The Top 10 Stories of 2004

Debby Dalcin, center, and other parents rush to GHS to check on

– Each year brings its share of stories of success and failure,
a new set of uplifting accomplishments as well as tragedies. The
current year has been no exception for Gilroy.
In a city focused on growth, most local leaders looking back on
the last 12 months focused on the challenges of shaping the future
commercial and residential character of the city.
Gilroy – Each year brings its share of stories of success and failure, a new set of uplifting accomplishments as well as tragedies. The current year has been no exception for Gilroy.

In a city focused on growth, most local leaders looking back on the last 12 months focused on the challenges of shaping the future commercial and residential character of the city.

In 2004, Gilroy continued its rapid growth despite limited funding and the inevitable clash between advocates and opponents of development.

“The first thing was the Wal-Mart story, which had a lot of impact in our community,” said Mayor Al Pinheiro, acknowledging that “people were on both sides of the fence” over the expansion of the big box store. City Council approved the store’s relocation to a 220,000-square-foot Supercenter in Pacheco Pass at the beginning of the year, but construction was delayed by local grocery-store union representatives who sued the city and Wal–Mart for alleged violations of environmental guidelines. A state judge disagreed and sided with the company and city officials in October, freeing Wal-Mart to move forward with the project, expected to be complete by next summer.

A less controversial victory came in March with the City Council’s approval of “agricultural mitigation,” according to Pinheiro. The measure requires people looking to build on farmland to preserve an equal amount of land elsewhere in the city or to contribute money to purchase development rights – a tool the city hopes will help preserve the area’s rural character.

In looking to the future, Pinheiro said Gilroy must continue its efforts to revitalize the downtown corridor around Monterey Street. In 2004, officials passed numerous measures – such as waiving fees normally charged to developers for construction and loosening parking restrictions – in order to spur downtown development.

The city’s efforts to win outside support for revitalization projects had mixed results. Officials learned in November that the city had fallen short in its third and final bid to win $14 million in state money for a new library. A few weeks later, officials celebrated the award of a $2.5 million federal grant to revamp the street and sidewalks along Monterey Street – a key portion of plans to inject new life into the area.

“In the past year there’s been a lot of effort put into writing the future of Gilroy,” said Chamber of Commerce President Susan Valenta. As evidence, she pointed to numerous committees working on detailed plans to guide future development along Hecker Pass, the downtown area, and the southwest and northwest quadrants.

And while city leaders continue laying plans for the future, at least one local leader reminds them to remember the needs of low-income and poor people.

A struggling economy has choked off government support for local nonprofit groups, according to David Cox, executive director of Saint Joseph’s Family Center. The charity he runs has “been able to keep their heads above water” with the help of the local community, but others have not fared so well.

Some agencies – such as American Red Cross, Familias Pueden, and St. Vincent de Paul – have been forced to close their Gilroy operations, according to Cox.

“Many other agencies have had to narrow their scope of services,” he said. “I think that burden then throws itself on the community and it’s a lot to ask.”

Cox commended efforts to encourage retail and other commercial development in the last year, but exhorted leaders to find new ways to create affordable housing and jobs that pay “livable wages.”

In a nod to the city’s rapid commercial growth east of U.S. 101, Valenta lauded “the fact that we have the ability to buy anything in Gilroy. We have such a wealth of products and services, and it’s all within a 10 minute drive.”

While the city has carefully managed growth within its borders, officials have learned the frustration and anxiety that accompanies projects beyond their control. In August, the five-member California Miwok Indian tribe announced its desire to build a casino just south of the Santa Clara County line, off Route 125. A month later, one faction of the Amah Mutsun Indians announced a $25-million land deal that lays the groundwork for Contra Costa developer Wayne Pierce to sidestep county zoning regulations and develop half of the 6,500-acre Sargent Ranch, just north of the county line.

The Miwoks recently announced they would pursue a different location near the Hollister airport. So far, leaders in Gilroy and Hollister have remained skeptical of both proposals. They hope to hold a meeting early in the new year with state and federal regulators to learn more about tribal sovereignty and its impact on local communities.

