PRINCETON — From the creation of high-tech jobs to the resumption of a long-awaited road construction project, the year 2019 is being remembered as a period of renewed hope and stability for the region.
Several local stories were among the biggest headlines of 2019. They included:
• Princeton Community Hospital acquires Bluefield Regional Medical Center:
Princeton Community Hospital signed an agreement on June 26 to acquire Bluefield Regional Medical Center from Community Health Systems, Inc. in Franklin, Tennessee, ending weeks of speculation about the future of the Bluefield-based medical center. The move received final regulatory approval on Oct. 1.
“Our hospital was founded nearly 50 years ago thanks to the generosity, pride, vision, and determination of thousands of Mercer County citizens. They saw the need for a modern, not-for-profit health care facility in their community,” Princeton Community Hospital Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey E. Lilley said in a prepared statement. “Through their donations, large and small, their vision became a reality. Because PCH has always put people and community wellness as a top priority, it has been able to attract and retain a highly skilled medical staff and invest in leading edge technology consistently through the years. We believe that the acquisition of BRMC will enable us to build upon and further modernize the quality of health care we provide to our patients and continue to enhance the service lines available to the region.”
PCH retained the majority of BRMC’s employees. The change in ownership also was effective Oct. 1.
BRMC was previously owned by Community Health Systems, Inc., a for-profit company based in Franklin, Tennessee, which purchased the hospital in 2010. PCH is a not-for-profit health care facility, so the city of Bluefield is losing tax revenue as a result of the change in ownership. The city has estimated the loss in annual tax revenue at $680,000. But the move also ensured that the city and its citizens will retain its hospital and the many jobs BRMC provides.
• Long-requested safety improvements along a dangerous stretch of Interstate 77 are completed:
A series of tragic crashes on a stretch of I-77 in the Camp Creek area during the last three years resulted in major safety improvements in that area during 2019.
Since fall of 2016, 12 fatalities were seen between mile markers 20 and 28 on I-77, including the deaths of a family of four from North Carolina after a tractor-trailer crossed the median and plowed into their car.
That horrendous fiery crash prompted an investigation into safety issues on that stretch, which includes a steep hill and sharp curve. Tractor-trailers were involved in nine of those 12 fatalities. Crossing the median into the other lanes has been a problem.
An investigation was started by Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, to see what could be done related to safety measures and included traffic experts and engineers from various agencies.
Each crash was thoroughly researched, looking at the terrain, the time of day, witness statements, police reports, the condition of the vehicles, the reasons the crash happened and what could have been in place to prevent it.
In June 2019, the study was completed with several recommendations, including guard rails.
“Our engineering team announced they had completed their analysis of the median area between mile makers 20 and 28 in the Camp Creek area,” Barr said at the time, adding that it was a comprehensive analysis and review of safety issues. “They have recommended we install guard rails along the median in both directions, north and southbound. They (vehicles) cross of in both direction, going up and down that hill.”
Those guard rails were installed this fall.
Other action taken included lowering the speed limit from 70 to 60 in that area, installing flashing chevrons warning motorists of the curve, installing changeable message boards, increasing State Police enforcement and adding an extra Public Service Commission enforcement officer to deal primarily with truck traffic, including safety inspections.
Faulty brakes have been blamed for several crashes.
Barr said the new steel guard rails have been tested to absorb crashes, even from many trucks. “You see them on all major roads throughout the country.”
Sgt. T.A. Bowers with the West Virginia State Police Turnpike Detachment said increased patrols were seeing results.
“There have been more speeding citations issued on that mountain,” he said in an earlier interview. “We will continue patrolling it pretty heavily.”
Bowers said “it’s just place where people need to watch their speed.”
Barr said the authority will also continue watching, not only to see how all the safety measures work but also to examine any developments in safety measures that may be of benefit.
• Jury renders guilty verdict in high-profile Mercer County decapitation case:
A case that started on April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday, with a call about a suspicious woman covered with blood led to a decapitated body, a charge of first-degree murder, a trial and a possible sentence of life in prison.
Roena Mills, 43, of Rural Retreat, Va. was charged with first-degree murder in the homicide of 29-year-old Bo White, whose decapitated body was found at his Clover Lane home in Lerona. His head was later found nearby in a wooded area.
