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Community members voice preference in renovating the City Building

Community members voiced preference in renovating the City Building and keeping city offices downtown during town hall discussions Saturday morning and Monday evening on the future of the building.

Hastings residents were invited to tour the building and provide feedback on possible remedies for the structure at 220 N. Hastings Ave.

The meetings started with tours of the building guided by city staff, followed by discussion in the City Council chambers.

During the tour on Saturday, guides pointed out problems with the roof, cracks in the foundation and trouble with climate control systems being unable to prevent mold and further deterioration of the building.

Shawn Metcalf, who took over as city administrator Dec. 21, 2022, is leading the charge to examine the City Building issue as head of the City Hall Committee.

“For me, it was an obvious issue we need to address,” he said.

In the interests of transparency, Metcalf said the committee wanted to get the residents’ thoughts before spending money on specific project plans to consider.

Initial options being considered include repairing the building, remodeling the building, and moving city offices to North Denver Station, 1228 N. Denver Ave., where Hastings Utilities’ offices already are located. HU is the city utility department.

Metcalf also introduced the idea of building a new, smaller structure in the parking lot across the street from the current City Building, as the lower square footage could reduce the overall costs but still meet the city’s needs.

Alton Jackson, member of a resident advocacy group called Hastings Citizens with a Voice, said he doesn’t like the idea of moving city hall to a new building in the parking lot.

“That parking lot needs to be used for a parking lot,” he said.

Roy DeMars, a member of the Downtown Business Improvement District board of directors, was among several who believes the city offices need to be downtown.

“Any move of the city facility is a bad move,” he said. “It goes against everything that the BID has been doing.”

Jackson said he was disappointed the city government allowed the building to deteriorate and pointed to two older buildings that he has restored as proof it could be done with the City Building.

Others echoed those concerns, including James Hill of Hastings.

“What worries me is if we didn’t take care of this building, what makes us think we will take care of a new building?” Hill asked.

No one attending Saturday’s or Monday’s meetings expressed support for moving offices out of the City Building and relocating them to North Denver Station.

In his opening statement both Saturday and Tuesday, Metcalf addressed the issue of deferred maintenance in the building. He said the city doesn’t have anyone in charge of overseeing maintenance and repairs for city-owned property.

“We absolutely need to take care of what we have,” he said on Saturday.

To that end, Metcalf plans to suggest adding a maintenance manager for city properties during budget discussions for the next fiscal year.

The City Building was built as a bank in 1963. The city purchased the structure for use as its new office building in 1984.

The city’s plans for the building have been up for discussion since June 2020 when officials first detailed problems with deteriorating infrastructure, mold, mildew and other real or possible environmental health hazards there.

At that time, former City Administrator Dave Ptak said the trouble reflected years of deferred maintenance.

City officials moved public meetings out of the building for several months in 2021, and the city considered temporarily moving its offices elsewhere until they lowered radon levels in the basement by introducing negative pressure to allow fresh air through.

There had been discussion about moving the city offices to a repurposed old boiler and turbine area at North Denver Station. The discussions were paused in January 2022.

Since that time, some community members have expressed support for retaining and repairing the building and keeping city offices downtown.

Paul Dietze, president of Hastings Citizens with a Voice, was among those who want the city to keep the City Building. He said Saturday that the building is a good structure and offers plenty of space.

Although preliminary estimates put the price of remodeling the building at roughly $9 million, he said the city should look at ways to reduce that cost.

Lee Vrooman, city director of engineering, said those estimated costs were based solely on square footage.

Even if it cost more than other options, residents at the meeting expressed a desire to keep the building.

“Do it like you would your own home,” Dietze said.

Metcalf also asked about improving the appearance of the building.

DeMars pointed to the recent renovations of Hastings Public Schools buildings and said the city should consider something similar.

“What we’ve done with the schools has been fantastic,” he said.

Jessica Rohan of Hastings said it needs to be a space that works for the community, as well as give developers and others new to the city a positive impression.

“Is this the impression we want people to have of Hastings?” she asked.

A second opportunity for the public to share thoughts on the issue will be March 6 at 6 p.m.

