WATERTOWN — 2021 shaped up to be a year in which many things we thought we knew about life in the north country were changed by events that few envisioned. At times, the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted 2020 for so many, seemed tameable. A vaccine that arrived far sooner than many predicted offered hope that the deadly virus could at least be contained, although likely not eliminated.

By mid- to late summer, new positive cases had dwindled to the point where county public health officials stopped reporting daily cases and life seemed to return to what most people remembered as close to normal, with the pandemic seeming to be in our rear-view mirror.

As the year wore on, however, that illusion was shattered by a surge in cases statewide brought on by variants of the virus, leading to the state more recently reporting record-high levels of new infections.

The surge in cases also shattered the illusion that if a person needed to be hospitalized, there would always be a bed and enough health care workers available so the patient could be treated locally. Some health care workers, weary and wary of the virus, left the field, while others left their jobs due to a reluctance to receive the vaccine and an accompanying mandate that they do so, leaving remaining workers and their employers asking for more help.

A commonly held belief that workplace violence was something that only happened elsewhere was shattered when two well-respected members of the local business community were shot and killed at their office by a former worker who subsequently took his own life.

The long-held notion that marijuana is a bane on society that leads to harder drug use was challenged as several north country municipalities agreed to allow now-legalized marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in their communities, while others adopted a wait-and-see position by voting against dispensaries, retaining the right to later change their minds.

State prisons, the locating of which were often shunned in other areas of the state before being accepted in the north country, were no longer viewed as reliable, long-term employers. Amidst a statewide decline in inmate populations, one north country prison was permanently shuttered and plans were announced to close a second facility.

The idea that large-scale manufacturing is now only part of the north country’s past was disproven when a solar panel manufacturer announced its plans to set up a plant that the company claims could employ hundreds, if not thousands, in the coming years.

Our downtowns, once thought to be remnants of an era where neighbors did their shopping and socializing in a centralized location, continue to show signs of renewal, with Massena becoming the most recent community to receive $10 million to help renovate and restore it’s core district.

Beginning on page A4 is a sampling of events that impacted and shaped our area in 2021 and that will remain in our minds as we proceed into 2022 with an eye toward a better future for the north country.

VACCINATION CLINICS

On Jan. 18, a state-run COVID-19 vaccination clinic opened at SUNY Potsdam, drawing people from as far away as Buffalo and Long Island to get shots that offered protection from a virus that has killed at least 340 people in the tri-county area.

National Guard members, volunteers and St. Lawrence Health employees manned the vaccination center at Maxcy Hall, where roughly 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine were administered each day.

Other vaccination clinics followed, including a twice-weekly clinic at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, with assistance from Carthage Area Hospital, Jefferson County Public Health Service, North Country Family Health Center, River Hospital, Samaritan Medical Center and the Volunteer Transportation Center. Area drug stores and pharmacies would also soon be administering vaccines and, eventually, booster shots.

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Dr. Andrew F. Williams receives the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine administered at Canton-Potsdam Hospital in December 2020. He is one of nine top St. Lawrence Health doctors who signed an open letter imploring everyone eligible in St. Lawrence County to get the vaccine. Provided photo

The SUNY Potsdam clinic was shut down June 21, along with several other state-run clinics, as the state hit a milestone of having 70% of its adult residents vaccinated and the virus appeared to wane. Local health departments and pharmacies have continued to administer vaccinations as the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 have caused a resurgence in the number of virus cases.

MANUFACTURING PROJECT

On Feb. 16, the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency announced that Convalt Energy, a New York City-based renewable energy company, plans to build a solar panel manufacturing facility in the agency’s proposed business park adjacent to Watertown International Airport on Route 12F in Dexter. A sister company, DigiCollect, would also build a facility in the airport park.

The JCIDA said in a statement that the two companies envision they would invest $650 million in the projects. Combined, the two projects are expected to create 2,000 jobs over the next five years, according to the JCIDA.

