2016 has come to a close and the Morning Sun staff has taken time to look back at the top stories of the year.

Without a doubt the No. 1 story of 2016 in Pittsburg is the Block 22 project.

At a time when downtown districts across the nation continue to decline, Block 22 is bringing $18 million in investment to Downtown Pittsburg.

Named after the location on the original plat of Pittsburg, the plan is to rejuvenate four buildings at the intersection at Fourth and Broadway in Pittsburg and will include the purchase of the former National Bank of Pittsburg and the building just north at 408 and 410 N. Broadway, along with the Crowell Pharmacy buildings at 401 and 405 N. Broadway.

The project is a partnership between the city, Pittsburg State University and the development company Vecino Group. The Kansas Board of Regents — the governing body of the state universities — approved PSU's $1 million portion in 2016, allowing the project to push forward.

PSU Director of Government and Community Relations Shawn Naccarato said the project will bring a new transformation to a downtown business district which has already seen a transformation — in the wrong direction.

"I believe when we look back this will be the start of the renaissance of Pittsburg," he said at a Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce Luncheon on Dec. 2.

Burton, a graduate of St. Mary’s-Colgan High School and PSU, said he expects the department to approve the project before the end of the year and construction to begin next January or February.

Completion for the project is slated for Aug. 2018. When completed, the upper floors of all four buildings will contain a total of roughly 105 single-bedroom housing units for PSU students. The housing will be aimed at upperclassmen and graduate students.

There will be extra space dedicated for students and local entrepreneurs as well.

PSU’s Center for Innovation and Business Development offices will relocate to the lower level of one of the buildings. Additionally, there will be some commercial space which the university will sub-lease.

PSU is leasing the properties from Vecino Group for 20 years with an opportunity to purchase in five years. In either case the university will own the buildings at the end of the lease.

Naccarato said PSU has fundraised over half over its $1 million contribution. He said PSU plans to raise the rest through private funding before the project begins.

In March, Pittsburg City Commissioners approved the city’s $1.5 million contribution, which will come from the revolving loan fund in two installments — $750,000 initially and another $750,000 once the project is complete.

“If the city can generate a dollar by spending a dime, we feel it is a good investment,” Assistant City Manager Jay Byers said, adding the additional foot traffic downtown will benefit the nearby businesses.

The Springfield, Missouri, Vecino Group will cash in roughly $10 million in federal and state historic-tax credits along with new-market tax credits for equity in the development. The group will finance the remaining $5.5 million, Burton said

God Bless America

The No. 2 story of the year was the community reaction to an atheist group forcing the removal a “God Bless America” sign which had hung on the side of the Pittsburg post office for nearly 15 years.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in late January 2016 had one "God Bless America" sign removed, only to have 1,500 more start appearing around town.

The Pittsburg Post Office was required to remove a "God Bless America" banner from the side of the building Wednesday, after the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed the banner violated the separation between church and state. The FFRF request was made on behalf of an unnamed Pittsburg resident.

Jake's Fireworks responded by printing 1,200 "God Bless America" yard signs and 300 similar banners.

The sign had been installed following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by veterans who worked at the post office.

"The U.S. had just suffered a horrific attack and 3,000 Americans lost their lives," Ed Hinde, who was postmaster when the banner was installed, and who has since retired said at the time. "The employees as a group came to me and said, 'We would like to do something.' It was truly born as an act of patriotism by the employees of the United States Postal Service."

School Bond Fails

The No. 3 story of 2016 was the failure of a bond election which would have seen more than $67 million injected into building projects around the Pittsburg school district.

The bond called for construction at all six schools in the district, and included storm shelters FEMA approved for wind at all locations. It also would have meant the demolition of Pittsburg’s iconic middle school — a sticking point for many voters — as well as millions in heating and air conditioning improvements at the high school.

Voters shot the proposal down by nearly 60 percent and the USD 250 board of education went back to the drawing board, putting forth a proposal for a $31 million bond on the March 14 ballot It includes construction on the district's six schools as well as the Family Resource Center.

Bridges Guilty of Murder

Number four on our list of top stories of 2016 is the no contest plea to first degree murder by Bryan Bridges.

Bridges was found guilty and convicted of the 2014 murder of Taylor Thomas, in a robbery gone bad.

Bridges, 21, plead out as part of a deal which saw charges of aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary and conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary dropped.

Bridges will now face life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. He will also have mandatory lifetime supervision.

Sentencing has been scheduled for 11 a.m. January 9, 2017.

Thomas was killed in a 2014 home invasion in which Bridges, Corbin Spragg and Darius Rainey allegedly broke into Joseph Otter's home to steal money and marijuana.

Rainey is the only defendant who has not either plead out or been sentenced.

