Today, we say good-bye and good riddance to 2020. Between the pandemic, the riots, the wildfires and the dramatic election, has there been a worse year in recent history? We think not.
But before we show 2020 the door, let’s take one last look at the top stories locally. The pandemic was, of course, a major topic of interest but a fired police chief, a new Showboat and businesses (both opening and closing) made the list as well.
Overall, the Lowell’s First Look website recorded visits from 107,779 people in the last 12 months. A couple thousand were wayward visitors from Massachusetts who were undoubtedly seeking news about their own Lowell, and a few international readers landed on our page as well (hello there, fine folks from Cape Verde, Belarus and Colombia!). However, by and large, our readers are overwhelmingly Michigan-based.
We published 352 articles in 2020, and here are the top ten in terms of views on our website.
Most of the year’s biggest issues were national or international in scope. However, even these trickled to down to affect little Lowell in some way or another.
Case in point: the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests nationwide and after some of those protests, riots took place. That apparently prompted some residents of Barry County to want to walk with rifles on the streets of Lowell. Then-Police Chief Steve Bukala gave his blessing to their plan and said so on the Lowell Police Department’s Facebook page. That post drew accolades from some residents and criticism from others who noted questionable content, including violent imagery, on the personal page of at least one of the young men involved.
Ultimately, Bukala lost his job, but the city says the Facebook post was only one factor leading to his termination. The 10th most-read article on Lowell’s First Look for 2020 outlined the city’s rationale.
In happier news, 2020 brought a new Showboat to Lowell. The previous incarnation of the city’s most recognizable symbol was damaged during record flooding in 2013 and was closed to the public in 2017. In 2019, the boat was demolished, and a group of volunteers worked diligently to come up with a plan to replace it.
Now, their plan is coming to fruition. The committee decided a metal boat would be more durable than one made of wood, and Moran Iron Works in Onaway was selected for the job. The company fabricated pieces of the boat in their facility and then shipped them to Lowell for assembly. Today, the boat is in the river, and workers are adding the finishing touches.
Funding for the new Lowell Showboat came from state grants and private donations. No city money was used. The Showboat Committee is continuing to accept donations for improvements to the Riverwalk, including public restrooms, which will benefit visitors to the boat.
On March 13, students across Michigan woke up to news that school was cancelled. No, it wasn’t a snow day. It was the start of a statewide shutdown in response to cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed in Michigan. While schools were originally slated to be closed for two weeks, that eventually was extended for the rest of the school year with the final months of classes taught remotely.
During her downtime at the start of the shutdown, Lowell High School student Jordyn Vriesman kept herself busy by making cloth masks. This was before mass-produced masks could be found in stores, and the only way to get a mask at that time was to connect with someone like Jordyn.
Our readers appreciated hearing about Jordyn’s willingness to help out however she could, and this article was the eighth most-read story on Lowell’s First Look in 2020.
This isn’t actually an article; it’s a dedicated page on our website.
During the spring shutdown, we had multiple articles related to the pandemic. These covered school updates, business updates and an editorial urging residents to support Lowell shops and restaurants. We didn’t want all that information to get lost on the website so we created a page for links to all those stories.
By summer, most of the city was reopened, and the state and county began publishing detailed information about COVID-19 cases. We transitioned this page to feature local statistics instead, and it is now a regular stop for our readers. Overall, it got the seventh highest number of views for the year.
So it ain’t so. For decades, the corner of Main Street and Riverside Drive has housed a five-and-dime store, but the streak ended this year with the closure of Springrove Variety.
The store’s end had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and everything to do with owner Mike Sprenger being ready for retirement. When we talked to him as operations were winding down, he noted that it was a hard business model to sustain and there was no one in line to take over after him.
While the building has a new owner – local businessman Greg Canfield – there is no word yet on what will be going into the now-vacant storefront.
This article was the precursor to the #10 article on this list. At the time this story was published, very little information was available outside the fact that people had been upset by a Facebook post and that Police Chief Steve Bukala had resigned.
Our attempts to reach Bukala for comment on this and subsequent articles were unsuccessful. After his resignation, Bukala retained an attorney who addressed Lowell City Council on several occasions and threatened legal action. However, we never did hear from Bukala himself at these meetings.
City staff have been largely silent on the matter, and it’s our understanding no legal action was actually taken. That may be because the Chief of Police is an at-will employee in the City of the Lowell. Employment for at-will workers can generally be terminated for any reason, except those excluded by law, such as discrimination based on age, sex or race.
It was a big year for police news, and the fourth most-read story on Lowell’s First Look was a press release outlining the circumstances surrounding an officer-involved shooting.
A Lowell police officer pulled over a vehicle after a short pursuit, but once the officer was out of his vehicle, the car reversed in his direction. The officer shot at the reversing car which then took off down the road. It was later found abandoned, and the suspects were tracked using a drone. One had a gunshot injury to the arm.
The officer involved in the shooting has been on paid administrative leave while the matter is being investigated by the Ionia County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan Attorney General’s office.
While not as dramatic as the floods of 2013 and 2018, the 2020 flood still managed to inconvenience motorists and cause damage for residents. The Grand River crested at 17.4 feet in May, and we headed to out to take photos around town.
Homes in the southeast neighborhood along Front, Jackson and Division Streets took the brunt of the damage although water crept up along a section of Bowes Road as well. Recreation Park was, of course, nothing but water as was the entire beach at Stoney Lakeside Park.
This edition of Scenes from Lowell was the third most-read article in 2020.
In February, what people were really excited about was the prospect of eating street tacos while overlooking the Flat River.
Our story about developer Brent Slagell’s plans to open a Mexican restaurant in the former Serenity Club building on the Flat River was wildly popular. Then, the pandemic hit, and it seemed like the restaurant was not meant to be.
However, the good news is that while the pandemic may have delayed plans, Slagell says the restaurant is still a go. He is waiting for an ok from the state to clear the way to build a deck off the building and over the river and then hopes to start construction in May.
Normally, our top article of the year is our annual April Fools Day post. However, we decided to forego that this year given the serious nature of current events at the time.
Instead, the top article of 2020 was one announcing the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Lowell. While there may have been others, it wasn’t until a letter went out to families of residents at Green Acres that a worker had tested positive that we knew for sure the disease had reached our community.
Since then, all the local long-term care facilities have reported cases among staff and residents. There have also been nearly 750 confirmed cases in the 49331 zip code, and we know of at least a dozen area residents who have died as result of COVID-19 or its complications.
Our hope for 2021 is that the top article next year will be the one that says COVID-19 is a thing of the past. Until then, we wish you and your loved ones a safe, healthy and happy New Year.