Alan Keck was elected mayor of Somerset in November of 2018. It did not take long for him to make his mark.
Looking back on the top 10 stories of 2019, Keck is involved heavily in no less than four of them. The new mayor, who took over the job held by Eddie Girdler for 12 years, wasted no time in finding himself in the thick of things. With a debate over a fairness ordinance proving a hot-button issue from the outset, Keck went on to push town festivals and SPEDA (successfully) and annexation (not as successfully) ... and finished the year with a bang, by putting Pulaski County on the famed "Bourbon Trail."
Of course, Keck wasn't the only one to make news in 2019.
Other officials did too -- for both good reasons and bad. Mother Nature took her turn in the spotlight, making the county "wet" in a way that had nothing to do with alcohol. And local sports teams excelled when pitted against the best Kentucky had to offer.
Following are the top 10 news stories in Pulaski County of 2019, as voted on by the editorial staff of the Commonwealth Journal:
1. Somerset: Fair and Proud?
Always a very conservative community in its history, Somerset has seen its share of social changes in recent years. But a community-wide discussion about issues of sexual identity and orientation largely eluded this area until 2019. The debate over a proposed "Fairness Ordinance" with regards to members of the LGBTQ community actually began in November of 2018, when Somerset City Councilor Amanda Bullock proposed amending the city's existing human rights ordinance, approved in 1980, to "encourage fair treatment and equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation or gender identity." Though the addition of "age" was also proposed, it was the language related to sex and gender that resulted in controversy in the community and packed houses at city council meetings. New mayor Keck wanted to hear from all sides and tabled the issue until after the new year.
Local groups met to discuss the matter and city council meetings passed without a resolution until finally, a vote was scheduled for February 11. Reactions to the amendment were sharply split: Some saw it as a way to be inclusive to LGBTQ community members, while some connected with the religious community saw ways in which the new wording could cause conflict with Christian business owners, forcing them to conduct business in a way that was at odds with their beliefs. Ultimately, the council voted 10-1 against the amendment, with Keck asking that the divided community "focus on moving forward together."
Out of all that, however, rose an effort by the local LGBTQ community to be heard. And in early October, Somerset's first gay pride event, the Chill Out & Proud Festival, was held downtown on the judicial center plaza. There was talk online of protests leading up to the event, and many weren't sure what to expect. And although protestors did show up, the day was a relatively peaceful one where all who gathered at the plaza (and drag show at Jarfly Brewing Co.) reported having a good time. The controversy did lead to a situation where October dates were booked far in advance for 2020, with Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley saying that requests for other events came in after Chill Out & Proud -- in order, one might surmise, to prevent it from being held there again. However, organizer Kat Moses was unconcerned about the festival's future and said that they had been considering holding it at another location next time anyway.
2. Title Town
Somerset High School has a long and proud history on the gridiron, but one thing had always eluded the Purple and Gold: a state championship in football. No more. On Dec, 7 at Kroger Field in Lexington, the 2019 Somerset Briar Jumpers took down Mayfield in the Class 2A playoffs to win the state title -- and in dramatic fashion. On an untimed down, SHS needed a miracle and got one from the 20-yard line when star quarterback Kaiya Sheron tossed a pass to a wide-open Tate Madden in the end zone. Ballgame. The win not only electrified the community but also the state with its highlight reel-worthy climax, and allowed the Jumpers to join their ancient rivals, the Pulaski County Maroons, as local teams with state football championships to their name.
The Jumpers weren't the only team to excel in 2019. The Southwestern High School girls basketball team nearly took home a state title of their own in March, finishing runner-up in the championship game of the Sweet 16 to Ryle, winning their first 12th region title along the way. Pulaski County High School's cheerleaders won their first UCA national title in Orlando in February, and the school's marching band even experienced historic success, finishing fifth in semifinals -- just missing the top-four cut that advances to the rarefied air of state finals by the thinnest of margins, .7 of a point. Somerset's Kendall Burgess won two state track titles, the long jump and the triple jump, and the Jumpers also won their first regional baseball crown in almost 12 years in May.
