Helena year in review: Looking back at top news stories of 2020

FROM STAFF REPORTS

The year 2020 was as historic as it was shocking—the headlines included an attempt to return to a normal economy amid COVID-19, the early closure and staggered return of school, a dreaded second wave of the pandemic, and significant local and national elections. Here we recap the top news stories from a year we will not soon forget:

JANUARY

Jobless rate at record low for 7th straight month

Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced that, for the seventh month in a row, Alabama has reached a new record low unemployment rate, with Shelby County’s rate again the lowest in the state.

Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted November unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, down from October’s previous record rate of 2.8 percent, and well below November 2018’s rate of 3.8 percent.

Bywater Oyster Bar & Grill opens in Old Town Helena

You’ll certainly feel like you’re dining seaside when you sample a seafood dish at Bywater Oyster Bar & Grill. Even though the closest body of water is nearby Buck Creek, the new establishment in Helena’s Old Town district seeks to create a coastal state of mind amidst the historic backdrop of the 1890s structure occupied by 4085 Helena Road.

Morgan Road expansion project continues

An expansion project aimed at widening the heavily trafficked Morgan Road (Highway 52) is making progress in its effort to relieve congestion on the route. The road, which links Helena and Bessemer, has been in dire need of expansion since the population in the area increased more than 20 years ago. Currently more than 18,000 drivers take the route each day, which has caused severe congestion on the two-lane highway.

Reporter moves publication days to weekends

The Shelby County Reporter and its affiliate newspapers serving Alabaster, Helena, Pelham and the Highway 280 corridor, are shifting publication days from Wednesdays to Weekends, beginning with newspapers to be published on Saturday, Feb. 1 . Wednesday, Jan. 29 is the final Wednesday edition with the first Weekend days later.

FEBRUARY

Minor storm damage hits Helena following tornado

Parts of Shelby County were awoken during the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 6, by a sudden tornado warning, specifically the city of Helena, as well as other areas of North Shelby County along the Alabama 119 and U.S. 280 area. Around 2 a.m. a tornado warning was issued for the county just to the west of Helena, and shortly after that turned into a “confirmed” tornado according to ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann.

Samaniego appointed to commission position

Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego was appointed to serve as a Commissioner on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town announced Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Flash flooding causes issues for roads in county

As rain moved through Shelby County on Monday, Feb. 10, the area was put under a flash flood warning, and it didn’t take long for flooding to take over many roadways.

Several roads became impassable in cities like Alabaster, Calera, Chelsea, Columbiana and Pelham, as well as areas off Cahaba Valley Road in North Shelby. The recorded rainfall from 7 a.m. on Feb. 10 until 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, was more than 3 inches across the entire county, while some spots got close to 4.5 inches of rain in the 24-hour span.

Public meeting to be held about toll bridge

Lay Lake area residents and others will have an opportunity to voice their opinions about a proposed toll bridge over the Coosa River at a public involvement meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 18.

A private developer has proposed the toll bridge project, which would connect Shelby and Talladega counties, at Shelby County 28 at Perkins Landing on the Shelby County side of the river.

Llamagram spreads love across county

Most people expect to receive candy and flowers on Valentine’s Day, but this year Helena Hollow Farm helped people bring something a little more exciting to loved ones with Llamagrams.

For the fee of $50 the farm brought a live llama as a gift to the front door for several residents’ unsuspecting Valentines. According to Jamie Griffin, Helena Hollow owner, the Llamagrams were a big success.

MARCH

Community steps up to provide food assistance

The immediate closure of public schools in Shelby County in light of the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has raised questions about children having access to an adequate supply of food during the next several weeks.

Three car thief suspects arrested in Helena

Three car thief suspects have been apprehended by the Helena Police Department after an early morning chase ended with the three suspects fleeing on foot following a car crash. According to the Helena Police Department, the individuals stole a car in Alabaster and around 4 a.m. were spotted by HPD before crashing their vehicle and taking off on foot.

Commission rejects proposed toll bridge

A proposal to build a toll bridge over the Coosa River connecting Shelby and Talladega counties was denied by a unanimous vote of the Shelby County Commission at its meeting on Monday, March 23.

