A heated presidential election that brought candidates and supporters to the region and a roller coaster ride of oil and gasoline prices were selected as the top two local stories of 2008.
The top stories of the year were voted on by the Mirror editorial staff. The following is a look at the top 10 stories:
1. Presidential visits
(Mirror photo illustration by Tom Worthington II)
The primary and general election seasons brought the future president and a former one to Altoona.
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, accompanied by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., made surprise visits to the restaurant on 12th Avenue and the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center March 29 during Obama's "Road to Change" tour.
Obama and Casey ate hot dogs and french fries and greeted nearly 100 people gathered outside Texas Hot Dogs. Obama bowled at the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center and signed autographs.
Former President Bill Clinton made several stops in the area. He stumped at Penn State Altoona April 3 for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's Democratic opponent in the primary. He returned to the area to campaign for Obama Oct. 29 and for U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-12th District, Nov. 3.
Hillary Clinton made an appearance April 20 at Penn State University, while her daughter, Chelsea, appeared at Penn State April 10.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Republican vice presidential candidate, made a stop at the Sheetz at 17th Street and Pleasant Valley Boulevard Oct. 11, while her husband, Todd, made an appearance at Penn State's homecoming Oct. 18.
Former Massachusetts governor and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared at the Lakemont Volunteer Fire Company Nov. 3 in support of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
2. Fuel prices
Gasoline and oil prices hit record highs in 2008.
In March, prices at the pump rose to a record national average of $3.2272 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Locally, the price ranged from $3.19 to $3.29 a gallon.
In June, the average price of regular gas crept up to $4 a gallon for the first time. The price for regular unleaded did not officially hit the $4 mark in the Altoona area, peaking at $3.99 a gallon.
Oil prices hit a peak of $147.27 a barrel July 11.
Gasoline prices started to fall and dropped to $3.53 as oil prices tumbled to a seven-month low, but in mid-September, motorists saw the price jump back up to $3.69 a gallon. That was attributed to damage from Hurricane Ike, which destroyed at least 10 oil and gas platforms and damaged pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.
In early October, the price of a gallon of gas across the U.S. fell below $3.50 for the first time in nearly six months as oil prices remained lower and refineries recovered from hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
With people driving less and creating less demand, gas prices continued to fall through November and December, hitting a local low of $1.53 a gallon.
3. I-99 finally open
Former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster cut the ribbon Nov. 24 to open the long-awaited final segment of Interstate 99.
Shuster secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway funds to complete the nearly $631 million four-lane highway connecting Bald Eagle in northern Blair County to Route 322 in Patton Township, Centre County.
The final segment's opening marked the last piece in building I-99 from Bedford to Interstate 80 at Bellefonte.
Completion was delayed by the discovery of sulfate-producing pyrite at Skytop in 2003 that halted construction until an $80 million cleanup could be planned, approved and started.
The exposed pyrite was smoothed so that that it could be covered by a permanent, heavy-duty plastic liner.
4. Junior high makeover
The Altoona Area School District closed the doors to its two 1920s junior high schools - Keith and Roosevelt - June 5 and opened the new Altoona Area Junior High School Aug. 27.
Roosevelt has been demolished, while plans call for Keith School Associates Limited Partnership to convert that building into apartments.
The new $48.5 million, four-floor junior high school features air conditioning and lots of natural light, two full-size gyms and a fitness room; separate floors for each grade and an area for common use; and an auditorium with a professional stage.
The top three floors - which have similar layouts - are occupied by ninth-, eighth- and seventh-graders, with the youngest on top. Each classroom is home to 21 to 25 students and measures at least 850 square feet.
The library features high ceilings and large windows that let in maximum natural light. The furniture and shelves are made of durable oak. A computer room is housed within the library.
The school also contains spacious and well-equipped classrooms for art, science and family and consumer sciences.
5. Recession hits home
The effects of the recession hit the area in 2008, with several companies laying off workers and some small businesses closing their doors.
In June, two local dealerships decided to stop selling new Chrysler and Jeep products.
Bill Alberts Chrysler Dodge Jeep in East Freedom ended his franchise agreement with Chrysler, while Miller Auto Co. in Woodbury ended its accord with the company.
Miller Auto, a fourth-generation car dealer, had been with Chrysler since the mid-1940s.
Alberts opened a used car business, while Miller decided to focus on used cars and a repair business.
In July, McConnellsburg-based JLG Industries announced plans to cut 13 percent of its work force of 4,500. The layoffs affected the Bedford Sunnyside Road plant, in addition to facilities in McConnellsburg, Shippensburg, North Dakota, France and Belgium.
In September, Lumax Industries at Chestnut Avenue and Fourth Street in Altoona announced that it was laying off 40 production workers - about half of its work force.
Also in September, the Seton Co. announced it would close its Saxton plant by the end of the year, affecting nearly 200 workers.
However, in October, the company announced it would keep the plant open indefinitely and continue to provide jobs for about 65 employees.
In December, three local businesses announced they were closing their doors.