3. Water, Water
In Genesis Chapter 9, God promised Noah that never again would He send a flood to destroy the earth, but in February, Pulaski Countians might have been forgiven for thinking that's what was happening anyway. Historic amounts of rainfall came down in the area, causing flooding in roadways and a swollen Lake Cumberland. Social media was hit with a deluge -- so to speak -- of boat docks around the area being covered over by water -- Burnside Island, Waitsboro, Pulaski County Park. Waitboro's dock closed, endangering summer traffic there (fears were that it would be closed all summer, but it was cleared in time for Memorial Day); at PC Park, the high water had covered most of the camping areas and delayed the planned expansion of the beach area. First responders were busy with rescue efforts, like the man whose car was submerged in water at an intersection along Slate Branch Road. Officials discussed declaring a state of emergency.
Lake Cumberland reached a new record elevation at 756.51, about four feet higher than it has ever been, with some unfounded concerns about the stability of Wolf Creek Dam being raised along the way. By the beginning of March, the lake level began to fall again once the rain eased up. Some recreational areas, like Bee Rock Campground, were put out of commission for the rest of the year, but most would re-open for tourists later in 2019. The community banded together for clean-up efforts at heavily-affected sites. Pulaski County recovered for another busy holiday season -- though July flash-flooding saw key areas of downtown Somerset covered in water as well. But it was just a drop in the bucket compared to the first couple of months of 2019.
4. An Official
In early December, Deputy Judge-Executive Dan Price of Pulaski County Government was arrested by Kentucky State Police and charged with driving under the influence, pulled over at the Barnesburg-Ky. 80 connector in a county vehicle.He was also charged with careless driving and improper signal use. According to the citation against him, Price refused a preliminary breath test and was then arrested and transported to Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital where he was read implied consent and attempted to contact his attorney; after 20 minutes, when the unidentified attorney couldn't be reached, Price also refused the blood test and was lodged in the Pulaski County Detention Center. He was back on the job the next day.
Following the incident, Judge-Executive Steve Kelley said that it was his understanding that Price had left a meeting with a developer for a new industrial park before the arrest. Such a meeting would be connected to SPEDA (Somerset Pulaski County Economic Development Authority) however, and SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler told the Commonwealth Journal that to his knowledge, "no formal meeting took place with regard to the industrial park." Later in the month, Kelley announced that he had suspended Deputy Judge Dan Price without pay for 10 days; others thought the penalty should be stronger, such as District 1 Magistrate Jason Turpen, who posted on Facebook (before Kelley's announcement) his desire that Kelley suspend Price "and pull his vehicle until his Guilt or Innocence is decided in court." On Dec. 16, Price was arraigned in Pulaski District Court and pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
5. Tackling the
Come the start of 2019, Pulaski County was rocked by two headline-making stories involving bullying in local schools. In December of 2018, 14-year-old Silas Holliman took his own life. His parents spoke to the Commonwealth Journal, and recalled him talking about being picked on at Meece Middle School, and even situations in which he felt embarrassed by his school's principal. In January, a 15-year-old was arrested for bring an unloaded handgun to Pulaski County High School, and told his grandmother that he was being bullied.
Following these incidents, the Commonwealth Journal dove deeper into the topic of bullying, examining what causes it and what schools are doing about it. All three local public school systems talked about their policies on bullying, and how it's changed over the years due to social media technology. School resource officers weighed in, as did Somerset attorney Brenda Popplewell, a legal expert on the subject, and central Kentucky psychologist Dr. David Reber. Bullying among young people is a hard problem for adults to solve, but all parties indicated that they were committed to doing everything they could to help.
