The top two stories of 2019 in the Manhattan area were more about what didn’t happen than what did.
Each year, The Mercury looks back at the biggest local news events. Staff members vote to rank them based on a number of factors: How severe was it? How many people did it affect? How long did it go on? How unusual was it?
This year’s top story is the flood that wasn’t. Though officials at Tuttle Creek Dam never did have to open the floodgates and inundate large portions of the city to prevent adding to flooding downstream, the situation was pretty dire, and for months over the summer, all residents could do was wait and watch.
Meanwhile, the second-place story was Country Stampede riding off into the sunset. The country music festival, born in Manhattan more than two decades ago, was moved because of flooding concerns. When Topeka made a deal to keep the festival permanently, it was a big blow for Manhattan.
Read on to see what other events made the top 10.
1 The near-flood of Tuttle Creek Lake
Memories of the 1993 flood weren’t far from Manhattan residents’ minds during the spring and summer as water nearly reached the top of Tuttle Creek Dam.
A spring filled with rain in the region led to Tuttle Creek Lake reaching the second-highest level in its history on May 31 at 1,135.84 feet above sea level, mere inches from the top of the spillway gates at 1,136 feet.
Had it reached that mark, officials would have had to open the spillway gates, something they had only done once, in 1993. Officials made an evacuation advisory for the Northview neighborhood from May 29 to June 2.
Ultimately, Army Corps of Engineers officials never opened the spillway gates, but the lake levels still affected a variety of areas.
Tuttle Creek Cove and Stockdale Park closed for the 2019 season because of flood damage.
Residents who lived near the lake north of Manhattan also experienced issues with traveling to and from their homes with some residents taking temporary shelter elsewhere.
Altogether, Tuttle Creek Lake sat above its normal conservation pool level — 1,075 feet — from Feb. 6 to Dec. 11 — 275 days, which officials said was the longest water storage event in the lake’s history.
2 Stampede floats away
During the flooding threat, Manhattan lost Country Stampede, which is now known as Heartland Stampede, to Topeka.
The country music festival had been an annual staple in Manhattan since 1996, providing what officials estimated was an $8 million annual impact on the local economy. It served a revenue booster in the summer, when the town doesn’t have K-State events to rely on as a draw.
On May 31, Stampede organizers said this year’s edition of the festival had to move to Topeka because its normal campgrounds at Tuttle Creek State Park weren’t accessible because of the lake levels.
At that time, Stampede president Wayne Rouse said the move would be temporary. However, that stance changed in less than a month.
On June 20, the first day of the festival, organizers announced that Stampede would make Topeka its permanent home. During a press conference that day announcing the change, Rouse said it was no longer financially feasible to hold the event in Manhattan because of rising costs.
The move blindsided Manhattan officials. Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce president Jason Smith said the chamber didn’t find out about the change until the press release.
In the aftermath, the chamber started a task force to consider possibilities for replacing Stampede.
3 Chris Klieman’s first year
Chris Klieman knew he had big shoes to fill when he was hired to succeed the legendary Bill Snyder as K-State’s next head football coach, and he would have been forgiven for a mediocre rookie season this year.
But Klieman, urging his players to win the dang day, won many of them during his first year as head coach, ending the regular season with a relatively impressive 8-4 record. With marquee wins over Mississippi State and then-No. 5 Oklahoma (now No. 4), K-State under Klieman’s direction finished third in the conference, and the team showed it could go toe-to-toe with any team in the nation.
Klieman’s record was among the best for first-year coaches at Power Five conference schools, and with his down-to-earth persona, he’s reinvigorated a fan base that clamors for a return to national prestige.
To be sure, there were stumbles, mistakes and areas to improve on, but the season proved a promising start for Klieman. With a win against Navy in Wednesday’s Liberty Bowl, Klieman could win the dang year.
4 Officers indict 54 people in Manhattan drug-trafficking ring
In a large and coordinated effort with local and federal law enforcement agencies, authorities indicted 54 people involved with a Manhattan drug-trafficking ring in late August.
Officials said the ring was responsible for distributing heroin, fentanyl, ecstasy, methamphetamine, hydrocodone, cocaine and marijuana in the Manhattan area. Its suppliers were traced to Chicago and manufacturers to Mexico and China,
Six people in particular were charged with causing the 2017 overdose death of an 18-year-old K-State student. The investigation into the student’s death helped Riley County police link the drugs in that case to the ring.
Officials said Manhattan does not have an unusually large drug problem, but circumstances and opportunities aligned to allow them to execute the sting.
The overall case was deemed “complex” in federal court, delaying a speedy trial, because of the sheer number of defendants, evidence and potential witnesses involved. Prosecutors said in court documents that they believe a trial could take place in late 2020 and may require 12 weeks or more.
