A look back at the biggest stories to hit the Citizen Telegram

The Citizen Telegram had some major stories land on its pages in 2021. Throughout the course of this year, local communities endured a heavy mix of ups and downs. Stories ranged from improving infrastructure, maintaining commerce and institutions to the downfalls caused by COVID-19.

Here are the top five stories for Western Garfield County’s newspaper.

Colorado River Fire Rescue district extinguishes possible financial collapse

One would think keeping structures, properties and forest land free from combustion would take top priority for any community situated among the vulnerable landscape of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Well, it does.

But in the case of the Colorado River Fire Rescue — a district that covers an 851-square-mile area between Rifle, Silt and New Castle — the voters took a little bit longer to support a desperate need to increase CRFR funding.

Financially suffering after insidious declines in Garfield County’s natural gas revenue affected its bottom line, CRFR officials initially proposed establishing a mill levy in 2020, but voters shot it down by a 53.41% margin.

Colorado River Fire Rescue Chief Leif Sackett leads the stair climb inside the training tower to commemorate the 343 firefighters who lost their lives during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The bleak reality of possibly having to close its doors triggered some seemingly counterproductive actions taken by CRFR officials.

To remain financially afloat, the tail end of 2020 saw the district close one of its stations, while longtime chief Randy Callahan was ceremonially serenaded in bagpipe riffs as he called an early retirement.

Adding more fuel to the fire, CRFR officials spent the majority of 2021 selling off equipment and critical apparatus like fire engines to shore up any financial shortfalls. Perhaps the most devastating news came when new chief Leif Sackett told the Post Independent district response times would likely increase if voters didn’t act fast.

To close out 2021, that’s exactly what they did.

In November, district voters passed, by a 68.64% margin, a ballot measure to increase property taxes by 3 mills. The added funding source means CRFR can now start to replenish its budget by nearly $3 million.

COVID-19 precautions prompt mask mandates, school board member resigns

Trying to balance a safe, in-person learning environment with periodic quarantines of staff and students was by far Garfield School District Re-2’s No. 1 challenge in 2021.

In September, the western Garfield County school district that oversees approximately 4,700 students in its two high, two middle and six elementary schools saw a record 191 student and 16 staff quarantines. Such significant numbers prompted school district officials and leaders to implement a mandatory mask rule by late September.

Since then, the school district has experienced a sharp decline in COVID-19 infections and quarantines. On Dec. 16 — the most recent date with data confirmed on the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard — quarantines were down to 34 students and five staff.

But while Garfield Re-2 has remained one of 17% of Colorado school districts to sustain in-person learning, the mask mandate spurred staunch opposition by some disgruntled district voters and parents. Using the allotted public comment portion of Garfield Re-2 school board meetings, speakers’ concerns over the mandate ranged anywhere from supposedly infringing upon personal liberties to veiling student expression.

Garfield Re-2 School Board member Katie Mackley announces her resignation in October.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Protests underscored by American flags and picket signs also became a common sight outside the district’s administration building.

But perhaps most noteworthy to come from these trying times was the unanticipated resignation of Garfield Re-2 school board member Katie Mackley on Oct. 13.

The reason? Harassment.

“In the past few weeks, we have been met with screaming at school board meetings, threats to our personal safety, we have been repeatedly maligned and misrepresented on social media and have been stalked in public,” Mackley said upon making her announcement in October.

New mental health institution emerges to bridge divides

Issues with accessibility and affordability have stunted the reach of mental health services offered throughout Colorado. This is why the grand opening of a new holistic healing center in Rifle turned out to be one of 2021’s critical moments in Garfield County.

Though wrought with infections, Garfield County’s battle with COVID-19 exacerbated an already huge economic disparity between rich and poor. Not only did the pandemic single-handedly cause increases in food insecurity, substance use and homelessness, it created ancillary breeding grounds for mental health challenges.

Discovery Cafe Executive Director Gabe Cohen offers feedback to a member at a recovery circle meeting at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle Campus.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Fighting back is Gabe Cohen, executive director of Discovery Cafe. At Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, Cohen uses personal experiences with incarceration, homelessness and addiction to console and assist disenfranchised individuals — free of charge.

With the assistance of fellow peer support specialists, Cohen and the cafe offer a vast array of services geared toward human betterment and transformation. This includes therapy sessions, educational advancement courses and exposure to potential employment opportunities and more.

Downtown constructive criticism

Earlier this year, Rifle City Council finalized a contract to improve infrastructure and increase curb appeal in its downtown area. And after approving a $3.8 million expenditure with KSK Construction, crews began tearing up Third Street and Railroad Avenue until the place was completely unrecognizable.

At that point, commerce was already hurting from the negative impacts of COVID-19. Many businesses in the downtown area lost substantial revenue due to safety precautions like social distancing and a subsequent lack of foot traffic.

A carriage makes its way through downtown Rifle during Hometown Holiday on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

So when construction began, downtown storefronts had to once again hunker down and endure another extended period compounded with less foot traffic and further drops in revenue. The city, swiftly trying to replenish commerce, dished out more than $150,000 in subsidies to any businesses affected by construction.

Meanwhile, many Rifle residents, and anyone who travels through Rifle on a regular basis, grew weary of congested traffic conditions caused by the sectional closure of Railroad Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Residential streets turned into alternative, bumper-to-bumper nightmares. Matters grew worse when multiple delays ensued in completing the project.

Despite all the hardships, this year-long project underscored the perseverance of the Rifle community.

Now that construction has ended, downtown is revitalized. It has that extra spark needed to amplify commerce, highlight its great, unrelenting businesses and potentially attract prospective businesses to the area.

New wing, new living center

Grand River Health and the Rifle community welcomed two new major amenities in 2021 — and credit is due to local voters.

In 2017, district voters passed an $89.4 million bond issue to support a new expansion wing at Grand River Health, as well as a new living center.

And by January 2021, the new Grand River Center opened its doors. This state-of-the-art living center designed by Davis Partnership Architects, the same architectural firm that designs sleek hotels in Denver, offers senior residents a domain that takes it to a whole new level.

The center is made up of five separate “neighborhoods” equipped with community dining areas and kitchens. At the center’s town square, residents can enjoy beverages and grab-and-go food items at a cafe, get their hair done at the salon and do physical therapy at the center’s in-house gym.

Grand River Care Center Administrator Chavien Paget said each resident gets their own personal bathroom.

“It makes it feel a lot less like a traditional nursing home and a lot more like a stay away from home,” Paget said. “It’s almost like going to a resort.”

People tour the new expansion of the Grand River Health hospital.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Then, in June, the new Grand River Hospital patient wing also opened its doors. This three-floor wing added more beds to the hospital and expanded its infusion center.

Grand River registered nurse Amber Hill emphasized the importance of the new expansion.

“It’s huge, because now we will be able to have chemo patients come and get their care here and be able to do average chemo from here and do antibiotic fluids, a whole bunch of just any type of infusions that they need to help them get better,” Hill said. “This way we’re able to help immensely.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.