6. The Need for SPEDA
After two and a half years of fits and starts, the Somerset Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) held its first meeting in January, with the board finalized the night before. Chris Girdler was chosen to be the president and CEO of the organization, which effectively replaces the old Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation. The early months of the year saw a lot of talk about the transition from the one entity to the other, and the group moved from the Pulaski County Courthouse to the top floor of the Somerset Energy Center. Girdler told the Somerset Kiwanis Club is May that SPEDA is "looking at economic development through a new lens ... (and) looking at the overall quality of life ... the big picture, overall community planning, workforce development ... and existing businesses." He said existing businesses and development of the workforce will be top priorities of SPEDA.
In May, county government approved a $5 million band for SPEDA to assist with the Ky. 80-Ky. 461 interchange project to relieve traffic congestion in that area. Throughout the year, SPEDA went about other business on its mission of developing Pulaski County, including talking about the Virginia Cinema, a possible ag expo, land and tool auction, working to get Continental Refinery back up and running, and a canopy for the judicial plaza stage. In November, SPEDA announced that possible financial discrepancies and mismanagement within the accounts of the former Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation were being investigated after being uncovered between the transition between the two boards.
7. Bevin's Last Stand
Pulaski County loves its politics, and like the whole state was abuzz about this year's governor's race, in which Republican incumbent Matt Bevin fell to Democrat challenger Andy Beshear. In January, Dan Venters of Somerset, retired that month from the Kentucky Supreme Court, shot back at Bevin through an op-ed in state media after Bevin called Venters' Court's decision to strike down Bevin's pension reform bill as an "unprecedented power grab by activist judges." Local teachers who weren't happy with the pension reform plan Bevin championed also continued to make their voices heard. And political candidates of all stripes made their way through Pulaski County in Primary Election campaign season, many holding events covered by the Commonwealth Journal or even stopping in the office to do a firsthand interview. Robert Goforth of Laurel County, a former Somerset businessman, opposed Bevin in the Primaries, and actually beat him here in Pulaski County by a thin margin of 90 votes, but Bevin survived to face Beshear in November.
The Republican stronghold that is Pulaski County looked to once again vote heavy on "Red" in November, although former Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler endorsed Democrat Beshear for governor in a video released on social media in August. Also that month, Bevin and the rest of the GOP state ticket gathered in the back yard of Congressman Hal Rogers in downtown Somerset to make a push for votes among the GOP faithful; Rogers especially did a lot of campaigning locally this year for Bevin and the other Republicans up for office in Kentucky. For all but Bevin, it worked; all the Republicans on the ballot succeeded, taking the offices of Secretary of State and Attorney General, and holding onto those of Auditor, Treasurer, and Agriculture Commission. Only Bevin came up short to Beshear, by just a hair over 4,000 votes. Mona Eldridge, who in 2018 ran a write-in campaign for state representative, was one of a group of teachers to attend the inauguration of Beshear, a candidate many educators supported over Bevin given the pension issue and Bevin's unpopular comments about teachers. In one of his last acts in office, Bevin pardoned Pulaski Countian Brett Whittaker, who pleaded guilty to two county of wanton murder in Lincoln County in 2011 after being involved in a fatal traffic collision while driving intoxicated. It was one of a number of controversial pardons Bevin made on his way out.
"Annexation" is a word that stirs up strong feelings in Pulaski County whenever it's talked about. In recent years, former Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler, as well as several Burnside leaders, have found themselves in the midst of controversy over attempts to expand their cities' borders. In 2019, Alan Keck took a crack at it -- resulting in a story with an interesting conclusion. In April, Keck said he also had grand plans for a "strategic annexation to grow our population," with an intent on presenting a comprehensive plan for that later on. "We're going to be aggressive. We're going to be up front. We're going to be transparent. We're going to have town halls. We're going to meet with folks," Keck said, noting that residents would have input into how Somerset expands. The benefit of higher population numbers was that it made Somerset more attractive to businesses looking to relocate; for those affected, many didn't want to bear city taxes unless they got services in return like gas and sewer, which Keck couldn't promise.
