The Sunrise Mountain Mustangs

Good news in a tough year: The Sunrise Mountain Mustangs scored a trophy with the school’s first football state championship.

An unforgettable, often regrettable year is coming to a close.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a true global disaster, killing millions around the world, including more than 5,000 in Maricopa County.

Though Peoria’s year was largely shaped by the devastating spread of the coronavirus—and the shutdowns and slowdowns called by state, county and school officials—there was quite a bit of “non-COVID news” in 2020.

Here are some of the top stories of the year in Peoria:

20. New PUSD leader

The retirement of the highly respected Linda Palles Thompson cleared the way for Dr. Jason Reynolds, an energetic, new Peoria Unified School District superintendent.

He needed the energy, as weeks into his new job, Reynolds faced school shutdowns.

 

19. Aldi comes to town

The somewhat quirky (a quarter deposit for shopping carts, to make sure they are returned) discount shopping center that was born in Europe opened its third Arizona store in Peoria.

 

18. Zach Hoffpauir dies

The Centennial High community was shocked in May by the death of Zach Hoffpauir, who played baseball and football at Stanford University after a brilliant athletic career in Peoria.

He died in his sleep at age 26.

 

17. Luke flies high

With more F-35A Lightning II jets on the way, Luke Air Force Base is set to take off—and take the West Valley economy along for the ride.

A mission expansion revolving around 144 new fighter jets will pump up Luke AFB’s population—as well as the surrounding areas, including Goodyear, Litchfield Park and Avondale.

Luke is gradually ramping up for the F-35A Lightning II jets over the next six years.

By 2026, the defense spending in support of Luke AFB is expected to support approximately 13,900 total jobs, $820 million in total compensation and $1.5 billion in value-added impacts to the West Valley, according to a Maricopa Association of Governments study.

 

16. APS fire report

A lengthy report revealed the fire at an APS solar-charging station that injured four Peoria Fire-Medical Department responders was caused by a chain reaction “cascading thermal runaway.”

Released in July, more than a year after the April 19, 2019, explosion at the McMicken Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) in Surprise, the report described how intense heat spread from one lithium-ion battery cell to another, filling the unmanned facility with smoke and gas.

The powerful explosion tossed the firefighters through the air, causing broken bones, concussions and other injuries.

 

15. No driver needed

A futuristic autonomous shuttle made its debut around P83, taking fans to and from Spring Training.

 

14. Local elections

Though hardly as contentious as the presidential election, new school board members were elected and most school funding requests passed by West Valley voters.

COVID-19 put a dent in competition, with many local and state officials uncontested in their reelection bids.

Going door to door to collect signatures during a pandemic was simply too daunting for many would-be candidates.

 

13. Peoria revisioned

Stadium Pointe and Old Town projects, though yet to break ground, gave a hint of the “revisioning of Peoria” as the city’s center is reshaped.

 

12. Hottest summer … ever

The summer of 2020 shattered records as Glendale sweated out its hottest summer ever.

 

11. Teacher trial delayed

Former teacher Ricky Ordway, accused of molesting multiple students in his Sun Valley Elementary School classroom near the Peoria/Glendale border, was scheduled to go to trial in January on two dozen sex abuse and molestation charges.

The trial was delayed to April, then July, then November …

Ordway is now scheduled for trial at Maricopa County Superior Court Jan. 21, 2021—nearly 18 months after he was arrested and charged.

Ordway, who has consistently proclaimed his innocence, is out on bail.

 

10. PUSD election failure

While voters approved a Peoria Unified School District budget override, they rejected PUSD’s $125 million budget request.

According to the district’s website addressing bond questions, “If the critical needs bond does not pass, Peoria Unified School District will not be able to provide all of the required maintenance and facility updates that are needed at our school and operational facilities.”

 

9. Lesko on the rise

It was a big year for Rep. Debbie Lesko.

The Peoria resident won reelection to represent the 8th Congressional District in a landslide—and was frequently on national news shows for her loyal defense of President Donald Trump. The loyalty earned her a trip on Air Force One and a few trips to the White House. 

 

8. Taronis lands

In a big win for the city’s economic development team, Taronis Fuels, a global producer of renewable and socially responsible fuel products, relocated to Peoria.

A corporate headquarters and advanced manufacturing operations will create up to 500 new jobs.

7. Classrooms yo-yo

In March, Gov. Doug Ducey closed all schools in Arizona.

With kids learning online, classrooms stayed closed for months before tentatively reopening … only to close again in November and December.

After winter breaks, many West Valley public schools will be online only when classes resume Monday, Jan. 4.

But the PUSD Governing Board voted two weeks ago to have classrooms open after winter break “regardless of the benchmark data.”

 

6. The big deal is here

After years and $400 million in construction costs, the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley opening was a full house in February—until pandemic restrictions forced it to fold.

Eventually, the long-awaited, Las Vegas-style casino reopened with poker, blackjack tables and a whopping 1,100 slot machines.

 

5. Westgate mass shooting

On May 20, three were shot at Westgate in an apparently random attack by a single shooter. The suspect allegedly was armed with an AR-15 rifle that jammed—preventing him from reaching his goal of shooting 10 people, according to a prosecutor.

Police arrested Armando Hernandez, a 20-year-old Peoria resident, and charged him with multiple counts of aggravated assault.

He allegedly told police he identifies as an “incel,” short for involuntarily celibate, and shot people “to gain respect.”

A prosecutor said Hernandez had been planning the “mass casualty” attack for three years.

 

4. Smitty’s no more

Long viewed as a “Peoria eyesore,” the long-vacant Smitty’s was suddenly torn down.

While many say even a vacant lot is better than the dilapidated storefront, an attractive residential development is on the way.

 

3. State champs!

A chaotic, often grim school year was boosted by the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs, who stormed to the school’s first football title.

The clincher was the Mustangs’ 42-20 victory over the Ironwood Eagles in the 2020 AIA Football 5A State Championship Final.

 

2. Growth time

The stage was set in 2020 for major Peoria expansion, as multiple large-scale residential projects launch.

The area around Olive and 83rd avenues alone is headed for a major renaissance, as construction started for developments on every corner.

 

1. COVID-19

The coronavirus was a wrecking ball, knocking down much of the year and destroying the word “normal.”

West Valley cities raced to keep pace with the pandemic, issuing mask orders, making meetings online only, closing facilities and canceling events from Fourth of July to Christmas celebrations.

Restaurants and other businesses struggled to survive during lock-down periods, with some receiving much-needed Paycheck Protection Program federal funding.

As hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe, the most devastating impact of the disease was on families that lost loved ones.

Through Dec. 26, 4,902 people in Maricopa County died of COVID-19.

The good news: Before 2020 came to a merciful close, a promising coronavirus vaccine was launched.