2020: A look back over a strange year in Stow and Munroe Falls

Krista S. Kano
Kent Weeklies
The Steels Corner state Route 8 overpass is seen on Monday, Dec. 21 in Stow. The city of Stow wants to rename it the John Lewis Bridge after the late civil rights leader and congressman. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

2020 was a year of unpredictability, adaptation, creativity and survival. Here's a look back at some of the biggest headlines from Stow and Munroe Falls. 

1. Communities adapt to COVID-19: On March 13, Summit County confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Not long after, Gov. Mike DeWine closed much of the state, including the schools. 

Stow-Munroe Falls City School District quickly adapted to an online learning environment, ensuring students were fed throughout the summer and providing technology and connectivity to those who needed it. 

The class of 2020 had an unusual send-off as a result of the pandemic, with a graduation in the high school parking lot that was also live-streamed.

Superintendent Tom Bratten noted that 2,000 to 3,000 meals were distributed weekly and meals were delivered to those who needed in the spring, and meal distribution continued into the 2020-21 school year. Also in the spring, 2,500 Chromebooks were distributed, and in the fall, 4,000 Chromebooks and 21 hot spots were distributed to students.

The district spent months on its reopening plan for the fall semester, ultimately returning in a hybrid model. With staff and a team of permanent substitutes who had to fill in at a moment's notice, the district was able to continue in a hybrid environment for most of the year so far.

Stow Munroe Falls students return to school wearing masks and keeping desks distanced.

In early December at the advice of Summit County Public Health, however, the district transitioned the middle and high school to remote learning and canceled sports until after the new year. 

The cities of Stow and Munroe Falls, too, had to quickly create safety procedures for every department and asked many employees to work from home. The cities worked to keep their employees healthy, while also ensuring the continuation of services and programming for citizens. 

2. Tackling racism: This summer's Black Live Matters movement forced communities across the country to confront systemic racism, and Stow and Munroe Falls were no different.

In June, more than 400 people gathered at Stow City Hall and walked to Silver Lake Village Hall in a peaceful demonstration, which included a silent kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd Jr., who died May 25 while in custody of Minneapolis police. 

Stow Mayor John Pribonic was among the more than 130 people who attended a candlelight vigil in remembrance of George Floyd at The Church in Silver Lake on a Sunday earlier this year.

The Stow-Munroe Falls City School District board of education drafted a statement that was criticized for not emphasizing Black lives, and then approved an amended statement at its June 22 meeting. 

The following week, the board held a virtual meeting to read over 40 public comments submitted by community members, students and alumni. Viewers immediately criticized board member Lisa Johnson-Bowers for smiling and laughing during comments dealing with suicides and discrimination, calling her actions disrespectful. 

Johnson-Bowers responded that she was not laughing at the comments, but what was going on in her home during the meeting and apologized "for any misunderstanding at [Monday] night’s board meeting. I meant no disrespect."

The district then created the Diversity Equity Inclusivity committee, led by Curriculum Supervisor K-6 Iisha Collier. The committee is reviewing curriculum, instruction, student experience, climate/culture, the Stow-Munroe Falls community culture, professional development, policy and hiring practices. It also has several subcommittees, each with a three-year action plan. 

City officials from Stow and Munroe Falls, including the mayors and the chiefs of police, are participating in the schools' efforts.

Stow passed a resolution against racism and implemented diversity training for city employees. The city also renamed Silver Springs Lodge for Leona Farris, a member of the city's first Black family. Stow Council is hoping to convince the Ohio General Assembly to have the Department of Transportation rename the bridge that goes over state Route 8 at Steels Corners "John Lewis Bridge," in honor of the late congressman and civil rights leader.

Munroe Falls Police Department used the video of George Floyd as a way to train officers what not to do. Mayor James Armstrong, an attorney, wrote to Gov. Mike DeWine with suggestions on how the state could take a more active role in looking into racism and policing issues and focused on "behind the scenes" work. 

3. Macy's closes: After 55 years in Stow, Macy's announced the closure of its store in the Stow-Kent Plaza in January and officially shut its doors a few months later.

The announcement came as a shock to Mayor John Pribonic, who said the city was not notified prior to the announcement. Residents and longtime shoppers expressed sadness and anger and recalled memories of buying homecoming dresses at the store. 

"[Stow Planning and Development Director Rob Kurtz] is in contact with the developers at least once a month," Pribonic said. "People can rest assured that they're working on this and it's not going to be the long process that it was before Meijer's came on board."

Including Macy's, Stow lost eight businesses in 2020, but issued 23 new business occupancies as of Dec. 17. 

4. Stow Pride fest canceled: COVID-19 caused the cancellation of countless activities this year, including the long-running Stow Pride Festival, which runs every year from the last week of June through July 4. 