Following the town halls, the city will launch a survey later this week asking Hastings residents what they value about city hall and what they would like to see in a new or renovated facility. The survey will be open for two weeks.

Metcalf said the survey results will be made available to everyone, especially the Hastings City Council as it considers what to do with the building.

“I think it’s good for City Council to hear that,” Metcalf said.

During Monday’s meeting, more than 40 audience members gave Metcalf a round of applause for organizing the sessions and giving them a chance to speak their minds by passing the microphone around the room.

Throughout the evening, some participants commented that they have grown to distrust city government and have felt unable to voice their views in the past.

“My view on this whole local government thing is that we serve the people, and so providing opportunities for things like this, this town hall, is good,” Metcalf said. “It’s good to hear from all of you as the users of this building and to know how can we best serve our community.”

Local-singer songwriters to perform with Hastings Symphony Orchestra

Three local singer-songwriters will have the full musical ensemble of the Hastings Symphony Orchestra at their beck and call for one afternoon in a special one-of-a-kind concert experience slated for 4 p.m. March 11 at the Masonic Auditorium, 411 N. Hastings Ave.

Emily Dunbar, Hannah Jensen-Heitmann and Peter Lainson will perform sets featuring arrangements created by Brian Shaw, a former trumpet professor who currently plays trumpet with several orchestras, including Dallas Winds and Baton Rouge Symphony.

Byron Jensen, HSO conductor and artistic director, will conduct the performance, which he is rehearsing with the orchestra and musicians using arrangements delivered by Shaw in their entirety on Feb. 19.

“This is truly a special event,” Jensen said. ”That Brian completed all of these arrangements in about five months is an impressive feat.”

Tickets for the show are available at the door for adults. Students and HSO season ticket holders will be admitted free.

Shaw’s involvement in the project was solicited by Louie Eckhardt, chair of the Hastings College Department of Music and Theatre. Eckhardt served as an adviser and trumpet professor to Shaw during his time as a doctoral student at Louisiana State University.

“This was a fun project,” Shaw said. “For me, the first challenge was doing my best to make sure that I captured each song faithfully and in the spirit the artists intended. I’m also a pretty busy freelance trumpet player and teacher in the Seattle area with a family … so finding time to write 10 large-scale arrangements of songs I’d never heard before I started writing was tough. I’m very happy with the work that we all did together.

“I really enjoyed working with each of the artists. We spoke over Zoom and on the phone a couple times, and they each sent me emails containing their lyrics and digital files of their music. My hope is that they have a great experience getting to share their music with the HSO and audience.”

That Shaw finds himself enamored by the tunes after completing the project speaks volumes to just how successful it turned out to be for both composer and artists involved.

“You want to highlight and enhance (each) person’s appearance without getting in the way of their innate beauty,” he said. “After spending so many hours with this music, I find myself humming these tunes to myself in the same way a Top 40 song from the radio becomes an earworm. That’s how good these songs are.”

Lainson’s guitar music available on multiple sites through Spotify the past 3 1/2 years continues to reach hundreds upon thousands of listeners annually through tracks he releases every three weeks per his contract with Florecilla Records in Berlin, Germany. Hearing his music set to orchestral arrangements has been a dream come true, he said.

Listening to Shaw’s arrangements of his songs with his wife, Pamela, moved both to tears, he said.

“I’ve been writing music for over 50 years now, and one fantastic dream I had was to join my songs with an orchestra,” he said. “People like James Taylor and Paul Simon get to do that, not me. It just doesn’t happen. It’s an otherworldly notion.

“When I first started singing and simulating it live, it was overwhelming how beautiful it was. The music is very personal to me, and Brian’s work is just unbelievable. It’s about that vibe and meaning the orchestration of various instruments brings to each song in an appropriate and serving kind of fashion.”

Lainson will be accompanied solely on piano for one of his four selections by Holly Jones, a pianist friend from Oklahoma who collaborated with him on a Spotify project.

For Dunbar, performing with the orchestra represents a rise in scale of epic proportions.

Having played her original folk music both solo and accompanied by small bands, she is humbled by the opportunity to share her songs in a format she has never explored before.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “This concert is a great way to bring together a diverse group of musicians and hopefully a diverse group of music fans. There are so many with big ideas and the gumption to execute those ideas. This concert is evidence of that.”

