Daily News staff's choices for Top 10 local news stories of 2011 -- POLL

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The contentious but failed effort to lure Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to Collier County to anchor a biomedical village was the top Southwest Florida news story of 2011.

That's according to a vote by Daily News staff members, who selected it as the clear front-runner among 2011 local news stories over Naples resident Rick Scott's first year as Florida governor and lingering high unemployment, which ranked third.

Here's a look at the Top 10 stories of 2011, as chosen by reporters and editors:

1) Jackson Laboratory faced a community backlash over economic incentives it wanted to set up a scientific research lab near Ave Maria. A $260 million package of state and local financing was too much to stomach for many Collier residents.

So Jackson Lab tried Sarasota instead, but that also didn't work out.

In October, the Connecticut Legislature agreed to provide $291 million in bonds to Jackson Lab to build a genetics research center at the University of Connecticut in Farmington.

Collier Commissioner Fred Coyle, a vocal proponent of bringing Jackson Lab to Collier, recently had this reaction: "Obviously, the people in Connecticut have a better vision of the future than many of the people in Collier County."

2) Naples businessman Rick Scott went from political obscurity to win the governor's race in November 2010, then was sworn into office in January 2011.

He immediately got to work.

He pushed his agenda of creating 700,000 Florida jobs in seven years, got the Legislature to bite on teacher merit pay and education reform, cut state jobs and successfully advocated for pension reform to treat the state's pension more like a 401(k) with government workers contributing 3 percent.

More work on job creation lies ahead.

"I want to put us in a position that, if you think about being in business, if you're going to be in business in America, you're going to be in business in Florida," Scott recently told The Associated Press.

3) Thousands of people in Southwest Florida may have wanted to get to work in 2011, but it didn't happen.

Unemployment remained in the double-digits, leaving 43,000 would-be workers without a job in Collier and Lee counties, data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity shows.

Toward the end of the year, the jobless rate in Collier fell to 10 percent, compared with 11.7 in January 2011. In Lee, the November rate was 10.5 percent, down from 12.7 percent in January.

Statewide, unemployment was at 10 percent in November, with 905,000 Floridians out of work. December numbers will be out shortly.

4) Georgia Hiller promised a "new dawning" when she won election in November 2010 to the job of Collier County commissioner from North Naples. She wasn't kidding.

Supporters say she's been a constructive, challenging new voice to the status quo in county government. Critics call her destructive and a polarizing figure.

With Hiller at center stage, commission meetings in 2011 often became heated on issues such as Jackson Lab, the spending of county tourism dollars with Paradise Marketing that donated money to a county project, and incentives for medical company Arthrex to expand in Collier.

An attorney by trade, she questioned staff and questioned other commissioners.

"I think they're going to have to get used to it," she said in a July interview with the Daily News. "I have a duty to the people to ask questions where I don't know the answer."

5) One public official who likely didn't expect to spend 2011 in the hot seat was Kenneth Walker of Edison State College.

In 1992, Walker became only the third president of the school that opened its doors in Fort Myers in 1962 as Edison Junior College. By 2000, there already was a Kenneth P. Walker Health Science Hall on campus.

For nearly 20 years, Walker led the college through growth and expansion in four counties. He was unchallenged as its leader. That began to change as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, reviewed the college's performance in 2011 and questioned the integrity at the college, among other criticisms.

The Edison Board of Trustees placed Walker on paid administrative leave in November. The sides have picked attorneys for a legal battle that may lie ahead.

6) Jerry Williams likewise had a long run at the top before his hard fall in 2011.

The longtime, highly successful bank executive was indicted by a grand jury on bank fraud charges in March. In late December, the former CEO of Orion Bank in Naples signed a plea deal, admitting to bank fraud on three counts.

If a federal judge accepts the plea agreement, Williams could go to prison for up to 15 years. The 13-count indictment, carrying a maximum of 220 years in prison, accused him of orchestrating a scheme to trick state and federal regulators into believing Orion was in good financial shape as its losses mounted.

Williams was ousted from Orion Bank days before regulators closed it in November 2009. IberiaBank took over Orion after the failure.

7) The guard also changed in Collier and Lee school districts in 2011, as Kamela Patton became Collier's superintendent and Joseph Burke took the helm in Lee.

The Collier School Board fired Dennis Thompson as superintendent in April, on the heels of Thompson filing a lawsuit against the board in March, alleging breach of contract and seeking more than $250,000 in damages from the district.

Burke came to Lee from Monroe County (Key West). His predecessor in Lee was James Browder, who quit to take a top administrative job at Edison college, a move that helped create friction between faculty and Edison President Kenneth Walker.

8) If you're starting to see a pattern, it continues with the story ranked No. 8 by Daily News reporters and editors. A longtime leader of a public agency departed in 2011, and the agency itself was under fire.

Tammie Nemecek quit after 17 years with Collier County's Economic Development Council, leaving as its president and CEO. The EDC announced plans in September to close its doors. Collier County government and business leaders are working on plans to reshape the organization as an arm of county government.

9) Other than Jerry Williams, the only other crime story to make the staff's Top Ten was the January stabbing death after a fight among students at a Collier bus stop in Golden Gate Estates.

Jorge Saavedra, now 15, is accused of stabbing to death Dylan Nuno, 16, a fellow Palmetto Ridge High School student, in January 2011. Saavedra is charged as a juvenile with aggravated manslaughter.

As the year ends, a judge is considering whether to accept Saavedra's "stand your ground" defense that he had a right to defend himself with lethal force.

10) The staff's Top 10 is rounded out by budgetary woes faced by fire departments in Collier County. Immokalee and East Naples fire departments laid off staff, and both independently run districts, along with Golden Gate, are asking voters on Jan. 31, 2012, to increase the maximum allowed property tax rate to raise money for their budgets.

Other stories that nearly made the staff's Top Ten were: legislation creating teacher merit pay and new teacher assessments; medical device manufacturer Arthrex's plans to expand in Collier and Lee counties; and the Collier County Commission's vote to reject the Immokalee master plan, designed to guide the community into its future.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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