The newsroom staff gathered up about two dozen issues of the Denton Record-Chronicle as our nominations for the best stories of the year. We placed them on the desk of Managing Editor Scott Parks with a difficult request: Pare this down to the top five stories for 2017. A few days later, Mr. Parks emerged with the list "in no particular order," he said.
After the Downtown Mini Mall caught fire, we edited the list again. Here are the top five news stories from the Denton Record-Chronicle in 2017:
In June 2015, Dylann Roof, a white man, walked into one of the nation's oldest black churches and shot and killed nine people. He later confessed he killed in hopes of inciting a race war. Across the nation, and especially in the South, communities began to look at Confederate symbols in a new light. Confederate flags came down. Monuments were removed.
A vandal (or vandals) tagged Denton's Confederate soldier memorial about a month after the Charleston church massacre, but it wasn't until 2017 that Denton activists forced the conversation into the public sphere. After weekly protests on the Square and hours of contentious public testimony (two people were banned from Commissioners Court for six months), Denton County commissioners appointed an advisory committee to consider the monument's future. The committee has made some progress reports to commissioners, but it has not yet made any recommendations.
Meanwhile, the Denton school board took stock of its own peculiar situation. In October, activists asked the board to change the name of Lee Elementary School. Lee is one of two schools Denton ISD had named in honor of Confederate generals. (Stonewall Jackson Elementary no longer exists.) Without public notice of their intent to do so, the school board voted in November to change the school's name to honor Alice Alexander, a black woman who was a prominent Denton educator. Some critics said the school board made the right decision, but went about it the wrong way. The board reposted a notice of the change and ratified the decision in December.
Denton Energy Center under construction
The Denton Energy Center is a new natural gas-fired generating plant under construction on about 100 acres west of Denton Enterprise Airport. The energy center was designed to be able to launch one, some or all of its 12 natural gas-fired engines as soon as electricity prices start climbing on the Texas power grid.
The plant is supposed to make money for Denton Municipal Electric, the city's electric department. The profits could subsidize local electric rates, but that wasn't the only reason for the project, DME officials said. Denton could also better negotiate wind and solar contracts and reach a goal of 70 percent of the city's energy coming from renewable sources by 2019.
First, DME needed Denton ratepayers to back $265 million in revenue bonds to build the energy center. Although the project is believed to be the city's largest-ever capital purchase, DME has kept many details of the controversial deal secret. Still raw from the repeal of the city's ban on hydraulic fracturing, activists turned their political energy against the plan, saying it would tie the city to fossil fuels for another generation. Other critics questioned whether the city should spend millions on a new power plant when the city still owns (and is still paying for) its share of a coal-fired power plant.
Construction remains on schedule for the Denton Energy Center, which should be fired up and selling electricity to the Texas grid by summer 2018. DME is working on a new financial plan that should be finished before the power plant goes online. And, with the help of the same consulting firm that helped Georgetown switch to 100 percent renewable energy, DME is also writing a new plan that could help Denton reach 100 percent renewable by 2020.
Jerry Walker killed in the line of duty
A gunman shot and killed Little Elm police detective Jerry Walker, 48, during a standoff at a house on Turtle Cove Drive in Little Elm on Jan. 17.
When Walker joined the force in 1998, Little Elm was a small town. Now, Little Elm is a suburb of 35,000 people and growing fast.
Walker served as a patrol officer and later a school resource officer at Little Elm High School, where he became well known in the community. Walker also served as a member of the department's SWAT team and a hostage negotiator. A skilled marksman, Walker won several medals in various rifle competitions in the police Olympics.
A week after his death, more than 2,000 police officers and citizens filled Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano for his funeral. Hundreds of police motorcycles rumbled into the parking lot, including officers from as far as New York and California.
Walker left behind a wife and four children, whose ages ranged from 2 months to 22 years old.
Fire on the Square
A four-alarm structure fire consumed the Downtown Mini Mall early Tuesday morning on the Denton Square. Firefighters arrived on the scene about 3 a.m. The roof eventually collapsed as the blaze left only a shell of a building with charred debris inside.
No injuries were reported, but residents in eight nearby apartments were displaced. The building was a complete loss and many nearby buildings suffered significant smoke and water damage. The Denton County Courthouse on the Square, including the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum, was closed for assessment and cleaning.
The Denton mini mall was a downtown icon. Inside, individual vintage and antique dealers filled their booths with a variety of curiosities. Glen Farris, president of Denton's Main Street Association, put it this way: "Where else in the world can you walk out of a shop with a sword and a guitar and a record?"
The Denton fire marshal is still investigating the cause of the fire. City officials are working with business owners to speed the recovery.
Denton hotel and convention center opens
Denton's new 70,000-square-foot convention center hosted its first event in the beginning of December. By December's end, the attached 318-room hotel opened for business, too.
Officially called the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center, the project had been on Denton business leaders' wish list for more than a decade. The city government and O'Reilly Hospitality Management eventually settled on a deal that includes significant sales and property tax rebates to O'Reilly for the next two decades. In exchange, the hotel and convention center expect to book about $4 million of convention business in Denton each year.
The convention center has three ballrooms — the University Ballroom, the Equestrian Ballroom and the Golden Triangle Ballroom. The University Ballroom is the largest, fitting 1,850 people at a time.
The Golden Triangle Ballroom opens up to an outdoor yard and event space. The lawn will be covered with synthetic grass and has bracing to support large tents. There's also a large resort-style pool, a splash pad and another pool that can be glassed-in to become an indoor pool during the cooler months.
The buildings include many energy-saving features and have been outfitted with 1,000 solar panels.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.