If there was one important theme of 2019 it was growth — specifically business growth.
Readers of The Kerrville Daily Times’ website, dailytimes.com, were resounding in their interest about all things growth and development. If you roll up all of the visits and page views, stories about H-E-B’s long-planned expansion of its Main Street store, a new housing development that would bring more than 500 homes to south Kerrville and the arrival of new businesses were the main drivers of engagement on the website.
Of course, crime stories also dominated our list of most-read stories, but it’s clear the development aspect and where Kerrville is headed draws plenty of interest for our readers, which isn’t surprising considering the national economic momentum. The area’s growth was marked by record home prices, low unemployment and year-over-year gains in sales taxes.
Public safety was top of mind to readers and the shooting death of a WalMart employee in the store’s parking lot was our single most-read online story of the year with more than 30,000 people reading the story. It’s a case that is still being investigated but the shocking story was the most read in the history of the newspaper’s website.
Here’s a look back at our most-read topics and stories from 2019:
H-E-B’S NEW STORE
With at least four stories related to the construction of H-E-B’s new store, it was clearly the most read topic of the year, also generating plenty of comments on social media. The San Antonio-based company, which was founded here in Kerrville, is building a 106,000-square-foot store on Main Street.
The existing store, which opened in 1984 and is 79,000 square feet, will remain open during the construction of the new store, and then close and be torn down when the new store opens.
“We are excited to bring a new H-E-B store to Kerrville, the city where it all started for our company,” H-E-B Public Affairs Manager Julie Bedingfield said.
“With an enhanced in-store experience and commitment to top-quality service and selection, this new store allows us to continue to serve the growing needs of our customers and provide the community with the best we have to offer.”
At the end of the year, Hays Street was closed between Jefferson and Main streets because the new store, which will face west, will cover that area, extending westward into the footprint of the current store’s parking lot and pharmacy area.
The store will feature a decorative facade similar to the original store that the Butt family started from their Kerrville home in 1905. It will also feature a barbecue restaurant, which Texas Monthly has lauded as one of the state’s best barbecue chains.
Another major part of the story was the removal of a home on the north side of the property. That home once served as the community’s first Presbyterian Church. During the demolition of the home the church’s arched windows were uncovered after years of being covered.
NEW HOUSING PLANNED
Just before Thanksgiving, it was revealed that a major housing project was planned for an area south of the Riverhills area, just east of Texas 16 or Medina Highway. The plan called for 510 homes to be sited on more than 200 acres of property on lots ranging from 5,300 square feet all the way up to more than 10,000. The story took off on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, being read by about 10,000 people that night alone.
The project also finally confirmed that the builder was going to be D.R. Horton — one of the country’s largest home builders. The project, as proposed, would arguably be the biggest in the city’s history. In fact, over the last decade — thanks in part to the post-recession downturn in building — less than 700 homes were built in the area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The size and scale of the project drew immediate concerns from residents who lived in the adjacent neighborhoods. Those residents showed up in force for the city of Kerrville Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to express their concerns about the project.
In turn, the commissioners deadlocked 3-3 on whether to approve the project. The tie could have been broken but Commissioner and Chairman Bob Waller had resigned prior to the meeting, and recused himself from voting. The commission’s lack of decision effectively drops the matter into the laps of the city council, which could decide to approve a version of the project next month.
Housing, however, was a part of a broader story for the community as the city council looked for ways to implement its 2050 plan — a roadmap on how the city plans to manage growth in the coming 30 years. Part of that plan, which was discussed by a wide range of community members, makes way for higher density development, including by reducing the minimum lot size in some neighborhoods to 3,600 square feet.
In September the city council approved an ordinance change to create a planned development district around Holdsworth Drive. The site is on 264 acres southeast of the intersection of Harper Highway and Interstate 10 and adjacent to and north of Holdsworth Drive around the Kerrville Sports Complex.
“What excites me about it is the housing component,” said City Manager Mark McDaniel. “It’s not necessarily a housing product that we already had (in Kerrville), at least very much of it.”
Another housing project, The Landing, broke ground on the southside of Lake Nimitz. When completed this multi-use development will combine housing, including a 55-and-over component, and retail and restaurants.
HORRIFIC DAY AT WALMART
Melissa Villagrana was well respected by her colleagues at Walmart store 508.
That’s what made her shooting death by Fernando Rolon Jr., a colleague at the store, so hard to understand for those who knew the mother and grandmother.
Rolon was accused of shooting Villagrana to death as she sat in her car in the employee parking lot on Nov. 18. The late-night shooting set off a massive search for Rolon, who police initially thought was hiding in the store.
Rolon, however, had fled the scene and was holed up in the Rio 10 movie theaters where he entered into a nearly daylong standoff with police officers, Kerr County Sheriff’s Deputies and officers from the Department of Public Safety.
