In many ways, 2021 was a bounce-back year for Pulaski County. Events that were cancelled in 2020 as a result of COVID-19 returned. Business and industry thrived despite big-picture economic obstacles. Exciting new developments were in the headlines seemingly every month.
But the conditions that made 2020 such a challenging year remained a haunting specter. COVID-19 was still a factor, impacting the everyday lives of virtually every Pulaski Countian in myriad different ways. And the virus wasn’t the only major challenge; flooding, public outcry over a potentially life-saving traffic light, and political deal-wrangling were all sources of consternation in various corners of the community this year.
One could easily slot COVID into the top spot of this list for the second straight year, but there is a certain amount of reader fatigue around the topic, to be sure, and it feels more appropriate to shine the brightest light on Pulaski’s great achievements — and this year, there were many. Not the small kind either, but announcements and developments with the potential to transform this area drastically for the better in the years to come.
And so, as considered by the newsroom of the Commonwealth Journal, these are the top 10 local news stories of 2021:
1. PULASKI REAPS ITS ECONOMIC HARVEST
Every year, a list of the “new” things in Pulaski County — businesses, events, attractions — lands somewhere on this list. But the “new” arrivals have never quite had the seismic impact that 2021’s did, in ways both economic and cultural. The head of that bountiful crop of local improvements has to be AppHarvest. In June, a whirlwind announcement came that the leading ag-tech company would be building a 30-acre sustainable indoor farm in eastern Pulaski, expanding the Valley Oak Commercial Complex. The facility will grow strawberries year-round with a multi-million-dollar investment expected to add hundreds of new jobs to the local economy and position Pulaski to be an agricultural leader not only in Kentucky but globally in an environmentally-friendly way AppHarvest facilities produce non-GMO fruits and vegetables free of harsh chemical pesticides, to be distributed to top U.S. grocers and restaurants, and the company’s strategic location in Appalachia, AppHarvest can reach nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population in a day’s drive, saving fuel. The high-tech indoor farm is also situated near the new SPEDA Commerce Park, a 142-acre development that will offer certified build-ready sites to industrial prospects. Both industrial parks soon will be enhanced by the ongoing construction of a cloverleaf interchange at Ky. 80 and Ky. 461 as well as the widening of Ky. 461. The $69 million road project will be complete in 2023 and the goal is to connect it to a what’s being called the “I-65 Spur” — re-designating the road between Bowling Green and Somerset as part of the interstate system, a seemingly moderate change that could open up a world of new economic opportunities for the community.
The AppHarvest groundbreaking in June was only one of several of great significance in Pulaski County this year, however. In October, ground was broken on Horse Soldier Farms, on the grounds of the former Waitsboro Golf Course. In 2021, Pulaski learned that it wouldn’t just be getting a bourbon distillery from the Horse Soldier brand, created by the well-known U.S. Army Special Forces unit to enter Afghanistan on horseback following the events of 9/11, but an entire agribusiness destination, including dining, shopping, event venues, and more. The $200 million project looks to bring over 400 jobs to the area. And in December, ground was broken on a new biofuel branch from Continental Refining Company, a $20 million project that could add close to 30 new jobs. The groundbreaking followed the August announcement of the project, which revitalizes the former Somerset Refinery property purchased by current owner Demetrios Haseotes, who closed the facility in 2018, only to set about finding a new purpose for it. Beans from local farmers will be turned into soy products that can be used as fuel, and the project is expected to open up new markets in the region and provide farmers, CRC customers, vendors, investors and the entire community a new, durable agrotech business. It’s worth noting that all of the above projects have the fingerprints of SPEDA (Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority) all over them.
New and re-branded businesses have transformed the Pulaski landscape on a smaller scale, as well. In March, Burnside learned that its lakeside community would be getting a new seafood restaurant, the Southfork Fish Co. Coffee was hot in 2021, with a dedicated Starbucks location returning to the area and Battlefield Coffee Co. opening in Nancy. California-based Conner Logistics Inc. announced in June that it would be relocating its headquarters to Pulaski, and in October, Somerset Community College (SCC) bought 35 acres from the Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) at the Valley Oak Complex in order to expand its course offerings and help workforce development in the area. And in January, the downtown Carnegie Community Arts Center officially changed its name to honor one of the community’s greatest native sons, becoming the John Sherman Cooper Community Arts Center.