Both Jensen and his daughter are excited to be working together on a project, particularly in the wake of the conductor‘s pending retirement from HSO at the end of this season.

While the pair played together in 2009 when Jensen-Heitmann was a Young Artist winner playing a piano concerto in 2009, this show will be their first together showcasing the singer-songwriter’s own music.

“For both of us this performance is more personal because it involves her music, her creativity, to a large extent her arrangements, and obviously a kindred heart that speaks of love, social justice, and connectivity,” he said.

To Jensen-Heitmann, the idea of re-connecting with her father over music is second nature in many ways. That she began taking piano music tips from him at age 5 and sat in on dozens of HSO rehearsals from infancy has certainly left an heir of familiarity that figures to take some of the edge off her first-ever performance with an orchestra as a solo artist.

“Obviously this is a different setting than working at our living room piano, but the way we work together and communicate with each other has remained the same,” she said. “I have been the pianist for HSO their last several seasons, so I have a lot of experience in a rehearsal setting with him and the orchestra. All this to say, I love working with my dad. It feels familiar and safe and easy.”

That idea of sharing the stage with an entire orchestra rather than performing alone is actually a comfort to her, Jensen-Heitmann said.

“In all honesty, I don’t really like performing my songs alone,” she said. “I would rather have other singers or instrumentalist on stage as well, so this works out great for me.”

She feels the orchestral arrangements worked up between Shaw and herself add a whole new element to her songs, one she hopes will give listeners unaccustomed to symphony music a more contemporary introduction it than standard classical compositions.

“I hope this show appeals to community members who have not yet been to a symphony concert,” she said. “I know for some, orchestral music can seem inaccessible or perhaps boring, so pairing it with a more contemporary, singer/songwriter style might be a good introduction to symphony music.”

Additional information on the performance is available online at

Made in the USA? Proposed rule clarifies grocery meat labels

Shoppers could soon find it easier to tell if those grocery store steaks or pork chops were really “Made in the USA.”

Federal agriculture officials on Monday released new requirements that would allow labels on meat, poultry or eggs to use that phrase — or “Product of USA” — only if they come from animals “born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.” That’s a sharp change from current policy, which allows voluntary use of such labels on products from animals that have been imported from a foreign country and slaughtered in the U.S., but also on meat that’s been imported and repackaged or further processed.

Imports of beef from countries including Australia, Canada and Brazil, for instance, account for about 12% of the total consumed in the U.S. Overall, imports of red meat and poultry account for less than 6%, while imports of eggs account for less than half of 1%.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the proposed rule would better align the labels with consumers’ views. A survey commissioned by the USDA found that nearly two-thirds of shoppers believed that a “Product of USA” label meant that most or all meat production steps occurred in the U.S.

“There’s obviously a disconnect between what the consumers’ understandings and expectations are and what the label currently is,” Vilsack said in an interview.

About 12% of all meat, poultry and egg products sold in the country carry the U.S.-origin labels, USDA officials said.

The label change was first proposed by President Joe Biden in 2021 and was included last year in a series of steps to bolster the U.S. meat and poultry supply chain.

The USDA survey, conducted last summer, included a nationally representative sample of more than 4,800 American adults who do the grocery shopping for their families and who bought beef or pork in the previous six months. More than 40% of the shoppers said they look for the USA label when buying meat.

The rule was praised by consumer advocates and representatives for U.S. ranchers and farmers, including the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, which petitioned the USDA for the label change in 2019.

“The proposed rule finally closes this loophole by accurately defining what these voluntary origin claims mean,” said Justin Tupper, the group’s president. “If it says ‘Made in the USA,’ then it should be from cattle that have only known USA soil. Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, full stop.”

Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America, said the change is a “small but important step” that should have been made long ago.

Under the current rule, Gremillion noted, a cow can be raised in Mexico under that country’s regulations for feed and medications, then shipped across the border and slaughtered that same day to make ground beef and steaks that qualify as “Product of USA.”

Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the trade group American Grassfed Association, said the existing rule also penalizes small domestic producers.

