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Downtown Watertown renaissance tops list of best local stories of 2013

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Downtown Watertown’s comeback. The continuing saga in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. The governor stepping in to save the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. The controversial zoning change that caused an uproar among Watertown residents.

These are some of the stories that made headlines and had people talking in the north country in 2013. Some of the news was good; some wasn’t. And some will change the region forever.

The year’s other top stories include a contentious district attorney’s race in St. Lawrence County, a change in the wind-farm issue in the river communities, and the question of whether the Pamelia supervisor actually lived in the town he served.

There also was a plan to move Lewis County offices into a bowling alley, as well as students in the north country complaining about the nation’s new cafeteria lunch program. And there was a dramatic increase in heroin use, with arrests seemingly happening every day.

Today we look at the top 10 stories that rocked the north country in 2013. The list, put together by Times editors and reporters, ranks the stories in order of importance.

1. Downtown development

The redevelopment of the Woolworth Building on Public Square, and Mercy Hospital a few blocks away, will change downtown forever. Without a pair of out-of-town developers stepping in, those two crucial properties could have sat vacant and become a problem for the city for decades.

Developers David J. Gallo and Erich H. Seber took over ownership of the Woolworth Building in November and immediately began work on restoring the landmark into ground-floor commercial space and upper-floor apartments.

COR Development, Fayetteville, soon will start demolishing the series of Mercy Hospital structures and turn the mammoth site into mixed-use space with commercial, office and rental housing.

The two projects are spurring a downtown building boom. A half-dozen other projects — including rehabilitating the Solar Building on Franklin Street, a mini-mall under the Stream Global Services call center on Arsenal Street, and the Lincoln Building on Public Square — are in the planning stages or are underway.

2. Saving the Psych Center

After months of an unknown fate, the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, Ogdensburg, will become the Children’s Behavioral Health Center of Excellence of the North Country. That change comes in the wake of a Dec. 19 announcement by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose decision came after months of activism by local residents, business leaders and politicians to see services expanded at the center.

Earlier in the year, the state Office of Mental Health proposed closing the center and moving inpatients to facilities in Syracuse and Utica. The new plan will see a reduction of the adult inpatient facility from 65 to 40 beds, the addition of 50 outpatient adult beds in the community, and an emphasis on child mental-health care.

3. The roommate law

Perhaps no story caused more talk in Watertown than the so-called roommate law, which was passed by the Watertown City Council in February. The law involved regulating rooming and boarding houses in Residential A districts.

It became a public-relations nightmare when dozens of residents showed up at council meetings, bringing accusations that city officials were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements. The issue turned into a subject of social media criticism from as far away as California, eliciting a scathing Twitter comment from comedian and game-show host Drew Carey.

The law remains in effect, although some people still believe the entire issue could have been avoided and never should have come up for a vote.

4. Sheriff’s Department scandals

Following several allegations of misconduct within his department — accusations that culminated in a December 2012 incident involving a deputy suspected of drunken driving — Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns began to come under repeated fire from the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, which sought an external investigation into his handling of the incident.

After the state attorney general’s office issued a report advising the Sheriff’s Department to institute policies for handling misconduct and regular employee evaluations, the issue went underground for the summer until another lawsuit and arrest brought it to the fore again. Charges, lawsuits and investigations are pending against several members of the department, including former Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff.

Sheriff Burns repeatedly has said he doesn’t plan to run again in November and intends to move to Florida.

5. District attorney voted out

After eight years as St. Lawrence County district attorney, Nicole M. Duve failed to make a good case to voters to keep her in office. She was defeated by Republican challenger Mary E. Rain, who ran an aggressive campaign that kept Ms. Duve on the defensive about her record and the disorganization in her office.

Ms. Rain nearly captured the Democratic stronghold of Massena, won in Ogdensburg, and won the majority of small towns across the county on her way to victory.

6. BP bowing out of wind

Since 2005, the wedge between the Cape Vincent Wind Farm’s supporters and opponents has deepened by the day — turning neighbors into enemies and a sleepy Town Council into an arena for contentious political battles.

Yet the mounting animosity may be for naught as the 124-turbine project is in limbo, with New York state recently warning the developer that its yearlong pre-application process may be facing a reboot.

BP Wind Energy, which is trying to offload all of its “in-development” ventures, has until March 17 to sell the 285-megawatt project proposed in the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence riverfront town.

7. Longway residency controversy

Questions arose as to whether Pamelia Supervisor Lawrence C. Longway actually lived in the town he serves. Mr. Longway filed papers in 2010 establishing himself as a legal resident of Florida, where he owns a house in Hillsborough County. The Jefferson County Board of Elections, which investigated the matter, ruled Mr. Longway qualifies as a voting resident in New York and is eligible to remain supervisor, even though he claims a commercial building he owns in Pamelia as his home address.

Mr. Longway double-dipped on housing tax exemptions from 2005 to 2010 in New York and Florida. To absolve himself of that problem, Mr. Longway repaid $3,539.62 to the state Department of Taxation and Finance for tax savings he received during the five years he had a STAR tax exemption, along with a Homestead Exemption for his Tampa-area residence.

He easily won re-election in November.

8. Lewis County offices fiasco

More than four years after the Lewis County Board of Legislators began promoting a new county office building and almost $1 million was spent to design it, the board in September failed to gain a majority to approve the project.

Two months later, a surprise proposal to purchase Lewis Lanes — a Lowville bowling alley — and convert it to office space passed less than a week after the property was offered for sale. That decision was rescinded after two legislators had buyer’s remorse for the hasty purchase. A lawsuit has been filed by the bowling alley’s owners, and the county still faces the dilemma about office space.

9. School lunches unpopular

With school district lunch programs throughout the north country experiencing more financial losses since the 2012-13 school year, fewer students purchased lunches because of new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines about calories, grains and protein to help improve nutrition and hunger safety.

As part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which wasn’t implemented until the 2012-13 academic year, guidelines stipulated that districts comply with new requirements, which forced them to make menu changes incorporating healthier options. Area schools reported students throwing away unused food, which districts had to put on trays anyway if the districts wanted to be reimbursed for the meal.

More changes are expected throughout the current school year, as additional modifications for school lunch and breakfast programs will be implemented.

10. Heroin epidemic

Heroin, a drug often associated with the late 1970s, became a buzz word nationally in the summer and fall of 2013 as newspaper accounts nationwide showed it making a comeback in small towns and rural areas. Arrest reports and court records, along with data from the Jefferson County Public Health Service and medical examiner’s office, indicated this trend also was playing out in Jefferson County.

After interviews with former addicts, police officers, clergy, judges and family of those affected, it became increasingly apparent that the drug had gained a foothold in the north country, aided by high demand and low prices. The trend continued through the end of the year, with recent reports showing the Metro-Jefferson Drug Task Force on track to handle the largest load of heroin-related cases since it began recording that type of data in 2008.



Honorable Mention

n On parents’ weekend, an early morning fire Oct. 6 destroyed the steeple and damaged the roof at Gunnison Memorial Chapel at St. Lawrence University in Canton. SLU plans to rebuild the iconic structure.

n Bobbie Jo Zeller, 37, of 72 W. Main St., Norfolk, was accused of scamming a priest and members of his parish out of more than $300,000. A judge dismissed three of the eight charges against her; she faces trial on the other five.

n Long-term restructuring in the Army led to the planned deactivation of the heavily deployed 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum, a move that will mean the loss of 1,800 soldiers locally.



Do you agree with our list of the top local stories for 2013? If not, check out our Facebook page today at www.facebook.com/wdtnews and tell us what you think should be on the list.







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