Remembering the top stories of 2020

Bob Gaetjens
Record-Courier

AURORA — We're not likely to forget 2020 anytime soon.

While COVID-19 dominated news coverage, there were plenty of other stories happening.

Here's a look back at some of the biggest headlines in Aurora in 2020:

Geauga Lake redevelopment

Celebrating the groundbreaking for Renaissance Park at Geauga Lake Thursday were, from left, Aurora Public Service Director Harry Stark; Aurora City Council members Kathi Grandillo and Jim Vaca; Pulte director of planning Jim O'Connor; Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin; Aurora City Council member George Horvat; Pulte vIce president of land Brad Piroli; Aurora Chamber of Commerce executive director Karen Bosley; and Aurora City Council member Scott Wolf.

After more than 10 years lying fallow, with the skeletons of roller coasters, stadiums, arcades and other buildings hearkening back to a beloved past for many northeast Ohioans, the former sites of Geauga Lake and Sea World began their next lives in 2020. 

In Aurora, Pulte began work on Renaissance Park, the first phase of a mixed-use development that will feature 308 residential units, about 20 acres of retail and commercial use and 98 acres of parkland. The first 77-acre first phase will include 119 townhomes and 64 single-family lots.

The completion of a joint economic development district deal between the city of Aurora and Bainbridge Township was the key to enticing Industrial Commercial Properties to purchase the remaining 377 acres left of the former Geauga Lake and Sea World land, which Cedar Fair had owned for several years prior. The first company to be part of the mixed-use development on the Bainbridge side of the lake will be Menards, which will use up 24 acres of the property.

FirstEnergy, city settle railroad legal dispute

After about two years of acrimony over FirstEnergy’s plans to install utility poles as part of an expansion of its transmission lines, the city and energy company settled a lawsuit, which was filed in January 2020. 

In the lawsuit, the city had attempted to take ownership over 60.4 scores of the former Norfolk & Southern Railway Co. corridor from the city’s eastern border to Treat Road.

The settlement deal permits FirstEnergy to go ahead with plans to install utility poles along the former rail corridor but gives the city some say in how that’s done, according to Law Director Dean DiPiero. 

“Knowing that, due to federal and state law regarding utilities, the installation of the transmission line was probably inevitable, the city brought the action to ensure property values would be protected and the city could achieve some control over the right-of-way,” he explained in November. “This was accomplished in the settlement through reduced pole heights, relocation of poles away from residential properties, use of pole infrastructure already in place, a recreation easement and a robust landscaping budget to minimize the visual effects of the line on homeowners.”

Roberto takes reins of school district

Aurora City Schools Superintendent Michael Roberto took over Aug. 1, following Pat Ciccantelli as superintendent.

The Aurora city schools started the new school year with a new leader – although he’s far from being new to the district.

Former Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Michael Roberto, already a 20-year veteran with the district, officially took the reins as superintendent Aug. 1. He took over from former Superintendent Pat Ciccantelli, who served as the district’s superintendent for five years. Ciccantelli announced he would retire in January.

Gerald Kohanski, school board president, said that Roberto “has done an excellent job for the past five years as the assistant superintendent for curriculum, and prior to that for four years as principal of our high performing Aurora High School.”

“He has proven to be an able and intelligent educator and administrator, and we look forward to his contributions in continuing to move the Aurora school district to ever-higher levels of performance,” Kohanski said. “His recent central office experience combined with his 20 years tenure in Aurora and broad knowledge of all grade levels and buildings in our district will be invaluable as he moves into his new position. He is also the first Aurora superintendent in over 20 years to be a resident of the city. The board of education looks forward to working with him.”

Early nursing home virus outbreaks

Nursing homes, including Anna Maria in Aurora and The Woodlands in Ravenna, experienced outbreaks with families sharing heartbreaking stories of their loved ones dying alone. 

Congress stepped in to help, providing a round of stimulus funding in the spring. Some businesses could get assistance from the federal PPP. Others turned to their local government, which passed on some of its CARES Act funds to businesses and social service agencies. 

