The COVID-19 pandemic left its mark on 2021 and appears to still be a factor as we enter 2022. At the start of 2021, there was hope that the pandemic would soon come to an end but another variant has since emerged, and so the pandemic continues.
Earlier this year when vaccines were made available, hospitals and medical clinics across Liberty County answered the challenge by setting up testing sites and vaccine clinics. Texas Emergency Hospital in Cleveland became a vaccine hub, administering more than 42,000 vaccines from January to October 2021.
Despite the pandemic, life went on for Liberty County residents with the county, cities and schools moving forward on projects to improve and enhance the lives of residents.
In Dayton, we watched the construction of the Grand Parkway, which will impact Liberty County for generations to come and should be completed in spring 2022. We also saw Cleveland ISD tackle unprecedented growth that made it the fastest-growing school district in Texas and we also learned about the unintended consequences that homeschooling students is having on Hardin ISD, which lost 200-plus students this school year, causing a budget shortfall of $1.2 million in annual revenue.
Of the 2,617 articles posted by Bluebonnet News in 2021, these are the Publisher’s Picks for Top 10 news stories of the year:
1. School bond rejected, elections failed
Supporters of Cleveland ISD’s efforts to pass a $150 million bond were disappointed in November when the measure failed by a mere 53 votes – 493 against and 439 for what was promised to be a zero tax rate increase proposal. The bond would have provided for a new high school in the Colony Ridge communities to the south of Cleveland to address overcrowding at the high school campus in Cleveland.
Few issues on the November 2 ballot had people more at odds than the Liberty County Hospital District #1 proposal to build a new hospital at the intersection of SH 146 and FM 1011 in Liberty. Had it passed, the bond would have authorized the hospital district to assess additional property taxes of $0.09 per $100 valuation on properties within the district. It also would have allowed the hospital district to borrow $43 million in bonds to fund construction and capital expenditures on a new hospital in Liberty and a free-standing emergency clinic in Dayton.
Voters also rejected a tax rate increase for Liberty ISD, which has been hurt by sinking property valuations associated with Boomerang Tube, and a sales and use tax to benefit Emergency Services District #2 in the Hull-Daisetta area.
2. Census numbers prompt redistricting of commissioner precincts
Some residents in Liberty County are now located in new precincts thanks to changes in the U.S. Census numbers that were released this year. While it could be argued that Liberty County’s true population was undercounted due to the pandemic and changes in the way the Census numbers were gathered, or a distrust among illegal residents in sharing demographic information with the Census, the official number stands at 86,994 people. That number meant that the lines of each of the county’s four precincts had to redrawn with roughly 21, 749 residents.
Hull and Daisetta are now part of Pct. 1, Cleveland is split among Pct. 2 and 3 commissioners and a section on the far southwest side of the county near the upcoming River Ranch community is now part of Pct. 1. Pct. 2 remains the biggest precinct as it is more rural and less-populated than the other three precincts.
With redistricting came new voting precincts. Commissioners approved a plan for the new voting precincts in November. The plan consolidates some precincts, eliminates others and creates one new precinct.
3. Industrial jobs coming to Liberty County
Thousands of acres of former farmland and timberland are being turned into industrial developments in Liberty County. In April, the City of Dayton hosted a groundbreaking for the Gulf Inland Logistics Park, an industrial center that is projected to bring $100 million in private investment and as many as 5,000 living wage jobs to Liberty County in the coming years.
Located on a 1,050-acre tract on US 90 between State Highway 146 South and the Grand Parkway, Gulf Inland Industrial Park will be a multi-modal transportation and logistics center with direct connections to the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. The proximity to the Houston Ship Channel and the Houston-area petrochemical industry is part of what made Dayton a prime location.
To the north, BNSF Railroad is working to develop a new logistics center designed to help rail-served businesses increase their reach and speed to the densely populated Houston market and surrounding area.
Located next to I-69 and SH 105, the site provides unrestricted access to the Greater Houston area. With more than 1,100 total acres, the business park is capable of handling multiple commodities offering a rail-served site that is customizable to fit the needs of customers. The facility features more than 20 new customer sites and has the ability to serve both manifest mixed freight and unit train single commodity customers.
