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By Dan Rudy 

2015: The Year in Review

 

Sentinel file photo

On Aug. 4, more than 90 people urge protection of the Stikine River during a march down Front Street. The event marked the first anniversary of the Mt. Polley mining spill, when a tailings dam failure released 13.8 million cubic yards of contaminated effluent into surrounding river systems. The march was accompanied by presentations on mining projects upstream in British Columbia, the latest of which is Red Chris near the Stikine's Iskut tributary.

The year 2015 was largely a good one for Wrangell, with the appearance of several new businesses, large infrastructural developments undertaken by businesses, the formal opening of the Tribe's cultural center, and a balanced financial outlook for the city despite tumultuous budget negotiations in Juneau. The state deficit will remain the largest issue moving ahead into 2016, as will continued mining developments in Canada along shared waters.

January

On Jan. 12 and 14 the first of three sets of public input discussions were held at the Nolan Center for the waterfront master plan. Subsequent sessions in February and April hammered out what residents wanted to see developed along downtown's waterfront, a multitiered plan to eventually add extra fill near the Nolan Center and shipyard, a new pier, beach access and an elevated boardwalk bypassing the barge yard to the city dock. The ambitious project wouldn't happen soon, nor would it be cheap: The four phases envisioned were estimated at $14.7 million in all.

Wrangell's Public School Board initiated its partnership with University of Alaska Southeast in providing online tech prep courses for high school students. Counting toward college credit, the courses would be heavily subsidized by UAS, with students only having to pay $25 per credit in fees. The board would in March approve a memorandum of understanding with the university, allowing UAS to set up a tech prep office at the high school.

Wrangell Medical Center and AICS welcomed Foraker Group head Dennis McMillian to a site visit, ahead of predevelopment work for a future hospital facility. A public presentation held later on in April made the case for a new facility, though progress on the hospital's application for Foraker's planning and financing assistance lost traction amid state budget concerns. By late December, WMC still awaited word whether the Anchorage-based nonprofit would be taking on the project.

The Assembly approved designs for renovating the harbor facilities at Shoemaker Bay, a $10.7 million project that would replace its aging floats and dredging its north end. Under a plan submitted to the Alaska Department of Transportation for project funding, Wrangell would put up $5.7 million in match funding from a combination of harbor savings and bond sales.

On Jan. 30 a review panel ruled the Aug. 4, 2014 tailings breach at the Mt. Polley mine in British Columbia was caused by foundation failure, further finding no evidence of failed oversight. The mine's failure and the Canadian province's subsequent handling of the ensuing disaster would weigh heavily on environmentalists' agenda throughout the year, as the sizable Red Chris copper/gold mine began production in the spring and summer; the mine is located 11 miles from a tributary of the Stikine River, Wrangell's primary source of salmon.

February

The local Indian Environmental General Assistance Program office concluded its elder property cleanup program, started in October. More than 60 households were assisted with the removal of junk and garbage for proper disposal, one of the problem areas identified by the community in a series of listening sessions the previous year.

Alaska Island Community Services dental clinic reopened at a new location inside the Grand Building on Front Street.

Wrangell Public School District held a charette at the Stikine Inn Feb. 17, with staff and parents meeting to chart out priorities in the areas of academics, safety, post-graduate opportunities and technology.

At the Chamber of Commerce annual awards dinner, Business of the Year went to Superior Marine Services. Barb Neyman was named Wrangell's Citizen of the Year for her commitments to local youth, and the Chamber's Members Appreciation award went to Breakaway Adventures.

March

The first crafting classes were held at the Wrangell Cooperative Association's new cultural center, which was finished the previous October. Jeremiah James of Yakutat Furs walked participants through the different steps of stretching and sewing sea otter pelts.

A short video put together by Inside Passage Waterkeeper featuring footage of the Stikine River was shown at the Nolan Center. Focusing on the impact the river has on residents' lives, "Water is Life: The Stikine River" highlighted the importance of clean water amid concerns from the region's environmentalists, fishermen and tourism industry about Canadian mining projects upstream.

The Wrangell boys high school basketball team took second place at Region V, going on to take fourth place at State in Anchorage. The Lady Wolves finished their season in third place for the region.

Port commissioners opted not to pursue rate increases for workspace at the marine service center, following criticisms from local contractors that the 50-percent increases could adversely affect business. The proposed increase would have raised work and storage space fees from 50 cents per square foot to 75 cents.

Planning and Zoning and the Assembly each approved a proposal by Southeast Properties to acquire tidal lands adjacent to the Stikine Inn for its eventual expansion. The project would add another 30 rooms to the hotel, as well as more parking space and spots for dockside storefronts.