While such challenges lay ahead, most leaders point to the city’s continued commercial expansion and efforts to inject new life into the downtown area as the greatest accomplishments of the past year. They generally view those success stories as works in progress that will continue in 2005 and beyond.

When thinking outside their civic roles, different stories top their list.

Amidst the politics of growth, the scandals that have shaken the city’s schools, the looming casino project, one story stood out from the rest.

The loss of one young man reminded Gilroyans that a growing city can remain a community, a place where people come out to support a single family during the most difficult of times.

Few people will forget the story of U.S. Marine Jeramy Ailes, 22, whose death brought home the grim reality of war to a city that had not lost a soldier to combat since Vietnam. Ailes’ death Nov. 15 in an ambush in Fallujah, Iraq sparked an outpouring of support from the local community as well as strangers around the world. Thousands of flag-waving people thronged First Street during a Nov. 28 funeral procession to pay tribute to the life of the fallen soldier.

His passing reminded residents of the world beyond their own lives – of a war in Iraq, genocide in Sudan, and most recently, the natural disaster in Asia.

City Councilman Charles Morales encouraged residents to give what they could, perhaps by starting a fundraising campaign, to help people beyond the city of Gilroy.

“The challenge of tomorrow and next year is responding to world disaster,” he said.

1. Jeramy

The front line of a distant and controversial war in Iraq was drawn through Gilroy with the death of Jeramy Ailes, who was killed Nov. 15.

According to Ailes’ father, Joel, he was killed in an ambush on the last day of the Marines’ campaign to secure the city of Fallujah.

Ailes, 22, was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. He took part in the initial invasion in March 2003, and returned home after three months of service in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Gilroyans came out by the thousands to pay their respects. At the cemetery, Marines laid Ailes’ coffin in its final resting place as part of a full military burial. The first cracks of the rifle salute drew starts from the crowd and tears from Ailes’ mother, Lana, who covered her eyes during the volley.

But the day was not all somber. In a tribute befitting a man known as a prankster, stories of his escapades drew laughter from hundreds who had earlier packed into a service at Gilroy Presbyterian Church.

Ailes was well-known for his “Baja Bug,” a yellow ’70s-era Volkswagen Beetle. On weekends, he would drive the vehicle through dirt and mud at the Hollister Hills Recreational Park.

In addition to his parents, Ailes left behind three sisters, Janay, 23, Jenny, 14, and Leah, 12.

2. Indian proposals

Two controversial land deals between Indian tribes and developers were revealed late this year, raising questions about everything from the process of federal recognition to the social impacts of gambling.

In September, a deal was announced between the five-member California Valley Miwok tribe and its investor, Game Won, to build a casino near the Santa Clara County line on a 209-acre parcel off Highway 25. The plan proposed a casino similar in size to Yolo County’s Cache Creek casino, which is 66,000 square feet with 1,762 slot machines.

The group now is considering a new location near the Hollister airport, putting an additional 15 miles or more between the casino and Gilroy.

In a separate deal, an agreement was made public in September between Sargent Ranch owner Wayne Pierce and a band of the Amah Mutsun tribe to develop 3,500 acres of the 6,500-acre ranch.

Pierce would lease 500 acres to the tribe for its members’ homes, businesses and a cultural center, then develop his 3,000 acres.

The development hinges on whether the Amah Mutsun band receives federal recognition, which could take more than a decade if done through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. An act of Congress could accelerate the process considerably. The tribe applied for official recognition through the BIA more than 10 years ago. If the tribe receives federal recognition, it could develop its tribal land free of local planning ordinances.

During the months following the project proposals, leaders from all around Santa Clara and San Benito counties gathered to discuss the possible impacts, including traffic, crime and social repercussions.

3. GHS threat

On a Friday morning in May, students and teachers at Gilroy High School endured a three-hour campus lockdown after a student threatened to shoot a cooking teacher.

At 9:29am on May 14, a girl masking her voice to sound male called 9-1-1 twice from a stolen cell phone and told the dispatcher she had a gun, was at GHS and planned to shoot the teacher, Diana Burkholder.