County has 36.67-percent voter turnout

With Super Tuesday came a busy day of voting for many residents across Shelby County, and at the end of the day, several candidates had won primary elections, while other races are headed to run-offs.

Alabama schools closed until April 6

Gov. Kay Ivey addressed the state of Alabama in a press conference on Friday afternoon, March 13, and declared a state of emergency, while also declaring that all public schools in the state will be closed for 2.5 weeks as of Thursday, March 19.

Residents unite for help during viral outbreak

Helena residents are coming together to share information and provide help to fellow residents during the coronavirus epidemic through a Facebook group called “Helena Pandemic Help Exchange.” According to City Council President Hal Woodman who created the group, “the goal is to create a network of neighbors to help each other through this crisis.”

Hillsboro to see new retail space

A development project headed by U.S. Steel Real Estate will bring a new retail area to the Hillsboro community in Helena, as well as improvements for the trail system that surrounds the area.

APRIL

Freddy’s and Dunkin’ set to open in Helena

A business development that was approved by the Helena Council last year is set to bring several new businesses to the city including Chick-fil-A, Freddy’s, Dunkin’ and more.

The retail development is located at the intersection of Alabama 261 and Shelby County 52, the former location of Helena Tire and Wheel. The project was proposed by Retail Specialists, LLC after acquiring the approximately 7 acre site.

Helena FBC finds new way to hold its services

Most local churches have decided to cancel in-person services due to the spread of COVID-19, however the First Baptist Church in Helena found a way to gather without risking anyone’s health by holding a drive-in service on Sunday, March 29.

City OKs funds for distance learning

The Helena City Council has approved a total of $150,000 for Helena schools, including $25,000 to each of the four schools and an additional $50,000 to assist with unexpected expenses related to distance learning.

The Council met remotely in a special called meeting Friday, March 27 to approve the measure—just a day after Gov. Kay Ivey announced Alabama public schools would close for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Unemployment numbers spike across county

On Saturday, March 14, Shelby County’s unemployment insurance initial claims sat at 38 for the month. Two weeks later, on Saturday, March 28, it had risen to 2,439 claims. That’s the harsh reality of what the first two weeks of COVID- 19 did to the county’s workforce. Almost as staggering, the state’s number of claims rose from 1,819 on March 14 to 80,984 on March 28. The Alabama Department of Labor said 74,844 of those claims are COVID-19 related.

Gov. Ivey issues stay-at-home order

A week shy of a month into Alabama’s battle with COVID-19, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a stay-at-home order for the state on Friday, April 3, to try and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

HHS seniors congratulated with banners

Since HHS is unable to hold a graduation ceremony for its seniors until this summer at the earliest due to the spread of COVID- 19, the city of Helena has placed banners all over town congratulating them on their special achievement. The signs read “City of Helena Congratulates Helena High School Class of 2020.”

Crave Candles Co. debuts hand sanitizer line

Lori Newell knows how to pour a luxury soy candle, but lately, she has spent much of her time crafting a different commodity: hand sanitizer.

Newell, who owns Crave Candles Company in Helena, realized the COVID-19 pandemic had led to a shortage of sanitizer at stores and decided she wanted to create a solution.

MAY

Helena businesses reopen under new guidelines

Following the amended guidelines of Gov. Kay Ivey’s safer-at-home order, many businesses were allowed to reopen their doors to customers on May 11.

This amended version includes allowing restaurants to have limited seating for dine-in service, and allows close-contact services, like hair salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, to begin serving their customers with new and strict guidelines.

Pippa Daspit wins Helena Virtual Festival

Over the past two weeks more than 15 residents performed talents and nearly 700 people participated in the voting process for the Helena Virtual Festival and Social Distancing Talent Show. The winning submission featured 5-year old Pippa Daspit singing a parody of the classic “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, receiving more than 500 likes.

Dollar Tree location will open in Helena

Helena residents will soon be able to shop at the discount retailer Dollar Tree following the completion of a major retail development in the city, which also still features a vacant spot for lease next door.

Helena Hollow hosts prom for Helena, Thompson students

Helena Hollow will be hosting a “Second Chance Dance” for at least two local schools starting on May 29 with Thompson High School, before then hosting another one on June 5 for Helena High School.

