2018 was a year of continued growth and change for Hermiston, which surpassed 18,000 residents this year. As the year comes to a close we look back on some of the most notable stories:
The new year represented a new beginning for the Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce, which opened the doors in a new location at the Cornerstone Plaza on Jan. 2.
On Jan. 8, the city of Hermiston voted to give Lamb Weston a 15-year tax break on a $250 million expansion of its french fry factory. In lieu of property taxes, the company will pay Hermiston and Umatilla County $500,000 apiece for the next 15 years. Later, in April, Governor Kate Brown would visit the facility and present a $500,000 check from the state’s strategic reserve fund.
Community mental health provider Lifeways received an ultimatum from its parent organization, Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., in January: make key changes to services, or risk losing its contract. Several community groups and law enforcement leaders were frustrated about the organization’s crisis response time, and the reliance on emergency rooms and jail for people in crisis. Lifeways hired an outside consultant to help with those goals.
The Oregon National Guard announced on Jan. 11 that Camp Umatilla, the training facility at the former Umatilla Chemical Depot outside of Hermiston, would get a $25 million upgrade. While transfer of the rest of the depot’s land to local control was discussed throughout 2018, the year once again ended with the property still in the Army’s control. (See Page A3)
Stanfield Secondary School Principal Beth Burton stepped into the role of district superintendent after an abrupt departure by former school chief Shelley Liscom. Liscom had announced her resignation in December after a few months of contention with the board, initially planning to stay until the end of the year. When the board selected Burton as her successor, they asked Liscom to step down early and appointed Burton to the role in the middle of the year.
Hermiston became even more aligned with Washington schools, following its entry into the WIAA sports conference by aligning its spring break with its northern neighbors instead of Oregon. The decision by the school board caused concern among some community members, who felt it would disrupt testing and make it difficult for teachers with children in different districts.
On Feb. 12, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley issued a statement saying they did not support Hermiston native Ryan Bounds as a nominee for the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a liberal judicial activist group published college writings of Bounds’ they described as “inflammatory” concerning race and gender. Bounds had been nominated for the position in January, but after months of controversy the White House ultimately withdrew the nomination in July.
March 3 brought good tidings to the Hermiston chamber, which was awarded $1 million for a building to house its offices, a welcome center and workforce training in the legislature’s capital construction bill. The Umatilla County Jail faced disappointment the same day after finding out the jail would not be getting $1 million that Sheriff Terry Rowan requested for an expansion that would better accommodate mentally ill inmates.
After experiencing tragedies with several of their peers dying to suicide in the past few years, Hermiston High School students decided to start a campaign to look out for each other. Though not in response to any one incident, the “We Care” project focused on positive messages and aimed at changing school culture, with leadership students posting signs around school and around town with uplifting messages to promote mental health and openness.
On March 12, the city of Hermiston took full control of the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center after what had previously been an equal partnership with Umatilla County. Commissioner George Murdock had first proposed the idea in January. Later in the month, Al Davis became EOTEC’s general manager.
The same day, the city council approved an agreement with the county for a $4.6 million project to build a new water tower and pipes in the northeast part of Hermiston to encourage housing development. They agreed to use Lamb Weston’s payments in lieu of taxes to fund it.
As stories of gun violence in schools across the nation made headlines, 300 Hermiston students took to their own campus to protest, joining students around the U.S. in a walkout. The protest was 17 minutes long, each minute for one of the people killed at a shooting in a Parkland, Florida high school a month prior.
In April Dr. Joseph Gifford, a longtime staple of Hermiston’s medical community, retired, and Good Shepherd Medical Center assumed ownership of the practice. Gifford, who spent 44 years as a family practitioner in Eastern Oregon, worked as a family doctor, obstetrician and urgent care physician, treating thousands of community members over the years.
Hermiston’s Walmart Distribution Center, one of the community’s largest employers, celebrated its 20-year anniversary on April 10. The D.C. employs about 1,100 people. Manager Josh Burns said the goods passing through the center in the past 20 years represent about $54 billion in revenue.
May brought changes for the Hermiston Herald and its sister paper the East Oregonian as former publisher Kathryn Brown stepped down to start a new magazine called The Other Oregon, and Chris Rush took her place as publisher.
A disagreement between the city of Umatilla and Umatilla County over how the two entities should split strategic investment payments by Amazon came to a head in May.
The month was also a turbulent one for Hermiston’s farmers market. On May 9, businessman Mitch Meyers, who had been tapped to run the market, announced he was canceling it for the summer due to a dispute with the city’s building department. He changed his mind a few days later after the city volunteered to run the market in front of city hall instead, and the Maxwell Market on Meyers’ property ended up drawing crowds all summer.
During the May 15 primary election, Doug Smith and Jackie Meyers kept their Hermiston city council seats, Roy Barron was elected for the first time and a race between Jackie Linton, Mark Gomolski and incumbent Lori Davis became a November run-off between Gomolski and Davis.
On May 31, Eastern Oregon Telecom announced executives Joe Franell, Paul Keeler and Richard Holbo bought out the company from Umatilla Electric Cooperative. In June, EOT opened new offices on Kelli Blvd.
Hermiston saw more than its share of violence in the early hours of June 4. Just hours apart, police responded to a stabbing, and two unrelated gunshot deaths. The two victims of the stabbings recovered, and the perpetrator has since been charged. No suspect has been publicly named in either shooting death.
