These news stories shaped Chugiak-Eagle River in 2019
Editor’s note: The year 2019 was an eventful one in Chugiak-Eagle River, where efforts to rebuild following the 2018 earthquake dominated the headlines. Other big news included continued hot weather in Southcentral Alaska and the emergence of a renewed effort to separate Chugiak-Eagle River from the Municipality of Anchorage. Here’s a look back at the headlines from the past 12 months (or click on the headline to read more):
The year 2019 arrived with deep sadness with the announcement Chugiak-Eagle River Star founder Lee Jordan died on New Year’s Eve, 2018. Jordan was a towering figure in the community who in addition to founding the local newspaper played a role in starting the Knik Little League, the local chamber of commerce and briefly served as the only mayor of Chugiak-Eagle River when the area attempted to secede from Anchorage in 1974. Jordan was 88.
For the first time, Chugiak-Eagle River sent an all-female delegation to Juneau when Reps. Cathy Tilton, Sharon Jackson and Kelly Merrick joined Sens. Lora Reinbold and Shelley Hughes in the capital city.
Anchorage Police Department Lt. Jack Carson announced vehicle thefts in the Municipality of Anchorage were down dramatically during a visit to the Birchwood Community Council. Carson said vehicle thefts hit an 18-month low in October of 189 reported thefts — down from a high of 390 at the start of 2018.
Fallout from the 2018 earthquake continued as the Chugiak Community Council passed a resolution asking that an engineer be required to review plans for all residential structures requiring a municipal land-use permit. The council asked others in the area to join it in seeking the review, but the resolution stopped short of asking the area be included in the municipal Building Safety Area, which requires municipal plan review as well as inspection by a muni inspector. As of year’s end, no changes had been made to building rules in the community as a result of the quake.
On Jan. 31, President Donald Trump issued a federal disaster declaration releasing federal funds to help with recovery from the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake.
Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School will be closed through at least the 2019-20 school year, Anchorage School District officials announced on Jan. 22.
The Anchorage School District said it had already spent $5.65 million repairing earthquake damage at five area schools, including Gruening Middle, Chugiak High, Fire Lake Elementary, Chugiak Elementary and Eagle River High. The money was paid as part of large procurement contracts issued in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
ASD released an online survey to gauge people’s feelings about potential alternatives for educational options in the 2019-20 school year. The survey was needed due to the closure of both Gruening Middle and Eagle River Elementary schools and was released in advance of a series of community meetings on the topic.
Chugiak-Eagle River lawmakers Sharon Jackson, Cathy Tilton and Kelly Merrick found themselves in the minority in the Alaska State House, which organized around a bipartisan coalition of 21 members.
Large crowds turned out for the first in a series of meetings about the future of Chugiak-Eagle River schools. The meetings were designed to brainstorm short-term solutions for how to best house students forced to relocate after Gruening Middle and Eagle River Elementary School were closed due to the 2018 earthquake.
An Eagle River man was arrested after he allegedly tried to pawn a stolen gold nugget at a local pawn shop. Police said Austin Sala, 19, was charged with theft for trying to sell pieces of the nugget, which was stolen from an Anchorage museum.
ASD officials unveiled options for the upcoming school year, including redrawn boundaries, relocatable classrooms and the continued housing of Gruening students at Chugiak High. The recommendations followed the first of a series of meetings on the future of the schools. The recommendations would split local elementary students between three area schools.
Chugiak High musical director Ron Lange directed his final show with the production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which included a cast made up of Chugiak High, Eagle River High and Gruening Middle School students.
President Donald Trump made a brief visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during a refueling stop on his return from talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
An ad hoc committee tasked with making recommendations to the Anchorage School Board about how to proceed with the future of Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary recommended repairing both schools, which was estimated to cost around $36 million. Later in March, the board endorsed the plan.
Chugiak’s Michael Wheatley was honored with a Spirit of Youth “Lifesaver” award during a ceremony in Anchorage. The teen performed lifesaving CPR on his brother after the older boy collapsed while roughhousing with Michael.
