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2020: A Look Back

The Harrodsburg Herald/Jennifer Marsh
Naomi Jones held hands with her best friend Lily Terrell as they marched with protesters in Burgin this past June.

2020 has not been the kindest of years, however there have been some bright spots. We take a look back at some of the stories that gained quite a bit of reaction from the community.

COVIS-19 hits Mercer County

During one of the most contentious years in American history, nothing dominated the news cycle—both here in Mercer County and the rest of the world—like the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s almost shocking to think that the first case was confirmed barely nine months ago. On March 6, Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency after Julia Donohue, 27, of Cynthiana, was diagnosed with COVID-19. It wasn’t until March 27 that the the first case was diagnosed here in Mercer County. The first death from COVID-19 wasn’t recorded in Mercer County until Aug. 20, when the governor announced an 82-year-old man had died.

By then, the U.S. was the epicenter of the pandemic, having surpassed China, where the disease was first identified, and Europe for the dubious honor. Nearly a quarter of all the people who have been diagnosed with the disease are Americans, while nearly 350,000 Americans have died so far.

As the disease has spread, the collateral damage has been nearly as bad, with businesses closing down, some permanently, and millions left unemployed. Over the past nine months how we live our lives—how we shop, how we eat, how we greet each other, how we gather together in groups, how we conduct business—have all changed. The cloth face mask has become an indispensable fashion accessory and many Americans have learned what it’s like to go to the grocery store and find empty shelves.

In the last month, we’ve finally begun to receive some good news. Last week, local first responders received the first of two doses of the vaccine. State and local officials say residents and staff at long term care facilities and local hospitals will receive the vaccine as well.

But the pandemic is far from over. Officials are saying the general public will not be vaccinated in large numbers until this summer. And even if the nation achieves herd immunity, it will take a long time to learn to live with the new normal. 

Bellows Mill Shooting

Police launched a massive manhunt to find the suspect involved with the shooting on Bellows Mill Road this summer.

On Thursday, June 11, at approximately 11:54 a.m., the Harrodsburg Police Department received a report  that a man had been shot outside a home on Bellows Mill Road. The victim, subsequently identified as Austin Hines, was taken by ambulance to UK Medical Center in Lexington for treatment.

The shooter fled the scene. His car was recovered on Cogar Avenue, according to Harrodsburg Police Chief Brian Allen, the investigating officer. The manhunt to find the suspect grew to include not just the HPD and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, but the Kentucky State Police, the Lexington Police Department, Burgin Police Chief Chad Baker, the Harrodsburg Fire Department and David Sexton, who provided a drone to assist in the search.

The suspect, subsequently identified as Robert William Lewis, 46, of Wilmore, surrendered to the state police in Nicholasville nearly 12 hours after the shooting. Lewis was charged with attempted murder and1st-degree wanton endangerment. He pled not guilty.

The case is still winding its way through the courts. According to the Mercer County Circuit Clerk’s Office, Lewis has a status hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 9 a.m.

Solar Power In Mercer

Perhaps no story generated more heat than a proposed text amendment to local zoning ordinances which would have allowed solar farms as conditional uses in A-1 (agriculture) and R-1 (residential) zoning districts.

The text amendment was linked to a proposed $150 million solar farm that would be built on the old Wilkinson farm. The proposed solar farm would have about half a million panels spread across 1,200 acres. Once fully operational, the plant would be capable of generating 175 megawatts. It would also generate 300 construction jobs and  up to $9 million in revenue for the county over 35 years, according to the developers.

Even though there is already a solar farm in Mercer County—Kentucky Utilities opened a 10 megawatt solar facility at the E.W. Brown Generating Station in Burgin in 2016—the proposal also generated strong opposition from Mercer County residents. They voiced their opposition at meetings held through the summer and the fall by the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Planning—who voted in July to approve the text amendment—and Zoning Commission and the Mercer County Fiscal Court—who voted in October to deny it.

Sarah Steele said she was representing the vast majority of community members who live around the project and the farming community. Steele said she was concerned the text amendment would open the floodgates for other companies. Steele questioned whether the solar farm would benefit local industry. She said she worried about the impact the solar farm would have on Mercer County’s historic heritage and on nearby property values.