What ensued was a harrowing scene, with police carrying assault rifles and alarmed parents waiting on the street and communicating via cell phones with their children, who were still inside the school and huddled under their desks. No shots were fired, and no injuries were reported.

Dozens of public safety vehicles responded on campus, including the Gilroy police, California Highway Patrol, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department and the Gilroy Fire Department.

Three students – two girls and one boy – were arrested and taken to Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall about six hours after the call was placed. Police said the threat turned out to be a prank, costing more than $17,000. All three students were juveniles at the time of the incident, and the case is working its way through the juvenile justice system.

4. Police station

It wasn’t without controversy, but the Gilroy city council gave unanimous approval to a $27.7 million police station that some critics derided as a Taj Mahal.

Approval came in early August and was a huge relief to the police department. “We’ve gone through three evolutions of design,” Assistant Police Chief Lanny Brown said at the time. “Personally, the thought of going back to the drawing board is very fatiguing.”

And Brown disputed the charge that Gilroy’s largest public building will be a model of public largesse, saying that everything in the station will be of “moderate quality,” and noted that plans for an indoor running track, a second level of underground parking and a radio/clock tower were all scrapped from the final design proposal.

When it is finished – by March 2006, the department hopes – the station will open its doors and close a saga of overly optimistic budget forecasts, volatile steel markets and disheartening disappointments that will have lasted at least four years. In August, Mayor Al Pinheiro praised city officials for staying the course.

“We are taking the leap which I think people 20 years from now will be able to say ‘thank God the Council had the vision to give us this kind of facility,’ ” he said.

5. Perchlorate

Year two of life after the discovery of perchlorate contamination at the site of the Olin’s Corp.’s former road flare plant in Morgan Hill saw movement, and a little hope, but clean water is still decades away.

Olin began providing bottled water for the worst-affected residents, but spent the year fighting some of the rulings issued by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. A new biological process Olin employed to clean the site itself showed great promise, and in December, the Santa Clara Valley Water District did its part to push the clean up process forward with a detailed cleanup plan it hopes Olin will adopt in the next year.

Meanwhile, perchlorate, which can cause severe thyroid damage, has turned up in milk and produce all around the country, in areas with no known source of contamination. It has not, though, found its way into the Gilroy water supply.

Life might soon be very different those living with in the 10.5-mile plume. In January, the National Academy of Sciences will weigh in with its ideas about the maximum acceptable contamination level. Its verdict could very well decide the responsibilities Olin does and does not have in cleaning up the water it poisoned.

6. Revitalization

It might not look like it now, but plans to revitalize downtown Gilroy gained significant momentum this year.

Downtown project proposals approved by the city council this year mean that 20 commercial, retail, and residential projects will crop up along Monterey Street in the next few years. Two mixed-use buildings going up in the next year will create space for roughly two dozen businesses and 12 apartments at the northern gateway of the historic district.

In the next four years, a major housing and retail project will go up at the old Cannery site on Lewis Street and a new arts center will stand across from the Caltrain station. And before any of these projects are complete, city officials expect to sign off on a new set of guidelines that carefully steer all future development along the Monterey Street corridor.

“A whole lot of things are in the works and we’re trying to come up with even more,” said Mayor Al Pinheiro, who has made downtown revitalization a centerpiece of his agenda.

A group of business owners, city staff, developers, and residents – known as the Downtown Specific Plan Task Force – have taken up improving downtown, devoting the last two years to breathing new life into the area. Efforts paid off a couple of weeks ago when the city was awarded a $2.5 million grant that will allow the revamping of sidewalks on both sides of Monterey Street between the Fourth and Sixth Street intersections. The improvements will include widened sidewalks, new decorative lamp posts and tree plantings, continuing the upgrades that began two years ago at Eighth Street.

The changes are intended to restore new life to Gilroy’s downtown, which has suffered at the expense of the retail explosion of big-box stores east of U.S. 101.

7. Wal-Mart approved

After months of economical, philosophical and even ethical debate, Wal-Mart Supercenter is coming to Gilroy.