In June, Keck said he'd begin the discussion with the community through town hall meetings in some of the areas to be considered. He pitched the idea to the Pulaski County Fiscal Court, which wasn't entirely on the same page; District 1 Magistrate Jason Turpen said that "blanket annexation is not the way to go" and that it should target only those seeking to become Somerset citizens, such as the council did in May, approving an annexation request by the owner of East Way Market on Ky. 80. Later, in July, all five magistrates jointly announced opposition to the proposal to annex "unincorporated Somerset" into the city limits proper, areas which tentatively included parts of Oak Hill Road, Slate Branch Road, Parkers Mill Road, Ky. 39, and East Ky. 80, based on a map released in July. Judge-Executive Steve Kelley also said he was "not convinced that it is in our county's best interest." Hearing the pushback, Keck announced in mid-July that he was ending the discussion on the possible annexation, saying the city would "only entertain the possibility of annexation in small areas or neighborhoods that demonstrate a large majority of those affected who voluntarily want to join the city." Keck promised to listen to the people -- and he lived up to that promise, even when the people didn't like what he had in mind.
9. A Growing
Every year, new developments and businesses are heavily talked-about in Pulaski County. Among the most notable were new downtown festivals; Mayor Alan Keck had pledged to have more community events in Somerset, and that's just what citizens got, with two different music-and-food-truck festivals in the spring and summer, the Moonlight Festival celebrating bourbon and spirits in October, and a downtown New Year's Eve celebration as well. Bourbon became a bigger story in December, however, when it was announced that Horse Soldier Bourbon would be bringing a distillery to Somerset, putting the tourism-dependent community on the famed "Bourbon Trail" in Kentucky and making good on another community wishlist item for Keck. The mayor also talked about big plans for a farmer's market downtown, though bids on the project came in to high, prompting Keck to say in November that the design of the building is being reconsidered.
There was plenty else going on in Pulaski County in 2019, however. U.S. 27 gained a possible new nickname -- "The Chicken Strip" as announcements came within just a matter of months that Chick-fil-A, Popeye's Chicken, and Slim Chickens would all be coming to town. They were joined by popular chain restaurants Taco John's, Buffalo Wings & Rings, and Chili's on U.S. 27. Longtime boutique store The Mole Hole moved from U.S. 27 to downtown Somerset, and other new businesses opened up in the heart of the city, like Somerset Sweeterie and Zilla Meals. Also, new businesses were found to inhabit the old Food Fair space, including a new upscale restaurant, the Charred Oak Grill, and the Be You Boutique. Eubank Pizza expanded into the south end of Somerset, Gordmans department store announced they were on the way to take over the Goody's store. Cincinnati-based Hollaender Manufacturing Company announced in October that they'd set up an operation off University Drive to manufacture Speed-Rail mechanical fittings. In May, it was revealed that Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky would be the schools partnering with Somerset Community College and the University Center of Southern Kentucky to offer four-year degrees here in Somerset. Unfortunately, as new businesses are born, some must say goodbye; one of those was the local Kmart store, which closed at the end of November after 40 years in Somerset.
10. All Rise for Judge Tapp
Over time, David Tapp established himself as a iconic part of the local legal community. After serving as Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney in the mid-'90s and operating his own law office in Somerset after that, Tapp began his judicial career in 2004 when he was elected District Judge for Pulaski and Rockcastle Counties. After eight months in district court, Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed Tapp as Circuit Judge. In March, Tapp received an opportunity to move even higher up the ladder, as President Donald Trump nominated Tapp to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Tapp called becoming a federal judge the "high point" of his career.
Tapp's confirmation hearings began in May, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In June, that process moved on to the floor of the Senate. Finally, in November, the Senate confirmed Tapp's appointment by a vote of 85-8. He watched the vote surrounded by family, friends and colleagues gathered at Friends Sports Bar & Grill in downtown Somerset. Later in the month, he formally resigned from the Circuit bench, and started his new job the Monday after Thanksgiving. Tapp made a name for himself as a judge in Pulaski County, overseeing a drug court that has become a national model and helping provide new opportunities for drug abusers who find themselves in the legal system, and while his friends and colleagues were sad to see him go, they were equally excited for his new opportunity on the national stage.