JANESVILLE — Rep. Paul Ryan's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate was a first for Janesville and a first for Wisconsin.
Gazette staff voted Mitt Romney's vice presidential choice as this year's top local story.
Ryan's political star had been rising for years before Mitt Romney announced his decision Aug. 11.
Ryan, 42, was a seven-term congressman who had hitched his political wagon to the cause of fiscal conservatism, arguing that the expanding federal spending and debt imperils the country.
Many influential conservatives advocated for Ryan in the days leading up to Romney's announcement.
"The case for Mr. Ryan is that he best exemplifies the nature and stakes of this election," The Wall Street Journal editorial writers said. "More than any other politician, (Ryan) has defined those stakes well, as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline."
Ryan was an enthusiastic campaigner who spent many days on the road in swing states such as Ohio and Virginia. He made one post-announcement appearance in Janesville, before an adoring crowd at his alma mater, Craig High School, on Aug. 27.
Romney-Ryan lost the election to the incumbents, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Ryan ran simultaneously for his House seat, as allowed in Wisconsin statutes. He won an eighth term, and he is said to be included in the House Republican leadership's ongoing discussions on the fiscal cliff.
Other top local stories of 2011 chosen by The Gazette staff are:
2. After two years of courtship, Janesville took a significant step toward putting the city on the world map of medical isotope makers.
The city council approved a development agreement with SHINE Medical Technologies, which plans to build a facility on the city's south side for the production of several medical isotopes, including molybdenum-99.
Mo-99 is used in more than 50,000 diagnostic nuclear medicine procedures every day in the United States.
The agreement includes $5 million in incentives and $4 million in a private-sector loan guarantees to private investors.
Barring any regulatory curveballs, SHINE is on track to open an $85 million plant with 150 high-paid employees in early 2016. The 50,000-square-foot plant will be built on an 84-acre parcel the city bought and annexed across Highway 51 from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
SHINE is now testing equipment in Monona, working on design plans for the Janesville facility and taking steps to meet regulatory and licensing requirements.
3. Here's how the summer of 2012 went:
First it was hot and dry.
Then it was hotter and drier.
The heat and the drought were the big story all summer. Southern Wisconsin from the Iowa border to the middle of Walworth County was under extreme drought conditions all summer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture drought monitor.
Rain late in the summer helped the soybean crop recover and saved some of the corn. But many farmers already suffered significant losses.
Those crop losses have translated into record-high feed prices for livestock producers.
For city dwellers, the drought and heat translated into brown and crispy lawns. In July, three days of triple digit heat broke records.
4. The reality and pain of a decade of war in the Middle East hit home in tiny Orfordville in April with the death of U.S. Army Cpl. Benjamin Neal.
Neal, 25, an Orfordville native died April 25 after being injured by a makeshift bomb in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan.
Hundreds of area residents welcomed the young soldier home May 5 as Neal's body was flown into the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport and then driven in a vehicle procession to Orfordville.
It was a weekend-long outpouring of pride and heartache for the fallen soldier who was a former high school wrestler and an FFA and 4-H member at Parkview High School.
The somber rites poured into the following week, with Neal's funeral service at St. William Catholic Church in Janesville, where Army Brig. General Darrell Williams of Columbus, Ohio, told hundreds of mourners that Neal was an "American patriot and an American hero."
Neal had re-enlisted for what was his final deployment to Afghanistan. He was awarded a dozen combat medals, including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Good Conduct Medal and the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.
Neal is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Evansville. His headstone, which is inscribed with words that he himself chose, reads: "Only in death will we live forever."
5. At the start of 2012, while the weather and most employment markets remained cold, a hospital arms race heated up locally.
Janesville become Hospitalville.
First, the area saw doubling of healthcare options with SSM Health Care's Jan. 9 opening of the new $145 million St. Mary's Janesville Hospital and Dean Clinic on the city's east side.
About 300 people were hired to staff the 50-bed hospital at Highway 11 near Interstate 90/39.
At the same time, Janesville-based Mercy Health System anted up spending, capping more than $70 million in construction and renovation projects.
Mercy completed major façade renovations to Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center and Mercy East Clinic, along with a major addition to Mercy Walworth Hospital and Medical Center and, late this year, a renovation to Mercy Edgerton Health Center.
Mercy also rushed to complete the new Mercy North, an emergency department and physician clinic, near Pine Tree Plaza on the northeast side. Meanwhile, SSM and Edgerton Hospital were under operations in their full first year at the new Edgerton Hospital and Dean Clinic.
The healthcare groups at the core of the local medical boom oozed optimism that the upgraded and new facilities would improve healthcare quality and access, satisfy demand and create more competition to control cost increases.
To be sure, analysts said, the boom also catered to consumer's desire for shiny, new facilities and additional patient procedures, and helped the healthcare groups to commandeer the market and put a lock on profits.
6. Was it a case of the board jumping the gun on a few nebulous complaints?
Or did the Milton School Board simply not have enough evidence of wrongdoing to get rid of its second-year superintendent without paying him to resign and stay at home the rest of school year?
Some questions remain unanswered about the school board's choice to pay Superintendent Mike Garrow his salary this year and a severance of $35,000 while he remains on leave through June 30.
