In the community, Local government, Schools

A look back at the big stories of 2023 – and where things stand as the year ends

VALE – Plenty of news filled the pages of the Enterprise in 2023, including the closure of a food kitchen for the homeless in Ontario, the resignation of the project manager for the Treasure Valley Reload Center and the death of a Nyssa police officer in a shooting.

Below, are the top stories – with updates – for 2023 chosen by the Enterprise news staff.

The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church recently took over ownership of the Origins Faith Community Church in Ontario. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

Origins Faith Community Outreach food kitchen

In September, state officials informed those operating Origins Faith Community Church that they were terminating a grant used to fund a food kitchen at the Ontario facility. Origins served up to 125 meals a day to the homeless. Later that month, Frank Borst, Origins Faith board member and secretary, reported he found a sponsor to fund the kitchen for two weeks. In mid-October the kitchen closed.


The Ontario building is now owned by the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church but meal service at Origins hasn’t resumed. Pastor Rob Walters did not return calls for comment on the future status of the food kitchen. No other resource has opened in Ontario to replace that meal service.

Greg Smith, former Malheur County contractor, faces a demand that his consulting company reimburse the county nearly $70,000 in legal expenses.

Greg Smith leaves

Greg Smith resigned as the project manager for the beleaguered Treasure Valley Reload Center north of Nyssa in February. His resignation put the cap on a seven-year tenure for the Heppner state representative over a project that endured cost overruns, construction problems and lack of money. For most of the time he was in charge of the project, he did so under contract with the county as economic development director. However, he quit that role in June 2022 and went to work for the public company running the rail project.

Update: In early December, Smith agreed to pay Malheur County $68,000 over its claims he botched public records connected to the reload center. The settlement was a final remnant of Smith’s time as the county’s economic development director and project manager. Smith, meantime, continues to get public money through contracts with other government agencies and is running for yet another term as representative.

The Treasure Valley Reload Center project is now in limbo after the company selected to operate it backed out of the plan. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

Treasure Valley Reload Center stumbles

A project that local leaders hoped would produce an economic bonanza for the community instead continued to develop as a money pit.

In April, costs to finish the rail center ballooned, compelling project leaders to search or $10 million in extra funds. In May, key building permits needed from the county for construction at the center were not issued because the county discovered errors and missing parts to plans submitted by project engineers. In July, Americold bailed out of the project and cited the depot was not “financially viable.”

In August, state officials stopped the flow of money to the project, holding back $8 million. In September project officials formally mothballed the reload center.

Update: Shawna Peterson is working with a new contractor to develop a plan to rescue the rail project. She recently reported that the team is making good progress, saying she’s optimistic the Nyssa depot can be rescued from failure. She is working against a February deadline to convince the state to keep backing the project. The Oregon Department of Transportation has said it will decide whether to keep funding the Nyssa work ­– or cancel the state’s role and possibly seek to get back some of the millions sunk into the depot.

A vehicle belonging to Gwen Brunelle of Boise was found in June 2023 parked at this pullout less than a half mile off U.S. Highway 95 near Jordan Valley. Extensive searches turned up no sign of Brunelle, who remains missing. (LES ZAITZ/The Enterprise)

Missing Idaho woman

In June, Gwen Brunelle, now 28, disappeared in the rangeland north of Jordan Valley. She left her Boise home, telling her boyfriend she was headed to California to meet with a judge in rabbit shows.

She never made it.

Instead, she bought gasoline and snacks in Jordan Valley and then abandoned her car on a rural road north of that community. She left behind her purse and her beloved rabbits.

Intense searches on foot, on horseback and from the air eventually recovered a shirt, boots and socks belonging to Brunelle roughly two miles from her car.  but not the 28-year-old woman.

UPDATE: Brunelle’s parents, Andy and Betsy Brunelle of Boise continue to search the area with others. They most recently returned to the area Saturday, Dec. 16, but found no new clues. Her father that Terravata of Homedale and Silver Valley Search and Rescue have conducted drone photography of 5,260 acres. The photos and repeated searches have not resolved the young woman’s fate.

Police and emergency vehicles pass beneath a huge U.S. flag as they enter Nyssa for the ceremony honoring Cpl. Joseph Johnson, the Nyssa officer killed on duty last week. (LES ZAITZ/The Enterprise)

Nyssa police officer killed

On Saturday, April 15, Nyssa reserve police officer Corporal Joseph Johnson, 43, was shot and killed near North Third Street and Locust Avenue. Police identified the suspect in the shooting as Rene Castro, 36, of Nyssa. Castro was arrested two days after the shooting and charged with aggravated murder and several other charges and held on $1 million bail. The shooting death triggered a massive police response that included local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Johnson is the first officer killed in the line of duty in Malheur County since 1957.

