On my beat as Independence City Hall reporter, the big news stories center around topics like taxes, the Independence Events Center, public safety and the Bass Pro Shops-anchored development The Falls at Crackerneck Creek.

I call them the “sleeper stories.”

I suppose I got the name from the term “sleeper hit” or “surprise hit,” referring to a movie, a book, a TV show or another medium that is more popular or well-received than originally expected.

On my beat as Independence City Hall reporter, the big news stories center around topics like taxes, the Independence Events Center, public safety and the Bass Pro Shops-anchored development The Falls at Crackerneck Creek.

The “sleepers” are next. Sometimes, they are the “quieter,” softer stories, but they certainly aren’t any less important.

Last week, I recapped “the big five” news items on my beat. As 2012 draws closer, I’d like to take a look at five other stories – in no particular order – that may not always grab the biggest, boldest headlines of the day, but they still play their role in improving the quality of life across Independence.

And who knows? Perhaps one or more of these stories will push their way onto “the big five” recap at the end of 2012.

As always, stay tuned.

1. The Health Department continues its work in “Building a Healthier Independence.”

In early 2011, the Independence Health Department – known for its ability to aggressively pursue grant funding – received more than $240,000 for the “Building a Healthier Independence” initiative. With three components – more physical activity, healthier food choices and the elimination of tobacco use – the two-year campaign is aiming to improve the health of Independence residents’ lifestyles, regardless of their age, race or socioeconomic status.

So far, it’s been a success, city staff members say. Consider these signs of improvement: More cardiovascular equipment is in use at the Roger T. Sermon Community Center. Nearly 40 people signed up at a one-day event in November for a new membership at the Sermon Center, keeping on par with the facility’s drive to increase membership.

City officials are working to identify a third farmers market site in Independence, and they want to add healthier choices to the city’s vending machines.

For more ways on how you can get healthier, Independence, keep your eyes peeled for Health Department Director Larry Jones’ appearances before the City Council with further updates on this initiative.

2. The Independence Animal Shelter continues its ASPCA $100K Challenge momentum.

Speaking of the Health Department and its ability to secure significant grant funding, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ $100K Challenge kept the Animal Services Division of the Health Department busy for most of 2011.

The efforts paid off, though, as the Independence Animal Shelter received the top prize of $20,000 for the Midwest Region during the second annual $100K Challenge. From Aug. 1 through Oct. 31, the city adopted out 964 animals, 400 more animals than the same period in 2010.

Though the contest has ended, the Animal Shelter staff members’ push to find loving homes for all animals brought to their facility is ongoing. On Dec. 5, the shelter received City Council approval to offer cost savings to citizens who want to adopt animals, honoring their wishes to own a pet, as well as saving more lives.

With the “30 Thursdays promotion,” all animals that have been at the shelter for more than 30 days may be adopted for $30 on Thursdays. “Whisker Wednesdays” allows for the adoption of cats at no cost to residents.

Discount promotions also will take place at times when the Animal Shelter occupancy exceeds 90 percent capacity. These specials, as defined in the council-approved resolution, will remain in effect as long as economically feasible.   

3. A new era for the Independence Plan for Neighborhood Councils.

Russell Hunt is a man with a plan, and in his first several months as the new president of the Council of Presidents for the 40-year-old Independence Plan for Neighborhood Councils Inc., he’s already helped revitalize one council (Santa Fe Neighborhood No. 17) with plans in the works to bring back several others.

At its height, the Neighborhood Councils included 42 organized neighborhoods across Independence, and the program received national recognition. Just a handful of councils remain active and retain a strong membership, but under his leadership, Hunt said he wants to see the reactivation of every neighborhood council.

The securing of more grant funds and a new central office also play a key role in strengthening the program, Hunt said this summer.

4. A new and improved transit system.

Starting next summer, Independence transit users will likely experience a new mix of public and private services. That move is contingent upon the City Council’s vote expected in January, following the recommendation of a council-led Transit Committee that studied the city’s transit services for several months.  

The city is calling for “a clear continuation of services with no interruption” for its riders. Test runs of the routes will take place before the changes “go live” on July 2, if approved by the council.

5. An arts district redefines western Independence.

After several years of effort from business owners and residents, the historic Englewood commercial area received an arts district designation in September. New uses may now take place within the designated area, including artisan manufacturing and outdoor entertainment.

The district’s Third Friday Art Walk events are going strong after two-plus years, and grant-funded streetscape improvements are scheduled to take place in 2012 across Englewood.

Last, but certainly not least, the Englewood Theatre, 10917 E. Winner Road, is reopening Christmas Day for a showing of “The Sound of Music.” Next week’s show times are at 3 p.m. Sunday and at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with a 10-minute intermission at each screening, just like the original theatrical presentation.

Whether you want to get healthier, take home a new pet or enjoy the arts culture in your backyard, these stories offer something for each Independence resident to look forward to next year. Happy 2012!