Stephen Bailey called himself a farmer and a conservationist. Bailey called farmland the most precious thing one could ever have.

“Farmland is one of a kind and it’s not being made anymore,” he said.

The same week the Mercer County Fiscal Court voted unanimously to deny the text amendment, the developers opened an office in downtown Harrodsburg.

Drew Gibbons, the project manager, said the fiscal court’s vote on the text amendment was a significant setback for solar development but said they had not given up on the potential of solar power.

“We plan to continue to advocate for solar in the county, using our office on Main Street as a resource center to serve those interested in learning more about residential, recreational, and utility-scale solar technology,” Gibbons said.

Harrodsburg Develops Homeless Taskforce

Homelessness in the City of Harrodsburg was a hot topic at several city meetings starting in March. The amount of homeless people increased in Mercer County and many residents have voiced their concerns.

“We started the homeless taskforce to address concerns when it became clear this was an issue in Harrodsburg,” said Jack Coleman, taskforce chairman. “The goal was to get everyone involved into the same room to identify the issues and try to come up with solutions.”

The Taskforce has members from the health department, law enforcement, the ministerial association, service providers, education, civic organizations and city officials.

The August meeting of the homeless taskforce was attended by Robert Conway, commissioner of State Parks and colonel of the state park rangers, due to the increased property damage at Old Fort Harrod State Park by the homeless population.

“I have a big heart and am a church member,” said Conway. “I care about these folks.”

Conway and the other Taskforce members visited the homeless camps near Fort Harrod.

“There were about 20 or so people, many with cars staying in the back at the picnic shelter and around,” said Conway. “Balancing the needs of the citizens, visitors and park with the homeless left one conclusion-We need to enforce the rules already in place. Meaning there is no camping and the park closes at dusk.”

Residents Speak Out At Homeless Forum

The Mercer County Homeless Taskforce held a community forum on Thursday, Sept. 24 to address the homeless issues facing Harrodsburg.

“If you need a job community action can help, if you need a GED we can help, services are available to help with rent, utilities and mental health,” said Jack Coleman, Taskforce Chairman. “We have tried to develop a network of opportunities to help. We didn’t have this network when we first started.”

Pastor Paul Gibson of Harrodsburg Baptist Church said his church offers help to those in need with a team that works to help individuals but he understands the public frustration.

“We are in the heart of the city. This challenge hits us too. Just last week we had a couple sleep behind some bushes located next to our day care,” said Gibson. “We found a couple of needles and someone defecated next to the door where we walk in the children.”

Marian Bauer, long time resident of Harrodsburg, thanked the panel for not only providing the community forum but for trying to help the community solve the problems.

“I found a full bag of human waste in the middle of Cane Run. I walk my dog and pick up litter often. I talk to these people,” said Bauer. “I have done jail ministry for years and I care but drug addiction is an issue. If we don’t deal with the drugs the issues will remain.”

Ernie Kelty, Sheriff for Mercer County spoke to the crowd.

“We can all agree the homeless population today is different,” said Kelty. “We are facing a newer problem than we have ever seen in the past. We need to talk to cities who have been dealing with this a lot longer than us.”

Kelty said his office gets calls every day regarding homeless.

Many residents complimented the responsiveness of the police and sheriff department.

Needle Nests Found

Needle nests were found in Harrodsburg in October. A needle nest is defined as an illegal encampment on private or public property in which an abundance of drug needles are found according to Eric Ruehs, code enforcement officer for Harrodsburg Police Department.

“These encampments, although primitive in nature are actually well constructed with makeshift walls and a roof,” said Ruehs. “Seven hundred and eighty pounds of debris was removed from an encampment behind the O’Riley’s Auto Parts Store”

Ruehs said in a joint effort with the city’s street department superintendent, Albert Moore and the fire department’s assistant chief Logan Steele clean up efforts have continued through out the city.

Ruehs said the encampments are hard to see and are purposely placed behind bushes and other obstructions.

“Please be warned and do not approach encampments,” said Ruehs.

Ruehs said he would like to thank the fire department and the city for their efforts in the clean up process of these camps.

Moore said he cleaned up a separate needle nest behind the Beaumont Inn sign on 127 on Tuesday, Oct. 6, removing 480 pounds of debris.