The event is designed to give juniors and seniors who missed their prom this year a second chance at the memorable dance after COVID-19 ended the school year more than two months early and kept schools from putting on the event.

Local churches reopen amid eased guidelines

Over the past few months many churches have had to find creative ways to continue having services, due to distancing guidelines not allowing for indoor meetings. Some churches used livestreams, and others had drive-in services in the parking lots of their buildings.

County has one of lower jobless rates despite record highs

As COVID-19 has taken the economy, shaken it up and thrown it to the wolves, the country and state have both seen record highs in unemployment rates. The country hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the lowest mark since the Great Depression era, while the state of Alabama had a 12.9 percent unemployment rate during the month, which marked its lowest since 1982 (15.5 percent).

JUNE

Helena High School celebrates its 2020 seniors

The HHS football stadium filled with friends and family Tuesday, June 2, to celebrate the class of 2020 on their achievement of finishing high school and earning their diplomas.

Helena schools approve new administrators

Two new administrators were approved for schools in the city of Helena during a virtual meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education on Thursday, May 28.

Mary Anderson was approved to become the new principal of Helena Elementary School, replacing previous principal Jeff Norris, while Kara Burleson will be the new system assistant principal and has been assigned to Helena Intermediate School for the coming 2020- 2021 school year.

Helena mayor won’t run for another term

After serving two terms as the mayor of Helena, Mark Hall announced on Thursday, June 4, that he won’t be seeking a third term as the city’s mayor.

Helena students get second chance at prom

While they were unable to experience a sense of normal for a while, Helena’s senior class got the opportunity to graduate a week ago and then on Friday, June 5, they got the opportunity to enjoy their senior prom thanks to some help from Helena Hollow, who hosted a second chance dance.

SCS gave away more than 180K meals to students

As news broke that schools would close for the remainder of the year, the Shelby County Child Nutrition Program employees put on their masks and gloves and got to work feeding students who would be impacted by the loss of breakfast and lunch meals normally provided at school.

From the first meals served on March 16 to the final meals served on May 21, CNP staff served a total of 181,152 grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meals to students.

‘Refined to go’ opens restaurant in Helena

In case you’ve not heard the news, there’s a new to-go spot in Old Town Helena that is the latest buzz. Still in their first few weeks of being open, chef James Washington and his wife Star have officially opened Helena’s newest eatery named Refined to go, which is located at 778 2nd St. on the backside of Oh My Sole and Brain Freeze.

Mayors unite for peace, racial equality

Mayors of cities and towns in Shelby County released a collective statement supporting peace and racial equality in the wake of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd.

Helena watermelon festival marks start of summer

Summer was in full swing at Helena Hollow as many guests kicked off the season on Saturday, June 20, for the farm’s Watermelon Crawl Festival.

JULY

Mackey: ‘Campuses will reopen in the fall’

In a press conference on Friday morning, June 26, State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey not only laid out the road map for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year amid the COVID-19 outbreak but said students will return for in-person instruction.

“Absolutely, our campuses will reopen for in-person instruction,” he said early in the press conference.

Shelby County surpasses 1,000 cases of COVID-19

It was another record-high week in Shelby County’s battle with COVID-19, as 239 new cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed, causing the county to eclipse the 1,000 confirmed-case mark.

Ivey issues mandatory order requiring masks

A lot can change in two weeks. During Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s last press conference she stated a mandatory mask order would be difficult to enforce, but when she addressed the media two weeks later at a press conference on Wednesday, July 15, she reversed course and issued a statewide mandatory mask wearing order.

Shelby County Schools sets 2020-2021 plan

Shelby County Schools released its complete reopen plan for the 2020-2021 school year on July 16, further detailing what students and parents can expect, including a new requirement regarding face masks in schools. The updated plan comes nearly a week after the Shelby County Board of Education approved a revised calendar with a later start date of Aug. 13 for students and the first set of reopening plans was shared.

AUGUST

Helena schools welcome back students

With a multitude of safety measures in place students returned or came for the first time to Helena Elementary School to start the 2020 school year on Thursday, Aug 13. As schools in the county returned to campus on a staggered basis, the facility saw about half of its students on the first day.