New events joined those returning in 2021 after being cancelled the previous year, most notably the City of Somerset adding the Juneteenth Festival to its line-up of downtown doings, celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. Somerset also introduced the #seemyset Art Market in March, proposed bringing ice skating to SomerSplash complex back in May, and in April announced its plans to bring the Virginia Cinema venue back to life. Leadership Lake Cumberland classes with the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce were busy in 2021, bringing Story Book Trails to local parks to encourage literacy and children and also an ice skating rink to the judicial center plaza in December. The Lake Cumberland Air Show took off in August. And after one year off and one other prematurely ended show the year before, Master Musicians Festival felt new and better than ever in 2021, bringing in the big name rock act Blues Traveler as a headliner in the first edition of the outdoor music event held with Tiffany Finley as the festival’s full-time executive director.
2. THE COVID ERA LIVES ON
While 2020 was a forgotten year in many ways due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 virus, with events being cancelled, kids out of school, and a general halt to the kind of life to which Pulaski Countians were accustomed, 2021 saw in some ways a return to normalcy — but in others, the coronavirus remained very much at the forefront of things. The Lake Cumberland District Health Department continued to closely monitor rates of infection and other key statistics in the area. Questions about the availability of the COVID vaccine locally were a hot topic early in the year, with a February announcement that there may be enough for everyone by the end of August. But soon mobile vaccination clinics were rolling out, and opportunities to get the shot became commonplace at community events — as well as an ongoing debate between those who would get it and those who decided against it. In the midst of a busy period in its existence, Amy Tomlinson replaced Shawn Crabtree as the health department’s director. As the year went on, variants like Delta and Omicron made headlines and raised new concerns, as did the health department’s struggles to make contact with those who tested positive for the virus, and in September, Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital and EMS services talked publicly about the virus putting a strain on their resources.
The political dimension of the virus also made plenty of news, as local lawmakers like State Rep. Shane Baker and State Sen. Rick Girdler went to Frankfort in January intent on curbing Governor Andy Beshear’s executive powers, seen by many to have been used in excess in 2020 in regard to COVID restrictions and regulations. Changes were made, but the key piece of legislative sees its fate yet to be determined — a proposed amendment to the Kentucky Constitution, which would allow the House Speaker and Senate President to jointly call the legislature back into session for a limited period (something only the governor can do currently), and that voters will get the chance to approve this year.
Much discussion involved how schools would handle mask policies, a hot-button topic which led to a direct conflict between Science Hill Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse and Beshear. At the beginning of the school year in July, state policy would have school districts set their own rules regarding masking students against COVID spread, and all three local school systems were going to allow masking to be a personal choice for families ... until Beshear called again for a school mask mandate the night before school was to start, prompting a frustrated Dyehouse to leave a one-call message with parents informing them of the change in which he referred to the governor as a “liberal lunatic.” The comments predictably drew their share of defenders and detractors. In September, Science Hill went back to its original optional mask policy after control of mask policy decisions was returned to the local level in a special legislative session following a Kentucky Supreme Court decision that went against Beshear’s use of executive powers. Pulaski County Schools went mask-optional in October but continued to monitor case levels to determine their policy going forward, while Somerset schools considered relaxing their mask policies at an October school board meeting that heard from voices on both sides of the issue.
3. CONSTABLES ON TRIAL
The saga of former Pulaski County Constables Michael “Wally” Wallace and Gary Baldock that began in 2020 came to its conclusion in 2021 — with a guilty verdict for one party, and an unexpected death for the other. In March of last year, the FBI served warrants for the arrest of the two, leading to a shootout between members of the agency and Baldock. Wallace had already been a controversial figure in Pulaski County, making many more arrests and getting involved in more cases than is common for a constable, and promoting his busts on social media. Wallace and Baldock found themselves both charged with Conspiracy against Civil Rights, and in January, a third and fourth civil suit were filed against them since their arrests. The trial, set for January 19, was delayed in February due to COVID-19 orders. A fifth civil suit was filed in March, but one was dismissed the same month. In April, the “Criminal Conduct” podcast made the case a matter of national consideration.
The trial of Wallace and Baldock finally got underway in June in federal court in London, Ky. After four days of testimony by various parties, including FBI Special Agent Mike McLaughlin, Somerset Police Officers Andrew Salmons and Nicholas Taylor, and an undercover FBI agent Kareem Pinkney, the defense and prosecution rested their cases. Ultimately, both Wallace and Baldock were found guilty of all counts against them, including individual charges of Possession with Intent to Distribute Methamphetamine. Baldock was already in custody due to his additional charges, Attempted Murder of a Federal Agent and Discharge of a Firearm During and in Relation to a Crime of Violence.