Convalt has acquired the manufacturing line of a closed solar power manufacturer in Hillsboro, Ore., and plans to move the line to Watertown. The company will also relocate its headquarters to Watertown.

In November, Convalt and DigiCollect signed a Land Development Agreement for the project. Convalt plans to construct a 300,000-square-foot plant to manufacture solar panels. DigiCollect, a software company, plans to build a 50,000-square-foot facility. In total, the companies project that they could employ more than 4,000 people within the next 10 years.

FIREFIGHTER DEATH

On March 12, Watertown City Fire Department firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse died in a Pennsylvania hospital after having a medical emergency nine days prior at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls.

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Peyton L.S. Morse, a Watertown city firefighter, died in March after having a medical emergency at the New York State Academy of Fire Science. Provided photo

Mr. Morse’s medical emergency happened while he was using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA during training. It’s been determined that the breathing apparatus was in proper working order. The 21-year-old firefighter was inside a 20-foot-long tunnel made of plywood while wearing an air pack and a mask covered with tape when the incident occurred.

A medical examiner’s report released in July showed that Mr. Morse had died of natural causes, determining the cause of death was an anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and consequence of physical exertion while using the breathing apparatus.

The results of an investigation by the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, or PESH, that found that the state fire academy did nothing wrong has angered Mr. Morse’s parents, David M. and Stacy L. Morse, and city Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman, who question whether more could have been done to prevent his death or to prevent possible future injuries.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said in November that the city is preparing a lawsuit claiming negligence against the state fire academy. The suit would seek to recover about $178,000 in expenses incurred by the city from Mr. Morse’s medical emergency and death, including the costs of the firefighter’s funeral, medical bills and transport and employment insurance.

PRISON CLOSINGS

On March 30, Watertown Correctional Facility on Swan Road was closed after operating since 1982 at the site of a closed U.S. Air Force facility. The state had announced in late December 2020 that the prison would close, citing a 39% decrease in the state prison population in the previous nine years.

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It was announced in November that Ogdensburg Correctional Facility will be closed, joining Watertown Correctional Facility, which closed in March. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

Despite disapproval being voiced from Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, the state refused to reverse course on its decision to close the prison.

The Watertown prison had more than 200 members of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association employed there at the time of the closing and had about 400 workers overall. There have been preliminary discussions of a possible reuse of the prison, but no concrete plans have been forthcoming.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced Nov. 8 that Ogdensburg Correctional Facility will also close in early March. There are ongoing efforts to save the medium-security institution, but some corrections officers have already been advised of reassignments to other prisons.

The prison, which according to DOCCS has a staff of 268 and is housing 158 inmates despite a capacity of 557, was included with five other prisons statewide that are slated to close in 2022 due to declining inmate populations.

WORKPLACE SHOOTING

On the morning of April 28, a former employee of Bridgeview Real Estate Services entered the business’s office at 145 Clinton St. and shot and killed owners Maxine M. Quigg, 50, of Wellesley Island, and Terence M. O’Brien, 53, of Black River.

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Law enforcement investigates a workplace shooting at Bridgeview Real Estate Services that left two well-respected members of the Watertown community dead in April. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Law enforcement immediately swarmed the area and an alert was put out for officers to be on the lookout for the ex-employee, Barry K. Stewart, of Carthage.

Following a be-on-the-lookout alert issued by state police, a state police K-9 unit observed Stewart’s vehicle on Route 11B in the town of Dickinson, Franklin County, and attempted to pull the vehicle over. Stewart, according to state police, drove off the road and was found inside the vehicle with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Three days later, hundreds gathered in Watertown’s Public Square for a vigil remembering Mrs. Quigg and Mr. O’Brien, both of whom were extremely well regarded among the real estate community and loved by so many outside of it.