Doris Jones, owner of Ultimate Bagel locations in Greenwood and Duncansville, announced her business would close at the end of the year.
The Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Sierra North Plaza and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts at 2550 Plank Road Commons - both in Allegheny Township - also became casualties of the economy.
Despite the doom and gloom, there were two major positive developments in Blair County.
In July, the $46 million Sheetz Bros. Kitchen opened in the Walter Business Park in Greenfield Township.
Innovative, ready-to-eat food products are made at the kitchen, as well as bakery items and new MTgo! foods.
The opening provided 150 new jobs with the potential for an additional 300 at the 140,000-square-foot facility, from which fresh deliveries are made and shipped to more than 350 Sheetz stores in six states.
In December, five months after announcing plans to establish a work-at-home program training center in Altoona, a Virginia-based company announced it would bring 480 customer care jobs to Altoona with the opening of its first permanent call center in Pennsylvania.
N.E.W. Customer Service Cos. Inc. of Sterling, a leading provider of extended service plans and buyer protection plans for consumer products, will lease the former Martin's Food Market building on 25th Avenue.
6. Clark trials
Joseph Clark escaped conviction from a Butler County jury in February but was found guilty by a Dauphin County jury in June.
The two trials cost Bedford County an estimated $60,000.
Clark, 49, of Everett was charged with criminal homicide, kidnapping, simple assault, aggravated assault, unlawful restraint and arson relating to the kidnapping and killing of Holly Notestine April 30, 2000.
In February, a seven-woman, five-man jury could not come up with a verdict on any of the charges against Clark after six days of deliberations, causing Bedford County President Judge Daniel Howsare to declare a mistrial.
A second trial ended June 30 when the seven-man, five-woman Dauphin County jury found Clark guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, arson, aggravated assault, simple assault and unlawful restraint after nearly 13 hours of deliberations.
The next day, after two hours of deliberations, the jurors spared Clark's life with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Meanwhile, in August, Clark received nine to 30 years in prison for the kidnapping and arson charges, adding to the life sentence given to him for murder.
7. County budget woes
Blair and Cambria county commissioners felt the financial pinch in 2008 and in planning for 2009.
In January, Blair commissioners decided to hire an independent consultant to study county finances and offer improvement advice.
In May, they signed an $85,000 contract with the Government Finance Officers Association to conduct the study.
In August, commissioners hired Timothy Brown of Duncansville, a certified public accountant and co-owner of Advertising and Marketing Fulfillment Co., Altoona, as the first finance director.
In October, commissioners told department heads and supervisors they must reduce 2009 anticipated operating expenses or consider staff cuts.
In December, commissioners approved a $66.6 million budget for 2009.
One tactic officials used to make the 2009 budget balance was to cut materials and supply budgets about 20 percent from 2008 levels. That leaves departments, if they run out of money, to look for other ways to cover the costs of paper, file folders, tablets and related supplies.
Another cost-cutting measure that will carry into next year is the closing of the detention home in favor of using the Cambria County Detention Home.
Meanwhile, in October, Cambria commissioners announced sweeping changes, including layoffs, a countywide hiring freeze and plans to borrow $6 million to cover shortfalls.
In November, commissioners initiated their first round of layoffs while lining up a $6 million loan to get the county through the rest of 2008.
Eight workers at Laurel Crest Rehabilitation & Special Care Center in Ebensburg were laid off. They were the first of what would affect 39 positions and dozens of employees.
The layoffs put several per diem nurses, two full-time human resources staffers and three hospitality aides out of work, while union workers were given "bumping" notices that more cuts were coming.
In December, commissioners revealed a budget - scheduled for final adoption Monday - that calls for a 3.65-mill tax increase, equal to about 15 percent.
The budget reflects $1.9 million in cuts.
The equivalent of 26 full-time county jobs were eliminated by not filling vacant positions and reducing hours to take some employees from full-time to part-time status. The cuts were in addition to the ones already implemented at Laurel Crest.
8. Domestic killings
Four domestic killings made local headlines during 2008.
On April 18, Robert Reffner, 49, of Burket Spur Road, Hollidaysburg, shot his wife, Tammie, also 49, outside their Frankstown Township home before killing himself.
Robert Reffner contacted relatives, telling them what he had done and that he was going to shoot himself, police said.
On June 29, an Ebensburg man killed his estranged wife and her boyfriend, then took his own life.
David Gerlach, 43, of Ebensburg shot Debra Gerlach, 41, and Paul Demetri, 44, of Berwyn Heights, Md., in Debra Gerlach's 1429 Allie Buck Road home in Cambria Township, just off Beulah Road outside of Ebensburg.
The Gerlachs were getting a divorce and had their house up for sale.
Cambria Township police were dispatched to the residence about 3 a.m. Upon arriving, a state police Special Emergency Response Team was called in and held at bay by David Gerlach.
After police officers gained access to the house, they found all three dead, along with two handguns.
