WWCC award wins top story of 2011

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On a walking tour outside the enology and viticulture building in September, Walla Walla Community College president Steve VanAusdle talks about the work and success of the school's wine program in helping the college gain recognition as one of the Top-10 community college's in the nation.

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The Aviary's Joanna Lanning stretches to feed a Temminck's Tragopan by hand.

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A loader does some clean-up inside the old Blue Mountain Mall on a crisp autumn morning.

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Winter freezing and thawing have left Walla Walla streets with cracks and holes.

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John Paulson looks at photos of his son, Nate, who committed suicide. Paulson helped start a support group for family and friends who lost loved ones to suicide.

Good news floated to the top two positions are readers voted on the Top 10 stories of 2011.

The national recognition of Walla Walla Community College and the city winning "Friendliest Small Town in America" made strong impressions on voters.

Some of the stories have been continuing sagas that began prior to the start of the year, such as issues with the Blue Mountain Mall, streets, Inland Octopus and the VA.

Only one of the 30 stories on the ballot failed to get a vote. A large write-in campaign arrived weeks after the deadline. Those who submitted the disqualified ballots were trying to push efforts to build a swimming pool into contention.

A first-place vote was worth 10 points, a second-place vote was worth nine points and so on down to one point for a 10th-place vote.

Here is a rundown on the Top 10:

1. Walla Walla Community College is ranked as one of the top 10 schools by the Aspen Institute. The ranking makes the college eligible for $1 million in prize money. (117 points)

Walla Walla Community College made headlines after being included among the top 10 percent of community college's in the nation by the Aspen Institute. The nonprofit launched the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence this year with the goal of highlighting innovation and successes at the nation's top community colleges.

From an initial list of 120 colleges, 10 finalists emerged, and Walla Walla again made the cut.

Although the top prize of $600,000 went to Valencia College in Florida, Walla Walla was one of four "finalists with distinction" that made it into the top five and received a $100,000 award. The cash prize is meant to be used by colleges to support successful programs.

Walla Walla Community College's innovation, and focus on programs that meet today's work force needs, were among the standout qualities of the college. It was also commended for attracting and retaining students, while getting a great majority of them to graduation and into jobs.

2. Walla Walla is selected as "Friendliest Small Town in America" by a panel of USA Today and Randy McNally Best of the Road Rally representatives. (107 points)

When it comes to friendly charm, Walla Walla residents put the community on the map in 2011. Or rather on a road atlas to come in 2013.

Walla Walla received the title of America's Friendliest Small Town in Rand McNally's Best of the Road competition. In addition to bragging rights, the community will be featured in the publishing firm's upcoming atlas.

Walla Walla joined the ranks of four other communities recognized for their own crowning glory: Sandpoint, Idaho, Most Beautiful; Rapid City, S.D., Most Patriotic; Glenwood Springs, Colo., Most Fun; and Lafayette, La., Best for Food.

The competition was part of a nationwide tour that put guest judges on the road to decide for themselves which communities deserved the respective titles. The purpose was to shine the spotlight on communities with fewer than 150,000 people.

So how did Walla Walla - and the others - land a spot? Rand McNally and USA Today partnered for the contest, which they opened to the public. The Best of the Road competition started with online nominations. By the end of the opening period, not to mention a hearty boost from Tourism Walla Walla which promoted the contest locally, the community had the most votes of any across the country for Friendliest Small Town.

But that wasn't the end. Walla Walla had to go head-to-head with five other finalist communities for the title. Pairs of judges in each category in the competition hit the road on a cross-country tour to experience the towns for themselves. Guest judges Jason and Nikki Wynn came through Walla Walla in mid-July on their three-week road rally. As a side note, the five pairs of judges were in a contest of their own for $10,000 and a SAAB 9-4X. The judging criteria was based on the teams' coverage of their experiences, including videos, blog entries, photos and updates on social networking sites. The Wynns won.

But it was Walla Walla that got the ultimate prize, beating Mount Airy, N.C.; Woodward, Okla.; Nacogdoches, Texas; Valdosta, Ga.; and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., for the friendliest title.

During their two-day visit, the Wynns were treated to a specially written song, a horse-and-carriage ride through downtown neighborhoods, a hot air balloon ride and a viewing of the summer musical, among other things.