“It was another encampment with needles,” said Moore. “We try to clean them up as soon as we find them.”

Protesters Took To The Streets In Mercer

Protesters took to the streets across Mercer County in June, joining the hundreds others around the country.  Protests were held in both Harrodsburg and Burgin throughout the month of June.

“We just wanted everyone to know the color of your skin should not matter,” said Amy Trigg, protestor in Harrodsburg. “ I worry for my husband and son every day.”

Trigg said although Mercer County has less racism than other places it still exists here.  “Even if people don’t believe they need to understand the worry,” said Trigg.

DiAmber Ford mirrored Trigg’s sentiment waving her poster as cars drove by.

“We are here to bring awareness to the injustice in the justice system,” said Ford. “Black lives matter.”

All protests in Mercer County were peaceful and most passing vehicles waved or honked in support.

Mercer County leadership called a community forum on Tuesday, June 16, to open a dialogue about the civil unrest felt across the country. Tiffany Yeast, moderator of the forum asked the panel, which consisted of faith, civil and education leaders. Questions were submitted and community members were allowed to ask questions as well.

Questions ranged from diversity within leadership positions to concerns about a local neighborhood watch group over stepping.

Pastor Phil Yates of Little Zion Baptist Church, a former state trooper and a deputy with the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, took exception with a popular protest slogan: defund the police. “They don’t need to be defunded,” Yates said. “I think they need to be defended.”

The 2020 General Election

The 2020 general election was one of the most bitterly contested campaigns in American history, with Pres. Donald Trump refusing to concede the race to President-elect Joe Biden.

Here in Mercer County, the election was relatively quiet, with the only contested election being the Harrodsburg City Commission, where five candidates running for four positions.

The real election story in Mercer County was early turnout. Due to the pandemic, many voters opted to either vote for mail or to cast early ballots at the clerk’s office. On the Tuesday before election day, at least 20-percent of Mercer County’s registered voters had already cast their ballots, according to the Mercer County Clerk’s Office. In Kentucky, over 1-million people voted, with 481,759 voting by mail and 529,529 voting in person. Across the nation, 66 million early ballots were cast before election day, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

While lines in Mercer County were nowhere near as long as in other states, at times the line of early voters at the clerk’s office ran right out of the building. Ironically enough, on eletion day, there was no waiting at any of the five countywide voting centers.

Not long after the polls closed, the clerk’s office announced the unofficial results for the city commission race, with two newly elected commissioners—former Harrodsburg Police Chief Billy Whitenack and Ruth Ann Bryant joining incumbents Marvin “Bubby” Isham and Scott Moseley. The city commission race was a tight one, with Whitenack, who collected the most votes, only earn a little over 200 more votes than Commissioner Jack Coleman, who did not win reelection.

The only other contested race in Mercer County was for the 4th educational district seat on the Mercer County Board of Education, where both candidates were running write-in campaigns. Clifton Prewitt defeated Karen McRay Shearer, 200 to 114.

The Tourist Commission’s Wild Year

No government agency has had a more dramatic year than the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Tourist Commission, which has seen a dramatic shake-up in their board membership, in their mission and in how they conduct business.

In April, the Harrodsburg City Commissioners removed JoEtta Wickliffe as the city’s representative on the tourist commission.Wickliffe had served on the board of directors since the tourist commission’s founding in 1979, and had been instrumental in getting the restaurant and transient tax—which funded the tourist commission and the city’s tourism development fund—passed in 2007.

Mayor Art Freeman accused Wickliffe and board chair Kathryn Tuggle of entering an employment agreement with Executive-Director Karen P. Hackett without the consent of the full board. By May, both Tuggle and Hackett had resigned.

New members have since been appointed to the board, which has sought to change how the tourist commission markets the area. They hired 101 Business Solutions to create a new, interactive website and to create a new calendar of events.

The board has also dealt with major changes in how the agency is funded. In March, the city commission voted to allow local restaurants—which had been forced to shut down their dining areas or close because of the coronavirus—to not pay their restaurant taxes for March and April. Later, they also voted to allow local eateries to continue not paying the restaurant tax into May.