On July 10, an Altoona man fatally shot his friend's killer in self-defense during a domestic-related shooting at a home in Greenwood.
John C. Hoover Jr., 47, of 520 Jaguar Ave. broke into a Sharon Avenue home and killed his ex-wife, Tina M. Hoover, 44.
John Hoover then tried to shoot Michael S. Cherry, 48, of 1313 Second Ave. Cherry returned fire with his own handgun, killing John Hoover with two gunshot wounds.
Both deaths were ruled homicides, but John Hoover's death was ruled justifiable.
Tina Hoover divorced John Hoover about five months before the incident. A Blair County judge issued a protection-from-abuse order against John Hoover in April after Tina Hoover said he had stalked her for about a year.
On Nov. 9, a domestic dispute turned tragic when a McDonald's employee was shot by her husband in the parking lot where she worked.
Karen Marie Gerholt, 34, was talking to John Lewis Gerholt, 38, outside the restaurant on Route 30 in Everett when the shooting took place.
John Gerholt, a Mount Union resident, killed his wife with a sawed-off shotgun while customers were inside.
He faces charges of criminal homicide, simple assault, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, terroristic threats, carrying a prohibited offensive weapon, possessing an instrument of a crime and being a person not allowed to carry or use a firearm because of a protection-from-abuse order against him at the time.
9.Wind turbine debate
Area municipalities continued to look at proposals and ordinances concerning wind farms during 2008.
In June, Juniata Township supervisors signed a contract with a Vermont firm to study how much noise is created by the Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm.
For more than a year, residents living near the turbines have complained about intermittent noise created under various weather conditions.
Later in 2008, Dr. Todd Stull and his wife, Jill, of Portage RD filed a lawsuit against the operator of the wind farm, saying they are losing sleep from the constant ''whooshing'' and ''screeching'' caused by the turbines.
Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron kept the lawsuit largely intact, although he dismissed several counts of the legal complaint, including one that charged Gamesa Energy and its subsidiary, Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm LLC, with creating a public nuisance.
In July, Snyder Township supervisors adopted an ordinance regulating commercial wind farms.
Noise was one issue mentioned during the process, and supervisors settled on a 45-decibel limit for the turbines.
The ordinance addresses decommissioning by requiring wind farm developers to post a bond at the start of the permitting process to cover the cost of tearing them down and restoring the site should owners neglect the job.
Also in July, Logan Township supervisors adopted what Chairman Frank Meloy called the area's most stringent rules governing turbine operations.
Logan Township has none thus far, but Gamesa Energy USA is pursuing plans to build 25 turbines in the Chestnut Flats area.
Logan's rules include two scales for measuring noise and vibrations, as opposed to a single scale required in other townships.
They also require Gamesa to conduct tests and submit results identifying projected noise and vibrations resulting from turbine construction.
In November, Gamesa Energy, seeking Logan's approval to build a wind farm inside and outside the township wind zone, arranged with the Federal Aviation Administration to put up red and yellow balloons on the northeast side of Route 36, west of Avalon Road.
The idea of using balloons was to illustrate the location and height of the proposed wind turbines.
In December, the Logan Township Planning Commission agreed to forward a recommendation to supervisors urging them to reject Gamesa's request to build eight turbines above Avalon Road as part of a 25-unit wind farm.
Meanwhile, Tyrone Borough Council will vote Jan. 12 on whether to allow wind power development on Ice Mountain.
Council members will vote on a proposed agreement with Gamesa to put 15 to 20 turbines on the 3,800-acre watershed.
Environmental watchdog groups such as the local Audubon chapter oppose erecting the 390-foot-tall turbines on what it deems an important bird area and part of a large, nonfragmented forest vital to birds and wildlife on the Allegheny front.
In the April primary election, a poll of 1,095 Tyrone voters revealed that 55 percent supported leasing a part of the watershed so Gamesa could place at least 15 turbines as part of its Sandy Ridge Wind Farm.
In return, the borough would receive at least $7,000 per wind turbine annually, with the potential for more royalties, making the lease worth $3 million to $5 million over 30 years.
10. Bear shooting
A Pennsylvania black bear became cause celebre during a late spring night in Claysburg.
The bear was spotted June 17 in the southern Blair County community and eventually was treed on Bedford Street in front of McCabe Trucking.
What happened after Greenfield Township police and state Game Commission officials arrived on the scene turned into an Internet sensation.
The young male bear was tranquilized as a crowd authorities estimated at 150 to 200 people, including children, watched.
The dart didn't take effect.
The bear came down the tree and acted aggressively, causing police to open fire at the direction of a state deputy wildlife conservation officer.
The incident was caught on video and posted on YouTube, with more than 5,000 views in the first four days after the shooting.
Residents criticized authorities for overreacting. Police criticized the crowd for being too close to the bear, acting like a mob and refusing to obey orders to stay back.
A state Game Commission spokesman said police acted appropriately, and his agency would not second-guess the actions taken to protect public health and safety.
Mirror Staff Writer Mark Leberfinger contributed to this story. Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.