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State grant to fund trail improvements

More good news arrived this week for Nacogdoches cyclists and pedestrians.

Texas Transportation Commissioners on Thursday allocated $1.4 million to sidewalk and trail improvements proposed by Stephen F. Austin State University. The grant as part of a statewide Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside program to build on and off-road bicycle and pedestrian accommodations such as sidewalks and bike lanes in areas with less than 200,000 people.

After the university’s Board of Regents agreed to a 20% funding match, SFA applied for the grant in 2019, proposing the widening and extensions of two segments of Raguet Street sidewalks, paving and upgrades to the Lanana Creek Trail and building sidewalks along Starr Avenue from Clark Boulevard to Cardinal Street. As part of the grant process, a public input meeting was held that summer.

A timeline for the trails project has not been set, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, other state-funded sidewalks are underway in Nacogdoches, including one that is nearing completion along the east side of North Street from East Austin Street to Loop 224.

“We are currently working with TxDOT to look at possible funding in the near future for an additional sidewalk along the west side of North Street,” City Engineer Steve Bartlett said.

Also in the works are sidewalks along Park Street from University Drive to near Tower Road, along West Starr from North to Pearl streets and along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from University Drive to Shawnee Street. Final approval on construction plans is pending, Bartlett said, but construction could begin this summer.

“Agency approvals for these projects were delayed by COVID related issues,” he said, adding that the city is also seeking grant funding for a sidewalk along portions of South Street.

“These grants are very competitive,” Bartlett says, “and the status of this request is still pending.”

Focus to shift from mass clinics

Just shy of a third of eligible Nacogdoches County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the days of mass vaccination clinics where public health officials offer upwards of 2,000 shots a day soon could be coming to an end.

After a shot clinic with more than 1,800 patients this week, 28.2% of county residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated. That’s more than 14,000 people, and an additional 5,000 people have received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccine made by Moderna.

“There’s more vaccine available now than people who want vaccine for now,” said Nacogdoches Fire Chief Keith Kiplinger, who is in charge of logistics for local shot clinics.

Starting this month, health officials will shift to a more community-focused model for shot clinics.

We’re going to reformulate a bit and do more targeted clinics, trying to reach neighborhoods and populations all over the county,” Kiplinger said. “We’re going to try to get out in the community a little more. We’ve reached the point we won’t fill 1,000 appointments in a day.”

Demand remained high this week. Somewhere around 350 people funneled into the clinic at the Nacogdoches County Expo Center during the first hour.

“They were lined up in the road when we got here,” said County Commissioner Robin Dawley who volunteered to transport patients in an ATV from the far ends of the massive parking lot to the door of the expo center.

As demand soared, the typical workforce was drastically diminished.

Stephen F. Austin State University Nursing students typically give the majority of shots during the mass vaccination clinics. This week, those students, who are easily distinguished by their SFA-colored purple scrubs, were largely absent to prepare for final exams ahead of next weekend’s graduation.

“I have two who volunteered,” SFA nursing instructor Michelle Klein said during the clinic. “But I’ve got to make them leave soon because they have a major exam tomorrow.”

Paramedics — Kiplinger included — stepped in to give shots alongside nurses from Excel ER and both the city’s hospitals as well as SFA instructors.

The nursing students play a vital role, clinic organizers said, and a dozen of them have been hired to continue shot clinics throughout the summer.

The typical all-hands-on-deck approach extended beyond giving shots and rides to patients. Nacogdoches City Manager Mario Canizares was directing patients to tables to fill out consent forms. A hospital administrator was sorting Band Aids. Dozens of people from all walks of city and county government took on roles.

Since shot eligibility opened to all Texans older than 16, a diverse group has been showing up for inoculation. Wednesday’s crowd seemed to be an even mix of older adults and SFA students. The university provided bus service to the clinic several times throughout the day.

Another clinic is scheduled for May 5. Both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots will be available. The Johnson & Johnson shot was briefly on pause as the federal Food and Drug Administration evaluated its safety following reports of incredibly rare but serious blood clots.

Appointments are available from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be scheduled by going to tinyurl.com/VacNac or by calling 936-305-8488.

Health officials are also expecting to soon receive a shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine, which is approved for teens as young as 16. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are not approved for use in anyone younger than 18.

Pfizer is also seeking permission to lower their minimum age to 12 after clinical trials.

“As that rolls out that’s another big clinic day,” Kiplinger said. “I see us doing a big clinic day on a Saturday where moms and dads can bring their kids.”

