The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 31, 2012

NORCE shutdown the top local story of 2012

Staff reports
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services’ decision to close Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid was named the top story of 2012 by the News & Eagle staff.

Other top stories were the drought and water rationing in Enid, the reopening of Convention Hall and continued work on Enid Renaissance Project, the “de-malling” project at Oakwood Mall and the open records dispute between an Enid attorney and the News & Eagle.

Here are the top five stories of 2012, as judged by the News & Eagle staff:

No. 5 — Open records dispute.

In May, a felony perjury charge was filed in Major County against Enid attorney Eric Edwards. Within hours of the charge being filed, District Judge Ray Dean Linder sealed all records in the case, effectively removing the proceedings from public view.

The News & Eagle filed two motions in June to unseal the records. The first motion sought to give the newspaper standing to intervene in the felony perjury case for the purpose of filing a motion to unseal the case records. The second motion sought to lift Linder’s order sealing the case records.

Edwards hired fellow Enid attorney Stephen Jones to represent him. In a statement published by the newspaper, Jones accused the News & Eagle of “journalistic assassination.”

In July, Major County Assistant District Attorney Danny Lohmann said District Attorney Hollis Thorp fully supported his filing of a perjury charge against Edwards. However, Thorp later recused his office from the case, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt assigned Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to prosecute the charge.

Later that month, Prater dropped the perjury charge against Edwards on the grounds that the case lacked merit.

Despite the dismissal, the newspaper’s motion to unseal the records continued.

Jones later filed a motion to expunge all records relating to the felony perjury charge against Edwards.

During a hearing on the motion, Jones said the newspaper had “unclean hands,” and called the News & Eagle’s coverage “biased.”

In September, Judge Richard Van Dyck granted the News & Eagle’s motion and unsealed the records, overturning Linder’s sealing and subsequent gag orders surrounding the case.

“The court finds the newspaper has a First Amendment right to publish the news as it finds it,” Van Dyck said. “The public needs to know what its elected officials are up to. The public has a right to know.”

Days after the case files were made public, they were expunged pursuant to Jones’ motion, granted by Van Dyck.

No. 4 — “De-malling” project at Oakwood Mall.

Oakwood Mall, opened in 1984, is in for some big changes. In June, a national real estate development company, Tulsa-based Vector Companies, announced it plans to “de-mall” the mall, turning it into an outdoor, regional shopping center.

The plan calls for a 475,000-square-foot regional open-air retail and entertainment center featuring many of the existing retailers and maintaining the anchor stores, JCPenney, Sears and Dillard’s, along with a state-of-the-art movie theater.

The shopping center will be redesigned to keep the anchor stores in their present locations with a new veneer, and a new 12-screen Showplex Cinema will be built at the southwest corner of the property. The remaining stores have the option to relocate to new retail space at the redeveloped mall.

The $35 million project received approval for a Tax Increment Finance district for the renovation in November. Vector Properties will invest $30 million in the mall project, while the TIF plan will pick up the rest. Vector will buy the mall and convert it.

Work on the project was supposed to begin in November, but that has been delayed.

No. 3 — Convention Hall grand re-opening, continued Enid Renaissance Project work.

Convention Hall, a fixture in downtown Enid since 1921, reopened after years of wrangling and months of renovation.

The old building, the former home of high school basketball, Tri-State Music Festival, an appearance by President George H.W. Bush and musicians like John Phillip Sousa, had been closed for several years because it did not meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Rather than tear the building down, it was decided to renovate Convention Hall, creating a 10,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom, a 3,000-square-foot smaller ballroom and flexible space for trade shows or stage presentations.

The work on Convention Hall was part of Enid Renaissance Project, whose $34 million price tag includes a 73,000-square-foot downtown event center.

The cost of Enid Renaissance Project has been a subject of controversy since the beginning, with Enid developer Bob Berry questioning the city’s figures and filing several lawsuits to force the city to change parts of the plan, including the original method of construction. City officials blame that change for adding costs to the process, which Berry denies, saying he only forced the city to do what it should have done in the first place.

The new event center is projected to open in 2013.

No. 2 — Water rationing in Enid.

The rain didn’t come down, but the temperatures climbed up, way up, in Enid in the summer of 2012. That led the Enid City Commission to implement a water conservation plan. At first, home and business owners were asked to ration water, watering lawns on odd- or even-numbered days, depending on their addresses.

Later, nearly all lawn watering was banned, with only hand-held hoses allowed for one hour a day on the odd-even schedule. Fines for those who didn’t follow the restrictions, and rewards for those who did, were implemented.

As summer faded into fall, the restrictions were eased, then removed, but the drought has not eased, setting up a possible return to water rationing in 2013.

No. 1 — Vote to close NORCE.

In November, after months of discussion, the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services voted to close Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid, as well as Southern Oklahoma Resource Center at Pauls Valley.

NORCE is set to close Aug. 31, 2015, and SORC April 30, 2014. The vote was 6-3.

The two facilities have a total of 231 residents, who are to be moved into community-based settings during the next two years.

The move brought criticism from legislators, but drew the support of Gov. Mary Fallin.

There are an estimated 240 clients in NORCE and SORC who have to find new homes.

NORCE opened in 1910 as Oklahoma Institution for the Feeble Minded.

There were other top news stories of 2012 that didn’t make the top 10, including ongoing school renovations and the opening of two new elementary schools, the election of Jerry Niles as Garfield County sheriff, the ratification of a new three-year collective bargaining agreement by the union representing employees of the lead civilian contractor at Vance Air Force Base, the successful effort to raise money to permanently bring a retired traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall to Enid, the proposed city parks plan and the recent murder of 24-year-old Heath Crites.