However, because of legal concerns, the tourist commission asked for guidance from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. In August, the attorney general wrote that the city commission’s resolution was null and void under state law. Fortunately, restaurants that did not charge the public the three-percent restaurant tax during March, April and May did not have to pay.

The tourist commission still does not have an executive director.

Mother Sues Over Fatal Police Chase

The mother of an Anderson County woman who was killed in a high speed chase in 2019 sued law enforcement officers and the owners of Terrapin Hill Farm in Mercer County, but not the driver who caused the crash.

Christy Jane Hurst is suing on behalf of her daughter, Jill Tyler Hurst, who died Sept. 12, 2019, a week after a car she was riding in was struck by another vehicle while fleeing police. Hurst was 18 years old when she died.

In June 2020, lawyers representing the Hurst estate filed a complaint in Anderson Circuit Court against the officers involved in the chase—including Capt. Scott Elder of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, Patrolmen Blake Darland and Brian Cloyd of the Harrodsburg Police Department—their employers and Pete Cashel and Brenda Cashel, the owners of Terrapin Hill Farm.

Not named in the lawsuit was David Earl Henderson II, the driver of the vehicle that struck the one carrying Hurst.

According to the lawsuit, Henderson attended an event at Terrapin Hill Farm on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. The lawsuit charges the owners with failing to provide adequate security and law enforcement officers with negligently continuing their pursuit of Henderson in violation of state law. The officers’ employers, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, the cities of Harrodsburg and Lawrenceburg and the cities’ police departments, are charged with failing to properly train officers in proper procedures for high speed pursuit.

The chase began when Patrolman Cloyd, who is no longer employed by the Harrodsburg Police Department, observed a 2013 Chrysler 200 swerving while traveling north on Louisville Road. Henderson refused to stop. The chase ended in Anderson County when he crashed into a Nissan Altima carrying Hurst and three other people.

According to the Anderson County Circuit Clerk’s Office, the lawsuit is in the discovery phase and no hearings are currently scheduled.

In Sports

COVID-19 Changed Sports In 2020

In this trying and difficult time the lack of high school athletics has been disheartening for many. Many student-athletes across the country lost their opportunity to play basketball and track this year and for the seniors, they will never get that opportunity back.

It is undeniable high school athletics can enhance a student’s adolescence through competition, activity and the fun of playing a game with their friends. The same can be said for high school student athlete’s life.

“We all know that high school sports are much more than just the games we play. High school sports are about the bonds we share with each other and the memories we take away,” said head coach of the Titan soccer team Garret Stark.

The Mercer and Boyle area have a history rich in athletic achievement.

“There are three things that everybody in town can tell you — who was born this week, who died last week and when was the last time they were in a state championship. We feel like we are a contributing block to getting the normalcy back,” said President of the KHSAA Julian Tackett.

Fall sports were able to hold a restricted season but due to spikes in Covid cases throughout the state winter sports were put on hold.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s delay to the start of the 2020-2021 basketball season came to the dismay of many high school basketball coaches and fans across the state. The season was originally set to start on Monday, Nov. 23, but following the KHSAA’s decision, is postponed until Monday, Jan. 4.

Josh Hamlin, head coach of the Mercer County Titans boy’s basketball team, was dismayed with the decision, saying that it was difficult for his team to handle the news, after having practiced for most of the summer and fall seasons.

“I hated it for our guys. Once we got in the groove of practice, they were counting down the days until our first game. To have practice stopped after several weeks was very hard to explain to the guys that they couldn’t get into the facilities,” said Hamlin.

Another way sports is combatting Covid is with the bubble method.

The bubble method is mandating all members of a team only have contact with those on or working with the team.

As a manager on the Louisville men’s basketball team, and a participant in their bubble-like protocol to protect from Covid-19, Seth Tatum wasn’t able celebrate the holidays with his family in their traditional way.

“It really is a lot different being at games in an arena that normally has 22,000 fans, being reduced to 3,000. Wearing a mask and sitting in front of plexiglass is not normal, to say the least. When the game is going on though I am pretty locked into my job so I do not notice it all that much,” said Tatum.

