on July 7. Jill Hafey, the lone internal candidate, was named the new superintendent on July 8.
Hafey has served with Moffat County schools in some capacity since 1998, when she returned to the district in which she grew up after college and began her career as teacher with Ridgeview Elementary. She then served as assistant principal and athletic director at Craig Middle School and was elevated to principal of Sunset Elementary in 2014.
JoAnn Baxter, president of the school board, said the district was pleased to welcome Hafey into the role, not only because of her deep roots in the community but also her experience as a teacher and administrator.
2. Moffat County Courthouse set for demolition
Moffat County commissioners made a decision this year to approve the demolition of the current Moffat County Courthouse at 211 W. Victory Way in Craig, which has served as the county courthouse since 1917.
For over a decade, Moffat County has known that it needed to update the local courthouse facilities to remedy the security, accessibility and infrastructure issues that have accumulated since the last building renovation over 40 years ago.
Through a series of studies, the county found the building would need $45 million in upgrades to meet the needs of the county services and the local courts. In 2020, Moffat County commissioners made the proactive decision to purchase and renovate the former Kmart building in a project that would consolidate all the courts and county services in one location for half the cost.
County officials deemed that the 211 W. Victory Way courthouse was not salvageable and in August commissioners approved a proposal to demolish the building, as well as sell two additional county-owned buildings that will no longer be occupied once the county offices relocate to the new courthouse.
The demolition is scheduled for this summer and will be followed by an environmental study and remediation of the property, which are all being funded through a congressional spending bill. Once the parcel has been restored, it will be turned over to the city for the Economic Development Advisory Board to market for potential developers.
3. EMS comes full circle
After a failed ballot initiative to create a special district for countywide EMS, Moffat County commissioners assembled a task force to explore possible solutions for countywide service.
The task force spent nine months collecting and reviewing financial and operational information for the current EMS in an effort to explore moving the service under the county. Meanwhile, Dinosaur, which sits 90 miles from Craig and three miles from the Utah border, still awaits a solution that would give its 300-plus residents access to a local ambulance service.
Currently, Dinosaur has a memorandum of understanding with Gold Cross out of Utah to provide EMS to Dinosaur. When Dinosaur residents call for an ambulance, EMS is dispatched from Vernal, Utah, 45 minutes away. It could take 1.5 hours to get to the Vernal hospital, falling outside of the “golden hour,” which could prove fatal for cardiac or critical situations.
In July, Memorial Regional Health issued a statement saying it has no plans to drop EMS, which provides 24/7 service to Craig. Jennifer Riley, CEO of MRH, said that MRH wants to help provide a countywide EMS solution, even though there isn’t a clear solution yet for how to get faster response times to Dinosaur.
In September, the task force presented the progress it made, and county commissioners and local stakeholders agreed the next step was to focus solely on finding a way to provide a local ambulance to Dinosaur and improve service in Maybell by meeting with leaders in those communities.
4. Craig sees string of corporate closures
The year started out with a blow to the Craig community with the announcement that Village Inn would be closing in February.
The reasoning given by the store’s district manager was that the location wasn’t bringing in enough business to sustain it.
As the long-standing and well-loved diner prepared to shut its doors, there was an outpouring of letters to the editor from local business owners reminiscing about the personal moments shared in the Village Inn booths and expressing support for the employees who were finding new roles in the community.
Later in the year, two more chain retailers announced closures in Craig.
On Oct. 6, reports surfaced that the Craig Walgreens would be closing in November. Corporate representatives confirmed the decision on Oct. 11 without specifying a reason for the closure. Shortly after, the Craig Pizza Hut was suddenly shuttered on Oct. 20.
5. New businesses continue to open
With each door that closes another opens, and there have been several new businesses opening this year, and all of the new owners have brought a desire to add something to the Craig community.
There have been a number of small businesses launching this year from food trucks to new vendors in the Warehouse Food Hall and a new mobile tire business. Other long-standing businesses in the community changed hands, including Loadout Liquors and Fitch Ranch Artisan Meat Co.
The 400 block of Yampa Avenue has seen a flurry of business activity since the spring, including the new Rocky Mountain Creamery, which launched in March serving small-batch ice cream with rotating specially crafted flavors.
In June, longtime small business owners Stacey Mathers and Susie Partin opened Gathered Grace, a new creative endeavor downtown. The shop has a variety of boutique retail items, many of which are sourced regionally. A focal point of the shop is a small event space in the back of the building, which Mathers designed as an intimate space to gather.
Two local coal industry workers announced in August plans to open a whiskey distillery in the former APH Building at 406 Yampa Ave. with the goal of creating jobs and a product that is true to the local history.
Harbor Freight, a national tool retailer, announced in October its plan to open a Craig location next to Big O Tires in early 2023, and construction was underway in November.
6. City secures funding for Yampa River Corridor Project
As the community collectively prepares for a coming economic transition, Craig had a huge win with the award of $3.3 million in funding for the Yampa River Corridor Project.
City officials announced in August that the project was awarded an Economic Development Administration Assistance to Coal Communities Grant, which will support approximately 70% of the total project cost. The remainder of the funding has been pledged by matching partners.