Mills was later indicted by the Mercer County Grand Jury and tried before Circuit Court Judge Mark Wills. The trial started Dec. 3 and continued until Dec. 5. After hearing closing arguments from Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler and defense attorney Sid Bell, the jury deliberated for almost two hours before finding Mills guilty of first-degree murder. The jury did not recommend mercy, which means Mills would not be eligible for parole after serving 15 years of her sentence.
In his closing argument, Sitler reminded jurors that Mills tried to borrow a chainsaw and gasoline after Bo White was killed, and tried to get a veteran to help her. When Mills could not obtain a chainsaw, the only tools available were “some cheap kitchen knives,” Sitler said.
Mills came out of the woods near Bo White’s home on the morning of April 1 bloody, agitated and disheveled, and telling deputies investigating her sudden appearance that they had to let her finish what she was doing and “you have to let me go back and get my heads.”
The defense argued that there was “zero evidence” of Mills and Bo White ever having a problem between them. The only problem occurred when Bo White’s father, James White, who had had sexual relations with Mills for years, got angry when Bo starting having a relationship with her, Bell told the jury.
Bell then said Mills was invited to Bo White’s home that night. James White also called that night and had a brief conversation with his son, who was murdered shortly afterward.
“Our theory is that Jimmy White was jealous of her relationship with Bo … and Jimmy White is a terrible person,” Bell said.
In this theory, James White called about 10:51 p.m., found Mills and his son together and murdered his son in a jealous rage, Bell stated. Mills, shaken by the experience, left the home.
James White testified to finding his son’s body. He did not report his discovery to the police. Sitler told the jury that James White, an addict, did not want to deal with the situation and, instead, “wanted to get high.”
The autopsy report showed that Bo White had died in a violent attack which included blows and stab wounds which required “a lot of strength” to inflict. Bell said he had seen such cases both as a defense attorney and a prosecutor.
“As an old prosecutor, we call that a crime of passion,” he told the jury, later adding, “ Someone with a lot of strength and a lot of rage had to kill this man.”
Mills faces sentencing in January 2020. The state was represented by Sitler and Assistant Prosecutor David Pfeifer. The defense is represented by Bell and attorney Ward Morgan
• Construction resumes on the King Coal Highway project:
After an excruciatingly long 10-year wait, construction finally resumed in 2019 on the long-delayed King Coal Highway project in Mercer County.
Gov. Jim Justice joined a host of local and state dignitaries on May 1 for a ceremony that marked the start of construction on a new $60 million contract that will extend the King Coal Highway another 3.8 miles to the area of Kee Dam and the Mercer County Airport. There it will then intersect with the existing Airport Road, also known as Route 123. This, in return, will create a usable segment of the King Coal Highway near Bluefield. The completion date for the project is late 2021.
The King Coal Highway is the region’s local segment of the national Interstate 73/74/75 corridor. The project is the third section of the King Coal Highway to be constructed in Mercer County. The first section, which included the K.A. Ammar Interchange, was built back in 2003. The second section of the road, which included the construction of the $16 million interstate bridge high over Stoney Ridge, was finished in 2008.
However, after work on the twin interstate bridges was completed in 2008, construction on the King Coal Highway was stalled due to a lack of federal and state funding. In fact, construction wouldn’t begin until 10 years later, or in the spring of 2019.
Construction crews have been working since that time on the new interstate corridor.
Weather so far hasn’t impacted the ongoing construction.
Crews are currently removing dirt from the mountain at the bridge and construction has now started on a bridge that will cross the upper portion of Kee Dam to connect to Airport Road. Land is also being cleared beside Airport Road to the north to make way for an exit-entrance ramp. After crossing the Christine West Bridge, the highway will then narrow to only two lanes into what will eventually serve as the southbound lanes of the King Coal Highway. Traffic will then be two-way as it crosses the bridges across Bull Tail Hollow and Kee Dam and intersects with Airport Road. Northbound traffic will exit on a ramp that will also include an entrance lane for vehicles entering from Airport Road heading south toward Route 460 and Interstate 77, according to earlier reports from James Self, job superintendent with Kanawha Stone, the company in charge of the more than $57 million project.