Fast-tracked vaccines a light was at the end of the tunnel as the year came to a close, with the first groups of frontline workers getting the first doses of vaccines developed to combat the virus.

Auroran survives early coronavirus case

Once cleared by health officials, Leo and Diane Masztak were happy to be back together. Leo contracted the coronavirus while the couple was on a cruise in February.

Leo and Diane Masztak, of Aurora, were among the passengers on a Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan with people who had confirmed cases of coronavirus on board. Leo’s case resulted in a lengthy quarantine, first on the ship, then with treatment at a hospital in Japan.

After arriving back in Aurora with Leo no longer under quarantine, Diane said it took time for people to really understand it was safe to be around the couple.

“Because everybody’s giving people such a big scare about this, people don’t want to talk to us even though we have letters from doctors and the Centers of Disease Control that we’re virus-free,” she said last March, adding they had to get negative results before getting on a plane ride back from Japan.

Real estate booms

From left, Kelly and John Penza with their daughter Harper check out a house on East Pioneer Trail in Aurora with real estate agents Cindy and Mo Mustafa.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, real estate agents and homeowners selling were among those to see a boom. 

Fueled by low-interest rates and scant existing inventory, the area real estate market has heated up. Average prices in Portage County for October 2020 were $223,880, up from $181,124 in 2019. Prices were up every month in 2020 compared with 2019, according to the MLS data. 

Real estate agent Carol Foote said time on the market can be measured in days in some cases. 

“What I’m seeing out there is, in our area of the world, we still see record-low inventory — especially for price points $250,000 and under — and we’re seeing days on market for listings at some of the shortest times in history since we’ve been tracking this stuff,” she said.

Jack Kohl of Jack Kohl Realty said he’s “never seen it like this in the 35 years I’ve been doing this.”

COVID-19 and schools

Along with businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, schools and interscholastic sports were deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After the district ended in-class instruction for the spring along with the rest of the state, the Aurora City Schools Board of Education approved a plan for returning to school in August that included keeping students in buildings as much as possible. 

In August, Superintendent Michael Roberto said 76% of families indicated they would prefer their children to attend school in the buildings, with 24% preferring to have their children take all of their courses online. This was with about 93 percent of the districts’ students names registered, he added.

Students in sixth- through 12th grade in the online only program were to have the same teachers, the same Google classrooms and follow the same block schedule as other students.

Portage County’s red tide

A banner announcing “Vote Here Today” hangs outside the Portage County Board of Elections offices in Ravenna.

In November, voters turned Portage County red politically, electing a Republican sheriff, giving the GOP a majority on the Board of Commissioners, and electing a Republican to represent Ohio's 75th district for the first time in decades. The only seats won by Democrats county-wide were races, including the treasurer and county prosecutor, where incumbents were running unopposed.

Although Portage County voters, and voters statewide, voted to re-elect President Donald Trump, Democrat Joe Biden was the winner in the presidential race.

Portage County jail addition complete

Sheriff David Doak at the Portage County Justice Center, in Ravenna, will retire early 2021, after being elected in 2008 and sworn into office in 2009.

A long-awaited addition to the Portage County's jail finally opened at the end of 2019, and attention turned to the renovation of the old jail in the early part of 2020. That addition, county officials say, came just as the COVID-19 pandemic complicated operations at the jail. As 2020 came to a close, the county was dealing with a virus outbreak at the jail, and the expanded space still has not been fully used.

The jail also made news for an investigation into complaints by 23 inmates alleging abuse.  An investigation by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, the Portage County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, into complaints of abuse at the Portage County jail between 2012 and 2019 found that none of the complaints, except one, had any merit. 

Also in 2020, Sheriff David Doak announced he wouldn't seek reelection and would retire when his term is up in January 2021. Bruce Zuchowski was elected to replace him. Doak spent more than a half century in law enforcement — 12 years as sheriff.

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at bgaetjens@recordpub.com and @bobgaetjens_rc.