Brian Puckett voted new mayor of Helena

After several months of campaigning, meet and greets, forums and debates, the closely watched municipal election in Helena saw current Place 2 City Councilman Brian Puckett elected as the next mayor of Helena on Tuesday, Aug. 25. Puckett defeated Scott Summerlin with a vote of 1,811-1,250 to earn the spot as the city’s next leader.

Bid approved for Helena Road turn lane

The Helena City Council on Monday, July 13 took up the consideration and vote to approve the low bid proposal submitted by Chilton Contractors, Inc. for the 261 turn lane project valued at approximately $1.97 million. The turn lane will be in front of the new shopping center coming to the city at the intersection of Helena Road, Shelby County 17, Shelby County 52 and Coalmont Road. The goal is to help alleviate traffic congestion.

SCS starts school year on a staggered plan

Shelby County Schools set out a plan to start the 2020-2021 school year in the “Cautious Together” phase of its reopening plan, which included a staggered schedule for students.

HHS kicks off summer band camp, shares Disney theme

While band students had to miss out on the concerts and events that typically precede the end of the school year, band students at Helena High School are finally able to move ahead with some sense of normality as their summer band camp recently kicked off.

According to Director of Bands Jeff Burnside, band camp began on Monday, July 20, when the 220 students in the HHS marching band reunited to begin working on their show for the 2020 year.

Old Town Helena to become entertainment district

The Helena City Council voted on Tuesday, Aug. 10 to establish the Old Town area of Helena as an entertainment district.

The ordinance will allow patrons of locations in the new district to take alcoholic beverages outside of the businesses and consume them in the district between noon and midnight of that day.

Helena Elementary holds drive-thru Meet the Teacher

Helena Elementary School took the very familiar concept of a drive-thru event, and used it to allow kindergartners starting the school year to interact with their new teachers on Tuesday morning, Aug. 11, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to them when they attended their first day of school on Aug. 13.

SEPTEMBER

Helena Buck Creek Fest canceled for 2020

In its first year under new leadership, the Helena Buck Creek Festival, which was postponed from earlier this year to Oct. 23-24 due to COVID-19, was canceled.

The announcement was shared by the committee on Thursday, Sept. 10, saying the best way to move forward would be to focus on next May’s event.

SCS students return to 5-day schedule

Traditional learners in Shelby County Schools will transition back together for five days a week of in-person instruction starting Monday, Sept. 14, district leaders announced on Aug. 31.

Church at Cahaba Bend holds prayer walk for schools

The Church at Cahaba Bend decided to use the month of September to reach out to faculty and students at each of Helena’s schools to offer prayer and support through their “Pray for Our Schools” initiative.

Helena officer injured in motorcycle wreck

Following a serious motorcycle accident in Helena on Monday, Sept. 21, a Helena police officer was upgraded to stable condition the afternoon of Tuesday.

David Rollan, who has been a dedicated member of the Helena Police Department for 15 years, was off duty when his motorcycle crashed on Monday around 12:30 p.m.

OCTOBER

Helena residents unite for Cleanup Day

The Helena Beautification Board and around 40 volunteers all came together on Saturday, Sept. 26 to help spruce up Old Town as part of the board’s annual Fall Cleanup Day.

Helena Hollow’s The Patch opens for 2020

You could not have handpicked a better day than Saturday, Oct. 3 for opening day of Helena Hollow’s pumpkin patch, where families gathered for fun on the farm and to pick out that perfect pumpkin.

The autumn weather brought a mild, sunny day for attendees to take advantage of the fourth annual “The Patch,” which boasted several new activities this year.

City comes together through festive Halloween whodunit 

The pumpkin pandemic has recently swept through the city of Helena as decorated jack-o-lanterns have popped up all around town. After weeks of speculation, the masterminds behind the idea have been revealed. Helena residents and Golden Rule employees Lydia Edwards, Kattie Jones and Cody Pace have been revealed as the original pumpkin placers, a fun task that has now been tackled by many.