A 60-year-old Eagle River woman was charged with DUI assault after she struck two siblings riding bicycles alongside the Old Glenn Highway. Police said Vicie Zielinski had a blood alcohol level of 0.189 when she hit the children at around 4 p.m. in front of the local Boys and Girls Club. The children recovered from their injuries.
Eagle River’s Shayna Perry became the first female winner in the Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament when she caught a 26.7-pound salmon March 23 in Kachemak Bay aboard the Stella Maris 2.
The University of Alaska Anchorage announced it would not renew its lease in the Eagle Center Building and planned to move classes held in Eagle River to the school’s main campus in Anchorage.
A 20-year-old Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was killed during a live fire training exercise near Fort Greely. Army officials said Nicholas DiMona III was an infantryman from Medford Lakes, New Jersey.
Eagle River’s Senecca Slocombe, 15, won $2,500 for taking first place in the 2019 Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker Contest in New York City. Slocombe won the local contest during the Bear Paw Festival in July, 2018.
Former school board member Crystal Kennedy of Eagle River defeated former Marine Oliver Schiess in a two-way race to replace Gretchen Wehmhoff on the Anchorage Assembly. Kennedy, 61, received more than 57 percent of the roughly 10,472 votes cast in the election to select a District 2 representative. In late 2018, Wehmhoff was selected by the Assembly to serve out the term of Amy Demboski, who resigned to take a job in the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
A send-off celebration was held in Anchorage for Miss Alaska JoEllen Walters and Miss Alaska Teen USA Meghan Scott as the local women prepared to head to the national competitions in Reno, Nevada.
A new group formed to advocate for the separation of Chugiak-Eagle River from the Municipality of Anchorage. Calling itself “Eaglexit,” the group chaired by Michael Tavolerio said it had created a website and planned a community meeting to further discuss its intentions. Tavoliero said the group believes Assembly District 2 isn’t well represented on the Anchorage Assembly and believes the area can better govern itself rather than being a part of the municipality.
A 47-year-old Palmer man was found dead of apparent self-inflicted injuries following a search near the Eagle River Nature Center. Alaska State Troopers said Neil Guggenmos was found in a wooded area about a mile and a half from the center. Guggenmos was the subject of a search after he was reported missing and his vehicle was found abandoned in the center’s parking lot.
The Eagle River Campground was closed until June while the state made repairs to the road leading to the popular riverside campground. The road was damaged in the November 2018 earthquake; it reopened in June.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy made his case for budget cuts during a visit to the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. Dunleavy told the chamber Alaska could avoid new taxes by reining in state spending.
Supporters of a plan to separate Chugiak-Eagle River from the Municipality of Anchorage drew about 100 people to the first public meeting of Eaglexit at the Eagle River Lions Club. Group members said they hoped to create a study to look into the feasibility of detachment at the meeting, where it was also revealed the group secured the backing of the Texas based Justice Foundation, a nonprofit whose work focuses on conservative causes such as opposing abortion.
An Eagle River man was recovering after a moose attack near the Eaglewood subdivision. Taylor Caldwell, a 67-year-old piano player, said he was walking his dog Memphis when the cow moose attacked near N. Chichagof Loop. The attack was the second serious stomping in the neighborhood since 2017, when a woman was severely injured by a cow moose.
Graduation ceremonies were held for all four area high schools; valedictorians were Noah Denny (Eagle River Christian), Andrea Rios (Birchwood Christian), Billy Smith (Chugiak High) and Collin Dyches (Eagle River High). Eagle River’s Hudson Taylor was was also named valedictorian at the Alaska Middle College School.
The owner of the Eagle River McDonald’s said the building would be torn down and rebuilt, with Mike Davidson eyeing an early 2020 opening for the restaurant, which was closed due to damage from the November 2018 earthquake.