Iconic Pittsburg Business Closes Doors

Rounding out the top 5 is the closing of Crowell Pharmacy.

The store was opened by Burton Crowell’s grandfather, Thomas J. Crowell or T.J., in 1890 at 405 N. Broadway.

Eventually, the pharmacy expanded to include 401 N. Broadway.

T.J. went to school in Fort Scott and earned a degree in 1885. He opened at the current location in 1890 and bought out his partner a year later.

T.J.’s son (Burton’s dad), Paul, took over until his death in the 1950s. Then, Burton took over the helm.

Burton was married and had graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City when he took ownership of the pharmacy in 1953.

The nearly 9,000 square feet of retail space will form part of the Block 22 project.

Other stories of note:

6. Casino Construction Begins

An appeal of judge Larry D. Hendricks’ March decision which cleared the way for construction of Kansas Crossing Casino is underway, but primary investor Bruce Christensen said the development group is ignoring the appeals.

“It has no effect,” he said after the groundbreaking in May. “It’s a frivolous appeal. The judge has ruled three times (that the process was proper.)”

Kansas Crossing was sued by the Cherokee County Commission and the developers of the losing bid Castle Rock. Hendricks has three times ruled against both, but Cherokee County voted recently to continue the lawsuit, despite the loss in March.

Christensen said the project, which was originally slated to be a $70 million project, will now total some $80 million. Not, he said, because of any delay, but because the interior design was not complete when the bid was awarded and the developers have used the 9-month delay in construction to finalize details, which include enhanced interior decor.

The casino is expected to open in March of this year.

7. Larry Weaver’s Murder

Larry Weaver, 66, had arrived in Sikeston, Missouri, on June 26 at approximately 8 p.m. After he arrived he contacted his wife and relayed to her he was OK and was planning on leaving Sikeston the next morning to return to his home in Pittsburg as part of a motorcycle trip with friends.

On the morning of June 27, Weaver’s hotel room door was found ajar and opened slightly by the cleaning crew but no report was made to local authorities.

On the morning of June 28, 2016 at approximately 6:30 a.m. the Pittsburg Police Department contacted the Sikeston Department of Public Safety and asked for officers to check the Days Inn for Weaver. Upon checking Weaver’s room and finding he was not there and his motorcycle was missing, Sikeston DPS detectives and the Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators started investigating a missing person and the missing motorcycle.

Weaver was later found dead and three people were arrested for his murder.

8. New Tennis Courts at PHS

Community involvement made the $888,000 project a reality. Over half of the funds came from private donors, according to Pittsburg Superintendent of Schools Destry Brown.

"This started as a journey ...; It has taken several years," Brown said.

A few years ago, the district was approached about bringing top tier courts to Pittsburg schools by tennis enthusiasts Henry Menghini, Don Porter, PHS tennis coach John Seal and Jack Johnson.

"We love tennis and play all the time," Johnson said. "And knew this would be an asset to Pittsburg, the area and county."

The group believed there would be enough financial support from the community. They were right. Some of the contributions include a $139,000 parks and recreation grant, applied for by Pittsburg Parks and Recreation Director Kim Vogel, a $100,000 Pritchett Trust grant and $25,000 from the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

There were numerous private donations as well, including a contribution from the Konek Memorial Fund, after Kaleb Konek, a former high school tennis player who passed in 2014.

9. Lord’s Diner to Help Needy

Pittsburg was chosen as the Diocese of Wichita’s fifth location to provide hot meals from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., 365 days a year. Jan Haberly, director of the diocese’s program, which serves roughly 2,500 meals a night, said Pittsburg was chosen because of its food insecurity rate.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 — the latest year available — 17.4 percent of people worried about where their next meal would come from in Crawford County compared to 14.2 percent in the state.

Located in the former Parrot Bey and Corner Bistro locations, the Parrot Bey side will be the actual dining section. The old Corner Bistro side will be the kitchen and office area. The wooden frame for the offices were up last Friday. The back half of that side will be the kitchen.

The Pittsburg Lord’s Diner expects to serve 200 to 250 meals a night and is supposed to open this month

10. Girard School Construction Complete

USD 248 held an open house in October to showcase new construction and remodeling done at R. V. Haderlein Elementary, Girard Middle School and Girard High School. The construction was made possible by a $16 million bond issue approved by USD 248 voters in May 2014.

Approximately $9.2 million was allocated to Haderlein Elementary for construction and remodeling, with approximately $4.7 million going to the high school and middle school for the construction of a new common area and remodeling of classrooms and science labs. Around $500,000 was used to create a physical education space at the Trojan Activity Center.

As part of the remodel, the section of R. V. Haderlein known as the “old Todd Cheese Factory” was demolished. A move that Principal Mark LaTurner said was both happy and sad. He said it was sad for those with memories, but the start of a new chapter for new students.