Wrangell firefighters raised $4,700 for leukemia research, as part of the annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb in Seattle. Three local firefighters participated in the 69-flight charity climb, assisted by Chief Tim Buness.

In light of state-level fiscal concerns, the Assembly held a joint session with city staff and departments to prepare the FY2016 budget. A draft budget presented in mid-April took state cuts to jail and school funding into account as legislators tussled with the governor's office over how best to reduce a $3.5 billion spending deficit, focusing on system wide cuts to state agencies and capital project budgets. Of particular concern to residents were proposed reductions to the ferry system's funding and operating schedule, as well as the cutting of Wrangell's Alaska Wildlife Trooper position. Final cuts were not so bad as first feared, and in September the community learned the Trooper position would be refilled.

April

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources approved transfer of 9,006 acres of rural, largely undeveloped entitlement lands to the Borough. Parcels being conveyed include those at St. Johns Harbor, Mill Creek, Sunny Bay, Thoms Place, Earl West and other areas on and around Wrangell Island.

The Garnet Grit Betties – Wrangell's roller derby team – hosted its second home bout of the season and first of the calendar year on April 4. The Betties' round-robin victories and a win in Petersburg later in the month would put it well on its feet heading to the state finals in its first full season.

Wrangell High School hosted the Southeast Alaska Regional Artfest, a four-day event drawing the top 75 art students from around the region and their teachers for classes, cultural exchange and competition.

WCA's IGAP office undertook a metals and contaminant survey of area shellfish, pulling samples from beaches near Shoemaker Bay and the mill site. Lab results released in August found specimens to be all right to eat, with a low-to-negligible presence of contaminants.

Wrangell High School's music students earned three "superior" ratings from adjudicators at Southeast Music Fest in Juneau, a rare distinction. Wrangell's jazz band also earned one superior ranking for its performance.

May

The School Board opted not to renew its meal contract with NANA Development Corporation, estimating that a service of its own would save the district $70,000. A stone-soup approach to breakfast and lunch at Wrangell schools was devised by staff, and aimed to keep simple meals available to students who relied on the program.

The Wrangell Museum reopened after a two-month closure for cataloguing and reorganization. New cataloguing software was adopted for the museum's collection, and rotating exhibits featuring the works of local artists would be a new feature.

Wrangell High School graduated 22 seniors in the Class of 2015. The graduates were together offered a potential $354,000 in scholarships, of which $143,384 were accepted by outgoing students.

After secondary schools principal Colter Barnes announced he would not be seeking a second year in the position, Wrangell Public Schools hired Kendall Benson, previously of Cedar Middle School in Iron County, Utah.

After months of closure for repairs, the public pool reopened on May 20. Leaks and mechanical woes had kept the facility unusable, and repairs saw numerous delays. A big party both welcomed back area swimmers and thanked them for their forbearance.

The WMC Foundation raised $32,000 for its cancer care program during the eighth annual Brian Gilbert Memorial Tournament. Thirty-nine golfers took part in the tournament, which was followed by a prime rib dinner and auction afterward. A second cancer care tournament in August would raise an additional $6,400 for the travel assistance program.

June

Dry conditions prompted the City of Wrangell to issue water conservation measures. Water levels at the upper reservoir dropped by a foot and the lower by four feet, after one of the driest Mays on record.

Chad Smith won Wrangell's 63rd King Salmon Derby with a 42.7-pound fish caught over the Memorial Day weekend. The prize salmon netted its captor $8,500 in winnings, and the month-long tournament drew over 900 anglers.

Local writer Vivian Prescott received an $18,000 literary fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation. Currently of Sitka, the published poet would use the fellowship to research and complete a new manuscript.

The New Old Time Chautauqua entertained residents in a packed Nolan Center on June 26, capping off the traveling troupe's three-day visit during a wider tour of Southeast Alaska. The vaudevillian group of performers not only sang, juggled and joked, but also undertook a variety of educational workshops and conducted a community service project.

July

Kimberly Cooper was crowned Queen at this year's July Fourth celebration, after selling 51,920 tickets through the month of June. Leslie Cummings won first prize for her float, which judges felt best captured the parade's "Hometown Heroes" theme.

Former Wrangell physician Greg Salard was found guilty of two counts of possessing and distributing child pornography. The doctor was arrested by federal agents at his home in October 2014, and after numerous delays went to trial July 20. Ahead of his sentencing, Salard has applied for a new trial. If convicted he could face up to 40 years in prison.

