HUNTINGTON — As the Tri-State embarks upon a new year, there are plenty of newsworthy events set for the region. Here are just a few of the things residents can expect to hear more about in 2021:
A federal trial for a case filed by Huntington and Cabell County against drug companies they accuse of creating and fueling the opioid epidemic in the area will not take place in January as planned due to COVID-19.
The lawsuits argue the companies had a duty to monitor and report the high volume of pills being shipped into the area, but ignored it.
The case had been set to go to trial Jan. 4, but U.S. District Court Judge David A. Faber continued the trial indefinitely due to COVID-19. A pretrial conference will now take place Jan. 6 and Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. via videoconference to further discuss the case.
The trial is expected to take 12 weeks and could see as many as 200 witnesses traveling from across the country to testify. Dozens of attorneys and their employees are also expected to be in West Virginia for the trial.
Cabell County and Huntington filed suit against AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — the “Big Three” drug distributors — in 2017, claiming they helped create and fuel the opioid crisis in the United States and Appalachia by selling millions of pain pills.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data show that from 2006 to the end of 2016, West Virginia received 853.5 million prescription pain pills. Of those, 65 million — about 96 per person per year — were distributed in Cabell County, with millions more going to surrounding counties.
More than 3,000 cities, towns, Native American tribes and other groups have spent years preparing for trials against the nation’s largest drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. However, since the beginning of December, two federal trials have been delayed and a May trial against pharmacy chains in Cleveland was pushed to October due to pandemic concerns.
McCallister brothers in court
Two well-known Huntington brothers charged in an indictment with shooting a man in 2019 will see their court proceedings continue into 2021 after a judge granted the defense a motion in December to receive more details about the grand jury proceedings.
Tom McCallister, a former Huntington City Council member and mayoral candidate, was indicted in September on charges of malicious assault and use of a firearm during commission of a felony, and his brother, Johnny McCallister, a retired Cabell County magistrate, was charged with wanton endangerment involving a firearm. The brothers are set to return to court at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 26.
The investigation into the men began April 27, 2019, after police were dispatched to a shots-fired call about 4 p.m. in the 400 block of West 3rd Street in Huntington. Ron McDowell Jr. told dispatchers two men, believed to be the McCallisters, were holding him at gunpoint.
McDowell, who is now paralyzed from the neck down, was shot while on the phone with 911, and Tom McCallister admitted to a responding police officer he shot McDowell. Video surveillance indicates Tom McCallister had a gun in his hand and Johnny McCallister’s gun was holstered, according to police.
Defense attorneys said the shooting was done in self-defense. They believed McDowell was attempting to break into a garage owned by one of the McCallisters and he was wielding a knife, they said. However, police said the victim was found on the ground on his back with a gunshot wound to his neck, an open flip cellphone in his right hand and a closed pocket knife near his right arm.
At the Jan. 26 hearing, defense attorneys plan to seek a dismissal of the indictments against the two brothers. An indictment is a formal charge made against a person by a grand jury. It does not establish guilt or innocence. Indictments are issued after the jury hears testimony about incidents in hearings behind closed doors before determining if there is enough evidence for an individual to go to trial.
MU business school
At the end of 2020, the Marshall University Board of Governors received an updated project plan for a new building for the College of Business, which is currently housed in Corbly Hall.
Marshall’s new College of Business facility, which will be constructed at 4th Avenue and 15th Street, was delayed by the pandemic, and the new plan has students in the new space by January 2024.
The plan to construct a new College of Business facility was announced after a $25 million gift from Brad and Alys Smith in the fall of 2018. Theirs was one of the largest monetary gifts in the university’s history.
The facility is planned to house Marshall University’s Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Innovation (iCenter), and accommodate two new degree programs, a Bachelor of Arts in general business and a Doctor of Business Administration. In November 2018, university officials said the cost of the new building was estimated to be $50 million.
Avinandan “Avi” Mukherjee, dean of the Lewis College of Business, told The Herald-Dispatch that the planned new facilities should have spaces to nurture collaboration, creativity and entrepreneurship.
MU aviation school
Marshall University plans to welcome its first class into the Bill Noe Flight School at Yeager Airport in the fall of 2021.