Voters head to polls

Nacogdoches County voters went to the polls Saturday to decide city and school elections including a $13 million bond proposal in Garrison.

Results will be available Saturday night on our website — www.dailysentinel.com — and appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

“This is the first Saturday election since our print schedule changed,” managing editor Josh Edwards said. “We encourage readers to visit our website Saturday evening for the latest results, which will be offered for free.”

Early voting results will be released around 7 p.m. once polls close, and final results should be available before 10 p.m. Nacogdoches County Elections Administrator Todd Stallings said.

“Currently, there is one overseas/military ballot outstanding that has a few days after election day to still arrive and be counted. There are eight or nine domestic mail ballots still outstanding and it’s possible some of them could still be counted if they arrive as late as Monday May 3, but I’d need to get confirmation from the State because the law is a little gray,” Stallings said.

During early voting, the hotly contested race contest for the Northeast Ward seat on the Nacogdoches City Council drew the most interest from voters with 633 ballots cast.

In that race, incumbent Garth Hinze is challenged by Logansport Street resident Kathleen Belanger. The race largely centers on an ongoing zoning dispute between Logansport Street residents and the council. Hinze and other council members support a change to allow a high-density housing development — known as R-4 zoning — at the north end of the street near the entrance to Pecan Park.

Residents have repeatedly asked the council to reconsider the requisition after saying they were not properly notified. City officials say proper notification was given but have amended the way they notify residents of proposed zoning changes.

The council has declined to reconsider the change.

The more complicated Northwest Ward race drew far fewer voters with 172. Incumbent Amelia Fischer is challenged on the ballot by Albert Thomas Lasater, but he was ruled ineligible to serve on the council after city officials discovered his permanent address is outside the city limits. Lasater chose not to challenge the ruling and said the problem arose because of a new driveway at his property that connects to a county road rather than North Street.

Voters may still cast a ballot in favor of Lasater, but he cannot hold office. His official campaign Facebook page has encouraged voters to cast a ballot for him as recently as April 18, more than a month after he was declared ineligible.

The second most popular race during early voting was in Nacogdoches ISD’s District 5, where the contest between incumbent Mindy Winslow and challenger Tammy Spake drew 613 voters.

In Garrison ISD, 178 ballots were cast during early voting in a $13 million bond election and school board race. District officials say money from the bond proposal would be used for projects including a new high school and a multi-purpose facility.

GISD board candidates are Jennifer Honea, Matt Harris, Jackson Sheffield and Bart Reneau. Two seats are open. Reneau and Sheffield are incumbents, and Reneau currently serves as board president.

Chireno ISD’s board election had the lightest turnout with 105 ballots. In that race, voters will decide two seats on the school board. Candidates are Gerrie Dee Lockett, Michael Sanford, Jake Higginbotham and David Smith. Smith and Sanford are incumbents, and Smith currently serves as board president.

Storm closes roads, schools

Overnight storms that flooded roadways, closed some schools and delayed Friday morning commutes might not be gone just yet, weather experts said.

A threat of thunderstorms remains in the East Texas area through the weekend and into early next week, according to the National Weather Service Shreveport office, and flood warnings will remain in place through early next week for the Angelina River near Lufkin and Attoyac Bayou near Chireno.

Friday’s predawn thunderstorm knocked out power to nearly 1,000 homes and businesses in Nacogdoches County, according to electric providers.

McMichael Middle School was closed Friday due to flooding at the campus and both Woden and Chireno school districts announced all campuses would be closed Friday due to roadway flooding. About two dozen county roads were affected by high water, and parts of state Hwy. 21 East and state Hwy. 7 west of Nacogdoches were impassable Friday morning, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The roads had reopened by mid-day Friday, “and will remain open if the weather will cooperate,” TxDOT Lufkin District Spokeswoman Rhonda Oaks said. Updated road conditions can be found online drivetexas.org.

Planning for weather-related and other emergencies will be the topic of a community meeting Thursday evening at Festival Park. Moderated by the Rev. Don Hills, the 6:30 p.m. town hall meeting will include a panel made up of Fire Chief Keith Kiplinger, City Manager Mario Canizares, Community Collaborator LeNola Wyatt-Tutt and community member Aloma Marquis. Lawn chairs and masks are encouraged, and the first 40 attendees will receive an emergency preparedness kit. For information on this meeting, email djones@texasobserver.org or call 512-710-7102.