August

At the start of the month WMC contracted out its billing services to TruBridge, a firm based in Alabama. The move was expected to boost the hospital's cash flow by speeding up process times and reducing more than $4 million in accounts receivable, in exchange for a four-percent commission on transactions processed. In addition to the new billing services, Wrangell's Assembly also approved a $500,000 emergency reserve fund for the hospital's use, if needed.

The hospital's board of trustees also approved the hire of Robert Rang of Kodiak as WMC's new chief executive. Interim CEO Marla Sanger announced she would be stepping down in October after three years' service with the hospital.

Former head librarian Kay Jabusch was appointed to Gov. Bill Walker's library advisory council. She will serve on the 12-person council through the end of 2016, and help coordinate a five-year plan to implement the Library Services and Technology Act.

A poor showing by pink salmon prompted Trident Seafoods to wind down its season early. Little more than a third of 58 million fish projected were harvested by mid-month, and processing was further hampered by low prices.

After a delayed start, Rainforest Islands Ferry began making runs between Wrangell, Prince of Wales and Mitkof islands. The low-cost service was envisioned as an alternative to chartering for inter-island travel.

September

An unfortunate kayaker was briefly marooned in Berg Bay after a juvenile brown bear attacked her craft during a lunch break. Mary Maley of Ketchikan was unharmed, if jangled by the experience. A video posted to YouTube went viral overnight, in all garnering 4.4 million views.

After taking third at Region V, Wrangell High School's girls cross-country team headed to State in Anchorage, where it took 11th place overall for 123A. For the boys team, runner Bryce Gerald came in eighth place.

October

Wrangell voters passed two ballot measures and reelected eight incumbents during municipal elections. A proposal to exempt citywide office holders from state financial disclosure rules narrowly passed. Overall, turnout was 23 percent, slightly higher than the previous year.

The 100th annual ANB/ANS Grand Camp was held in Wrangell, with 71 camp delegates from around Alaska, Washington and Oregon in attendance. Emphasizing a need to engage Native youth, the organizations also recognized the autonomy of Alaska Native Sisterhood as a partner organization. The group formally retired its auxiliary banner as a result.

The 2015 moose season was the third best on record, with 103 bulls logged. Despite the high numbers the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had been concerned about the number of noncompliant moose being shot, which at 13 had risen to the highest proportion in 22 years.

November

Wrangell's DoT Tier I application for funding Shoemaker Bay harbor float replacements ranked second among state projects, the Assembly and Port Commission learned. Unfortunately, under the governor's proposed budget the program will not receive enough funding to proceed. The city is lobbying the Legislature to raise capital budgets by another $1.6 million to allow the project to be funded.

Tlingit clans welcomed back the return of the Xixch'i S'aaxw Frog Hat from the Oakland Museum of California. Acquired by a private collector in the early 20th century, the article passed to the museum in 1959 and was repatriated last year. The hat will be kept with other pieces of regalia at the Wrangell Museum.

Showing a reversal of fortunes from the previous year, WMC reported its reserve fund briefly passed the million-dollar mark, equivalent to 36 days operating expenses. In November 2014 the CEO had informed Wrangell's Assembly the hospital's funds had fallen to around $125,000, which was not enough even to cover its payroll.

December

The Assembly approved assessment and feasibility studies for developing the Silver Bay mill and Institute sites, which it hopes could be repurposed respectively into industrial and residential uses. Costs of the studies are covered by legislative allotments.

submitted by Vincent Balansag

Trent Stokes leaps for a shot during Wednesday's junior varsity game against Craig in Wrangell during the weekend of Feb. 7.

Final plans for a new mariners memorial to be located at Heritage Harbor were approved by the Port Commission. The $332,000 project would feature an open plaza overlooking the breakwater, with a memorial wall and pavilion. Plans in hand, a steering committee is being organized to spearhead fundraising for the long-sought memorial.

A rebate of $340,000 was approved by Southeast Alaska Power Agency to go to Wrangell's utilities. The funds will go toward badly-needed infrastructure projects identified in a systems study this June, among which include new transmission poles and backup generation capacity.

The Wrangell Wolves wrestling team took 10th place at State, out of 65 schools competing. Two of its wrestlers took top placements in the tournament; Chet Armstrong placed second for his bracket, and Jonathon Barratt earned third place for his.

Castle Mountain Theater turned ten years old. The weekend community movie theater program has been run out of the Nolan Center since its inception, and brought the silver screen back to the island for the first time since 1976.

 

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