FIRED UP: The Daily Journal’s top 10 news stories of 2021

1) 7,000 refugees made their home at Atterbury

As U.S. military prepared to leave Afghanistan after two decades, the country fell into chaos as the Taliban advanced. Tens of thousands of Afghan people who had assisted in the war effort fled the country. Operation Allies Welcome was initiated, designed to evacuate those who were vulnerable or in danger from the Taliban, and bring those refugees to new lives in the United States. On Sept. 3, the first of those refugees arrived at Camp Atterbury in southern Johnson County. In response to the overwhelming needs of the refugees as they started their new lives, numerous local businesses, churches and organizations stepped up to provide aid. Clothing, hygiene items, diapers, shoes and a myriad of other donations flooded in. Team Rubicon, a veteran-led organization, was tapped to help resettle the refugees, including those being housed temporarily at Atterbury. In Indiana, about 500 volunteers are registered to give back, and about 30 volunteers a day help collect and sort donations for refugees at the southern Johnson County base. Volunteers take donations seven days a week at the Johnson County Park Amphitheater, then sort and repackage them at a nearby warehouse to distribute at the base. Though the effort is ongoing, the Department of Homeland Security expected all of the refugees at Atterbury to have moved onto the resettlement phase by the start of the new year.

2) New COVID-19 variant brought us full circle

Despite three COVID-19 vaccines being made available to the public, more people died from the virus this year than in 2020. More than 431,000 people died this year in the United States, compared to 385,000 in 2020. Overall, about 816,700 people died in the United States, and about 18,700 died in Indiana from COVID-19. Among those deaths were 500 Johnson County residents. Once vaccines were available to all Hoosiers, Gov. Eric Holcomb fully reopened the state and has not looked back, including during a summer surge when the delta variant caused hospitalizations to reach highs not seen since early this year. Vaccines were a focus for state and local public health officials all year long, and will continue to be into the new year. Across the country, 203.6 million — 61.8% of people — are fully vaccinated. In Indiana, 3.4 million — 54.5% — are fully vaccinated. In Johnson County, 89,400 people — about 60% — are fully vaccinated. The state is in the midst of another surge, this one caused by the omicron variant, which is even more contagious than the delta variant. The first case of the variant was discovered in Indiana in early December, and is expected to become the dominant strain. Newly released data suggests getting vaccinated with two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in no longer enough, and that the new variant can more easily infect the vaccinated. Now, public health professionals are encouraging all eligible people to get a booster shot. Two doses are about 35% effective at preventing an infection, while three doses are about 80% effective, recent studies show.

3) Parents gave passionate pleas at school board meetings

School board meetings are typically cordial, quiet affairs, but that all changed this year. School board meetings became breeding grounds for contentious debates about whether to mask up, which sprung from Holcomb’s decision to leave mask requirements up to individual school districts after a universal mask mandate for Indiana schools expired this summer. With those decisions left to school boards, local meetings became a forum for disgruntled parents to express their frustrations. During the same period, a new topic emerged: Critical Race Theory. Parents flocked to meetings, claiming the theory was being practiced in grade schools, and was making white students feel guilty due to their skin color. The theory originated in legal scholarship and spread to other fields of study. It assesses the role race and institutionalized racism play in putting minority group members at a disadvantage in society, according to the American Bar Association. It is often taught in law schools, not in kindergarten through 12th grades. School board meetings that were typically less than an hour turned into three-hour long events with more than two hours of public comment. On one night in August, parents gathered in droves at Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood school board meetings, two districts that had enacted mask mandates in the days prior. The chaos came to a crescendo in September, when Center Grove police called Johnson County sheriff’s deputies to a meeting where parents refused to wear masks despite a district-wide mandate.