Update: Castor remains in jail on $1 million bail but is scheduled to appear in Malheur County Circuit Court in February to enter a plea. In June, Nyssa city officials renamed North Park to Corporal Joe Johnson Memorial Park.

Pioneer Place administrator Corey Crismon talks to the Malheur County Court, Wednesday, Sept. 20, while Pioneer Place Board Chair Dennis Buttice looks on. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Pioneer Place seeks help

The financial warning lights have been blinking on and off at the Vale care center for years but the situation hit critical in August when officials divulged the facility could close. That’s when the board of the care center held a public meeting to explain the funding problems and to seek input from the community.

A packed crowd attended the session on Aug. 16 at the Vale Senior Center. Officials explained the facility needed $1.3 million just to complete needed repairs such as fixing the roof, kitchen and replacing the sewer system. The input from the meeting produced three goals for Pioneer Place officials. They said they planned to seek grants, boost the client count at the facility and explore putting an initiative on the ballot to expand Pioneer Place’s health district to include the county. Pioneer Place officials also sought $1.1 million from the county in September to help pay for key repairs, such as the new roof, but were rebuffed because the Malheur County Court wanted more specific information on prices for the renovations.

Update: Malheur County Commissioner JimMendiola said Pioneer Place officials are nearly ready to make another request for funds from the court and will present bids on a number of projects, including a roof replacement. The ballot measure effort is stalled for now, but officials plan to push ahead on the effort within the next few months. The facility continues to seek grants to help covers costs.

Nyssa’s migrant program retools

The state’s two-year investigation of a program designed to help the children of migrant workers get an education revealed that 19 employees at the Nyssa School District had nearly 60 children improperly enrolled. Access to the program allowed them to get government services they otherwise would not have received. The Oregon Department of Education also identified 129 families with 277 children improperly enrolled for the past three years.

The state pulled $350,000 in federal funding from the program.

In July, Darren Johnson left as superintendent after getting a deal for one more year’s pay. Vale and Nyssa subsequently decided to run their own programs while the state imposed new restrictions on Nyssa.

Update: The Oregon Department of Justice soon will begin a forensic audit of Nyssa’s migrant education program that will likely be completed by spring, according to Peter Rudy, public affairs specialist with the state education agency. The investigation will determine if money meant for the migrant program was properly used. Currently, 230 students are enrolled in the Nyssa program.

Commissoner Ron Jacobs and Judge Dan Joyce of the Malheur County Court (Enterprise/file)

County adds truancy ordinance

Malheur County officials in February passed a truancy ordinance to curb high student absenteeism. The ordinance went into effect in late August, at the start of the school year.

Under the ordinance, a parent or guardian can be cited for a student’s chronic absence, defined as missing 10% or more of scheduled school days.

School officials must first notify a student and their parent of the excess absences and arrange a conference. If a student continues to miss school or doesn’t attend the conference, they risk being cited.

Those cited are required to appear at the Malheur County Justice Court with a parent or guardian.

A parent or responsible adult can be fined up to $500 for the first offense and a second penalty of up to $1,000 for a second offense.

Update: According to Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur County Education Service District, fewer than six students have been cited and had to appear in court. Redmond said those students have agreed to conditions that could spare them and their families from fines.

Redmond said parents appear to be doing better ensuring their kids attend school.

TVCC advances on nursing center

Treasure Valley Community College got a $3 million boost to help fund the construction of the school’s Nursing and Allied Health Professions Center. The center is slated to open in the spring of 2025.

As part of the financing to keep the project on track, the college board agreed to borrow $4.95 million if that isn’t raised immediately through grants and donations. In October, the board voted to borrow $2.3 million from the college’s special project reserve fafter construction costs ballooned to $12.8 million, up from $11 million.

With Oregon having the third-highest vacancy rate for nursing school positions in the U.S., board members expressed concern that the college would struggle to find additional qualified instructors to support the program’s expansion.

The state will not approve the college’s surgical technician curriculum for accreditation until the school can find a full-time instructor for the program, according to board members. Meanwhile, the college had been advertising the position for months.

Update: In November, the college hired a search firm to find a full-time instructor for the surgical technician program. Additionally, the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board awarded the college a $1 million grant for constructing the nursing center.

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