Watertown Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith spoke throughout the evening, detailing his experiences growing up with Mr. O’Brien and the many moments they had enjoyed together in their youth, and describing Mr. O’Brien’s kindness and his integrity.

Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division, spoke to the crowd, as did Rev. Jeffrey E. Smith, of Watertown’s First Baptist Church; Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators; and Lance M. Evans, executive director of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors.

Mrs. Quigg’s daughter, Kennedy, and son, Connor, spoke to those assembled, as did Mr. O’Brien’s son, Leland. Each described the type of parent Mrs. Quigg and Mr. O’Brien were, crediting them for the upbringings they had fostered in their families.

“I know right now we’re all grieving together, and it might be that way forever, but despite these tragic circumstances, it feels as if my mom and Terry have never left,” Kennedy told the crowd. “They are here with us and their love of life is present all around us.”

No motive for the shooting was ever publicly disclosed.

HEALTH WORKER SHORTAGE

On Sept. 10, Lewis County General Hospital announced that it would “pause” maternity services due to a staffing shortage brought on by a state mandate requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and a reluctance by some workers to get the shot.

The maternity department already had a number of vacant positions. The resignation of six workers and the uncertainty over the vaccination status of seven additional workers prompted the temporary closure of the maternity services.

Across the north country, health care workers had the choice to get the vaccine or be fired. As staffs shrank and COVID-19 cases rose, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul issued an executive order Nov. 16, curbing elective surgeries and procedures in hospitals with 10% or less staffed bed capacity over a seven-day average.

On Dec. 7, the state Department of Health sent determinations to 32 upstate hospitals to cease non-essential procedures, including Canton-Potsdam Hospital of St. Lawrence Health; Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center of North Start Health Alliance; and the Alice Hyde Medical Center, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital and Elizabethtown Community Hospital within the University of Vermont Health Network.

There were also reports of patients who would ordinarily be treated at north country hospitals being sent to hospitals across the state due to shortage of available beds locally. In late December, nine doctors at St. Lawrence Health put out an urgent plea to the community to get vaccinated, stating their ability to provide care was “threatened.”

“We are heartbroken,” the doctors wrote. “We are overwhelmed.”

CAPITOL RIOTERS ARRESTED

On Oct. 1, U.S. Attorneys announced that a Watertown woman, Maryann Mooney-Rondon, 55, and her son, Rafael Rondon, 23, had been charged with taking part in the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.

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Watertown residents Rafael Rondon, top left, and his mother Maryann Mooney-Rondon, top center, are pictured at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot at the building. The photo was filed with a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court.

Court documents allege that, during the riot at the Capitol, the pair entered the suite of House Speaker Nancy P. Pelosi at the moment the congresswoman’s laptop was stolen. They were also accused of stealing “escape hoods with satchels,” which are filtering respiratory protective devices kept in the Capitol for members of Congress and staff for self-rescue. The devices provide 30 minutes of protection from carbon monoxide, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear contaminants, according to a criminal complaint filed with the court.

In the aftermath of the Capitol breach, the FBI’s Washington field office published a collection of images of individuals it was seeking to identify in connection with the riot. On May 4, the FBI received an electronic tip that identified Mrs. Mooney-Rondon and her son. A review of information received from their cell phone service provider allegedly placed the pair in the geographic area of the Capitol, including in its interior, on Jan. 6.

On Dec. 8, the Rondons were indicted in U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, on nine counts, including theft of government property, identified in court documents as “one Hewlett-Packard laptop computer located in the offices of a member of the U.S. Congress.”

The pair has pleaded not guilty to each count of the indictment. A status conference is scheduled for Feb. 16 in federal court.

CITY COUNCIL COMPOSITION

On Nov. 2, two political newcomers, Patrick J. Hickey and Cliff G. Olney III, joined incumbent Watertown City Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero in winning seats on the City Council.

The election was widely viewed as a referendum on Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith’s agenda — despite the mayor not being up for re-election in November — as the three repeatedly criticized the way they believe he is leading.

