Top 10 news stories, Economy, election top list

Published 8:04 pm Friday, January 2, 2009

From climbing gasoline prices to a dwindling employment picture, the economy has touched most Decatur Countians this year, which makes it The Post-Searchlight’s No. 1 news story for 2008.

At the end of December, the unemployment rate for Decatur County was 10.3 percent, with 1,328 people who were seeking a job unable to find one.

American Fibers and Yarns closed its plant in Bainbridge in October after the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving 247 workers without jobs.

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TRACO then announced in November that it was cutting back its workforce to 70 employees, which the company said it had eliminated one shift because of the construction slowdown forced them to cut back. SIPS was also forced to make cuts during the year.

Earlier in the year, gas prices pinched everybody’s wallet and local car dealers. So later in the year, sales tax collections were down 8 percent for the year.

The hope for 2009 is that the economy will be on the back-burner.

No. 2, Kirbo Center opens

The Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center was formally dedicated on Oct. 26, 2008, when Bainbridge College President Tom Wilkerson welcomed 150 to 200 people to the new multi-purpose building on the college’s campus.

The strikingly designed building’s centerpiece features are a 508-seat auditorium and a 300-seat dining room. It also has a catering kitchen, glass solarium, conference room and management offices.

State University system officials and the local community rejoiced after $15 million in construction cost, five years of construction and multiple contractors. The ground-breaking ceremonies of the Kirbo Center occurred in June 2003 with a projected cost of $4.5 million, of which $1.3 million was raised locally.

The outer “skin” of the Kirbo Center went up on the auditorium’s outer walls in January, affording Wilkerson and others an early glimpse of the project’s near-complete status. A previous skin made of porous travertine marble had to partially scrapped after it was found to have been at least one cause of recurring mold problems encountered by the first construction company. Problems and subsequent construction delays also had arisen during the project, reportedly due to discrepancies between architectural plans and site layout, in coordination of construction trades and in quality control, resulting in orders of condemnation for work that did not meet standards.

The Georgia Literary Festival was held at the Kirbo Center on Oct. 25-26 and was one of the events that helped kick off the center’s grand opening.

The Kirbo Center is named for the late Charles H. Kirbo, the older brother of retired Bainbridge attorney Bruce Kirbo. A Bainbridge native who spent most of his career as an attorney with a prominent Atlanta law firm, Charles Kirbo is credited with ensuring that Bainbridge became home to a state college. More than 30 years ago, while the bond issue was being hashed out to finance the establishment of the college, Kirbo donated most of the land on which the college is situated today. He was also instrumental in having the state pave the parking lot and road within the college.

No. 3, Obama, new county commissioners highlight elections

Barack Obama’s historic election on Nov. 4 as the first African-American president of the United States was celebrated and discussed around the world.

The election will be remembered for many years to come, not only for bringing out a record number of voters, but also for inspiring many people who had never voted in their lifetime to do so for the first time. More than 70 percent of Decatur County voters cast a ballot in November’s general election.

Obama, the former junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, will be sworn in as the 44th U.S. President at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. His running-mate and Vice President-elect is fellow U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

The Decatur County Board of Elections office in the Courthouse Annex had been buzzing with activity since absentee voting without an excuse began on Sept. 22. Thousands of Decatur County citizens cast absentee ballots using a voting machine or by mailing in a paper ballot. Hundreds of people streamed into the elections office every day during the week prior to the general election, when advance voting was conducted.

New county commissioners were Democrats Dr. Charles Stafford, who will represent part of Bainbridge in District 3, and Russell Smith, who will represent southwestern Decatur County in District 5. Stafford beat Republican opponent Ryan Severe in the race to succeed Glenda Battle, who chose not to run for re-election after serving as a county commissioner for 24 years. Smith defeated Republican incumbent Bill Nichols, a private pilot who was first elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2004.

David C. “Butch” Mosely was re-elected to the Board of Commissioners, defeating Republican challenger Robert Sodrel.

Democrat Joe Mulholland was re-elected to a second term as district attorney for the South Georgia Judicial Circuit, which represents Baker, Calhoun, Decatur, Grady and Mitchell counties. Mulholland defeated Republican challenger Ryan Cleveland, a former assistant district attorney under Mulholland.