As DPS SWAT officers moved in on Nov. 19 to end the standoff, Rolon shot himself and later was pronounced dead at Peterson Regional Medical Center.
In the wake of the crime, hundreds of people who lived next door and near the movie theater were trapped by the standoff after police closed Bandera Highway. Businesses were forced to close along the street.
At WalMart, Villagrana’s colleagues returned to work without a colleague who was revered by many for her can-do attitude and work-hard ethos. She loved the Texas classic soda Big Red and Doritos, and she smoked — a habit she was trying to quit.
She drove to Kerrville from Stonewall and had a large and supportive family.
“It was good to see that she was positive,” said Tanya Kasper, adding she grew up with Villagrana in Fredericksburg. “She was positive to a lot of people. You can just never imagine someone’s impact. Sometimes, it’s sad you don’t see until they’re gone.”
The motivation behind the shooting is still being investigated, but in the end it left a void for those who knew Villagrana and those who knew Rolon.
“We have to forgive,” said Santana Lozano, one of Villagrana’s many cousins who spoke during a vigil.
For years airplane manufacturer Mooney has struggled to stay afloat. While building some of the finest single engine planes in the world, Mooney hasn’t sold more than 100 airplanes in a year since the early 2000s.
In November, the company announced — by way of a message on its voicemail — that all employees had been furloughed. No one from the company, outside of a human resources specialist, spoke about the layoffs, but for many around Kerrville it wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
The company has had 11 owners since its arrival in Kerrville, three bankruptcies and repeated problems with production and capitalization. There have been long stretches in the company’s history where there have been no production.
At its height, Mooney employed more than 300 people in Texas and California. The planes were considered to be some of the finest on the market, but the company was slowly building customized planes versus mass production.
The furlough lasted for about two weeks and during that stretch the company worked to find new investors. However, during the furlough another company — Washington-based Cubcrafters — launched a targeted social media ad campaign to lure Mooney workers to that company’s production facility.
When Mooney reopened, it said it was looking for new investors, but wouldn’t disclose who or what was going to invest in the company.
“We are close to finalizing negotiations with a group of investors who have experience in aviation and have shown a high level of interest in acquiring Mooney International with the intent of re-establishing the company as a viable production and support company for the Mooney brand of aircraft,” said a company spokesperson. “We have agreed not to disclose any details about the transaction or the parties involved until we complete the transaction.”
The company had been owned by Chinese-based company Meijing Group, which infused money into the airplane maker in 2013. What Meijing’s role will be in the future is not certain. Mooney has built and delivered 41 single-engine airplanes since the Chinese company took over.
COMING TO TOWN
Once again, playing on the themes of economic development, the arrival of new businesses proved to be of higher reader interest throughout the year, and early next year we can expect to see Harbor Freight and Hobby Lobby open.
Both businesses, located on the north side of Kerrville, will employ hundreds of people and keep sales tax dollars in Kerrville.
“We have a very healthy mix of businesses ... all of which help and contribute to support a small business,” said Kerrville Economic Development Corporation Gil Salinas in an interview published earlier this year. “When retailers start coming into a community, they’ve already done their work a year to two years ahead of time.”
There is also an expectation that a Dunkin Donuts and another chicken place, a hot wing restaurant, will open in the coming months.
New businesses are coming to Kerrville and one that opened toward the end of the year was another chicken place — Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers. We’re certain that others may be on the way in 2020.
The city also worked to secure a SpringHill Suites hotel, which would be centered downtown, and is still working on a conference center.
STUDENT KILLED BY POLICE
It was one of the more difficult stories of 2019 when a Kerrville Police officer fatally shot a 17-year-old Tivy High student who police said had threatened the officer with a knife on Sidney Baker Street on a September afternoon.
Tommy Hranicky died that day after he was spotted walking down Sidney Baker with a knife. The officer who stopped was a veteran of the Kerrville Police Department — Sgt. Hal Degenhardt. Last week, the Texas Rangers cleared Degenhardt in the shooting.
Hranicky was described by his father as having Asperger Syndrome — a developmental issue that is placed on the mild autism scale. A witness told The Kerrville Daily Times that he saw Hranicky walking down the street, acting erratically with the knife.
“Fearing for his life, the officer on scene drew his service weapon and shot the suspect,” police said in a press release.
The witness said he believed the officer didn’t want to shoot Hranicky.
“You could tell that officer did not want to fire his weapon,” the witness said. “He went over and beyond giving him chances.”
HEIRS TO A FORTUNE
There are probably plenty of people out there who wish to have a rich relative to leave them something, and for Kerrville’s Carol Hemenover that’s exactly what happened. The only hiccup in the whole thing was she was one of 243 heirs of two women who left each other their money.
This story was read by nearly 10,000 people and was heartily discussed in the community via social media. This story was a complex tale of a family fortune, estate planning and Texas’ interesting way of handling those heirs.
