biggest stories of the year

A holiday tradition at the Tucson Local Media offices, this week we’re taking a look back at the 10 biggest stories for Tucson and Arizona over the past year.

Of course, the enduring pandemic filled a lot of headlines (as much as we’d like to leave it in the past). In the spirit of moving forward, only one of the 10 stories has to do with the pandemic and all the local impacts it has caused.

The rest of the wrap up covers everything from our incredible summer monsoon, to new laws and taxes in Arizona, to our state gaining national attention on multiple fronts. Throughout the paper you’ll also see round ups of our favorite music of the year, as well  as the biggest science stories out of Tucson this year. 

Although it hasn’t been easy, we’re happy you stuck with us and continued reading throughout 2021. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Happy holidays! 

COVID Persists

The biggest story of the year remains the local, national and global struggle against COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that continues to plague the world. The year began with the roll out of three vaccines to protect adults from the virus, but many people have declined to get a shot; as of mid-December, an estimated 74% of eligible Pima County residents had been vaccinated.

Over the course of 2021, schools resumed in-person instruction, although various districts established different rules in regard to mask requirements. A study that included Pima County and the Centers for Disease Control showed that districts without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID outbreaks among students or staff than districts that did require masks.

Before the arrival of the Delta variant, cases dropped in Pima County, reaching a low of 243 new cases reported in the last week of May. But by the end of third week in November, the county saw 4,234 new cases reported. By mid-December, the county was seeing 310 cases per 100,000 population, according to Pima County Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher.

That rise in cases has had a corresponding rise in hospital admissions. Pima County hospitals reported that on Dec. 19, 117 COVID patients—mostly unvaccinated—were occupying 39% of ICU beds. As a result, only 13 staffed ICU beds were available in the county.

The logjam in local hospitals comes as a new variant, Omicron, is sweeping across the country. Although most Omicron cases appear mild, the new variant is highly transmissible and responsible for many breakthrough cases among vaccinated people. Earlier this month, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to require masks in indoor spaces where people cannot physically distance, but a new state law allows businesses to ignore the mandate.

As of Dec. 23, a total of 23,841 Arizonans had died after contracting COVID, including 3,099 Pima County residents, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. More than 800,000 people had died after contracting COVID in the United States since the start of the pandemic.

2020 Election Audit

The Arizona Senate approved spending $150,000 on an audit of the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate elections in Maricopa County. The Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no experience in election work. After a hand count that went on for months longer than originally planned, the Cyber Ninjas count showed Biden winning by a larger margin than the original machine count. The Cyber Ninjas also reported that they found numerous anomalies, but election experts said the Florida-based firm simply didn’t understand election procedures and debunked the various claims. Nonetheless, numerous Republican lawmakers plan to offer new laws to limit early voting and various other voting restrictions in the upcoming legislative session.

Oro Valley Town Council Passes Park Bond

The Oro Valley Town Council voted 5-2 in September to issue $25 million in bonds for parks and recreation improvements. 

The bonds, which will be paid back over 20 years with a portion of a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax passed by the council in 2014, will pay for improvements for the Community Center, Naranja Park and new multi-use paths. Roughly half of the $25 million will go to improvements at Naranja Park, where the town will build two new multi-use fields as well as pickleball courts and basketball courts. The plan also calls for a splash pad and a new skate park and pump track. (Pump tracks, used by bikers and skateboarders, are designed to allow riders to generate momentum without pedaling or pushing.)

The bonds will also support new paths for community walking, biking, and hiking. New paths will be placed on: La Canada Drive between Lambert and Naranja; Naranja Drive between La Canada and park entrance; and from Cañada del Oro wash to James D. Kriegh Park.

Pima County Administrator Injured During Bike Ride

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who has been atop county government since 1993, was severely injured after a car collided with him while he was riding his bike downtown. The 72-year-old Huckelberry, who was wearing a helmet, suffered bleeding on the brain and other injuries. As of the mid-December, he was out of the hospital and undergoing rehabilitation, with his family saying he was making slow but steady progress. County officials say they hope he will be able to return to his job but have appointed one of his deputies, Jan Lesher, as acting county administrator.

Arizona Sen. Sinema in the National Spotlight

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was a key negotiator on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill that includes funding to rebuild roads and bridges; improve airports, train service and ports; replace water lines; expand broadband service; invest in clean energy alternatives; and make numerous other investments in the nation’s aging infrastructure. The bill was signed in

November.

But Sinema, who was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Arizona in more than three decades when she defeated Republican Martha McSally in 2018, was criticized by Democrats for her refusal to support a second part of the Biden administration’s agenda, the Build Back Better Act that would expand support for childcare, reduce prescription drug prices, make investments to reduce greenhouse gases and various other Democratic priorities. While the bill had an original price tag of $3.5 trillion, the White House later released a $1.75 trillion framework. But that effort stalled earlier this month when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he wouldn’t provide the necessary 50th vote for the package.

Sinema’s failure to support the legislation has cost her among Democratic voters. A poll released by left-leaning group Data for Progress showed that only 25% of Democrats approved of Simena’s job performance, compared to 85% who approved of fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. Asked if they would support Sinema or another Democratic challenger in various head-to-head primary matchups, Sinema drew support from roughly 25% of Democrats who were surveyed, with wide margins preferring another candidate.