The store’s groundbreaking took place just a couple of weeks ago, the months preceding were tangled with litigation, jam-packed city council meetings and vehement opposition from residents and local business owners alike.

Two local union workers filed a lawsuit in early May, claiming the city violated various portions of the California Environmental Quality Act in its approval of a supercenter proposal by the retail giant. In November, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled the city did not violate the environmental guidelines in approving the supercenter.

Unions around the country have fought the entry of Wal-Mart into local communities, taking issue with everything from environmental issues to unfair treatment of employees.

Prior to the settlement, the city convinced Wal-Mart to agree to a few small concessions, such as replacing the standard supercenter arcade with an environmental education center, institute an aggressive local hiring program and instruct local businesses how to compete with its discount prices.

Wal-Mart, currently at 7900 Arroyo Circle, will locate its new, 220,000-square-foot superstore at Pacheco Pass Center off Highway 152 and U.S. 101. In addition to its regular discount offerings, the supercenter will sell groceries and offer automobile oil and lube jobs. The grand opening is scheduled for this summer.

8. $108 million Gavilan bond

A barely-there victory in March secured a grand total of $108 million for Gavilan Community College to improve its three campuses in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Benito County.

While supporters seemed to think the passage of a bond was a sure thing, voter approval of the measure hovered below the required 55 percent for much of the voting day before receiving 56.1 percent of the vote in Santa Clara County and 55.9 percent in San Benito County.

More than two dozen volunteers organized the campaign group Yes on Measure E, calling voters, going door-to-door and sending out mailers in all three Gavilan areas. The biggest threats to Measure E may have been an abundance of bond measures on the ballot and an expected record-low voter turnout.

Of the bond money, $68 million is being used to renovate and upgrade existing Gavilan facilities on the nearly full Gilroy campus. The remaining $40 million is helping expanding all three of Gavilan’s campuses in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Benito County.

The bond will cost property owners about $15 for every $100,000 of assessed property value for the life of the bond over the next 25 years.

9. Bonfante debt restructured

After a shaky three years of debt, Bonfante Gardens landed a property deal in August that is helping the park get back on its financial feet.

Since opening in 2001, Bonfante Gardens has struggled to turn a profit. The city council unanimously approved the park’s request for a deal with Shapell Industries, the developer of the upscale Eagle Ridge neighborhood adjacent to the park. The deal secured Eagle Ridge 99 housing permits on 33 acres, an exception to the city’s growth-control law.

Bob Kraemer, president of the park’s board of directors, said revenues from the home sales will reduce the park’s current debt to a more-manageable $14 million. City approvals for those housing units – a precondition for any sale – are expected by the middle of 2005, according to Kraemer.

Prior to the city’s approval, delegates representing Eagle Ridge homeowners OK’d the land deal in a straw poll, but not without some dissent. Before the vote, in April, a grassroots group called Homeowners of Eagle Ridge voiced their opposition to the property swap, citing lower home values and increased traffic as a couple of reasons it should not be approved.

The park owes about $70 million to creditors but posted nearly $23 million in losses during its first three seasons of operation, according to financial statements released in September.

10. Kristen Porter

Gilroy High School teacher Kristen Porter was let go by the district in March after being told she was not a “good fit.”

A 10-year veteran English teacher, Porter pressed school administrators and trustees at a school board meeting March 18, challenging the district to openly review its evaluation process. Less than 12 hours later, the teacher’s classroom keys were taken and school security escorted her off campus, an experience she likened to “being treated like a criminal. I’m being fired because I spoke the truth, because I practiced my free speech rights. It’s scary,” Porter said in March.

Later in the year, Porter received a settlement total of $17,931.85, which covered her wages for the months of April, May and June, as well as health benefits for May through September, which she would have received if she remained employed by GUSD. Porter was in her second year at GHS.

The agreement was reached on Sept. 15 and the amount paid by Oct. 1. As a temporary employee who had not yet completed 75 percent of her contract, GUSD was allowed to dismiss Porter “at the pleasure of the board,” according to Education Code. District officials said Porter was fired due to “inappropriate behavior” that took place inside the classroom before the board meeting where Porter spoke out.

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