It was a year of change for the Lima region in 2021, as some well-known names and places changed.
Whether it was a new person in charge in Lima for the first time in 32 years, the effects of a once-in-a-century virus, or the changes in local landmarks, it was an historic year.
Here are the top 10 stories in the Lima region, as voted upon by the reporters and editors of The Lima News:
1. Mayor Smith
For the first time since the 1980s, David Berger is not the mayor of Lima.
That honor goes to Sharetta Smith, the first Black person and the first woman ever elected to lead the city’s government.
Berger announced his plans to retire in 2000, and his chief of staff, Smith, won the primary and general elections to take his place. She promised to focus on quality of life issues, with a keen interest in improving the city’s aging housing stock.
“I’m honored to serve, and I ask for your grace,” she said. “I promise to keep listening. Change is here; and as Socrates once said, ‘The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old but on building on the new focus.’’”
It was a contentious election season, to be sure, with four people running in the primary often throwing barbs back and forth. In the general election, issues came up about lawsuits against Smith for failing to pay her debts and questions and whether Elizabeth Hardesty truly lived in Lima when she worked in the oil and gas industries.
Ultimately, voters decided to go with Smith over Hardesty, with 54% of voters backing her.
2. Impact of coronavirus
It would be impossible to talk about the top stories of the year without mentioning COVID-19. While the pandemic packed a big punch in 2020, it still resonated in 2021, especially with high numbers of new cases reported that were associated with the alpha, delta and omicron variants of the virus. The numbers particularly climbed late in the year.
There were more deaths attributed to COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020 in Allen County (189 in 2021 vs. 175 in 2020), Auglaize County (67 in 2021 vs. 65 in 2020) and Hardin County (72 in 2021 vs. 46 in 2020). The death toll was down in Putnam County (49 in 2021 vs. 65 in 2020) and Van Wert County (54 in 2021 vs. 55 in 2020). This was all during a year when a vaccine for the virus was available, with less than half of residents in area counties choosing to get the vaccine.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the years was people’s reaction to the virus. More people became defiant about requests to wear masks in businesses, with the “medical freedom” movement gaining steam to fight against mandatory vaccinations at employers.
3. Lima Mall’s year
The Lima Mall and its owners saw a bit of upheaval over the course of the year, but the mall appears to be heading along a new path.
The mall’s owner, Washington Prime Group, declared bankruptcy in June. By September, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved an exit plan from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with one of the key debtors now listed as an investor in the mall company.
In March, one of the major tenants of the mall, Macy’s, closed its store. It was the site of an anchor at the store since August 1971, when Lazarus opened, becoming Lazarus-Macy’s in 2003 and Macy’s in 2005.
The mall has seen an evolution away from simply shopping into a lifestyle center. This year, Total Training Revolution announced plans to grow into 48,000 square feet of the former Elder-Beerman location. New businesses opening in the mall included a restaurant, Hannah’s Southern Bistro; a gymnastics center, Flip Training Center; retailer Custom Factory; and a photography background business, Selfie University. A restaurant, Li’s Seafood Boil, moved into the former Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant in the mall’s parking lot.
The mall also played host to fireworks on the Fourth of July, along with numerous events.
4. Wapakoneta mayor charged
In July, Wapakoneta Mayor Tom Stinebaugh was indicted on 17 corruption charges, but he insists he did nothing wrong.
He faces one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony; eight counts of having an unlawful interest in a public contract, a fourth-degree felony; and eight counts of conflict of interest, a first-degree misdemeanor. Stinebaugh pleaded not guilty, and the case remains in the court system.
“My response is I’ve never done anything but what’s in the best interest of the City of Wapakoneta,” Stinebaugh told The Lima News. “I’m looking forward to clearing my name.”
5. Downtown developments
Work continued on the revitalization of downtown Lima, with work put in that should begin showing rewards in 2022.
The Greater Lima Region Park & Amphitheater, near Elm and Spring streets, has cleared several hurdles, including transferring property to the City of Lima and an agreement for Veterans Memorial Civic Center to provide programming. It’s on pace to be completed by November 2022.
A nearby structure at 147 S. Main St. is scheduled for a renovation that would bring in multi-level restaurants and office spaces, Good Food Restaurants President John Heaphy said.
“I think when this is all done, and we welcome people from our surrounding counties to downtown Lima, we’re going to have something that we’re really proud of,” Heaphy said in October.
Even Town Square in Lima is due for an update. In June, the city announced plans to change the current two-lane traffic pattern with spotlights around a square with a modern traffic circle.
6. Delphos fire chief
Delphos Fire Department Chief Kevin Streets retired Aug. 31 in the midst of an investigation into “vulgar and degrading” sexual comments within the department directed at young, female firefighters.
An independent investigation found there was a “hostile work environment” and called for changes to it. Two young women lodged complaints.
“Any rational individual would say this behavior is unacceptable,” said Jamie Mehaffie, Delphos’s safety service director.
Three different storms brought tornadoes through the region in 2021.
On the afternoon of Aug. 11, a small tornado damaged mostly crops in Van Wert and Allen counties over a 4.7-mile path along Griffin and Becker roads.
On June 18, an EF-2 tornado touched down near Fort Recovery in Mercer County, with winds up to 115 mph along a 5.7-mile path. It ripped roofs off some buildings and damaged a cinder block wall.
The last tornado of the year was a rare December one in Hardin County. An EF-1 tornado touched down three miles south of Ada on Dec. 11 over a 1.6-mile path. It damaged a business, a residence, a barn roof and multiple trees.
8. Closed restaurants
A pair of popular Lima restaurants closed their doors.
Casa Lu Al, 2323 N. West St., Lima, closed its doors in June after 61 years in business. It frequently won best Italian restaurant in The Lima News’ Best of the Region voting.
A newer restaurant in town, Mellow Mushroom, 2530 N. Eastown Road, Lima, closed in July. It opened in 2016.
9. 4-year-old’s murder
Romiere Hale and Stayce Riley face charges in the beating death of 4-year-old Ma’Laya DeWitt on April 12 at 535 N. Elizabeth St., Lima.
Hale, 21, admitted to police he’d struck the girl in the abdomen and faces murder charges. Riley, the child’s 23-year-old mother, 23, faces involuntary manslaughter charges. The defense attorney for Hale called it a “horribly-gone-wrong case of discipline.”
10. Birch Solar
The discussion continued on Birch Solar, a proposed 300-megawatt solar farm spread over 1,410 acres that would be run by LightSourceBP.
It remains in a pending status with the Ohio Power Siting Board, but the project took some hits locally. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, submitted a letter opposing the project, reflecting the views of some residents near the proposed project.