An estimated 60% of Americans, according to the AARP, do not have a will or some instrument to disperse their assets after their death.
In this case, Anna Fay Bausch had willed her estate to her aunt, who died three years before Bausch. It was a reciprocal move, because her aunt, Louise Vincent, had left her estate to Bausch.
These mirrored wills set off a mountain of paperwork, sleuthing and lawyering in order find 243 heirs eligible to receive a portion of Bausch’s estate.
“I think we got 95% of them,” said Kerrville attorney John Carlson, who handled the legal aspects of the probate. “There’s a few we haven’t been able to find.”
It took two years, but Hemenover — much to her surprise — received a check for more than $30,000 from a $2.5 million estate left behind by Bausch. Hemenover barely knew Anna Faye Bausch, a third cousin, who died in 2017 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
“This is like a dream,” said Hemenover. “I don’t have a lot of money. I couldn’t cash the check at first, I just looked at it.”
It can also be a nightmare, which is what Hemenover sort of expected at first, because so many Americans haven’t updated their wills, or have a will at all.
“It’s extremely important,” Carlson said of planning. “Especially when you get into a situation like this, where you don’t have a lot of heirs. I always encourage people to have someone — a friend or a charity — so you don’t get into this.”
What makes the situation unique is that Texas state law allows shares of an estate to be divided up among heirs based on their familial relationship to the deceased. In this case, the living relatives of Louise Vincent were determined to be the heirs, but there was no established line of succession.
That led to the complex task of tracking down more than 200 people to let them know they had some amount of money due, Carlson said.
JAMES AVERY TAKES A NEW DIRECTION
When it comes to manufacturing, the largest producer and employer in the Kerrville area is James Avery Artisan Jewelry, and for the first time in years the company turned its leadership over to a member outside of the family of the late founder — James Avery, who died in 2018.
“It feels like a huge privilege,” John McCullough said of assuming the role as CEO. “I’m very honored. I’ve been very fortunate to work with (Mr. James Avery), not for a very long period, but to get to know him, and to certainly work with a lot of people who worked closely with him for years and to understand what his vision was.”
Employing more than 300 people, James Avery is one of the largest private employers in the Hill Country, and there’s a commitment to keep the focus on quality.
“We aspire to be a national company but we want to do it the right way and at the right pace,” said McCullough, adding that any rapidity of growth could sacrifice what the company values most — quality. “We are so fortunate that we’re a privately held company.”
That private ownership — still mostly controlled by the Avery family — is a critical component, Chief Operating Officer Paul Zipp and McCullough say, because it doesn’t force them to make brash decisions to chase profits.
In spite of a battered retail environment nationally, James Avery has still been able to grow and has 91 stores — most of those in Texas. The company also has a strong relationship with big box retailer Dillards.
The company has locations in San Antonio, Houston and Waco where customers can experience enhanced services in their Discovery Centers. Customers can see new product lines like James Avery handbags and leather goods, and see past designs.
With the change, the next generation in Avery family leadership — led by James Avery granddaughter Lindsey Tognietti — is confident in this new direction.
“These leaders are smart and they are committed to the same vision of protecting what was created by grandfather,” said Tognietti, who is Chris’ niece and is now the manager of strategic initiatives, helping the company explore new growth and product opportunities. “It’s the same people who have led the company to the growth that we’ve had.”
PLANE CRASH CLAIMS LIVES OF SIX
An April small plane crash claimed the lives of six people from Houston near Kerrville. Those killed in the crash were co-owner and pilot of the Beechcraft Baron plane Jeffery Carl Weiss, 65; Stuart Roben Kensinger, 55; Angela Webb Kensinger, 54; Mark Damien Scioneaux, 58; Scott Reagan Miller, 55, and Marc Tellepsen, 45.
The crash happened ina ravine not far from the 1700 block of Sheppard Rees Rd., just outside Kerrville. Richard Hall, an eyewitness, said he watched the plane sputter as it lost altitude at around 8:20 a.m.
“It fell right out of the sky,” he said.
WOMAN DRIVES PRIUS INTO RIVER
It’s a good thing Kerrville Police Department Sgt. Will Allen keeps an extra pair of socks and boots in his truck, because he needed them one Sunday in October.
Allen was the first responder to aid a woman who had driven her Toyota Prius across Louise Hays Park and launched her car into the Guadalupe River just below the dam. The middle-aged woman, who was taken to Peterson Medical Center, had unknown injuries and it’s unclear to police what prompted the incident.
The woman was having a medical emergency before the crash.
The call came in at 10 a.m. and Allen pulled up his patrol SUV to the side of the river and saw the car resting in the riverbed. At that point, he wasn’t sure if anyone was in the vehicle. He had to walk around the dam, and into the water before realizing the car was still occupied.
Kerrville Fire Department paramedics and EMTs were at the site quickly after Allen, but they had to deploy an off-road vehicle to help bring the woman to an ambulance.