Tornado recovery newspaper’s No. 1 story of past year

News analysis


Executive Editor

What a difference a year makes.

That certainly was evident Saturday morning during a ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the New Year’s Eve tornado that ripped through the city of Sunset Hills.

The flag that was flying over Watson Trail Park when the category EF3 tornado struck Sunset Hills on Dec. 31, 2010, has been framed and now hangs in the city’s Community Center.

Former Sunset Hills resident Tony Tumminia and his family unveiled the flag at Saturday’s ceremony. Then Tumminia, now of South St. Louis, presented Mayor Bill Nolan with a framed photo collage and recounted what happened to his family, and the community, last New Year’s Eve.

Nolan said the significance of the flag for the community is that it would not let the weather determine its fate.

“(The tornado) tried, but it couldn’t destroy it,” Nolan said, “and no more than the tornado can destroy the flag, it couldn’t destroy the spirit of Sunset Hills. Sunset Hills is a remarkable community.”

That was evidenced by the more than $250,000 that was donated to the city’s Tornado Assistance Fund.

The tornado, termed a “New Year’s Eve miracle” by Nolan because of less than a handful of minor injuries and no fatalities, was the Call’s No. 1 story of 2010.

Though the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission wrestled through much of 2011 about the future of the roughly 10 acres hardest hit by the tornado, the panel ultimately voted in November to amend the city’s comprehensive plan to allow for both single-family residences and attached housing on Court Drive and West Watson Road west of South Lindbergh Boulevard — similar to the nearby Courtyards of Sunset Hills, which has both single-family homes and attached villas.

And after Saturday’s uplifting ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the tornado, truly proving what a difference a year makes, the Call has designated the recovery from the tornado as the No. 1 story of 2011.

• No. 2 — Hilmer narrowly defeats Klund to retain MFPD board seat. Mehlville Fire Protection District Chairman Aaron Hilmer narrowly defeated challenger Michael Klund in the April 5 election, capturing nearly 49 percent of the vote to win a second, six-year term.

Klund and his supporters spent nearly $100,000 in their unsuccessful bid to unseat Hilmer, according to post-election campaign finance reports.

Mike for Mehlville Fire — Klund’s committee — and Friends of the Mehlville Fire District — a separate committee formed to support his campaign — raised $100,657.24 and spent $99,534.92 for the fire board race.

Hilmer’s committee reported total contributions and expenditures of $14,030.38.

Klund received 7,205 votes — 47.5 percent — and Hilmer received 7,418 votes — 48.9 percent.

Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters contributed a total of $78,502.24 to two committees supporting Klund’s candidacy while the national IAFF office contributed $14,700 to Klund’s committee.

• No. 3 — Eric Knost takes the reins of the Mehlville School District. Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost formally assumed the school district’s top position July 1 but told the Call he had been gradually transitioning into his new job over the previous several months — if not years.

The Board of Education voted unanimously in December 2010 to offer Knost, then deputy superintendent, a three-year contract to lead the district upon Superintendent Terry Noble’s retirement. His annual salary is $185,000.

During an interview the evening before his official start date, Knost reiterated what he identified in December 2010 as one of his top priorities for the next three years — ongoing community engagement.

Since then, Knost has been working to achieve that goal. For example, nearly 20 people spoke during a town-hall meeting called in late October by Knost. Residents’ comments on Oct. 25 ranged from concerns about how the district is perceived to the impact of district tax initiatives on senior citizens, how to better engage the community and finding common ground.

At the town-hall meeting that attracted roughly 75 people, Knost said he wants to unite all segments of the Mehlville School District community.

He said he wanted to conduct the town-hall meetings on a regular basis throughout the school year and offer residents a forum to speak, especially if they’re uncomfortable going to a school board meeting and signing up to speak during a period for public comment. Knost’s goal is unity. But that doesn’t mean everybody will agree with how he thinks or how a school board member thinks.

• No. 4 — Schlink defeats Robinson to become Crestwood mayor. Crestwood Ward 2 Alderman Jeff Schlink was elected April 5 to a three-year term as mayor over Roy Robinson, who was seeking re-election to a third term.

Robinson first was elected in 2005 and was unopposed for a second term in 2008.

Schlink received 1,838 votes — 65.1 percent — and Robinson received 980 votes — 34.7 percent. Election data from the county show that Schlink carried all six city polling places. Of the 9,270 registered voters in Crestwood, 2,844 cast ballots in the election, putting turnout at 30.7 percent.

Schlink unsuccessfully ran for alderman in 2001, 2003 and 2004 before winning election over two opponents for an unexpired one-year term in 2009. He was elected unopposed to a full three-year term in 2010.

• No. 5 — Renovated Witzel Learning Center would house district auditorium. A facilities plan that includes the partial renovation of the Witzel Learning Center to include a roughly 600-seat auditorium for the Mehlville School District’s performing arts programs was given the green light in early December by the Board of Education.

