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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A year in review: 14 big stories of 2017

By Kip Hill and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

No quick list could adequately sum up the awesome, horrifying, beautiful and frustrating events of 2017. But some stories stand out for their scale and effect on the city, the region and its residents’ lives.

The stories below do not form a comprehensive list, nor are they ranked in any particular order. Rather, they are a meant to provide a snapshot of the past year in Spokane, as well as hints of what’s to come.

Here are 14 big stories from 2017.

Freeman shooting brings heartbreak

A troubled boy with the code to his father’s gun safe wrought havoc at Freeman High School one morning in September, killing a fellow student and wounding three others, according to prosecutors. The shooting plunged the community into mourning and raised all-too-familiar questions about steps that could have been taken to prevent it. A section of U.S. Highway 27 was named in honor of Sam Strahan, the 15-year-old who died after confronting the shooter in a school hallway. Caleb Sharpe, who turned 16 in October, is expected to stand trial for Strahan’s killing and other charges in 2018.

Military builds on toxic legacy

West Plains residents were outraged when it came to light that Fairchild Air Force Base had leaked untold amounts of toxic fire retardant into the water table. Airway Heights had to flush millions of gallons of water from its pipes, and some private well owners say they still haven’t been told if their supplies are safe to drink. The revelations came as part of a nationwide effort by the Pentagon to mitigate leaks of highly fluorinated chemicals, which have been used for decades at airports and military installations despite links to myriad health problems. Cleanup across the nation could take years and cost billions of taxpayer dollars.

Gonzaga makes deep run

The city was galvanized in March by the Zags’ trek all the way to the national championship game, where they came up just a few buckets short against perennial powerhouse the University of North Carolina. Despite national pundits still mispronouncing the name of the school, Mark Few’s squad put a cap on decades of growth for the basketball program, which has in turn fueled the growth of the school as a whole.

Avista to be sold to Canadian company

Spokane’s homegrown utility announced in July it would be acquired by a larger company, Toronto-based Hydro One. Avista shareholders were sent home with hefty payouts, and CEO Scott Morris promised the company would maintain a degree of autonomy by keeping its headquarters in Spokane, although some customers fear rate hikes and poorer service. The $5.3 billion deal is expected to win approval from state regulators in 2018.

Downtown experiencing development boom

Spokane is in the midst of a tight housing market and major transformations, with some $800 million in public and private investments pouring into the city’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, as of June. Major projects include the makeover of Riverfront Park; the 1400 Tower condos on West Riverside Avenue; the Ridpath Club apartments and condos; the University District gateway; and a housing and retail development in the old downtown Macy’s building, called The M, which is being led by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review. Additionally, a beautified stretch of East Sprague Avenue reopened this year after a $4.3 million renovation.

Valley voters toss out City Council incumbents

Spokane Valley’s conservative City Council received a radical makeover in November as voters tossed out incumbents Mike Munch, Ed Pace and Caleb Collier. Their defeats followed combative races which revealed past legal troubles involving Munch and Collier. The additions of Linda Hatcher Thompson, Ben Wick and Brandi Peetz changed the political dynamic of the council, which had recently been focused on issues such as vaccines and gun rights. The Valley’s new $14.2 million City Hall also opened in September.

Garth Brooks rocks Arena for a week straight

The past year saw Spokane performances by a number of big-name artists – Paul Simon, Foo Fighters, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, to name a few. None was as big as Garth Brooks. The country icon’s seven-show, sold-out run at the Spokane Arena in November broke records and brought more than $14 million to the local economy. That his show was genuinely pretty great certainly didn’t hurt matters.

Riverfront Park opens first attraction

After a fitful start, the $64.3 million, taxpayer-funded renovation of Spokane’s signature downtown attraction broke significant ground in 2017. The ice ribbon opened to droves of skaters in December, despite coming in a bit over budget. Park planners settled on what is likely the final design for the U.S. Pavilion that won’t re-cover the massive structure in the center of the park. Artifacts from Spokane’s nearly forgotten Chinatown block, along what is now Spokane Falls Boulevard, were unearthed in preparation to build a new home for the Loof Carrousel, which will open in early 2018, along with the Howard Street bridge.

County politics expose GOP rift

Despite belonging to the same party, Spokane County commissioners butted heads on key issues in 2017. Two months after Shelly O’Quinn resigned, Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns announced they could not agree on her successor and punted the decision to the Democratic governor. A radio ad funded by Kerns allies targeted French for the gridlock. Later, Kerns broke with French and newly appointed Commissioner Mary Kuney in voting against the 2018 budget, which Kerns said should have included deeper spending cuts. A debate over increasing property taxes appears likely in the new year.

Cop killer Renfro sentenced to death

The year brought some degree of closure to several high-profile murder cases, including two that were decades-old. In January, Roy Murry was sentenced to life in prison for gunning down three members of his ex-wife’s family and setting fire to their home in Colbert; he is appealing. In July, Donna (formerly Douglas) Perry received a life sentence for shooting three women and leaving their bodies on the banks of the Spokane River in 1990. In November, Jonathan Renfro was sentenced to death for the ambush killing of a Coeur d’Alene police sergeant. And in December, citing new DNA test results, prosecutors dropped a murder charge against Richard Aguirre, a former Pasco police officer who had been implicated in the 1986 strangling death of a Spokane woman. The charge can legally be refiled at any time.

Streets director ousted as city rethinks paving, plowing

Nightmarish winter driving conditions gave way to gaping holes in the pavement throughout Spokane in the spring, and roads and culverts sustained heavy damage in unincorporated parts of the county. While the city urged motorists to file claims, few were paid off for damage caused by the potholes, though the city did devote an additional $1 million to paving some of the biggest trouble spots around town. Gary Kaesemeyer, the new streets director, also oversaw the development of a new plowing plan that has equipment rolling through neighborhoods even if only an inch or two of snow has fallen.

Region’s wildfires choke Spokane

Spokane had its longest period of poor air quality and its driest end of summer in history as wildfires raged across the Pacific Northwest, though there weren’t any huge blazes close to home. Schools canceled outdoor activities and city workers donned masks to continue late-season construction, despite choking conditions that were finally quenched by September rains. Experts say longer wildfire seasons are directly attributable to human-caused climate change.

McMorris Rodgers draws multiple Democratic challengers

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart entered, then dropped out of, the race for Washington’s 5th Congressional District. Lisa Brown, the former majority leader in the state Senate, also announced her bid for the congressional seat after stepping down as chancellor of Washington State University’s Spokane campus and hinting that a return a politics might be in her future. The buzz around Brown prompted the Democratic Party’s national campaign-organizing arm to target the district, which has been red since 1994. Brown has continued to hammer her opponent, six-term Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for issues that most recently include net neutrality and tax reform.

WSU reckons with hate on campus

In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Washington State University administrators resisted calls to silence students who espoused far-right views and thinly veiled bigotry. Flyers targeting immigrants and declaring “It’s OK to be white,” along with several large marches and demonstrations, highlighted flaring racial and political tensions on the Pullman campus. Some students feared for their safety while others were newly emboldened to rail against multiculturalism.

This list includes contributions from The Spokesman-Review’s Carolyn Lamberson and staff stories written in 2017.

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