Once the roadway is completed, traffic from Interstate 77 and U.S. Route 460 — and specifically ATV tourists traveling to the region — also will have easier access to U.S. Route 52, including the Bluewell and Bramwell communities.
In anticipation of the new traffic influx, city officials in Bluefield are working to develop land near Kee Dam where the King Coal Highway and Route 123 will intersect. The hope is to create a section of land where potential economic development can occur. Part of the land also could be used for recreational purposes. Furthermore, the use of dirt from the large-scale construction project also has been considered for a possible runway extension at the airport.
• A big for year for economic development and tourism projects in the region:
The year 2019 will be remembered as a period of large-scale construction and job-creation projects for the region.
In the city of Princeton, city council approved a $6 million bond plan in early December to begin work on phase three of the new municipal hall project. Construction also continued in 2019 on the new public works department, a part of municipal hall project that is now about 90 percent complete.
When all three parts of phase three are finished, the Princeton Fire Department will have about 16,000 square feet of space; the police Department will have around 11,000 square feet; and the recreation center will have about 25,000 square feet of space.
The entire project is expected to take eight years to complete. It involves the relocation of city government offices and other related services to the old Dean Company property on Bee Street, which is located off of Stafford Drive.
The new recreational center will include at least two basketball courts, possibly an indoor soccer field, bounce houses, a place for birthday parties and proposed dining areas, City Manager Webb said in early December.
Phase three of the project will take about three years to complete. Once it is finished, the city intends to sell the land near Princeton Community Hospital where the existing facilities are currently located. Webb says the land, which is about 11 acres, is an ideal location for new businesses.
The last phase of the city’s plan is to utilize the land between the new government complex and the Princeton Rescue Squad. That land will see ballfields, playgrounds, a park area, possibly a family water park, an activity facility and other potential options that will be considered by the city.
Also in the city of Princeton, work is nearing a completion on the new new $3 million Princeton Rescue Squad Education Center.
The 20,000-square-foot facility, located beside the Princeton Rescue Squad, will serve as both a training center for the squad and as an emergency shelter facility for the community.
One of the training rooms in the facility will have the back of an ambulance that has been removed from a chassis, as well as a mock bathroom used to show how a person who has fallen in the shower or had a heart attack must be lifted. The facility also will include a simulation lab that is designed to help create multiple scenarios EMS officials may face in the field.
Rooms that provide specialized training in areas like cardiology also are included in the new center, as well as a lecture lab with elevated seating and TV monitors and to accommodate about 100 workers.
At the other end of the facility is the emergency shelter, which will accommodate about 250 people and include bathrooms, a commercial size kitchen and large pantry.
In another potentially huge project for the region, Dominion Energy announced in 2019 that Tazewell County is now the only site being considered for a proposed $2 billion hydroelectric pump storage facility. After extensive testing, the company determined that a second site also under evaluation for the project — an abandoned coal mine in Wise County — was unsuitable for the pump station development.
Dominion has been performing the final stages of geotechnical work on East River Mountain, where the facility would be located. That ongoing work includes more core drilling to make sure the site, which will cover at least 2,600 acres owned by Dominion, is suitable for the project.
The proposed pump storage facility has two reservoirs, one near the top of the mountain and the other more than 1,000 feet below. Both are on the south side of East River Mountain a few miles west of the town of Bluefield, Va.
Water is released from the upper reservoir into tunnels where it gains enough force as it falls to rotate turbines in the powerhouse at the lower reservoir.
Electricity is then generated and sent to any place on Dominion’s grid where it is needed. Water is then pumped back up to the upper reservoir.
The decision on whether the facility will be located in Tazewell County is slated to be made in early 2020.
The project would have a significant economic impact upon the region.
It would create 2,000 temporary construction jobs over a seven to 10-year period, and pump millions in new tax revenue into the coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia.
According to a report released by the Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics, the proposed power station would bring about $320 million annually in economic benefits to the region during construction, $37 million a year after completion as well as about $12 million a year in tax revenue for local governments in Southwest Virginia, with Tazewell County getting the lion’s share, about $2.5 million a year.