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December 28, 2013

Readers choose biggest local stories of the year

Continuing today, The Meadville Tribune presents the most important Crawford County-area news stories of 2013 as voted upon by you, the readers. Weeks ago, we asked readers to narrow down about 25 of the year’s stories to a top 15, and the following are the results.

The stories voted Nos. 15 through 11 ran on Saturday. Today, we’ll provide Nos. 10 through 7; 6-4 is Monday; 3 and 2 is Tuesday and the top story runs on New Year’s Day, Wednesday.

10. Soccer fields fire

Two Meadville men in custody are awaiting tentative January trial dates, each involving multiple counts of arson and other charges for the allegedly vandalizing Crawford County Youth Soccer Association fields and storage facilities on Townline Road in West Mead Township over the summer.

Police allege Dakota Wayne Little and Matthew Scott Kerr, both 21, broke into a CCYSA storage shed between 1 and 5 a.m. Aug. 10 and burned down two storage buildings, destroying the equipment inside, and took a powered golf cart.

Soccer equipment, tractors, mowers, soccer balls, shirts, cones and everything needed to run a soccer program for up to 1,000 kids every year were among the things damaged or a total loss, according to John McGlinn, CCYSA president.

“Every year we get a little bit of vandalism with cars driving on the field, but nothing to this extent,” McGlinn said a day after the incident. “It’s unfortunate we have to spend our time as volunteers fixing damage caused by these senseless hooligans.”

CCYSA officials estimated the total damages at $100,000. Numerous local organizations and companies donated cash and soccer equipment worth more than $10,000 to the youth group since the fire and vandalism.

Little and Kerr waived their rights to preliminary hearings before Magisterial District Judge William Chisholm in September and were placed in Crawford County jail in lieu of $150,000 and $20,000 bond, respectively.

Their cases have since been transferred to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas where they await formal arraignment, according to court dockets.

9. Blight plight

When a list of more than a dozen properties, complete with photographs, was presented to Meadville City Council by zoning officer Gary Johnson as just a sample of the blight plaguing the city, council reached immediate agreement on two points.

First, something needs to be done, especially about blighted properties in highly-visible locations; and second, it’s not going to be easy.

The examples highlighted the complexity of the problem. “Each one was different,” City Manager Joe Chriest said. “Some will be a $5,000 fix, others $50,000.”

In some cases, the “blight report” spurred property owners both on and off the list to take action, resulting in several immediate and noticeable improvements.

One of the properties listed burned to the ground. “Once the fire was finished, the fire chief ordered the demolition of the building within a limited period of time,” Chriest explained.

When the owners were not heard from, Meadville Redevelopment Authority had the property taken down with funds designated for slum and blight reduction, Chriest said. As the authority continues to move through the already-established list of blighted properties, other properties have and will meet similar fates.

“I definitely think you will see council and the city taking a more assertive role in blight remediation and hopefully prevention,” Mayor Christopher Soff said. “We didn’t get to this point overnight — and it will be incumbent on us to make sure we don’t reach this stage again,” he added. “Frankly, some people will not be happy about that.”

In December, council took a step that will allow city employees to take a more coordinated approach to blight by turning responsibility for restaurant inspections over to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“We’ll have more time to identify problem properties and deal with them in a timely manner,” said Johnson, who also served as the city’s restaurant inspector.

8. North Street construction

“We’ve been anticipating the project for so many years that it almost seemed anticlimactic when it started,” Meadville City Manager Joe Chriest said of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s long-awaited $10 million North Street Improvement Project.

Although an assortment of changes and delays extended the starting date by at least a decade, work was finally under way by late spring and one of downtown Meadville’s major traffic arteries had been transformed into a construction zone.

By the end of the 2014 construction season, plans call for an all-new roadway to cover North Street from Water to State streets. While the roadway, also known as Route 27, will remain approximately the same width throughout, turning ratios at key intersections are being expanded to allow the large trucks that have often had a difficult time at best executing 90-degree turns a much smoother, easier passage through town. New intersections, curbs and sidewalks will be joined by traffic control signals at intersections and decorative lighting fixtures matching those lining Chestnut Street and part of Park Avenue. Less visible improvements will continue on the city’s stormwater control system.

In the short term, both vehicular and pedestrian traffic on North Street will continue to experience detours during the coming year.

“The public has been really great,” Chriest said. “They heeded all the detour signs. We didn’t hear many complaints and neither did the project people.”

“I’m absolutely looking forward to an early spring and the restart of the work,” Mayor Christopher Soff said. “It will be beautiful — and I eagerly anticipate when the entire project will be completed.”

7. Meth busts

Meth busts in the greater Meadville area hit hard and fast this year as several local residents were tried and jailed for allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine in apartments or with portable labs.

The frequency is due in part to the trending downscale in manufacture, according to Meadville police.

Simply put, a 2-liter soda bottle can replace what used to be an entire room of full-scale operation — what once comprised rural meth labs. Mini-labs make manufacture extremely portable while using a fraction of the raw materials required for production.

Investigations by Meadville and surrounding police departments and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Drug Task Force dug up several mini-labs in Meadville, West Mead Township and Union Township, some of them within days of a previous bust.

At least five people were charged with alleged manufacture of methamphetamine for three separate incidents between the months of April and June alone.

Three more meth lab-related arrests were confirmed in the past four months, according to police.

Most if not all the methamphetamine labs discovered were mini-labs, using the “one-pot system” or “shake-and-bake” method, holed up in trailers, apartments, houses and in one particular incident, a minivan.

A single manufacturing-related charge can carry a multiple-year prison sentence and tens of thousands of dollars in jail bond and court fines, according to state law.

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