4. Leadership changes made in Cleveland and Dayton
Two city managers announced their plans to seek other positions in 2021. After four years on the job in Dayton, Theo Melancon left to take a city manager position in Dickinson, Texas. After less than a year as Cleveland City Manager, Bobby Pennington also is leaving for a city manager position in the Houston area. Pennington previously served for six years as assistant city manager and finance director.
The City of Dayton used an executive headhunting firm to find its new city manager – Steve Floyd, whose official start date is Jan. 4, 2022. Floyd comes to Dayton with more than 34 years of municipal government experience. For the past four years, he was the public works director for the City of Mont Belvieu and previously served as assistant city manager for the City of Lufkin.
The City of Cleveland has not yet appointed an interim city manager as Pennington’s last day on the job is Jan. 15. He is expected to guide the city through the process of hiring an executive search firm and selecting an interim city manager. Pennington has been busy working on a transition plan to ease the process for the new city manager.
Of the three major cities in Liberty County, only Liberty has remained unchanged with Tom Warner still serving as city manager, Naomi Herrington as finance director/assistant city manager and Chris Jarmon as economic and community development director/assistant city manager.
5. County breaks ground on new law enforcement center
In April, Liberty County commissioners, County Judge Jay Knight, Sheriff Bobby Rader and others gathered for the groundbreaking of a new law enforcement center on a 39-acre tract of land just north of North Main Baptist Church in Liberty.
The law enforcement center will include a new headquarters in the main building for the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and the Liberty County Office of Emergency Management, and offices in the annex for the Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace and Constable, Texas game wardens, Texas Department of Public Safety personnel and the Texas Rangers.
The County has budgeted $25 million for the project. The sheriff’s office/OEM building will be roughly 49,000 square feet and the annex will be 9,000 square feet. The buildings are expected to be ready by spring to summer of 2022.
6. New campuses under construction in ever-growing Cleveland ISD
In August of 2021, Cleveland ISD opened its new campus – Pine Burr Elementary – located in the Grand San Jacinto community of the Colony Ridge development south of Plum Grove.
Elementary No. 6 and Middle School No. 2 are under construction in the Santa Fe Section 10 neighborhood along Grand San Jacinto Drive south of Plum Grove and are slated to open in 2022. The new schools are a short distance from Pine Burr Elementary, located in Santa Fe Section 6. Elementary No. 6 is around the same size as the two-story, 130,000-square-foot Cottonwood Elementary, which opened in August 2020. Both new campuses will feature a cafetorium, gym, black box theater and a band hall, though the middle school campus will have a larger gym. The unnamed campuses will be named by the school board once they are further into the construction process.
To the north in Cleveland, a new Northside Elementary campus is being built. It is a 135,000-square-foot, two-story building for a target enrollment of 1,100 students. The school is located on an 80-acre property on FM 2025 west of Cleveland that has room for a third middle school and future expansion. It will open in July 2022.
The new Northside Elementary campus prompted the City to move quickly on its plans to build a new elevated water storage tank on the northwest side of the city. Plans on how to repurpose the old Northside Elementary campus are still being decided.
While it is not part of Cleveland ISD, International Leadership of Texas (ILTexas), a free public charter school network, is building a new campus within the school district’s boundaries in the Santa Fe community. Ground was broken for the new charter school in September 2021.
The new school will be named the ILTexas Brigadier General Ramirez K-8 campus and will open in the 2022-2023 school year. In addition to the ILTexas BG Ramirez K-8, ILTexas plans to open a second kindergarten through eighth-grade campus and a high school in the 2023-2024 school year. Both K-8 campuses will serve 1,416 students, and the high school will serve 1,200 students.
7. Fiber project in Dayton rolls out
People who live in and do business in Dayton will be happy when the DayNet fiber internet project is finally complete. Last month, the City began testing its fiber internet connections in order to bring the first customers online in December.
The fiber internet project, owned by the City of Dayton, is expected to be a game-changer as it will provide high-speed internet to roughly 98 percent of the City’s utility customers.