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Friends Patrick J. Hickey and Clifford G. Olney III each won seats on the Watertown City Council in the Nov. 2 election. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

A fourth candidate, Leonard G. Spaziani, who was appointed in March to fill a vacancy on council, ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign in which he similarly focused on the mayor, running head-to-head against Mr. Olney, Ms. Ruggiero, Michelle Capone and Benjamin P. Shoen for a four-year seat. Mr. Hickey won a seat to fill the two-year seat over challenger Amy Horton.

Despite an election night lead, it would take nearly two weeks for Mr. Olney to officially be declared the winner over Ms. Capone, with the final results pending the count of absentee ballots. He ended up with a 51-vote victory margin.

“It is very much ‘everything is possible’ now that’s final,” Mr. Olney said after the absentees were counted. “And we’re ready to go in a different direction. It’s a good day for Watertown.”

MASSENA DOWNTOWN REVITALIZATION

On Dec. 10, the village of Massena learned that it is the latest recipient of $10 million from the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative to help fund multiple improvements for the village’s downtown.

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Massena Mayor Gregory M. Paquin masks up while holding a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative check on Dec. 10. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

Six projects were submitted as part of the village’s DRI application. Among them is the restoration of the Massena Schine Theater. The theater estimates the total cost to be $1.9 million and requested $1 million in DRI funding.

GoCo Ventures is proposing a full modernization of the Central Building property, formerly the JJ Newberry Building on the corner of Main and Andrews streets. Immediate work includes asbestos removal, replacement of a leaking roof and addition of a rooftop deck, and replacement of the decaying 1970 facade. The total cost is estimated at $2.95 million, with $1.48 million requested in the DRI application.

Other proposals include a downtown riverwalk at a total cost of $1.6 million, with a $1.4 million DRI request; an outdoor event center and recreation space on Water Street, at a total cost of $1.8 million, with a $1.5 million DRI request; and renovation of a “round brick” building on West Orvis Street, at a total cost of $1.3 million, with a $650,000 DRI request.

MARIJUANA DISPENSARIES

Local governments spent a fair amount of time in 2021 weighing whether to allow marijuana dispensaries within their boundaries.

When the New York State Legislature passed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act in March, it included a stipulation that towns and villages can choose to allow dispensaries to sell marijuana, or “pot lounges” to sell and allow patrons to consume marijuana on site.

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Municipalities across the north country wrestled in 2021 with the question of whether to allow marijuana dispensaries within their boundaries. Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/TNS

Municipalities had until Dec. 31 to either “opt out” of allowing retailers or consumption lounges or become a municipality in which a license could be issued for someone to operate a marijuana business, although there would still be no guarantee that someone might decide to do so.

The Watertown City Council adopted the opt-out option in August, but a petition was circulated in an attempt to garner enough signatures to force the city to hold a voter referendum on the matter. The petition required 593 valid signatures, and 736 signatures were obtained.

City Clerk Ann M. Saunders determined that only 491 out of the 736 signatures were signed by eligible city voters. After what she called “a careful and thorough examination of signatures,” she concluded that 162 of the signatures were not by people registered to vote in city elections. Another 83 signatures also did not qualify for various other reasons, she found.

Town of Lyme residents voted in a referendum, with the measure to allow dispensaries defeated by just two votes, 277-275. According to the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government, the Jefferson County villages of Antwerp, Evans Mills, Mannsville, Philadelphia, Theresa, Carthage and West Carthage have agreed to allow dispensaries, along with the towns of Orleans and Pamelia.

The town of Leyden is the only municipality in Lewis County that decided to allow marijuana-oriented businesses. The St. Lawrence County towns of Canton, Fine, Gouverneur, Massena, Morristown, Oswegatchie and Stockholm will allow them, along with the villages of Potsdam and Rensselaer Falls and the city of Ogdensburg.

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