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Top Highland Lakes stories of 2021

Downtown Marble Falls after February 2021 winter storm

Downtown Marble Falls covered in snow after the February storm. The freezing weather was one of the top stories of 2021 in the Highland Lakes. Photo courtesy of LeeAnn Clark

Except for the obvious — the continuing pandemic and the snowstorm that shut down the entire state in February — this list of top stories of 2021 is in no particular order. Between the pandemic and “snowmageddon,” the editors at DailyTrib.com decided COVID-19 remains the biggest story of the year, as it was in 2020, and we hope it will not be in 2022. 

PANDEMIC

The COVID-19 pandemic continues, but means to control the spread expanded in 2021 when vaccines became available, first to those on the front lines, then to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, later to the general population, and finally to children ages 5 and older. By early January, vaccines arrived in the Highland Lakes, though in a limited amount, but have since become readily available.

In March, Gov. Greg Abbott removed COVID-19-related restrictions and opened Texas back up for business. Following the governor’s announcement, the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees decided to make face coverings optional on campuses at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year, a decision that remained in place into the 2021-22 year despite a September outbreak that closed schools temporarily.

Faced with teacher shortages and having to close classrooms and an entire elementary school early in the 2021-22 school year, the Marble Falls Independent School District tried to enforce a mask mandate in October. After blowback from a group of parents, the school board reversed the vote in a special meeting and masks were again optional. 

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a booster for those who have been vaccinated as the world struggles with the Delta and Omicron variants. 

WEATHER

The entire state of Texas was under a winter storm warning on Feb. 13-18. For days, snow, sleet, and freezing rain turned a state known for its warm weather into an arctic nightmare, causing the deaths of 210 people. More than 4.5 million homes and businesses were without power for days. Nearly 15 million people were without water. The failure of the electric grid in Texas — the only state not wholly on either the eastern or western U.S. grids — turned residents’ attention toward ERCOT, the then-little-known agency in charge of the state’s power. ERCOT stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas. 

Locally, the storm led to an average increase of $8 to $12 a month for 24 months on electric bills for Pedernales Electric Cooperative members. 

A little over a month later, a severe storm wreaked havoc in Bertram, destroying a historic building and damaging others downtown. On March 22, a severe thunderstorm flattened the more-than-100-year-old A.B. McGill & Company building and damaged nearby Bertram Blend & Boutique. As officials surveyed the damage the next day, businesses and people donated food and supplies to feed workers on cleanup duty.

According to the National Weather Service, the damage was from straight-line winds and not a tornado. The McGill & Company building was demolished shortly after as a result of the damage.

GROWTH

Proposed Marble Falls hotel and conference center
An illustration of the proposed hotel and conference center to be built in Marble Falls. Image courtesy of Marble Falls EDC

Growth in the Highland Lakes exploded in 2021, bringing multiple new developments both large and small. DailyTrib.com kicked off a series of stories, “Growing Pains,” with a piece in the June issue of The Picayune Magazine. Other stories looked at the increased cost of lumbereffect on schoolsgroups filling the affordable housing gap, and lack of available rentals

Covering local city governments brought up other growth issues, and city councils and county commissioners continue to struggle with the availability of clean water and adequate wastewater treatment facilities. 

The city of Marble Falls moved forward with a hotel and conference center, granting a $300,000 tax abatement for the next 25 years to Marble Falls Hotel Group LLC. Meanwhile, the city of Burnet has begun the process of renovating a building for its new City Hall and upgrading its airport

Growth has also led the Burnet Central Appraisal District to start the process for new digs as well

In May, Burnet Consolidated Independent School District voters approved a $52 million bond in four parts that would prepare the district for a surge in growth expected in the coming 10 years

Facing growing pains of its own, Cottonwood Shores wants leaders to slow down and take a closer look at a proposed new bridge. The council recently sent a protest letter regarding Wirtz Dam Bridge, which will connect RR 1431 to FM 2147 across Lake Marble Falls. 

CRIME

A Lampasas man was charged in a double murder near Marble Falls. Burnet County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested James Joseph Luckenbach on Sept. 2 and charged him with the murders of Frank Whittemore, 42, and Amanda (Romero) Whittemore, 39.

On Aug. 30, deputies responded to a home in the Overlook subdivision off of Texas 71 and found the couple had been shot in their bed. 

POLITICS

The Texas Legislature redrew the lines for several state and federal offices during one of three special sessions in 2021. Under the new plan, Burnet County will shift from U.S. Congressional District 25 to District 31. Also, the county will now be part of State House District 19 instead of its current District 20.

While the area remains in State Senate District 24, legislators redrew the lines to include an area that wraps south and around San Antonio. Current District 24 state Sen. Dawn Cunningham is seeking the Republican nomination for Texas land commissioner, so the area will have a new senator in 2022.

The redistricting takes effect for the 2022 primary and general elections. The federal government has, however, filed a lawsuit challenging Texas’ redistricting. 

SCHOOL WINS

Burnet Space Dawgs win NASA contest
The Burnet High School culinary arts team, the Space Dawgs, after winning the NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

The Burnet High School culinary arts team, the Space Dawgs, created a dish that’s out of this world. The five students cooked up a Chicken Francese that won first place in the NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge. The winning team’s recipe will feed astronauts aboard the International Space Station. 

In May, Burnet’s Hudson Bennett won the Class 4A state championship in the 3,200 meters and a bronze medal in the 1,600 meters

The Faith Academy of Marble Falls boys’ track team won a state championship. 

In the fall, the Marble Falls, Faith Academy, and Smoking for Jesus Ministry School football teams all advanced to the playoffs in their respective leagues. The Marble Falls Mustangs reached the regional round of the University Interscholastic League’s Class 5A Division II playoffs. The Faith Flames were the runners-up of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools’ six-man Division II conference. The Smoking for Jesus Eagles repeated as state champions of the Texas Christian Athletic League. 

editor@thepicayune.com