Stow also canceled its Memorial Day ceremony, Fourth of July parade and Summer Sunset Blast, Silver Springs Day Camp, youth sports and Safety Town, among others. 

Early in the pandemic, Stow started adding cancellation policies into their vendor contracts, and so the city was not held liable for cancelling their programs. 

The Parks and Recreation department was still able to create community-focused events throughout the spring and summer like the Easter Bunny parade that went on a 36-mile route throughout the city and a Labor Day parade. Ultimately, the city held more events in 2020 than in previous years, thanks to the creativity of Parks and Recreation, Pribonic said. 

This year was to be the launch of Stow Pride's rebranding as the Stow Strong Celebration. The new name will take effect next year. 

5. New faces in high places: Stow City Council saw massive turnover this year with six new members out of the seven total seats. During the 2019 election, five of the seven seats were term limited and Ward 4 councilman Bob Adaska chose not to run for re-election.

Sindi Harrison was the only returning member of council at the beginning of the year.

New members include Dennis Altieri (Ward 1), Jeremy McIntire (At-Large), Steve Hailer (Ward 3), Christina Shaw (At Large) Mario Fiocca (Ward 4), and Cyle Feldman (At-Large).

Jim Costello became the new finance director and Jaime Marie Syx became the new law director. 

In Munroe Falls, former Mayor Frank Larson was the only new member of council. 

The Stow-Munroe Falls Board of Education also welcomed newcomers Nancy Brown and Jessica A. Wright. 

All newly elected officials had only a few months of transition before having to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

6. Businesses fight for survival: Local businesses took a hit this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but most made it through the year thanks to loyal customers, a great deal of creativity and flexibility and, for some, CARES grants. 

The Budding Tree owner Erin Manaska works on an a flower arrangement at her shop on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020 in Monroe Falls, Ohio. [Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal]

Some businesses had to pivot their business model, like the Budding Tree in Munroe Falls that transitioned from exclusively wedding florals to everyday florals, workshops and a gift store. 

Other businesses collaborated in hopes of sharing customers, as was the case for three Stow businesses, Bellacino's, Corner Cup Coffeehouse and Tavern of Stow. 

The Stow-Munroe Falls Chamber of Commerce also worked to support area businesses, recently creating a ShopLocal330 eGift Card that can be used at a number of local businesses. 

Both communities saw more business openings than closings, according to their economic directors and most of the closings were not a result of the pandemic. 

7. Stow administration, council battle over charter amendments: This summer, the city's Charter Review Commission, which meets every five years, proposed nine charter amendments to city council, none of which were approved to go on the ballot in November. 

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit filed by Stow Law Director Jaime Syx to place nine charter amendments on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Law Director Jaime Syx asked the Ohio Supreme Court to compel council to vote to submit the proposed amendments to voters, but the high court denied her requests on Sept. 11.

None of the amendments appeared on the Nov. 3 ballot and Pribonic said there has been no further discussion. 

8. Munroe Falls water tower renovation uncovers structural damage: This summer, an engineering inspection uncovered structural problems in the South Reservoir water tank, located near Heather Knolls nursing home in Munroe Falls.

The city had already planned renovations to the water tank, but then found problems with the rafters. 

Public Services Director James Bowery reported that all work and testing was completed and the tank was back in service on Dec. 9. Final landscaping to restore the ground around the reservoir will be completed in spring 2021. 

9. Former assistant treasurer sues Stow-Munroe Falls school board: On Jan. 3, former assistant treasurer Joanne Ostlund filed a lawsuit against former board president Kelly Toppin and the board of education alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, all of which Toppin and the board have disputed.

Ostlund's suit alleges that Toppin touched her backside, that no action was taken against him and that it ultimately affected her contract renewal. 

Toppin has since filed a counterclaim for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light invasion of privacy, and malicious behavior/punitive damages, according to Summit County court records. 

Court proceedings were delayed due to COVID-19, but the trial date of Aug. 2, 2021 was not affected. 

Ostlund joined the treasurer's staff at the Cuyahoga Falls Schools on Jan .1, rejoining her former colleague Kristy Stoicoiu, who became the treasurer of the Cuyahoga Falls City School in August 2019 and who has also filed legal action against the Stow-Munroe Falls school board. Stoicoiu's trial is scheduled for June 7, 2021 according to court records. 

10. Anne DiCola retires from Munroe Falls: After 12 years with the city of Munroe Falls, Community and Economic Development Coordinator Anne DiCola announced her retirement at the end of 2020.

"I'm so grateful for all the opportunities I've been given to help our community grow and prosper," said DiCola, who plans to stay in Munroe Falls. "I'm a resident, and it's been a pleasure to work with and for my neighbors."

She will be replaced with current city clerk Lisa Hawes, who has worked for Munroe Falls since 2017. Hawes previously worked in the Cuyahoga Falls Municipal Court and juvenile court. 

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@theBeaconJournal.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.