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December 29, 2009
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'09 Year in Review: From pot to Ponzi schemes, the Free Press recaps highlights from the year that was

Folks excited at the prospect of having a world-class whitewater park in our very own Palisade were dismayed to find out the project was dead in the water in early January 2009.

After the town of Palisade invested $125,000 on plans and engineering for studying two sites for a kayak park on the Colorado river, Town Administrator Tim Sarmo announced the project was dropped.

It seems the U.S. Corps of Engineers were putting up costly roadblocks with no guarantee that the project would come to fruition. Sad news, but understandable.

January 2009 also saw then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar sponsor legislation to permanently protect and designate thousands of acres of wilderness in Mesa and Delta counties - an area which we know fondly as Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.

President Obama signed the bill into law in March.

The legislation was apparently 10 years in the making according to a spokesperson from the Western Colorado Congress, an enviro group based in Grand Junction.

Salazar, now as newly-minted Secretary of the Interior, dedicated the 210,000-acre area in August.

"The designation of Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area is one of the best examples of grassroots collaboration and local stewardship in our nation, and I am proud I was involved in the effort," he said.

Growth and expansion

This year saw the Mesa State College construction juggernaut in full effect with multiple projects in various stages of completion going on all over campus.

Completed was the North Avenue Student Housing Building, a mixture of student apartments and retail space, occupied by the likes of Main Street Bagels and The Bike Shop.

Highlights of the completed Saunders Field House expansion include the Monfort Family Human Performance Lab, athletic training room, nursing offices, classrooms, labs, lecture halls and more. An Olympic-sized swimming pool is also part of the plan.

Moss Performing Arts Center underwent a $5.1 million expansion in 2009 adding a dance studio and expanded practice area for theater performances.

In spring 2009 the W. W. Campbell College Center, home to the campus book store, was demolished to make way for a new parking garage. The new College Center is set to open fall 2010. The remodel of Wubben Hall is slated to be finished in 2010 as well.

Schemers and scammers

Former Grand Junction resident Tim Stubbs, owner of National Energy Rebate Fund, was accused of defrauding local residents out of rebate money for work done on their houses.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers back in June said his office had 198 complaints on file against the company. In addition to Colorado, dozens of people in Wisconsin, Utah and California claim that National Energy Rebate Fund owes them thousands of dollars in rebates.

Stubbs fled to Costa Rica. Back in June it was reported that he had signed a lease on a $1.5 million house a short drive from the beach.

Former Greeley developer Mark Strodtman was found guilty in November of theft, forgery and racketeering and looks to spend the rest of his life in jail.

In 2008 the dubious homebuilder had plans to develop several acres of property he owned near the Old Spanish National Historic Trail on Orchard Mesa. Residents there were up in arms, worried that the integrity of the trail would be compromised. Those neighbors can rest easy now.

Up, and away

Amid a backdrop of economic uncertainty it was business as usual for Grand Junction Regional Airport.

Commercial carriers at the airport had their best performance ever as passenger counts topped 23,000 in July; marking the first time that threshold had been broken in any one month.

Bloomin' business

Medical marijuana dispensaries took Colorado by storm, and Grand Junction wasn't immune to the tide; so much so that the city of Grand Junction imposed a moratorium in November on issuing any more business licenses for dispensaries for one year.

We don't think we've heard the last of this issue. Stay tuned in 2010 for possible legislation coming out of Denver dealing with regulatory issues.

Hail to the Chief

Barack Obama made his second visit in one year to Grand Junction Aug. 15 to hold a town hall meeting on health care. His first visit was to Cross Orchard in September 2008 as presidential candidate.

A crowd of 1,700 from all over the state packed Central High School gymnasium for an intimate-type gathering with the president which included a question and answer session from random audience members.

While Obama was working, First Lady Michelle Obama with daughters, Sasha and Malia, in tow headed to High Country Orchards in Palisade for a tour and taste of Palisade peaches.

Earlier that day, thousands of detractors gathered for a "Hands Off My Health Care Rally" held at Lincoln Park.

Honor Flight

Aug. 25, the Western Slope Honor Flight took off from Grand Junction Regional Airport with 111 World War II local veterans and their guardians bound for Washington, D.C.

The whirlwind trip included visits to Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the World War II Memorial.

But for many, the most poignant part of the trip was the welcome home reception at the airport.

"Arriving home, the reception was indescribable," said Eugene Kaehler, a local WWII vet.

"Not one of us ever received a reception like that. The tears were coming pretty good."

Believe us, it was our honor and privilege to welcome you all home. It's the least you all deserve for your sacrifices.

The nonprofit Honor Flight Network program, founded in 2005, raises money to fund trips for war veterans so that they may live their dream of seeing their D.C. memorial.

Penry launches, then abandons guv race

State Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, stunned supporters in early November when he abandoned his gubernatorial bid.

The move came a few months after Penry declared his candidacy for the state's top post before hundreds of people at a July rally in front of the old Mesa County Courthouse in Grand Junction.

Penry, who at the time cited personal and financial reasons for pulling out, could run for re-election to his Senate seat. Penry has not yet disclosed his plans but is reportedly close.

Meanwhile, his mentor, former Rep. Scott McInnis, looks to be the GOP frontrunner in the Colorado governor's race.

Investment scheme

A federal grand jury indicted three people Dec. 15 for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from local investors during the past few years.

Philip R. Lochmiller, Philip R. Lochmiller II and Shawnee Carver were indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with the failure of Valley Investments. All three face decades in prison if convicted as charged.

The Lochmillers owned and operated the business, which was based in Grand Junction. Carver is a former employee.

Alleged GJ murder

Sahr Benjamin Mbawa, 27, turned himself in Nov. 6 a few days after he allegedly killed a man during a fight outside a bar in downtown Grand Junction.

The victim, Richard Martinez, 32, of Grand Junction, died of injuries he suffered in the fight that happened in early morning hours of Nov. 3.

Mbawa, a former bouncer and grocery store worker, is being held at Mesa County jail.

Grocery labor negotiations

Drawn out labor negotiations ended in mid-December when most union grocery store workers in Grand Junction voted to accept a multi-year contract offer from two supermarket chains.

Local unionized workers from City Market accepted the offer, as did retail clerks from Safeway.

Local Safeway meat workers could not muster a majority as their vote ended in a tie, leaving a status uncertain. The outcome was also split for Safeway workers in other areas of the state.

Homeless rally

With a booming cry of "No more deaths" scores of homeless people and supporters stood united in their call for a change in conditions during an unprecedented assembly in July at Whitman Park in Grand Junction.

The meeting was sparked, in part, by the deaths of more than a dozen homeless people in winter 2008-09. The event served to address several issues, including a shortage of beds in the area and lack of quality health care.

Unemployment rate skyrockets

Steep job losses in the oil and gas industry helped push the unemployment rate in Mesa County to eye-popping levels in 2009.

The region had the highest jobless rate in the state for most of the year, including a period of six straight months from June through November. At one point, in July, the jobless rate measured 9.1 percent, or more than double that of July 2008, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported.

The jobless rate has since eased with a reading of 8.2 percent in November. That was down from 8.4 percent in October.

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The Post Independent Updated Jan 4, 2010 06:39PM Published Dec 29, 2009 10:40PM Copyright 2009 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.