The corridor project encompasses several improvements to Loudy Simpson Park, including a new concrete boat ramp, access road and parking area, as well as improving the existing diversion dam site with a whitewater park, access road, parking area and park amenities.
Replacing the current diversion dam with a natural channel design will allow the city to continue to draw its allotted water from the river and will improve boater safety and year-round fish passage.
The project is the result of several years of collaboration between city and county staff, and this year the timing was right to secure full funding for the project.
7. A local woman on trial for felony child abuse
One of the most tragic stories of 2022 was the trial of a local woman who was found responsible for the death of her infant daughter and amputation of another daughter’s feet.
After a jury trial, Kaylee Ann Messerly was convicted in June of child abuse resulting in death and child abuse resulting in serious injury. In October, Moffat County District Judge Sandra H. Gardner sentenced Messerly to 26 years in prison for the charges.
The case began on March 11, 2021, when deputies discovered an unoccupied Volkswagen stuck in the mud and snow near Moffat County Road 54. Messerly and her 3-year-old daughter, Alena, were found alive but suffering from exposure to the cold.
Messerly’s 18-month-old daughter, Emma, was found deceased about 130 yards away from her mother and sister. She didn’t have any shoes on, and she wasn’t dressed for the wintry conditions. An autopsy determined she died of hypothermia.
Alena was airlifted to an Aurora hospital, where both of her feet were amputated due to the severe frostbite. She also tested positive for methamphetamine. Messerly later tested positive for methamphetamine herself while being treated for her injuries at Memorial Regional Health in Craig.
After hearing testimony, the jury deliberated for 26 minutes before reaching a guilty verdict on two felony counts of child abuse. During the sentencing, Judge Gardner said that Messerly has a criminal history dating back to 2005 with several felonies, and the common thread in all of the cases was controlled substances.
8. Rainbow Family Gathering comes to Adams Park
The Rainbow Family held its 50th Anniversary of the annual Gathering of the Tribes in Adams Park, a remote area of Routt County north of Hayden.
State and federal officials had already been preparing for the event for most of the year when the Rainbow Family announced its plans in June. Emergency management teams were assembled to aid the impact of the gathering.
Once gatherers started coming into the Yampa Valley, a number of family members hosted a public meeting at the City Park in Craig to meet with local residents and address concerns about the gathering.
Over the summer, local law enforcement reported a handful of calls connected with the gathering such as panhandling or recreational vehicles being parked overnight. Police activity over the summer showed an increase in personal and property crimes, which officials attributed to increased traffic to the area.
The Fourth of July was the pinnacle of the Rainbow Gathering, when the event saw the most number of visitors. After the holiday weekend, the bulk of the gatherers left the area leaving a small group to perform the cleanup over the next month.
9. Moffat County has eventful general election
In the Nov. 8 general election, all of the local office positions were uncontested except for the Moffat County surveyor, which was won by Republican Wilbert “Bill” Baker.
Ballot measure 2A made a change to the city charter to require all city council members to be present to make any major changes to city departments. The lone local ballot initiative was narrowly passed by 15 votes. With its passing, 2A will require a supermajority vote to change, add or abolish a city department.
Election season was heightened in the Yampa Valley with two local candidates contesting for state representative for District 26, which was redistricted this year following the 2020 census. Meghan Lukens, the Democrat from Steamboat Springs, won the seat over Republican Savannah Wolfson of Oak Creek. In the state Senate race between Republican Matt Solomon and Democrat Dylan Roberts, Roberts won election.
The third congressional district race between Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Garfield County, and Adam Frisch, a Democrat from Pitkin County, had the result falling within the 0.5% margin that automatically triggers a district recount.
Moffat County performed a recount of local ballots, where Boebert gained one vote through the adjudication process. Based on updated results from the Secretary of State, Boebert received 163,839 votes, while Frisch got 163,293.
10. Fentanyl issues close in on Moffat County
Local law enforcement has continued efforts to scourge the rise of fentanyl, which has been on the rise across the county and is making its way to Moffat County.
In August, there was a large seizure of rainbow-colored fentanyl pills in Grand Junction, and Craig Police Chief Michael Cochran said that brightly colored pills have also been found in Denver.
On Sept. 7, Moffat County authorities seized a large quantity of methamphetamine and fentanyl pills from a Craig residence during the execution of a search warrant. The search was the result of an ongoing investigation into suspected drug activity at the address.
The local issue was punctuated by the arrests of two women, Paula Hall and Kristy Nielson, on Oct. 24. During a traffic stop, authorities allegedly found more than two pounds of methamphetamine, 10 grams of cocaine and approximately 580 pills containing fentanyl in the vehicle occupied by the two women.
Booking reports show that both women are charged with multiple counts of possession of a controlled substance, as well as the unlawful distribution, manufacturing, dispensing or sale of a controlled substance. Hall was also charged with keeping, maintaining or making a controlled substance available.
The felony charges for possession with intent to distribute fentanyl has a possible penalty of up to 32 years in the department of corrections. Nielsen has a review hearing set for Jan. 26, and Hall has a preliminary hearing set for Feb. 3.
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