Culver Fights To Return To The Sidelines After Accident

Josh Culver, head coach of the Mercer County Senior High School girls soccer program, is on a difficult road to recovery following a severe motor-vehicle accident this past September. The head on accident was suffered while Culver was on his way to the Mercer County school bus, which was preparing to leave for the team’s matchup against Montgomery County.

Some extreme damage to Culver’s pelvis, spine, left leg, and pinky resulted in a helicopter airlift to the hospital and very stressful times for Culver and his family. However, Culver has found some motivation in his players’ commitment to the sport they love, and they’re the head coach.

“Since the time of the accident, I have had players continue to check on me and my progress. It is a constant motivator to me that, not only am I working on getting back to myself for my family, friends, and work, but I’m also getting better for the team,” said Culver.

The 2020 Lady Titans had a successful season, only losing one regular-season game before finishing their season in the Region 12 championship game, and narrowly losing to West Jessamine, 1-0.

Culver is proud that his team overcame his absence and did as well as they did.

“I couldn’t be more proud of them and the way they finished the season. They played their hearts out all year, battled through adversity without having their head coach and having several players with season-ending injuries,” said Culver.

He doesn’t plan to let his injuries or their healing time hinder his coaching though. In fact, Culver plans to continue coaching the Titans in 2021 even if he is not completely recovered. According to Culver, the players have done too much for the program, and for himself as a coach, to be without a coach another season and he is determined to be on the sidelines when they kick off next season in the fall of 2021.

Buchanan Named Coach Of The Year

Following the Mercer County Titans 23-7 loss in the second round of the KHSAA Class 3A football playoffs, the Titan’s record was 7-2. A 77 percent win rate, the highest win rate in the program since 2006, the 15-0 state championship winners.

While the Titans weren’t able to play a full 10 game regular season schedule, through nine games, they won at a higher rate than any season coached under Head Coach David Buchanan.

Mercer County’s program has established itself in a district that many thought was a level ahead of the Titans.

After a successful season many awards and plaudits have been given to Titan players and coaches. Most notably, for the third time since taking the position in 2014, David Buchanan has won coach of the year in his class.

Coach Buchanan has been a part of 41 wins since taking charge in 2015, the class of 2020 being a part of 27 of those wins, and he is proud of their effort in a year that has been nothing less than difficult.

Many Titan players received recognition for their efforts this season as well.

The following Titans were chosen by Class 3A district four coaches as members of the all-district team: fullback Wyatt Sanford, defensive lineman Brent McKitric, defensive lineman Zaryn Jackson, inside linebacker Brayden Dunn, outside linebacker Bryce Walton, safety Aaron Caton and long snapper Michael Sheperson.

Additionally, senior punter Davis was selected by coaches across the state to the second team all-state defensive team, and junior linebacker Dunn was selected as an honerable mention in the Courier Journal’s all-state defense.

Johnson ‘Blessed’ To Be An HHS Legend

Alvis Johnson took quite some convincing before taking the job as Harrodsburg High School athletic director, head football coach and head track and field coach.

Johnson was reluctant to leave his job at Christian County in 1974, and it took quite a lot of convincing from then Harrodsburg Superintendent Forrest Williams to get Johnson to his now hometown.

“Blessed. I was blessed to come to Harrodsburg in 1974. I drove up, looked at Harrodsburg, looked at the football field, and I was pretty impressed. I still didn’t know that I wanted to come to Harrodsburg, but eventually he wore me down, so I came. He (Williams) said, ‘just come for a year,’ so now it’s 50 years later, I’m still here so I guess it was pretty impressive,” said Johnson.

Johnson is 73 now and has spent his life in devotion to education, leadership and coaching. His demanding and gritty coaching style was notorious in Harrodsburg and was responsible for the development of many great athletes and teams. During his time as the Hog’s athletic director, Harrodsburg football became a Class A powerhouse and appeared in three state championship games, the track and field team won over 50 individual state championships and six team championships, and an astonishing amount of athletic talent poured out of a small town with just around 7,000 inhabitants at that time.

When Johnson was asked to summarize his time at Harrodsburg into one word, humility prevailed, and he responded, “blessed.” As grateful as the city of Harrodsburg and graduates of Harrodsburg High School are to him, he is just as grateful to have become a Pioneer, and to have made it his home, now for 46 years.

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