Superintendent Eric Knost’s facilities plan is designed to not only maintain the district’s existing facilities, but also provide much-needed upgrades, including the immediate construction of a district tennis court complex at Bernard Middle School.

Board members voted unanimously Dec. 8 to approve the proposal.

As proposed, the facilities program would be funded through existing revenues and by utilizing savings realized through the refundings of certificates of participation, or COPs, issued for the district’s Proposition P districtwide building improvement program that was approved by voters in November 2000. No additional funds would be required from the community at this time, according to Knost.

• No. 6 — Crestwood named one of best places to raise children in America. For its top-tier schools and excellent municipal services, the city of Crestwood was named the “Best Place to Raise Kids in Missouri” in November on Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine’s list of the best places to raise children in America.

Full of affordable and high quality housing stock, Crestwood maintains one of the lowest residential property tax rates in the area while ranking among the best municipal services in St. Louis County. Named a Tree City USA in 2011 for the 16th year, featuring one of the best public school systems in Missouri and home to seven parks, Crestwood is a great place to raise a family, according to a joint news release from the city and Lindbergh Schools.

Lindbergh Schools has been ranked No. 1 among Missouri K-12 districts for two consecutive years for academic achievement. Crestwood and Long schools are both top 10 elementaries in Missouri and National Schools of Character. Crestwood Elementary School also won the 2011 National Blue Ribbon School Award, which is the highest award a school can earn for academic achievement, and Truman Middle School opened this fall, creating a neighborhood middle school for city residents.

• No. 7 — Interim MFPD chief accepts job on a permanent basis. The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted unanimously last week to offer Brian Hendricks the chief’s position on a permanent basis and Dan LaFata the assistant chief’s post on a permanent basis. They had been serving in their respective positions on an interim basis since last June after former Chief Tim White resigned.

The two accepted their respective posts on a permanent basis. Complete coverage begins on Page 1A in today’s Call.

• No. 8 — Parks to stay open with compromise on budget between Dooley, County Council. All St. Louis County parks will remain open under a compromise reached between County Executive Charlie Dooley and the County Council on the 2012 budget.

Dooley announced the compromise on the budget in early December. All of the county’s parks will remain open “at a reduced rate,” he said.

Dooley’s recommended 2012 budget called for the closing of 23 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets of snow in unincorporated areas when accumulations are 2 inches or less, among other things.

South county parks that had been targeted for closing were Bohrer Park, Black Forest and Ohlendorf. The Kennedy Recreation Complex pool also would have been closed.

Dooley also said the West County Satellite Office, which had been set to close Dec. 16, will remain open.

In addition, the proposal to not plow streets of snow in unincorporated areas when accumulations were 2 inches or less has been rescinded, the county executive said.

Leading the opposition to Dooley’s original budget was County Council Chairman Steve Stenger. Stenger, a Democrat from Affton who represents the 6th District, was unconvinced of the need for any cuts and formed a Special Budget Committee in early November to review Dooley’s proposed 2012 budget.

Recommendations by that committee “closed the alleged budget gap,” Stenger said in early December.

Four recommendations made by the Special Budget Committee would provide an additional $10 million for the proposed 2012 county budget, the panel stated in a Dec. 6 report submitted to Dooley.

While Dooley said some layoffs — roughly 40 — still will be required, Stenger remained skeptical of the need for layoffs.

• No. 9 — Crestwood Court Sears to close; mall redevelopment planned for 2012. The closing of Crestwood Court’s Sears is the “final nail in the coffin,” according to Crestwood City Administrator Petree Eastman.

“The mall won’t have but one or two retailers left,” Eastman told the Call. “There’s a few like Nolan (Interiors) and LensCrafters, but in terms of significant dollars coming into the city, it will be a very big hit to city revenues. It’s the last big hit, I would say.”

On Dec. 29, Sears Holding Corp. released its list of 79 of the 100 to 120 Sears and Kmart stores that will close due to lower-than-expected holiday sales, which included the Crestwood location. A specific date for the closures has not yet been set.

Sears is the last anchor store of the once-thriving mall as Crestwood Court’s former anchor stores, Macy’s and Dillard’s, closed in 2009 and 2007, respectively.

Owners of Crestwood Court recently announced that they anticipate the long-awaited redevelopment of the shopping center at Watson and Sappington roads will begin sometime this year.

As proposed, Eastman told the Board of Aldermen last month, the site will be transformed into a series of entertainment-based venues with a retail component.

The retail component, though, will not be the primary focus of the redevelopment, she said.

Stay tuned for more of this story this year.

• No. 10 — Local 1889 merges with Local 2665. A request by Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters to join IAFF Local 2665 was met with unanimous approval in September.

Members of Local 1889 previously had voted in favor of joining Local 2665 and the Local 2665 Executive Board had supported the request.

The leadership of Local 1889 had been at odds with the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors since the election of Aaron Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman in April 2005.

Formed in 1969 with 41 members, Local 1889’s membership in September totaled roughly 120 Mehlville firefighters and paramedics.