During a trip to Japan, President Trump once again stopped at JBER, where he met briefly with troops and spoke with Gov. Mike Dunleavy aboard Air Force One.
Eagle River’s Charlotte Schwid was honored during a 100th birthday party at the Eagle River VFW. Schwid served as a nurse during the allied invasion of Europe in World War II. At the party, Schwid was presented with hundreds of birthday cards that came from well-wishers across the country.
Eagle River music store Mike’s Music held a going-out-of-business sale after 25 years in Eagle River. Store owner Sharon Dunckle said the November 2018 earthquake hurt business after the store was forced to close for two weeks. Dunkle said it was time to spend more time with her grandchildren.
The first Chugiak-Eagle River homicide since 2016 was reported in early June after the body of a 19-year-old woman was found near the Eklutna River. According to police, Anchorage’s Cynthia Hoffman was lured to the river near the Thunderbird Falls parking lot by a pair of Anchorage teens.
Police later arrested Cayden McIntosh, 16, Denali Brehmer, 18, Caleb Leyland, 19, and two unidentified juveniles in connection with the murder. Not long after, a 21-year-old Indiana man named Darin Schilmiller was arrested and charged with murder and child pornography for allegedly orchestrating the killing by promising to pay McIntosh and Brehmer to kill Hoffman and film the murder.
For the second time in less than a year a Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson soldier died in a training accident. According to the Army, Spc. Marquise Gabriel Elliott, 25, died when the Humvee he was in rolled over while training at the Yukon Training Area near Fort Wainwright.
A burn ban was issued after continued dry, hot conditions across Southcentral Alaska. Record-breaking temperatures were reported across the area in late June, including highs of 79 degrees on June 27, 81 degrees on June 28 and 82 degrees on June 29.
Umbrellas abounded during the Chugiak Fourth of July parade as Anchorage set a new high temperature record of 90 degrees on July 4. Hundreds of people still showed up for the 49th annual event, which was held on the Old Glenn Highway.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan was among the tens of thousands who visited the annual Bear Paw Festival, whose theme this year was “Shake, Rattle and Rebuild.” Sullivan participated in the Slippery Salmon Olympics event at the festival, which was graced with warm temperatures and attracted massive crowds to downtown Eagle River for the four-day event.
U.S. Army Alaska Commander Maj. Gen. Peter B. Andrysiak took command of USARAK from Maj. Gen. Mark O’Neil during a ceremony July 16 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The Alice Mae’s convenience store on the Old Glenn Highway was purchased by Anchorage-based Vitus Energy. Vitus owners said they planned a full remodel at the store.
Police said a 4-year-old girl survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound after she picked up a loaded handgun left on a kitchen counter of an Eagle River home. Police said the gun was left out by an adult due to the large number of bears in the area.
Phase II of the Eagle River Glenn Highway Bridge project got underway, with completion of the new crossing expected by the end of 2020. The construction will add a second two-lane southbound crossing alongside the northbound bridge completed in 2015.
A dangerous wildfire in the Meadow Creek Valley was knocked down by a speedy response from state firefighting crews. The Steeple Fire was reported at around noon and out later that evening after the 23-member Gannett Glacier crew hiked to the scene while a tanker plane and helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the blaze. The following week, the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department was credited with knocking down a small forest fire near Camp Gorsuch that burned less than an acre.
About 600 Gruening Middle School students were being housed at Chugiak High as the two schools’ administrations worked to integrate the schools at the CHS campus as the 2019-20 school year got underway. Chugiak High principal Megan Hatswell said the school’s auxiliary gym was being used by Gruening, as is most of one “house” at the school, where a handful of portable classrooms were also set up outside. Meanwhile, about 400 students from Eagle River Elementary were going to school at Homestead, Fire Lake and Birchwood ABC during repairs to their school.
A 39-year-old employee of Moose Run Golf Course died in a freak accident on the course. According to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson officials, Dunstan Wagner was found dead at around noon after he was involved in a utility vehicle accident.