5. K-State wins Big 12 basketball title
Posting a 14-4 conference record and 25-9 overall record, the K-State men’s basketball team earned a share of the 2018-2019 Big 12 championship.
Head coach Bruce Weber earned his second Big 12 title behind trio of seniors Dean Wade, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes. The team shared the title with Texas Tech, clinching the trophy with a 68-53 victory over Oklahoma on March 9.
“We bought in every day, fought every day, played every game hard like it was our last,” Brown said. “It was just a matter of time, honestly, for us to get this thing. I’ve never been with a group of guys who work so hard, and buy into the scouting report, and take criticism, and do all the things that champions need to do.”
Wade was the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year and was a major contributor before missing time in tournament play with a foot injury. Brown worked his way up the record lists in several categories and became the Wildcats’ all-time leader in games played (139), consecutive games played (139) and steals (254).
The team’s run in the Big 12 Tournament ended with a 63-59 loss to eventual tournament champions Iowa State. K-State was a 4-seed in the South Regional but lost to UC Irvine 70-64 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
6. City enacts new topless ordinance
To avoid potential lawsuits following a Fort Collins, Colorado, civil lawsuit settlement, the Manhattan City Commission in October voted to allow female toplessness in public, which created a lot of buzz around the community about what the law actually means for residents.
Local property owners and businesses still can enforce that all patrons must wear shirts, and the government still can prosecute if a topless woman is acting in a lewd manner in public.
City commissioners including Usha Reddi and Jerred McKee emphasized that the ordinance change was in line with the constitutional right to equality.
This ordinance went into effect Nov. 10.
7. Bob’s Diner owner arrested in sexual child abuse case
Police arrested Robert Iacobellis, a longtime local business owner, in early August on charges related to sexual child abuse.
Sixty-year-old Iacobellis, who has been the owner of Bob’s Diner for more than 20 years, was first charged with one count of rape and two counts of aggravated indecent liberties, all with a child. In November, prosecutors filed more charges, bringing the total counts of alleged sexual misconduct to 130.
A criminal complaint listed dozens of instances of alleged sexual abuse with three different girls, who were 9 to 15 years old when the incidents were said to have occurred between 2012 to 2018.
Even with the added charges, the Riley County Police Department said the investigation was ongoing and asked the public to send any more information to its lead investigations detective.
The case has progressed slowly as Iacobellis struggled to find legal representation and ultimately was appointed two public defenders in November.
8. K-State enrollment keeps dropping
A five-year skid in enrollment continued for K-State this fall, bringing the student body to its lowest number in 20 years.
While Manhattan is more than just K-State, the city constantly ranks among the highest in the country for city/university relations, and Manhattan’s economic success is very much tied to the number of students who live, eat and shop in town.
K-State administrators have pointed to several reasons for the decline since the university hit a peak enrollment of 24,799 in 2014. The general price of higher education has gone up, and fewer Kansas high schoolers — the university’s traditional stronghold in enrollment — are going to four-year institutions. Ditto for international students.
President Richard Myers, among other university officials, have urged patience while the university’s strategic enrollment management plan kicks in, and new administrators (whose roles were repurposed or retooled from vacated previous positions) will try to steer the school’s enrollment trends the other way. K-State was built for its peak enrollment of 24,799, Myers has said, and university officials would like to return K-State to that size.
Early results to increase enrollment by marketing to international and out-of-state students are promising, university officials have said, but only time will tell if that early interest turns into filled seats in college classrooms.
9. Fort Riley soldiers leave for Europe, Afghanistan; soldiers come back
Thousands of Fort Riley troops who had deployed to Europe returned home this year after deployments abroad.
Soldiers began leaving in January and units started redeploying in September. Almost 4,000 members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, and about 2,700 members of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade had deployed to Europe as part of the Atlantic Resolve mission. Atlantic Resolve involved training events in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
Some 150 1st Sustainment Brigade headquarters soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and also returned this fall.
10. Sales tax measure fails, leaving key projects without funding plan
Following voters’ rejection of the 0.3% sales tax initiative in November, the Manhattan City Commission is looking to find new ways to fund six city projects — the Manhattan flood levee, Aggieville redevelopment, North Campus Corridor, Douglass Recreation Center, Manhattan Regional Airport runway and the city maintenance facility — in the new year.
Approximately 55% of voters denied the measure in November. It would have produced an estimated $3.3 million a year.
The city government will look at funding the projects through other avenues, including property tax or through revenue from stormwater fees utilities. The city can nix some of the projects as well.
Manhattan city commissioners are moving forward with plans with Aggieville improvements. And the commission recently approved moving forward with improvements in the North Campus Corridor. Commissioners also approved a construction contract for a new and improved Douglass Recreation Center.