January 01, 2002 11:00 pm

By The Observer

The strength of the areas economy, including the reopening of mills in Wallowa County and Boise Cascades hiring of additional workers at its Elgin sawmill, was the No. 1 story in Northeast Oregon in 2001, as determined in a vote of Observer news staff members.

In 2001 Union and Wallowa counties seemed to be bucking state and national economic trends as jobs were added with the reopening of Wallowa Forest Products and Joseph Timber. In addition to Boise Cascade adding 21 jobs at the Elgin mill, Fleetwood announced it would be adding 100 jobs early in 2002.

By years end, Union Countys unemployment rate was the lowest countywide rate in the state.

No. 2 on the list of top stories was the Eastern Oregon University science center. Ground was broken in August for the $33.5 million building, and work is scheduled to begin early this year.

The controversy surrounding Shari Bennett, a La Grande School board member who overstepped her authority, was voted the No. 3 story of the year. Bennett resigned from the board in December after votes of no confidence were taken by the board, the administrators and the teachers.

Rounding out the Top 10 stories of the year were:

No. 4 Rep. Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, being elected speaker of the House of the Oregon Legislature.

(tie) No 4. Grande Ronde Hospital announces it will stop providing ambulance service early in 2002. The City of La Grandes fire department is expected to take over the service.

No. 6 ODS Health Plans is in negotiations to buy the old Safeway store and develop an office, retail and library complex on the site.

(tie) No. 6 Area schools are forced to make budget cutbacks due to declining enrollment.

No. 8 The murder trial of Liysa Northon ends on the third day with Northon accepting a plea bargain of manslaughter as new evidence comes to light.

No. 9 A Nov. 28 blizzard wreaks havoc throughout Union County and results in La Grande schools sending students home early for the first time in nearly three decades.

No. 10 About 17,000 acres near Imnaha burned in the summer, but overall Northeast Oregon fared well during a hot and dry summer and fall.