Eagle River’s Vicie Zielinski pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree assault for a March 24 incident in which she drove her Subaru into two children riding bicycles on a sidewalk alongside the Old Glenn Highway.
Firefighters from the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department were brought in to help fight the McKinley Fire that destroyed more than 50 structures in the Mat-Su.
The Chugak CCS Head Start program planned an October opening after the program’s funding was restored by the state. The facility was originally set to be defunded due to budget cuts, but Gov. Dunleavy later reversed the cuts, allowing CCS to stay open.
Repairs began on the Eagle River Bridge, which suffered damage in the Nov. 30, 2018. earthquake. Crews damaged abutments that were causing commuters to experience a bump when entering and exiting the northbound bridge.
Nobody was hurt when a small plane made an emergency landing on the Glenn Highway near Eklutuna on Sept. 6.
A plan that could bring a windfall to local taxpayers continued to move forward at Beach Lake Park, where the assessment process was beginning to determine the value of 1,400 acres of the 1,700-acre municipal park. The parkland is being considered for a conservation easement through the Compatible Lands Foundation, a nonprofit that secures easements on behalf of the Department of Defense. If the deal goes through, the foundation would pay the local Parks and Recreation department to ensure it continues operating the park just as it has. The easement is being sought because the DOD wants to keep the parkland as a buffer space between Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and nearby communities.
Anchorage and Eagle River Parks and Recreation Director John Rodda retired after more than four decades of municipal service. Rodda began his career as a facilities manager at the Anchorage Sports Arena and went on to manage the McDonald Center and lead Eagle River’s successful hosting of the Arctic Winter Games before taking over as both Eagle River/Chugiak and Anchorage Parks director.
Chugiak-Eagle River schools placed among the best in the Anchorage School District on standardized test results released by the state. According to the results of the 2018-19 PEAKS and science assessments, Eagle Academy Charter School had the highest scores of any school in the district, while Eagle River High topped the eight ASD high schools in both math and science, with Chugiak students ranking third in math and English and second in science. Area middle and elementary schools also performed well above average relative to their peers in the district.
A student at Fire Lake Elementary brought a knife and loaded handgun to school, according to police and district officials. There were no injuries in the incident and police made no arrests. Police said students who saw the weapons while on the school bus reported them to a teacher, who “separated” the student from the weapons.
Nearly two dozen paratroopers from the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson-based 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division were hurt when they were blown off course during a training jump in Mississippi. The injuries ranged from a broken back to cuts and bruises, said the Army, which was investigating the incident.
Police said Justin Suswind, 34, shot a woman in Chugiak before turning the gun on himself during an Oct. 3 incident. The woman survived the shooting with what police described as non life-threatening injuries.
Eagle river nurse practitioner Jessica Spayd, 48, was arrested on federal narcotics charges after allegedly prescribing large amounts of opioids to patients without medical examinations and without medical necessity. According to a federal indictment, Spayd — who owns Eagle River Wellness — prescribed drugs to patients as far away as Utqiagvik, King Salmon and other remote locations.
The Native Village of Eklutna was in federal court against the U.S. Interior Department seeking to classify an 8-acre land allotment in Birchwood as “Indian Country” for the purposes of opening a small casino. The tribe argued the tribe should be given jurisdiction over the land and allowed to open the facility, which would house pull tabs, bingo and lottery type games, including electronic versions of the games.
The Eklutna Valley Community Council voted to distance itself from the Eaglexit movement, passing a resolution saying it wants nothing to do with the effort to separate Assembly District 2 from the Municipality of Anchorage.
There were far fewer bears killed in the Municipality of Anchorage over the summer than in previous years, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Through late October, just four brown bears and two black bears had been killed either by citizens in defense of life or property or by agency staff. That compares to 42 total bears killed in 2018 and 34 killed in 2017. Of the six bears killed, ADFG said five were shot in the Eagle River area.
