Vasché: A look back at 2008

Wild and crazy ride likely to continue well into next year

December 30, 2008 

From start to finish, this past year has been one wild and crazy ride, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, and highs and lows than an amusement park's roller coaster.

For some of us, the ride has been troublesome. For others, it's been downright terrifying. For some, it's been filled with tragedy. And for still others, it's been thrilling.

However we've felt about it, the ride is just about over.

As the final hours tick away and 2008 gives way to 2009, it's worth pausing to catch our breath and ponder some of what we've seen and done over the past 12 months.

As a world, we saw hostilities, terrorism and open warfare, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Georgia, India, Africa, and, as of late, the Mideast. We saw an earthquake kill 70,000 in China, and cyclones and hurricanes kill tens of thousands more in places such as Myanmar and the Caribbean. We saw oil prices spike at $150 a barrel in July and plunge to $33 six months later. We saw record- shattering performances at the Summer Games in Beijing.

As a nation, we saw a heated and historic election, and in the end, the country's first African-American president. We saw the stock market go up like a rocket and come crashing down like a rock. We saw the once-invincible Big Three on their knees, begging Congress for a bailout. We saw powerful storms sock a Gulf Coast still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

As a state, we saw horrendous wildfires level homes and destroy dreams. We saw a court legalize same-sex marriage, and only months later, the state's voters overturning that decision with a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. We saw a deadlocked Legislature engaged in partisan fiddling over a budget while cash-strapped cities, counties and school districts slashed and burned.

And as a community and region, we saw ... well, we saw many, many memorable stories.

Some were stories of triumph, such as a local athlete winning Olympic gold; some were stories of tragedy, such as a newborn baby tossed into a Dumpster to die.

In the end, what grabbed our attention and dominated the front-page headlines was the sputtering, struggling economy, which started the year weak and spiraled downhill from there. By year's end, the rest of the nation was proclaiming what we in the valley had been experiencing for a long, long time: an ever-worsening recession, with no clear end in sight.

Throughout the year, we've worked hard to bring you news and information that was relevant, timely and useful. We delivered it to you in print, with the daily Modesto Bee, and online, with our modbee.com site.

In looking back at the year that's about to end, I asked my staff to help me rank the top 10 local stories of 2008. We didn't all agree on all 10, or even on the order, but here is our consensus list:

1 THE RECESSION -- Like a giant snowball, the downturn that started in the housing industry steadily picked up speed and rolled down the hill and into and over virtually every nook and cranny of the economy.

  • The housing sector: The foreclosure rate soared, and throughout the year, our region remained one of, if not the worst, for homes lost. Home values plummeted, which was very bad news for owners needing to refinance or sell, but very good news for buyers looking at the most affordable prices in more than a decade. Among the biggest busts was the Diablo Grande residential and resort complex, which went belly up and sold for $20 million, far below its initial $150 million asking price.
  • Business and employment: The recession hit automotive sales, retailers and even businesses such as The Bee as consumers dropped out and struggling businesses cut their advertising. Many if not most firms downsized or, in the worst cases, closed their doors, and by year's end, unemployment surpassed 12 percent, the worst in a decade. Still, there were some bright spots: No sooner had The Hershey Co. exited than Sconza moved its candy-making operation from Oakland to Oakdale, Vintage Faire Mall opened a major expansion, and Stanislaus County's ag income soared to a record $2.4 billion.
  • Government and nonprofit agencies: From cities to counties to school districts, major cuts were made -- with more to come in 2009 -- in staffing and services. And as needs increased and donations dipped, nonprofits struggled not just to help those in need but in some cases to stay afloat themselves.

2 DOUG PORTER TRIAL -- The ex-pastor and onetime high school wrestling coach was convicted of murdering Frank Craig and stealing his money. More than two years after Craig's death, the case came to trial and it would last 11 weeks. After deliberating less than a day, the jury found Porter guilty of first-degree murder, a verdict that would lead to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

3 ONE WIN, ONE LOSS -- In 2008, Modesto landed one world-class sporting event and lost another. The Amgen Tour of California bicycle race started a stage under the arch, and later in the year announced plans to return next year with an even better role for the city, being a stage's finish. That victory was tempered by the loss of the California Invitational Relays, which announced it was moving to Sacramento after 70 years and 33 world records here.

4 MEASURE S -- For the second time, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have increased the sales tax by a half-cent to fund critical transportation improvements and make Stanislaus a self-help county eligible for more state and federal funds. Measure S fell a quarter of 1 percent short of the necessary two-thirds approval.

5 DISTRICT ELECTIONS -- Modesto voters said "yes" to district elections, a move that will change how City Council members are elected. By year's end, the district boundaries had been set to go into effect for the three seats in the November 2009 council election.

6 WEST PARK -- The "inland port" proposed on the county's West Side got the green light to move forward in planning, with millions in promised funds from the State Transportation Commission and another vote of confidence from Stanislaus County supervisors.

7 FATHER JOSEPH ILLO -- In the wake of the presidential election, the local Catholic priest drew national and international attention by sending a letter to his parishioners saying anyone who voted for Barack Obama -- "the abortion candidate" -- should go to confession or risk their "state of grace." Illo's letter got him in hot water with his bishop and resulted in a softer and gentler clarification.

8 NEW HOSPITAL -- After years of planning, Kaiser Permanente opened its regional medical center on Dale Road in north Modesto. The $430 million facility, designed to serve more than 260,000 Kaiser members in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, joins Memorial Medical Center, Doctors Medical Center and the smaller Stanislaus Surgical Hospital as Modesto's acute care hospitals.

9 HORRIFIC CRIMES -- Residents were shocked by two crimes involving children. At a rural intersection, a father beat and stomped his toddler son to death before being fatally shot by an officer. And, in Turlock a newborn girl was tossed into a trash bin and left to die; her mother has been charged with murder.

10 CHAMPIONS! -- Two local athletes rose to the top of their respective sports. Modesto High and Cal grad Erin Cafaro won a gold medal in rowing at the Beijing Olympics, and Riverbank High cross country runner German Fernandez set two national records, won two state championships and a national title, and took home the Gatorade National High School track and field athlete of the year award.

And those 10 were just the top of what we covered in The Bee and on modbee.com in 2008.

We gave you crime, from the Road Dog Cycle case that netted an ex-deputy, a sheriff's captain and a retired bailiff to our still-sky-high auto theft rate. We gave you politics, from local elections to Modestan Dave Cogdill becoming minority party leader in the state Senate.

We gave you sports, from Turlock product and Fresno State baseball player Tommy Mendonca being named MVP of the College World Series to ever- expanding coverage of boys and girls high school sports. We gave you entertainment, from X-Fest to the Gallo Center for the Arts' second season. We gave you education, from the drive to build a medical school at the University of California at Merced to the good and bad news about school test scores. We gave you controversy, from the financially troubled YMCA deciding to sell its building to opinion after opinion after opinion on the paper's Opinions pages and modbee.com's blog-happy Hive.

With all that's gone on these past 12 months, it's hard to imagine what 2009 has in store for us. One thing is certain: With so much in limbo as 2008 comes to a close, the new year promises to be every bit as twisting and turning, troubling and terrifying, and tragic and thrilling.

So, buckle your seat belt and join us for another wild and crazy ride.

Mark S. Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president for news, can be reached at mvasche@modbee.com or 578-2351.

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