In July, attorney Robert Norfleet began seeking a new trial for Wallace, saying that the case against his client was unfair — that the scope of the trial “was much broader than what the government portrayed to defense counsel,” and that both evidence and testimony was introduced beyond what should have been permissible, coloring the perception of the defendants to the jury — and Baldock’s attorney John Kevin West, sought an acquittal for his client on both counts, saying there was not enough proof of Baldock’s guilt presented by the prosecution. But Baldock would plead guilty to his attempted murder charge that month, and died in August while awaiting sentencing. In September, Baldock’s case was officially dismissed, while Wallace was denied a new trial by a federal judge. In October, Wallace was sentenced to to 140 months (11 years, eight months) in prison, after a request for settlement was filed in the civil cases. By late October, Wallace would formally file a notice to appeal his federal conviction.
4. TALES OF THE CITY (AND THE COUNTY)
Attending meetings doesn’t sound like the most fun a person could have on a Monday night (or a Tuesday morning), but the Somerset City Council and Pulaski County Fiscal Court kept things lively for those who followed their proceedings in 2021 ... and in one significant case, dealing with each other. In the Somerset City Council Chambers, there were plenty of hot topics, from controversy over the University of Somerset (including being called out by State Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville, and a debate over how the city would be reimbursed in the relevant real estate deal), whether works by a local artist caught on tape uttering slurs should be hanging in the mayor’s office among numerous discussions about racial issues, and the resignation of fire chief Tyler Jasper. Oh, and and the Governor’s Awards in the Arts recognized the city’s cultural achievements as well.
But perhaps the most buzzworthy business surrounding the city council in 2021 had to do with saying “yea” or “nay” to a couple of high-profile projects. Though the city has a restriction against smoking in public places, including private businesses, an amendment was proposed to allow a new venture called Birdies and Barrels to include a cigar bar with its adult beverages and golf simulators. Though the amendment would have had a narrow focus and wouldn’t have affected the likes of restaurants and other establishments, there was a vocal outcry about giving even an inch to public smoking in the community — so much so that Somerset Mayor Alan Keck opted in September to rub out the amendment before it even came to a vote. But that September held more controversy, when council members voted 6-5 against a zone change that was proposed by a developer who proposes to build a housing complex for seniors on Ky. 39, opposed by some as the road was seen by them as too dangerous for more seniors to drive — and the next month, the council decided to take a second look at the zoning request due to a legal technicality in reviewing the Planning & Zoning Board’s own more favorable hearing. The council would rescind their earlier vote and ultimately pass the zone change in November.
Over in Pulaski County government, Deputy Judge-Executive Dan Price felt the heat of the spotlight when in September, a jury found him guilty of charges connected to his December 2019 DUI arrest. He was promptly suspended without pay for a month’s time. Other notable issues in the fiscal court chambers involved a heated July exchange over providing security for Pulaski County Park between District 4 Magistrate Mark Randshaw and Price as well as Judge-Executive Steve Kelley; Ranshaw objecting to the county’s handling of a couple of construction projects in October; and in April finding a creative work-around in the search for a new road supervisor.
But the city and county governments crossed paths when it came to the two entities agreeing on interlocal pacts that would pave the way for the city’s long-hoped-for Horse Soldier Bourbon Distillery to locate here. In May, the court approved their side of the agreements, which would last for a period of 20 years and would have the city remit 5.5 percent of the tax it collects to the county on a quarterly basis for any property annexed into the city from January 1, 2020, onward. The city would keep 2.5 percent on those properties. Immediately thereafter at the next city council meeting, it was stated by Keck that negotiations on the agreements weren’t finished and noted that the city might want to include an out after five years — a point which failed to ensure the kind of security the county was looking for in the deal. Finally in June, the two governments compromised by agreeing on a 10-year term. At stake was the county’s participation in a 20-year TIF (Tax Increment Financing) District for Horse Soldier Farms — the city-recruited $150 million development that includes a bourbon distillery, hotel and retail village.
5. VOICES HEARD IN EUBANK
For years, the intersection of U.S. 27 and Ky. 70 in Eubank, located on the far northern reaches of Pulaski County, has been a problem area for traffic, a hot spot for automobile accidents. Two more lives were claimed in just such a wreck in early January, when Waynesburg sisters Barbara Haste, 45, and Diane Haste, 48, died in a collision with a truck driven by Philip C. Hall, of Eubank, who was arrested for driving under the influence (he would plead not guilty to those charges). In July, tragedy struck again, as Carlee Whitis, 19, of Somerset, and Ethan Carter, 19, of Eubank, were both seriously injured; Whitis soon succumbed to her injuries.