The project was funded by a $13.7 million bond and involves the installation of 70 miles of fiber optic lines throughout the city of Dayton. The new system is capable of providing download speeds of 1 GB per second for residential customers. The starting download speed for businesses is 100 MB per second.
For residential customers, the one-time cost to install the service is $75, which includes a wireless and wired modem, and another $79.99 for the monthly service. Business customers will be quoted for service depending on their specific needs.
For more information on DayNet or to sign up for service, go online to https://mydaynet.com/
8. County opens new court at law courtroom
In November, a grand opening celebration was held for the new Liberty County Court at Law No. 2 in the Liberty County Courthouse. Located in the first-floor area previously occupied by the Liberty County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, the Court at Law No. 2 was created in 2019 when Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 717 to help ease the logjam of cases in the County’s three other courts – County Court at Law No. 1, 75th State District Court and 253rd State District Court.
Both county courts of law hear Class A and B misdemeanor criminal cases, felony juvenile cases, justice of the peace appeals and family law cases, among others. Judge Wes Hinch serves the County Court at Law No. 2 while Judge Tommy Chambers serves the County Court at Law No. 1.
In order to create a space for the new courtroom, the tax office was moved out of the courthouse to 3210 US 90 in Liberty.
9. Two overpass projects widely anticipated in Dayton
Anyone who has driven through the Dayton area in recent years knows that traffic has become a problem in recent years, particularly when trains are turning across US 90 at the Union Pacific Railroad lines at Waco Street.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, it is now working on design plans for a railroad overpass and plans are to hold a public meeting about the overpass design by summer 2022. TxDOT has also hired a consultant to design the plans.
TxDOT’s hiring of a consultant puts the project closer to reality, though traffic relief is still a few years into the future. Once the consultant comes up with a design, the project must still go through bid letting before a contractor is selected. After that, actual construction of the project can begin.
The project is an estimated $40 million investment into the Dayton area by TxDOT, according to Liberty County Judge Jay Knight.
Knight envisions the overpass will start on the east side near the north entrance to the Stripes store, just west of SH 146, and exit on the west side near the Best Western motel.
Farther to the west on US 90 at FM 1413 will be the second of the two overpasses. The location is at one of the most dangerous intersections in Liberty County.
The estimated cost for this project is $17 million, according to a statement from TxDOT in February 2021. The overpass will have US 90 traffic traveling over FM 1413. Underneath the overpass will be a stop-controlled intersection for cross traffic on FM 1413 and the frontage roads.
10. Liberty wraps up golf course renovations
The City of Liberty is finishing a $2.8 million renovation project at Liberty Municipal Golf Course, formerly known as Magnolia Ridge Golf Course. The nine-hole, 120-acre public course was redesigned by Jeff Blume. The project was funded entirely by the City’s Cambridge Fund, which comes from profits from the Sam Rayburn Municipal Power Agency.
The golf course is expected to open in mid-January, though it will close a second time briefly while warm-season turf is installed.
Among the recent renovations are improved greens and sand traps, additional cart paths, the installation of a water well for a new irrigation system, improved drainage and a new bathroom facility.
In early December, The Oaks at Magnolia Ridge opened in the golf course clubhouse. Owned by Scott and Jolee Neal, owners of the former Red Top Treats in Liberty, the restaurant has been widely received by diners and has even been booked for celebrations and social gatherings.
For more information on the golf course, go online to http://www.libertygolfcourse.com/. The restaurant’s menu and other information can be found by searching for The Oaks at Magnolia Ridge on Facebook.
Other highlights from 2021:
Over the course of 2021, Bluebonnet News reached nearly 7 million in total page views. Of those, these were the most-read stories:
- Body of missing UPS driver found in Walker County
- A family’s anguish: COVID claims life of 12-year-old Dayton boy
- Standoff in Liberty County ends in suicide
- Missing Liberty man found alive
- Possible dragging death under investigation in north Liberty County neighborhood
- Couple dies of COVID-19 just days apart
- Murder investigation underway in Dayton
- Dayton man convicted of triple murder of men lured to his home for yardwork