4) Census highlighted county’s expansive growth

Johnson County grew by leaps and bounds over the last decade, the 2020 Census showed. Early data released in August revealed the county’s population increased by 15.8% since 2010, climbing to 161,765 residents last year. Bargersville was one of the county and state’s fastest growing towns, with a whopping 138% population increase. The town’s population was 9,560 last year — more than double what it was 10 years prior. Greenwood, the county’s largest city, also saw substantial growth, increasing by 28% to 63,830. Franklin’s population increased by 6.7%, to 25,313, and New Whiteland’s population is now 5,550, up 1.4% from 2010, according to census data. Trafalgar’s population increased by 29.2%, to 1,422. Whiteland’s population increased by 10.3%, to 4,599, and Prince’s Lakes’ population increased by 4.6% to 1,372. Edinburgh’s population was the only in the county to decline, falling by more than 1% to 4,435, data showed. The northern third of the county now represents about three-fourths of the county’s population. Township-wise, White River grew 24.8% to 52,365, and Pleasant grew 17.2% to 62,086. Clark Township grew by 17.4% to 2,887, Needham by 16.3% to 7,573, Hensley by 13.3% to 3,771, Union by 5.3% to 2,831, Nineveh by 5% to 4,185 and Franklin by 2.6% to 21,330. Blue River Township, like the town of Edinburgh that is located in it, lost population. Blue River’s population dropped a little more than 2% to 4,837, data shows. Indiana’s population increased 4.7% to 6,785,528, and the U.S. population increased to 331,449,281, up 7.4% since 2010 — the lowest rate since the 1930s.

5) Downtown developments took center stage

The county’s most populous city set the stage for more growth this year. Greenwood approved plans for new commercial, housing and warehouse developments throughout the year. Plans were put in motion on the $83 million redevelopment of the former middle school property, dubbed The Madison. When The Madison is completed sometime in 2023, 300 market-rate apartments, more than 15 condos and more than 40 townhomes, along with 18,000 square feet of office and retail space, will be near the heart of downtown Greenwood. The city also announced plans for a roughly $10 million, 40-acre sports complex near the Interstate 65 and Worthsville Road interchange. The complex will include four softball diamonds, four baseball diamonds, a multi-use playing field and the city’s second splash pad. In Franklin, a housing boom is underway. In January, local developer The Bemis Group announced its plans to build an $11 million mixed-use development to include 10,000 square feet of retail space, a private, underground parking garage, 14 condos and 10 townhomes starting at $450,000 to downtown Franklin. Construction started in October and is expected to be ready for occupancy by the end of next year. Other housing developments approved this year will bring 1,100 additional homes to Franklin in the coming years. Proposals approved this year include: 125 lots in the Westwind at Cumberland subdivision on Westview Drive; 387 lots in the the Bluffs at Youngs Creek subdivision on Nineveh Road; 240 lots in the Kingsbridge subdivision off of U.S. 31; 66 lots in Homesteads at Hillview at the Hillview Country Club; and 322 lots at The Highlands on Hurricane Road. The homes will come from several different builders and offer a variety of starting prices, ranging from $200,000 to $325,000.

6) Long-needed jail expansion came to fruition

Decades of overcrowding at the Johnson County jail is history. A $23.1 million project to add 264 additional beds, a new intake area, an expanded medical center and more was completed in October. For years, county officials and multiple sheriffs grappled with how to address chronic overcrowding at the jail, built in 1977. As the county’s population increased, so did crime. The county had to renovate and restructure parts of the jail in response to a 1997 federal lawsuit. After the lawsuit, the jail was remodeled and a new wing was added that raised the jail’s capacity to 299 from 104 in 2002. But the population swelled further. More beds were added in 2012, after an inspector with the Indiana Department of Correction found room for 23 more bunks at the request of Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess, who was jail commander at the time, and then-sheriff Doug Cox. Still, the 322-bed facility was often crowded with as many as 459 people incarcerated. In 2018, the state forced the county to take action. The jail’s new capacity of 586 beds will support the county’s average inmate population, and leaves room for more as the county’s population continues to grow. The new beds are in a new wing west of the existing jail, connected by a walkway. The addition includes about 74 additional cells across two floors. A new central command center overlooks the new cell blocks and inmate recreation area. The command center has a raised 360-degree view of the new block, whereas the old command center has several visual barriers. Also in the new wing is a breakroom for jail officers, several office spaces, padded cells and space for classes and support groups. Multiple renovation projects were also completed in the old wing. The expansion, including additional staff, is being paid for with a 20-year tax increase approved in June 2019.