Eubank’s Mayor Eddie Hicks came out with a request often heard in his community but never fulfilled — put a traffic light at the intersection. However, the highway is a state road, meaning that the City of Eubank had no control over what kind of signal went there. Engineers had already tried an unconventional set of turn lanes there, and were, despite Hicks’ wishes, preparing to make things potentially even more complicated with an RCUT, or Restricted Crossing U-Turn, which was announced in March by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s District 8 Office. The plan was to block the throughway opening between East and West Ky. 70. Direct left-hand turns from either direction of U.S. 27 would be prevented, and drivers would have to make a U-Turn onto 27 when traffic is clear, several hundred feet beyond the Ky. 70 intersection. A July town hall meeting in Eubank turned emotional when state engineers presented their RCUT plans; one said that the state had to follow the data showing the benefits of an RCUT, to which a woman in the crowd responded, “F*** data.” Others complained that the citizens weren’t being heard by the state personnel.
Ultimately, however, they were: Within a week of that meeting, the Transportation Cabinet reversed course and announced that it would put a more traditional traffic signal at that intersection. Work on the light began in October, and in December, it was announced that the new signal will be placed in flashing mode following Christmas to allow motorists to become familiar with the signal; it was to remain in flashing mode approximately two weeks before placed into full red-yellow-green operation.
6. DREAM BIG, BURNSIDE
“The only town on Lake Cumberland” made plenty of waves in 2021, and set a course for a bright future. The biggest news of the year for the City of Burnside surely came in September, with the announcement regarding the creation of the Dream Big Burnside Authority. Working together with other Pulaski County entities and headed up by SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler, the Authority would effectively push for the development of General Burnside Island State Park — including, but certainly not limited to, plans to build a lodge there, a subject discussed often over the years with no real progress made. Restaurants, a conference center, and other amenities would also be part of the project, which would see the Authority aggressively pursue a written agreement with the state to formalize a state-local partnership to develop the island, and an option agreement to purchase a 63-acre property overlooking the island, which could be developed with recreation and lodging amenities along with the rest of the property.
That wasn’t the only big meeting of the year for Burnside, however; the April meeting had plenty of big moments, including celebrating the Southwestern girl’s basketball team’s return to the State Sweet 16; the announcement that the city would work to bring a riverboat to Lake Cumberland like those seen on the Ohio River, which could offer dinner, tours, and more; and the return of Christmas Island, the festive holiday light display on Burnside Island that first captivated imaginations in the early 1990s. In November, the city finally unveiled the new and improved (and higher-tech) Christmas Island after an absence of more than a decade-and-a-half.
Many Burnside City Council meetings throughout the year were spent talking about progress on the city’s walking trail around the scenic shores of Lake Cumberland, and the city’s annexation south on U.S. 27 to allow it to grow in the future; the annexation went about three miles past the Burnside border down past Keno Road, and was finalized in November. Former Burnside High School (and Eastern Kentucky University) basketball legend George Conley Bryant joined the Burnside City Council in June, the city increased pay in October for the mayor and councilor’s positions effective following next year’s elections to remain competitive in attracting interest for future city leadership, and in early September, Burnside Police and the city’s code enforcement officer worked with the Humane Society of the United States to rescue more than 100 exotic animals from deplorable conditions at a Burnside retail store.
7. A HERO’S RETURN
Seaman 2nd Class Floyd Dee Helton of Pulaski County was just 18 when he lost his life in the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, and in October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Helton. But his father, Herbert Helton, never gave up hope that his son could be identified, and made his surviving children -- son Carrol and daughters Louise and Glenna -- promise that if the opportunity arose, they’d do what they could to bring their half-brother home to Pulaski County. That finally happened last year, thanks to DNA analysis — but complications surrounding COVID-19 prevented now 91-year-old Louise from being promptly briefed.
In June, it was announced that Floyd Helton’s remains would be coming home to Pulaski County after all this time for a proper burial. That took place in July at Sloans Valley Cemetery in southern Pulaski County. Helton received a hero’s welcome, as all along the route taken from Pulaski Funeral Home to the cemetery, people stopped to observe, to hold up flags, to pay their respects. Local agencies helped Kentucky State Police escort Helton’s remains to town from the Cincinnati-area airport and on the day of the burial, helped guide traffic; the Parkers Mill Fire Department had a giant American flag waiting at the intersection of West Ky. 914 and South U.S. 27. There was in excess of 40 motorcycles and vehicles, including first responders, as part of the procession. At the gravesite, the family had a service at which Helton was honored with a 21-gun salute, as well as the presentation of a flag with 48 stars on it, representing the 48 states at the time during which Helton would have served. After 80 years, Floyd Helton was finally laid to rest in the way he deserved.