After months of debate by school board and community members, Hermiston High School’s Class of 2018 walked across the stage at Kennewick’s Toyota Center. The board voted to continue holding graduation there in subsequent years to accommodate the growing student body.
An early-morning fire destroyed much of the Hermiston Seventh-day Adventist church, engulfing the entire west side of the building. Fire Marshal Scott Goff said foul play was not suspect, and the culprit was thought to be a lamp too close to a wooden table.
On June 27, Umatilla city manager Russ Pelleberg resigned to pursue a new job in Washington. Community development director Tamra Mabbott served as an interim city manager until David Stockdale was hired in September.
On July 14, Hermiston celebrated the opening of its new festival street in front of city hall with a ribbon-cutting and bathtub races.
During the month of July the Hermiston city council also began to reconsider its food truck rules, which residents complained were too restrictive. In August the city finally lifted some restrictions, including raising the cap on the number of licenses.
A fire at the entrance of Hat Rock State Park didn’t harm any structures, but closed the only road in and out of the park and residential area for more than an hour, and burned about 20 acres.
Port of Morrow manager Gary Neal retired after nearly 30 years at the helm, and was succeeded by his son, Ryan, who was previously the port’s warehousing manager. The port board interviewed several candidates, and held a public meet-and-greet with four, before selecting the younger Neal.
August brought the Umatilla County Fair, and it was an especially memorable one for those who witnessed one lamb at the youth auction bring in more than $23,300 for Maddy Thomas, an 11-year-old 4-H student with a brain tumor.
After a year on military leave, Hermiston Superintendent Fred Maiocco submitted his resignation on the first day of school, citing extended military duties that would keep him away longer than expected. The board unanimously selected interim superintendent Tricia Mooney to assume the permanent role. Mooney had previously served as the district’s Human Resources director, and was the interim school chief for a year.
Hermiston High School officially joined the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in fall 2018, joining a larger and more competitive league, and cutting down on travel time for sports teams.
More than a year after he was charged with the death of James Cragun, Hermiston resident Tyree Houfmuse was cleared of murder charges, and sentenced to a few months in jail for felon in possession of a firearm. In a string of pre-trial hearings, Houfmuse claimed self-defense, and while the entry point of the bullet into Cragun’s body made it impossible for the incident to have happened as Houfmuse claimed, his DNA was not found on the gun, and prosecutors had insufficient evidence to convict him.
Echo School’s newly remodeled building was unveiled as a spot for all community members to use and enjoy. The new facility, which included a gymnasium, classrooms, art room and woodshop, also featured a public workout room and gathering space that any city resident could use, and was the result of $8 million of bond money and state grants.
Hermiston’s new senior center, known as the Harkenrider Senior Activity Center, opened in front of an eager crowd on Sept. 8. The 7,000-square foot center, named for late Hermiston mayor and the city’s biggest fan, Frank Harkenrider, boasts gathering areas, a deck, a gas fireplace and a commercial kitchen.
Hermiston School District was sued for $38.9 million by a family who said their son suffered multiple head injuries while on the junior varsity football team, and cited the inaction of district and athletics staff to ensure proper followups. Todd and Dawna Martin filed a lawsuit on behalf of their son Connor, stating that he was allowed to return to the field after a concussion, and that staff did not inform them, nor direct him to see a doctor. They cited bodily injury, medical costs and emotional distress. As of December 2018, the case has been moved to federal court.
An expansion of EOTEC got underway on Oct. 8 when the Hermiston city council hired Knerr Construction to begin design work on new offices for the fair and an upgrade of the RV park.
On Oct. 16 Columbia Court Club owner Steve Watkinds announced he had sold the property after a fire led to two years of fighting to re-open what had been the only building in Hermiston with an indoor pool. The new owners haven’t yet announced themselves or their plans for the property.
Pendleton Grain Growers put 122 acres of industrial land in Hermiston up for sale in October, suggesting the property across from Hinkle Rail Yard could be the future home of a large shipping operation.
The general election on Nov. 6 brought a resolution to campaigns that had run throughout the year. Lori Davis successfully defended her council seat against Mark Gomolski and county commissioner George Murdock beat challenger Rick Pullen.
Hermiston drivers had to get used to two new traffic signals on 11th Street, at Elm Avenue and Orchard Avenue.
The Hermiston Warming Station opened on Nov. 19 after a last-minute surge of volunteers. The nonprofit emergency shelter had been planning to delay opening after a volunteer shortage.
Portland State University’s annual population report, released in November, announced Hermiston had passed the 18,000 population mark.
An improved Insurance Services Office rating for Umatilla County Fire District announced in December should mean lower home and business insurance premiums in Hermiston and Stanfield.
The Port of Morrow continues to grow, netting a $19 million federal grant, which they will use to make upgrades to the rail system. The grant will allow for expanded rail-to-barge loading at several marine terminals at the port.
On Dec. 11, Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce president Debbie Pedro announced she was stepping down after 18 years to pursue a new career opportunity.
After dealing with the closure of Interstate 82’s Oregon-bound bridge throughout 2018, moving all traffic across the river to a single two-lane bridge, residents found out in December that construction on the bridge has fallen behind, delaying completion to sometime in the spring or summer of 2019.
Hermiston residents also waited all year for the opening of retailer Ranch & Home, which had originally been set to open in December 2017, but the store remained closed through the end of 2018.