“It’s expensive to raise grass-raised animals from scratch,” Balkcom said. “And these large producers were importing these animals raised elsewhere and just repackaging them and then kind of coasting on the ‘Made in the USA’ label.”

An official with the North American Meat Institute, which represents large firms that process most of the meat and poultry products sold in the U.S., said she hadn’t seen details of the new rule. But Sarah Little added, the group “opposes overly prescriptive labeling requirements that will raise prices for consumers.”

Another industry group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, has called for eliminating the voluntary USA labels entirely and allowing for strict labeling standards verified by the USDA.

The voluntary labeling rules are different from country-of-origin labels, known as COOL, which required companies to disclose where animals supplying beef and pork are born, raised and slaughtered. That requirement was rolled back in 2015, after international trade disputes and a ruling from the World Trade Organization.

Country-of-origin labels are still required for other foods, including fish, shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and more.

Companies won’t have to prove that their products are American-made before using the labels, but they will have to file documentation. The proposal applies only to meat, poultry and eggs, products overseen by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which can pull the label if companies are found to violate the rule.

The label proposal is open for public comment before it becomes final.

Murdaugh testimony only confirmed his guilt, jurors say

Alex Murdaugh didn’t help his defense when he took the stand at his trial for the murder of his wife and son, three jurors said on Monday.

Murdaugh’s testimony only managed to cement what they were already thinking — that he easily lied and could turn on and off his tears at will, the jurors said on the NBC Today show.

The key piece of evidence in finding the lawyer guilty, they said, was a video on his son’s cellphone that was shot minutes before the killings at the same kennels near where the bodies were found at their sprawling estate in rural South Carolina.

Murdaugh’s voice can be heard on the video even though he insisted for 20 months that he hadn’t been at the kennels that night. Investigators didn’t see the video for more than a year before advances in hacking enabled them to unlock Paul Murdaugh’s iPhone. They shared it with the defense ahead of the trial.

When he took the stand, the first thing Murdaugh did was admit he had lied to investigators about being at the kennels, saying he was paranoid of law enforcement because he was addicted to opioids and had pills in his pocket the night of the killings.

“The kennel video, that just kind of sealed the deal,” juror Gwen Generette said.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours Thursday before finding Murdaugh guilty of killing his 22-year-old son, Paul, with two shotgun blasts and his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, with four or five rifle shots.

The now-disbarred lawyer maintained his innocence when he was sentenced Friday to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murders.

Murdaugh was convicted in the same court circuit where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather tried cases as the elected prosecutor for more than 80 years. Murdaugh’s family founded the area’s most powerful law firm a century ago. For decades, that meant that practically anyone who ended up in court on either side of the law in Colleton or Hampton counties would have a Murdaugh watching their back or staring them down.

His background was part of the reason jurors didn’t find his testimony believable.

“We already know that he’s a lawyer. He’s able to be emotional with cases. He’s able to be emotional with himself. He knows ... when to turn it on and off. So I think that we were able to read right through that,” juror James McDowell said.

Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty, and the judge handed down the harshest possible sentence he could — consecutive life sentences without parole.

Murdaugh admitted stealing millions of dollars from the family firm and clients, saying he needed the money to fund his drug habit. Before he was charged with murder, Murdaugh was in jail awaiting trial on about 100 other charges, ranging from insurance fraud to tax evasion.

Defense attorneys said they will base an appeal largely on the judge’s decision to allow jurors to hear evidence of crimes Murdaugh has not been convicted of, which they say smeared his reputation.

After six intense weeks at the courthouse in Walterboro, key players returned to their normal lives.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters, whose love of the guitar was a favorite bit of chatter among true crime fans, tweeted a video of himself jamming. Judge Clifton Newman was seen in a courtside seat rooting for South Carolina to win the Southeastern Conference title in women’s basketball.

And defense lawyer Jim Griffin, admonished during the trial for tweeting an opinion piece criticizing the investigation, returned to Twitter with a post that said “Walterboro, you were a gracious host. Happy Trails.” He included a photo of his head stuck through the hole of a painting of a cowboy riding a chicken, with “I was at the Murdaugh trial” written at the top.