2021 Ranks as Third Rainiest Monsoon on Record

The Tucson area bloomed under historic downpours this summer, receiving nearly 13 inches of rain from June to September. This resulted in 2021 being the third rainiest monsoon ever recorded by the National Weather Service, and July being the rainiest month in Tucson history. Only 1964 and 1955’s monsoons were rainier, and this year was only about an inch from beating them. 

The major rains resulted in lush mountains and an increase in wildlife. However, they also invariably led to flooding, swiftwater rescues and some property

damage.  

This summer definitely made up for last year’s, which ranked as the second driest monsoon on record. Last year only saw 1.62 inches of rain from June to September. According to National Weather Service data, never before have a top-five rainiest year and a top-five driest monsoon year fallen back-to-back. 

However, don’t let the green trails and thunderstorms make you forget about the other weather records broken this year. Mid June, Tucson sweltered under a heat wave (one of many for the Western United States this year) that broke multiple daily heat records. While we never quite beat the all-time high of 117 degrees measured in 1990, parts of Tucson saw upwards of 113 and 115 in June.

“Last year was horrible, we all know that. And statistically speaking, we also knew we would have a better season this year. When you look back at the historical record, you don’t see two really bad years back-to-back. But I don’t think there’s anyone out there who could have said we’d have this strong of a monsoon,” said John Glueck, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Tucson.

Roche Tissue Diagnostics Expands Marana Location

In June, international healthcare company Roche broke ground on a building expansion that will eventually double their footprint in Southern Marana. The facility is operated by Roche Tissue Diagnostics, formerly Ventana Medical Systems, which is headquartered in Oro Valley, and is expected to complete construction in mid-2022.

The 60,000-foot expansion will focus on diagnostic tests and associated instruments for cancer, including specialized stains for tissue samples that allow researchers to detect various biomarkers for

cancers. 

“With this new expanded facility, our goal is to move some instrument manufacturing production over here, so this becomes a one-stop-shop,” said Himanshu Parikh, vice president of global operations at Roche Tissue Diagnostics. “When we do that, it will allow us to expand our instrument manufacturing footprint in the Oro Valley campus and this is where the major growth of business is taking place. So we can continue to meet the growing demand of business over the years.”

Roche announced they plan to move some of their manufacturing and employees from their Oro Valley campus to their expanded Marana facility upon completion. This can include moving up to 150 existing employees to the new location, and expanding the employee base at both facilities. In total, Roche employs more than 1,700 workers in the greater Tucson area.

“This further solidifies Roche’s commitment to this area,” said Jill German, head of Roche Tissue Diagnostics. “Last year, cancer patients along with many other types of diseases suffered because getting to a hospital and having testing was very difficult during COVID, and yet we still touched the lives of 27 million patients around the world. And that’s something this site helps us continue to do.”

Group Raises Funds To Transform Defunct Golf Course into Nature Preserve

Preserve Vistoso and The Conservation Fund successfully reached their $1.8 million fundraising goal to purchase the defunct Vistoso Golf Course from Romspen Vistoso LLC, a Canadian non-bank mortgage lender.

“We are thrilled to share that we’ve accomplished our fundraising goal of $1.8 million, with more than 400 donors contributing,” President of Preserve Vistoso Gayle Mateer said in a press release. “We could not have accomplished this so quickly without the involvement and generosity of so many people.”

The deal is the result of a collaborative effort by The Conservation Fund, Preserve Vistoso and the Town of Oro  Valley.

The Conservation Fund will place a conservation easement on the property after purchase. A conservation easement is a legal agreement that permanently protects property from development. 

After the Vistoso Golf Course closed in 2018, community members formed the nonprofit Preserve Vistoso in 2019 to acquire the neglected property and transform it into a nature preserve to protect it from

development.

The Town of Oro Valley is expected to take ownership of the property and add it to its park space once the deal is completed.

Gambling Expansion

The Arizona Legislature approved a deal brokered between Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona’s Native American tribes to both expand wagering at casinos to include new table games such as craps, roulette and baccarat as well as allowing gambling on sports. As part of the deal, major-league sports owners were also allowed to open sports betting operations at their stadiums and Arizonans are now allowed to gamble on sports online and via phone apps.

Local casinos such as Desert Diamond and Casino of the Sun moved rapidly to expand their offerings and open sportsbooks.

Casino Del Sol added craps, a new roulette table and two mini-baccarat tables to their gaming floor. Yucupicio said he did not know off-hand what the estimated yearly revenue gaming tables could generate for his tribe, but said he believes the new games will benefit not only the Pascua Yaqui community but other tribes in the state and the nation trying to expand gaming

 operations.

“We are hoping this is very successful and helps our tribe and all of the other tribes throughout the country who are doing this now or are trying to. We fought for our right to have table games,” Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio told Tucson Local Media earlier this year. “I think people don’t understand a lot of this benefits our people. We can educate more and help seniors who suffered through the pandemic. I think it’s a blessing how we can provide more.”

Desert Diamond Casinos also expanded its offerings with the addition of more than 200 new gaming machines as well as craps, roulette and mini-baccarat tables at its Tucson and Sahaurita locations. 

Recreational marijuana dispensaries open

Following the passage of Prop 207 in 2020, Arizona’s medical marijuana dispensaries opened their doors to recreational cannabis users over 21 years old. The Arizona Department of Health Services gave the green light to recreational sales in January. Two dispensaries in Marana, Nature Med and Botanica, welcome recreational users. By the end of October, Arizonans had spent more than $1.1 billion on marijuana between medical and recreational sales, generating more than $175 million in state sales taxes.

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