Local organizations took great pains to accommodate the Wynns and show them Walla Walla. Those included Tourism Walla Walla, the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

Winning communities were announced during the Destination Marketing Association International annual conference July 21 in New Orleans.

3. Local suicides hit a crisis level with as many deaths in one month as in all of 2010. The Union-Bulletin provides a two-day package of stories, including available resources. A support group for family and friends who lost loved ones to suicides is started. (95 points)

A spate of local suicides early in the year prompted a response from health, law enforcement, counseling and church officials. In February, newly elected Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood convened three roundtable sessions with community stakeholders to discuss what could be done to prevent more suicides.

From those discussions, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin published a two-day series of stories. Those included local, state and national suicide statistics, available resources, the perspective of first responders to suicide scenes and stories of the families who survive the event.

Those involved on the newspaper staff wrote about the importance of balancing family privacy with the community's need to know, as well as the emotional difficulty of tackling the subject.

Not long after the series ran, two surviving family members began a support group in Walla Walla for others in the same situation. "Surviving Suicide Loss" meets the second Tuesday of every month, from 5:15 to 6:45 p.m., at 1520 Kelly Place in the Columbia Room.

Participants of the original stakeholders meetings continue to hope for other tangible outcomes from the February sessions.

4. City officials order owners of the Blue Mountain Mall to clean up the property. The action results in the possible foreclosure sale of part of the property. (94 points)

The city of Walla Walla was granted access to the ravaged Blue Mountain Mall property for cleanup.

The order by Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht set in motion what city officials hope to be a revitalization of the property. It was one of two major motions by the city in 2011 to spark action by owners of the former mall property, who had stalled on redevelopment of the land in the midst of the mall's demolition in mid-2008 due to financial struggles.

The other move by the city was a foreclosure proceeding for delinquent payments from a Local Improvement District charge related to the construction of Poplar Street. Walla Walla County also became involved because of overdue property taxes on the land.

The southern half of the property was slated for the auction block when Key Bank, which identified itself as the creditor, issued two checks in October. One was for $54,884.77, the amount owed to the city. The second check was for $451,877.22 for taxes to the county.

Nevertheless, the city's cleanup efforts proceeded at the property that had become a health and safety concern.

The order of abatement is essentially a lien on the property. Once the cleanup is complete the city will bill ownership company Walla Walla Town Center. The owners could ultimately write the city a check for the cost and continue to own the property. If they don't pay for the abatement, a sale of the property could be forced. But even if Walla Walla Town Center pays for the abatement, it may not necessarily resume redevelopment.

Schacht's cleanup ruling allows the city to "demolish, raze, destroy, obliterate, erase, crush, eliminate, cut, trim, sever, extract, excavate, dig out, take down, take away, disconnect, detach, disassemble, break up, mow, cover, pave, paint over, wash off, sandblast, remove, spray, clean, plough under, burn, bury, discard, transport, dump, deposit at a landfill, fence, fill, close or secure any of the nuisances declared and adjudged in these proceedings."

5. Walla Walla officials hold several meetings and discussions on different ways to raise money to fix streets. The U-B publishes a series on the history of the local roads. (92 points)

It's been a bumpy ride for the rocky roads of Walla Walla and people trying to traverse them.

As was unveiled last summer by the Union-Bulletin in a three-part series on city streets, the condition of our thoroughfares and funding for their upkeep have been problematic almost since they were first constructed.

The series explained the current condition of our deteriorating infrastructure and laid out the history - including dirt roads of the 1800s, initial asphalt paving that began downtown in 1904 and periodic improvements undertaken through the decades.

But as the series discovered, there has never been a consistent, sufficient and reliable source of money for adequate maintenance.

The city has initiated a program to replace failing streets and underground pipes on a schedule spanning 93 years. Council also voted last fall to form a transportation benefit district, which will assure that money from any voter-approved sales-tax hike or other fee increase in the future be used exclusively for street repair.

6. An increase in the number of people needing help causes financial problems for Helpline. (71 points)

In May, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reported an agency that helps people in the Walla Walla Valley needed help of its own.

Helpline acts as a screening agency for a number of social services and assists clients with food, rental, transportation and utility assistance. However, funding to help families pay for housing had been exhausted early in 2011 and more would not be coming until July 1, noted executive director Dan Willms.