Healthy smoothie and juice bar opens

Helena Nutrition, a new healthy smoothie and juice bar opened its doors offering a wide variety of shakes and teas to the city on Sept. 29. Owner T.J. Cunningham describes Helena Nutrition as a “quick service smoothie and coffee lounge type restaurant.”

NOVEMBER 

Shelby County ranks highest in final Census response rate

As the window for the 2020 Census self-response closed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, Shelby County came out in first place within Alabama’s 67 counties with a final rate of 78 percent.

According to County Community Services Manager Reggie Holloway, because of the efforts of the Complete Count Committee, the county was able to surpass all other counties, while many cities in the county ended with a completion rate greater than 80 percent.

HIS holds drive-by parade

Helena Intermediate School recently honored long-time friend and respected bus driver Donna Channell with a drive-by parade at the HIS campus on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Helena swears in new mayor, council

Following the recent municipal elections, the city of Helena swore in new and returning members of its city council, city officials and the new mayor, Brian Puckett, who will serve the city for the next four years.

The council members sworn in at the ceremony included Leigh Hulsey in Place 1, Chris VanCleave in Place 2, Laura Joseph in Place 3, Alice Lobell in Place 4 and Hewy Woodman in Place 5.

County votes yes on aid amendment to support intercity help

Shelby County gave a resounding yes vote to the only local amendment that appeared on this year’s General Election ballot. The amendment, known as the mutual aid amendment, will allow cities to help those impacted by natural disasters or other emergencies throughout the county.

How did the county vote this year?

Voting lines topped two hours in some places across Shelby County on Tuesday, Nov. 3, as residents flooded to the polls to cast their votes in the General Election, overwhelmingly supporting President Donald Trump to be reelected to the position.

Taking on former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump received 69.41 percent of the vote, or 79,428 votes, while Biden received 28.87 percent, or 33,036 votes.

Couple sentenced in child abuse case

After pleading guilty to child abuse last December, Cynthia and Richard Kelly were handed down a 10-year prison sentence on Thursday, Nov. 12, but will only be required to serve two in prison.

Judge Bill Bostick handed down the 10-year sentence, which is the maximum allowed for the charges the couple faced, and came as part of a plea deal that was previously arranged.

Folmar honored at retirement ceremony

Fellow law enforcement officers, community members, friends and family gathered at Helena City Hall on Thursday, Oct. 29, to celebrate the valuable services that former Helena Police Chief Pete Folmar provided to the city.

DECEMBER

Lee Springs Park opens in Hillsboro community

Residents of Helena have a new park to bring their families, meet up with friends or enjoy the beautiful outdoors as the Lee Springs Park officially opened in the Hillsboro community on Saturday, Nov. 21.

Helena High School student honored for vocal talents

Mary-Carol Dassau, a senior at Helena High School, was recently honored with the distinction of Outstanding Choral Student by the Alabama Music Educators Association for District II.

Dassau competed against seven other girls in the female portion of the All- State competition through a process of learning and perfecting her vocal talents for a submission.

Helena chef brings Italian food with food truck

Chef Joe Sciarrotta, a Helena local, has spent the better part of his life preparing and serving food in a professional setting and will now fulfill a lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant through a food truck.

Ivey extends order, talks vaccine

As expected, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey extended the state’s mask-mandate order on Wednesday, Dec. 9 at a press conference in Montgomery, but the more pressing news came with talk of a vaccine coming to the state.

Helena rings in Christmas with annual events

The celebrations kicked off on Friday night, Dec. 4, as the city held its holiday festival and Christmas tree lighting in Old Town Helena.

The holiday festival was sponsored by the Helena Business Association and gave residents an opportunity to not only get some of their Christmas shopping done, but to connect residents with local vendors.

New AT&T tower will help customers in Helena

Development and construction for a new AT&T tower is underway along Shelby County 13 in Helena and is expected increase wireless capacity for the city.

Residents may already have noticed the tower along Shelby County 13 since its recent installation, and AT&T is working to activate the site, which will provide coverage between Helena, Green Pond and the Cahaba River Park areas.

Hall appointed to Pardons and Paroles Bureau

Mark Hall, former mayor of Helena, has been appointed to serve as the director of administration for the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles by the board’s director and former state Sen. Cam Ward.