7) Battle over county’s I-65 TIF lasted months

Johnson County leaders joined local cities and towns in the practice of establishing tax increment financing (TIF) districts at Interstates 69 and 65 this year. The I-69 TIF passed with support from the town of Bargersville, but the I-65 TIF was delayed for more than nine months due to pushback from Franklin, Greenwood and Whiteland officials. Members of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners and Redevelopment Commission were in negotiations with the cities and towns nearly all year after leaders took issue with the initial boundaries of the expansive district. The district started out ambitiously, covering all of Clark Township and portions of Franklin, Needham and Pleasant townships. City and town leaders initiated conversations to draw back the boundaries to accommodate future growth in their communities. After months of talks with the mayors of Franklin and Greenwood, the district shrunk in a way that allows both cities’ plans for growth to continue. The map still includes all unannexed parcels around Whiteland, and everything east of the I-65 and Whiteland Road interchange. Whiteland leaders now have little land to develop outside its current town limits and are hemmed in to the east by the TIF district, and to the south by the TIF district and Franklin city limits. The redevelopment commission created the districts to collect revenue to improve infrastructure around the two interstates. The commission has the power to create and fix roads, buildings, parks, trails and utility infrastructure within the established TIF areas, using revenue generated within that area. It is hoped to help the county spur additional development in the high-potential growth areas around both major interstates.

8) Hackers caused chaos at Johnson Memorial

Johnson Memorial Health’s computer system was hacked at 10:31 p.m. Oct. 1. By 10:33 p.m., an undisclosed hacking group had gained access to the system and installed ransomware. The hospital’s information technology team shut out the hackers within 15 minutes, but were not sure what data may have been taken. The hospital reverted to paper records, forwarded calls to cell phones, was not able to send bills to patients and went on diversion for more than a month due to the attack. The hospital has returned to mostly normal operations, but hospital officials are still unable to disclose whether a ransom has been paid, how much was requested and what patient data, if any, was stolen.

9) Indian Creek 4-Hers crashed on way to state fair

On the morning of Aug. 3, Kya Lasley and Megan Murray, both 17, and 10-year-old Keilyn Stauffer, were on their way to the Indiana State Fair to show cattle. But while driving north on Interstate 65, their pick-up truck sideswiped another pick-up truck and crashed in Indianapolis, rolling over a bridge near the Raymond Street interchange and onto a city street below, police said. Despite the intensity of the crash, during which Lasley and Murray were thrown from the vehicle and Stauffer had to be extricated from the wreckage, all three girls remained in stable condition following the crash. The Johnson County community rallied around them, holding a prayer vigil in the days following the accident while other youths helped the 4-Hers and FFA members show their cattle at the state fair. A car show and pork chop dinner fundraiser, organized by the Indian Creek FFA, Johnson County Farm Bureau, Johnson County Beef Cattle Association and Indian Creek Football Parents, was held in September to help with medical costs.

10) Historic grain elevator was destroyed in fire

A relic to Greenwood’s agricultural past went down in flames on April 27 when an abandoned Farm Bureau Co-op grain elevator on East Main Street caught fire. The elevator’s history dated back to Greenwood’s founding in the 1820s, when Grafton Johnson, one of the wealthiest Johnson County residents at the time, built the grain elevator sometime in the early 1800s, said Brad Nemeth, president of Restore Old Town Greenwood, a preservation organization. The April fire was also not the first for the historic building. The first elevator went up in flames in 1909, along with two barns, when it was owned by C.B. Cook and Sons. It was rebuilt, and caught fire again in 1952, when it was owned by the Suckow Milling Company. After the second fire, the grain elevator was rebuilt again, and was sold to the Johnson County Farm Bureau Co-op in 1957. The agriculture business continued to operate the building for the next couple decades. The Farm Bureau Co-op was “big business” in the county, generating more than $4.3 million in 1965. The grain elevator ceased operations in 1983, and sat abandoned for more than a decade before it became the center of discussions among Greenwood city officials who wanted to do something with the property. In the late 1990s, the city tried to tear down the rusted building and turn the lot into a park, but was unable to do so. By 2002, then-Greenwood mayor Charles Henderson wanted to tear it down and build a new three-story, $19 million city hall in its place. He faced backlash from the community, and ultimately, plans for the new city hall fell through. Other plans for restoration of the grain elevator over the years included transforming it into a park with a climbing wall in 2005, and the city later applied for a grant to restore the building in 2009, when it was deemed a “safety hazard,” but nothing came of any of those ideas.