The move came after a staff complaint that Garrow used a district computer to show colleagues a Facebook photo of a female friend that was "possibly inappropriate."
In moves shrouded in secrecy for weeks, the board put Garrow on paid leave in October and November while it hired an attorney to dig into the staff complaint.
Staff complained that the woman in the photo was either partially or completely unclothed. Garrow denies the photo was inappropriate, and board members admit they never saw the photo.
Amid that complaint were allegations later found to be unfounded that Garrow had "improperly" fraternized with staff during social functions.
The board did not go public with details behind Garrow's leave until after it cut a closed-door deal to sever ties with Garrow, who was in the first year of a two-year contract.
A Gazette reporter and The Gazette editorial board for weeks put pressure on the district and the school board to release details of Garrow's leave and to explain why it was paying Garrow to stay at home.
First came a battery of open records requests by The Gazette and then a strongly-worded Gazette editorial that threatened legal action if the board did not give details of Garrow's leave.
Finally, the district gave details—including Garrow's ultimate decision to part ways with the district.
In an interview with The Gazette, Garrow said he felt a full-scale investigation of his conduct was unnecessary. He called the ordeal a "personal nightmare."
To date, the district and the board have only justified Garrow's paid break with the district by saying that Garrow refused terms of a "formal" employee improvement plan the board gave him after the investigation.
Despite a Dec. 14 open records request filed by The Gazette, the board has not disclosed details of Garrow's purported improvement plan. And board members have not fully explained how or why Garrow's conduct, behavior or performance warranted such a plan.
7. An invasive species that has wiped the ash tree from neighborhoods and woodlots across the Midwest finally showed up in Rock and Walworth counties this year.
Infestations of emerald ash borer were confirmed in Lake Geneva and 10 miles southwest of that city in mid June.
A tree at an east-side Janesville residence was found to have emerald ash borer in late June after a 5-year-old spotted signs of an infestation at his home. Experts later said the beetles had likely been in the city for several years.
A presentation about the insect July 2 drew a standing room-only crowd at the Rock County Courthouse.
The beetles were found in Clinton in September.
In Janesville, one estimate was that 30,000 ash trees would die in the next three to five years if the trees were not treated.
The discoveries spurred the Janesville City Council to reinstate the position of city forester and to give the forester the authority to order infested trees removed from private property.
8. If there's one thing slightly less painful than road construction, it's planning for road construction, and Rock County was a hotbed for construction talk in 2012.
In April, state Department of Transportation officials kicked off a $1 billion project that will expand the 45-mile segment of Interstate 90/39 to three or four lanes in each direction and reconstruct all of the segment's 11 interchanges and 100 bridges.
Throughout the year, state officials staged public information sessions to lay out their plans.
While full-blown work will start in 2015 and run into 2021, Rock County motorists will get a taste of the construction in 2013 when the state reconfigures the Racine Street interchange near Janesville.
State officials also were on hand to discuss a project that will refurbish County G between Janesville and Beloit. The improvements to County G are part of a larger project that will include the extension of Inman Parkway east to County S and then to Interstate 90/39.
The Rock County Board approved the Inman Parkway extension in October after several months of debate.
In the meantime, work continued on the state's reconfiguration of Highway 26 from Janesville to Watertown. Work was heaviest between Janesville and Milton, which will ultimately be bypassed in the $470 million project.
Talk of another state-proposed project, however, ended when intense local opposition stifled a study for a bypass connecting highways 11 and 14 west of Janesville. The state was looking at ways to connect the two highways, but a neighborhood coalition fought the study, arguing the connection was unnecessary and would ruin homes and farmland.
9. More than two years in the making, a documentary about Janesville hit the big and little screens in 2012, but not before an advance clip generated a stir in Wisconsin's political landscape.
Brad Lichtenstein came to Janesville in early 2009 with an idea for a documentary on how a community and its residents respond to economic upheaval.
In the early stages of making the film, Lichtenstein had no idea that the state's political climate would change so dramatically and that it would ultimately affect the story he was telling.
Wisconsin found out in May, when Lichtenstein released a clip of "As Goes Janesville" to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The clip shows Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks asking Gov. Scott Walker in January 2011 whether he could make Wisconsin a "completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work" state.
Walker told Hendricks the "first step" would be "to divide and conquer" through his budget adjustment bill, which cut collective bargaining for most public employee unions.
The Hendricks-Walker dialogue created a political dustup just weeks before Walker's successful recall election.
After several screenings around the country, "As Goes Janesville" was shown in Janesville in October, one night before it made its nationwide television debut on PBS.
10. Just when you thought a 2008 sidewalk plan had put the perennial issue to rest, it heated up again.
A group of Janesville residents ordered to build sidewalks in 2012 went political and formed a group urging council members to put the seven-year plan on hold. (The plan had been delayed until 2011 because of the poor economy.)
Two new council members, DuWayne Severson and Jim Farrell, spearheaded the eventual decision to create yet another sidewalk study group in a city that has lost count of the number of similar study groups and sessions over recent decades.
That group has been meeting since May, and the council appears willing to accept its unanimous recommendations on which sidewalks should remain on the seven-year plan.
The committee, however, has not been able to provide unanimous recommendations on all sidewalks. What the council does with those is anyone's guess—as is whether the issue will retreat to simmer on a back burner or continue on full boil.