Construction of the hangar and other facilities at Yeager Airport should be complete by the summer.
The university anticipates the first class to have about 25 students.
The Flight School will offer a Commercial Pilot: Fixed-Wing Bachelor of Science degree and an Aviation Maintenance, A.A.S., which will be a joint degree from Marshall and Mountwest Community and Technical College. The maintenance program is based at Huntington Tri-State Airport.
“The students that come out of this will be so far ahead of your average pilot,” Bill Noe, school namesake and university board member, told The Herald-Dispatch. “They will be perfectly suited to advance to the next level … We are coming into this at the right time. Right now with the economy and the kind of lull that’s there, especially in aviation, as our students graduate, they will be hitting it at the right time to catch a wave that’s going to create an enormous amount of hiring in the aviation industry, especially pilots, but also maintenance.”
MU budget situation
Like higher education institutions across the nation, the pandemic has significantly impacted the budget of Marshall University, and university officials know it will likely take all year to rebound.
The majority of students will remain at home for the spring semester, but the university plans to return to normal classes in the fall. Still, enrollment will play a significant roll in how the university rebounds after the pandemic, and enrollment could be impacted into the fall.
University President Jerome Gilbert told The Herald-Dispatch that high school students are delaying applying for college, filling out the federal student aid form and taking the ACT. He thinks part of this is because they are away from counselors and teachers who remind them of deadlines and stress the importance. More West Virginia students will be in the classroom in 2021, however.
“There are still a lot of unknowns about next year,” Board of Governors Chairman Patrick Farrell posted on Twitter on Dec. 17. “Universities that are financially dependent on enrollment and state support will need to continue to adapt to new realities. I’m confident (Marshall) will be better, faster and stronger on the other side of COVID.”
With new projects continuing and the overall financial health of the university still strong, the administration is confident they will weather the storm.
GOP supermajority maintains control of state Legislature
Following the November election, Republicans came away with a supermajority in the Legislature. This means they have at least a two-thirds majority, which gives lawmakers in that party the ability to procedurally advance or stop any bill or other measure without any support from Democrats.
The new supermajority enables Republicans to deliver on the platform the party promised voters, like growing jobs, building statewide water and sewage infrastructure and laying broadband in West Virginia, Del. Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The 85th Legislature of West Virginia will convene for the first time Jan. 13, with a break following until Feb. 10. The session begins later following the gubernatorial election years to accommodate a potential change of power.
New Cabell school buildings in planning stage
Cabell County Schools will begin the planning phase for the construction of four new elementary schools in the district, but the coming year will focus largely on site selection and building a timeline for the remainder of the projects.
Officials will discuss Meadows, Milton and Davis Creek elementary schools, along with the expansion of the Cabell County Career Technology Center. The board will host public meetings Jan. 7 and Jan. 14 to break down the pros and cons of each potential site.
“We are trying to be as quick and complete as we can be,” Assistant Superintendent Kim Cooper said. “Building an elementary school can take anywhere from 12 to 15 months, but that is if you already own the land you’re building on.”
I-64 construction/bridge replacement
Crews made progress on Interstate 64 construction projects in 2020 and will continue that work into 2021 and beyond.
Two projects, bid out to the same contractor, will widen the interstate to six lanes between Merritts Creek and the Huntington Mall and replace five bridges between Merritts Creek and the mall to make the interstate six lanes from the downtown Huntington exit to the mall area.
The projects are both moving along as planned, and favorable weather in the fall allowed for major progress to be made. Both projects have the same contracted completion date of December 2023.
Continuing COVID-19 vaccinations
COVID-19 vaccines arrived at health departments across West Virginia just before Christmas, and the distribution of those doses is expected to continue on a broader scale in 2021.
Front-line workers at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department and Cabell County EMS workers received some of the first inoculations in the county, while hospitals had their own supply to vaccinate workers.
When vaccinations become more widespread and the state gets deeper into its vaccination plan, the health department is prepared to take the vaccine distribution mobile, health officer Dr. Michael Kilkenny said. The health department will partner with an existing mobile unit.