Two Chugiak-Eagle River residents filed letters of intent to run for the Anchorage Assembly in the April election, including Jamie Allard and Gretchen Wehmhoff. The filing period is Jan. 1 through Feb. 1, but the letters allow candidates to raise money for their campaigns.
Willow catkins — better known as pussy willows — were blooming on Mount Baldy in what UAA botanist Justin Fulkerson called a “pretty much unprecedented” event. The cause of the blooms was an unusually warm fall, which kept temperatures well above normal into November, according to the National Weather Service. The warming trend was the fault of a persistent high pressure ridge that was forcing cold Arctic air south into the Lower 48 and away from mainland Alaska, according to a meteorologist with the service.
A brown bear that was suspected of breaking into chicken coops in the Eagle River Valley was shot and killed by a homeowner on West Lake Drive. The shooting was deemed in defense of life or property and brought to seven the total number of bears killed in the municipality in 2019 — six of them in Eagle River.
School district officials said the total cost to repair and improve Gruening Middle School will be nearly $40 million. The revised cost estimate was about $15 million more than recommended by an ad hoc committee of parents and local residents. District officials said the money is needed both for earthquake repairs and improvements that will extend the life of the school. Gruening cost about $27 million to build in the early 1980s.
Municipal inspectors and academics said the cause of higher earthquake damage to residential property in Eagle River was likely due to lax oversight. According to municipal building inspectors, homes in the Eagle River area showed a higher rate of damage, and follow-up inspections showed widespread deficiencies in building techniques. The officials pinned the blame on the area’s refusal to be included in the municipality’s Building Safety Area, which mandates homes must undergo plan review and municipal inspection; that’s not currently the case in Chugiak-Eagle River, where homes must be built to the same codes as elsewhere in the municipality but don’t undergo the same inspection process.
An armed man robbed the Vitus convenience store on Nov. 26 in Chugiak, making off with an undisclosed amount of cash, according to the Anchorage Police Department. Police said they did not locate a suspect.
Locals found themselves divided over a controversial proposal to combine Chugiak and Eagle River High School rather than rebuild Gruening Middle School. Proponents of the plan said it would save money and create more educational opportunities for area students; opponents argued it was a short-sighted plan that would lead to crowded schools. The issue came to a head with the circulation of dueling petitions and a public town hall meeting attended by hundreds of people at Mirror Lake Middle School, where each side debated the merits of their ideas.
However, the Anchorage School Board and Anchorage Assembly both endorsed a plan to seek more than $80 million in bond funding to rebuild Gruening, which would in effect kill any reunification talks. If the bond does not pass, district officials said they’re still not confident a combined Chugiak and Eagle River High would be a feasible alternative.
The annual Winter Wonderland and Merry Merchant Munch events returned to Eagle River after a one-year hiatus due to the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake. The events attracted hundreds of people to downtown Eagle River for two days of winter fun including Christmas carols, a visit from Santa Claus, a community Christmas tree lighting and two days of treats and goodies served up by local businesses.
Students in Brian Mason’s World Discovery Seminar class at Chugiak High got a unique hands-on lesson when Mason brought a moose to school for the students to butcher. Mason shot the moose on a special educational permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the students spent the day cutting the meat into pieces, removing it from the bone and eventually packaging it into steaks and burger meat. The meat was later donated to charity.
The Birchwood Community Council voted to oppose the construction of a casino by the Native Village of Eklutna, saying such a facility would not comply with the area’s comprehensive plan.
School district officials and structural engineers led interested community members on a tour of quake-damaged Gruening Middle School, which they said held up well in the November 2018 earthquake. The officials said the school did suffer major damage, but that it can be fully fixed and made safer than it was before the quake struck.
The Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution opening a formal dialogue with the Native Village of Eklutna. The resolution came after a lengthy debate about whether the effort was tied to the tribe’s ongoing effort to build a casino in Birchwood, but supporters said the two are unrelated.
Got a news tip? Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274?