8. STORMY WEATHER
A massive downpour of rain at the end of February caused extensive flooding — and flood damages — throughout Pulaski County. Several residents in the vicinity of Rosewood Avenue and Richards Court downtown had to be evacuated; one house there had its foundation collapse. Emergency services executed numerous high-water rescues, from both homes and vehicles. At some point across all of South Kentucky RECC’s service area around 4,000 customers were without power. One of the hardest hit areas was Ky. 1676 in Science Hill, affecting around 110 homes. In March, Pulaski County Emergency Management set about gathering damage reports from citizens impacted by flooding to be shared with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) with hopes of qualifying for federal assistance, and Richards Court residents visited the Somerset City Council to talk about their watery woes that same month, with questions over whether or not the flooding problems there were the result of city negligence.
In April, the council gave approval to buy one of the properties in that area and use it to create a retention pond to collect storm water. Also that month, Pulaski learned it was not not included in a federal disaster declaration for flooding assistance, and the fiscal court discussed possible future phases of FEMA money, but it was noted that the county did not qualify for FEMA assistance to private property owners as there wasn’t enough widespread structural damage. Shortly thereafter, Pulaski was included in a second state request for federal aid, and in May, it was announced that Pulaski homeowners were now on the list of those now able to seek individual aid from FEMA. Applications continued through mid-summer.
While tornadoes devastated areas of western Kentucky in early December, Pulaski County was spared any significant damage in what turned out to be a major national weather event. But the community did join together to help their neighbors to the west however, taking time out of the busy holiday season to organize a number of supply drives for those whose homes were destroyed in the storms. The Pulaski County High School boys basketball team, on a tournament trip to Bowling Green, one of the key affected areas, even took the opportunity to drive around and see the damage up close, personally giving money to the victims that was raised at during the school’s rivalry match against Somerset High School.
9. SAYING GOODBYE
Deaths of well-known figures around Pulaski County occur each year, and 2021 was no different. But perhaps no passing affected the staff of the Commonwealth Journal as much as that of longtime “Humble Reporter” Bill Mardis. An editor emeritus when he died in February at age 89, Mardis helped to merge two weekly newspapers into a daily, laying the foundation that would shape the publication into what it is today. A veteran editor, reporter, and even radio broadcaster, Mardis continued producing copy for the publication he so loved right up until his last days.
But Mardis was certainly not the only notable name to leave us in 2021. Former Pulaski County school board char and Woodstock community pillar Claude Action died in December at 83, and the same month Harold Cash, who helped make the Pulaski County Fair possible each year, died at 68. Houseboat industry pioneer Jim Sharpe passed away in October at 91; also that month, former Burnside City Council member and active community member Joyce Gregory died at 83. Longtime Property Valuation Administrator Ron Woodson died in September at 82; also in September, Ann Haney, educator and Haney’s Appledale Farm co-owner, died at 71, as did local auctioneer Samuel Ray Godby at age 88. Former constable Gary Baldock died in August at age 57, former Somerset Police Officer and Somernites Cruise volunteer Jeff Girdler died in February at 53, and local educator, author and reverend Dr. Sonya Jones died that same month at 73, as did Senior Captain Randy Wiles of the Pulaski County Detention center at 56. Tragic accidents claimed the lives of Stephen Flynn (step-son of Burnside Mayor Robert Lawson), 40, in February; Dr. Robert Supinski, 66, in April; and Certified Financial Planner Lisa Evans, 56, in October. These are just some of the many important and beloved local people who passed away in 2021.
And while it wasn’t a human life, Pulaski did have to say goodbye to downtown Somerset’s iconic Lay-Simpson Furniture Store, which announced its closure in July after close to a century of doing business.
10. AND IN SPORTS ...
Recent years have seen major sports stories like local football teams winning highly-coveted state champions. No such blockbuster headlines this year, but Jeron Dunbar did make a big switch in May, when he left his position as Somerset High School boys basketball coach ... and took a job five miles away to coach rival Southwestern High School. Dunbar had coached four seasons at Somerset High School, with an overall record of 81-38 and three 12th Region All “A” titles. May was a turbulent month for the Briar Jumpers athletics program, as 23-year athletic director Bob Tucker announced his retirement as well, having been named 12th Region Athletic Director of the Year by the Kentucky High School Athletic Directors Association only two months earlier; Kevin Burkett took the chance to fill those shoes in July.
Among sports teams, the Southwestern girls basketball team had maybe the most memorable season, reaching the prestigious Kentucky Sweet 16 tournament for the second time in three seasons ... but for school activities that take on a field but don’t involve a ball, Somerset High School achieved its first-ever state finals appearance in marching band competition in October. Also, Pulaski County High School and Northern Middle School archery coach Kim Worley was selected as the boys archery Kentucky Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association in December.