The organization on Colville Street needed the community to respond in order to continue to assist 18-20 families per month with up to 30 percent of their monthly rent to prevent eviction or to move them from homelessness to permanent shelter. Federal emergency housing funds were unstable at that moment and the local need for housing help escalated by leaps, Willms told the U-B.

The nonprofit agency was hoping for more than $7,000 to cover the shortfall.

A day after the story ran, an anonymous donor handed $7,000 to Lawson Knight, as executive director of the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, to be taken to Helpline. As well, a check for $250 was received by staff.

It was a case of Walla Walla doing what Walla Walla does best, Knight said. "One of the greatest quality-of-life assets that we enjoy is the generosity of our citizenry."

Since then, the same generous donor has contributed another $10,000 - "His girlfriend's sister stayed at our shelter," Willms explained last week.

With those and other contributions, about $20,000 came in to help with housing funds, he added.

7. A judge rules against Inland Octopus' attempt to use constitutional grounds to allow the mural. An appeal is filed. (69 points)

Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff continued finding himself entwined in the tentacles of a legal pursuit to save the giant mural above the entrance to his toy store at 7 E. Main St.

The mural of a purple octopus, painted Labor Day weekend 2010, is too large for a wall sign under provisions of the city of Walla Walla code. Therefore, city officials ordered it removed or otherwise be brought into compliance.

Catsiff then filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the sign code is unconstitutional.

Last spring, Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht ruled against Catsiff, who then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

That court last fall transferred the case to the lower-level, Spokane-based Court of Appeals, which may take six months to a year to reach a decision.

Meanwhile, the city is allowing the mural to stay in place. However, $100-a-day fines against Catsiff that began Oct. 14, 2010 - and currently amount to about $44,000 - will continue accruing. Catsiff will have to pay if the city ultimately prevails.

8. Ground is broken for a new outpatient clinic and residential recovery units at the Walla Walla VA hospital. (68 votes.)

One of Walla Walla's historic spots opened a new chapter last April.

Braving a cold spring morning, officials and veterans turned out to break ground for a new outpatient clinic and residential recovery unit at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs' Medical Center.

The path toward the new facility began in 2004 as the center faced closure by the Veterans Administration. A public outcry ensued, spurring efforts by many officials to preserve the center and improve services local veterans needed the most.

The $27.7 million project will add a two-story, 67,000-square-foot outpatient clinic and a 22,000-square-foot recovery unit with 36 beds, 12 of which will be dedicated to women's care.

9. Groups and individuals hold fundraisers and make donations to keep the Pioneer Park Aviary open. (62 points)

Raising money to save the birds brought in $89,000 for the Pioneer Park Aviary.

The goal was to raise two years of funding or $110,000, leaving about $30,000 to fund the facility through 2012.

The money was collected through a number of fundraisers that began late in 2010 and continued throughout the following year.

Fundraisers included everything from counter-top coin boxes to a weekly information and donation kiosk at Land Title Plaza.

Four of the more successful fundraisers for 2011 included the online adopt-a-bird program, utility bill roundup, community yard sale at the aviary grounds and the It's For The Birds annual auction, dinner and dance.

The second annual It's For The Birds is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 13.

10. A consultant presents a report on how the city library system and rural library system should work together. Negotiations between the two entities later fall apart. (55 points)

An independent consultant was hired early in 2011 by the WALNET consortium to study the possibility of forming a library district that would include the city of Walla Walla and the unincorporated areas of the county.

In her report, consultant Ruth Metz offered a number of funding possibilities and other suggestions; at the top of her list was the suggestion to work together.

Metz's report also gave credence to the Rural Library District's claim that the city was seriously underfunding its library and relying too much on Rural Library District funds to make up the difference.

That same report also said the two agencies might solve their funding dispute by using a per capita formula.

City officials latched on to the idea, which led to a substantially increased funding request by city, from $180,000 for 2011 to $293,000 for 2012.

After two counteroffers and numerous complaints from county residents who were about to lose their right to checkout material from the city library, the two agencies agreed on a compromise of $245,000, as well as an agreement to work together to study forming a regional library district.

No repeating funding formula was worked out this year, which means both agencies might end up once again disputing the next funding contract for 2013.

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