Democrat Peter Bruton was re-elected as County Coroner after edging out Republican challenger Allen Ware by only 15 votes, just enough to avoid a run-off election.

Other local winners were Don Belcher, re-elected as Tax Commissioner; Cecelia Willis, elected as Clerk of Courts; and Bobby Barber Jr., who was elected to Board of Education District 5. Sheriff Wiley Griffin joined Georgia House Rep. Gene Maddox and State Sen. John Bulloch in being re-elected without opposition in the June primary election.

In December, Republican Saxby Chambliss was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in a run-off after neither he or Democratic candidate Jim Martin garnered a majority of votes in the general election.

Decatur County voters also approved the fifth Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in a special election held in September. The current SPLOST, referred to as SPLOST IV, will expire in March 2009.

No. 4, Silver Lake becomes a ‘jewel’

The 3,900-acre Silver Lake Tract, located south of the Bethany community near Lake Seminole, was purchased in December 2007 from International Paper Company, and its opening in 2008 will be a plus for years to come.

Acquisition of the adjacent Hog Farm tract and other property brought the total acreage for the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area to 8,430 acres, which has attracted fans of the outdoors from near and far.

The Silver Lake site was one of three stops Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue made on April 24 to promote the new Conserve Georgia, which coordinates the efforts of public agencies and private entities to preserve the state’s natural resources for future use. About 150 people heard Perdue announce the approval of funding for acquisition of the Silver Lake Wildlife Management area’s second phase, commonly referred to as the Hog Farm tract.

In addition to protecting the natural habitat of several endangered species of animals, the acquisition of the Silver Lake land tract have enabled local citizens and others to enjoy a range of outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching. Most prominently, Silver Lake is said to contain one of the finest examples of a mature longleaf pine forest. Species that call the forest home are the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, waterfowl and the declining northern bobwhite quail.

The Silver Lake Wildlife Management area officially opened to the public on Aug. 1.

No. 5, Local star makes it big but remembers his roots

Decatur County claimed its first world-champion athlete in 2008 when former Bainbridge High School Bearcat football and track star James Butler Jr. helped the New York Giants NFL team win the 2008 Super Bowl in February. Butler, the son of the Rev. James Sr. and Nadine Butler of Climax, was in the news all year long.

In late February, Butler helped celebrate the end of Black History Month by speaking to students at Hutto Middle School in Bainbridge, where he attended middle school.

On March 1, Butler was honored with a special day in his hometown of Climax, where a parade was held and hundreds of people had the chance to meet the starting free safety for the Giants up-close at the town’s old railroad depot. Two signs posted along U.S. Highway 84 now proclaim Climax as Butler’s home and commemorate his Super Bowl championship year.

In June, Butler hosted a free youth football clinic and camp for 250 8- to 14-year-old youngsters. The camp was one of several fun events for youth held during the James Butler Celebrity Charity Weekend hosted by his Dream Program, a non-profit initiative that provides programs focusing on mentoring, education and youth leadership and benefiting literacy and low income families.

During halftime of the Bearcats Sept. 12 home and Region 1-AAAA opener against the Lee County Trojans at Centennial Field, Chip Ariail, one of Butler’s first coaches at Hutto Middle School, presented framed copies of his No. 2 Bearcats jersey and No. 22 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets jersey that will be retired and placed on permanent display at the new Bainbridge High School to his parents.

In November and December, Butler continued to give back, donating Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to a few less fortunate local families.

No. 6, New high school completion nearing

The new Bainbridge High School is nearing completion and is on schedule to be open for the 2009-2010 school year, which begin on Aug. 7.

In December, the project was reported to be 88 percent complete.

Look for this to be a big story for 2009 as major changes affecting the school system will take effect. Along with the new facility, the Board of Education passed a reorganization plan to take effect for the 2009-2010 school year. The plan will call for the closing of Lillian E. Williams Elementary School in Attapulgus and West Bainbridge Middle School.

Elementary schools will teach students ranging from pre-kindergarten to grade four. Hutto Middle School will house students in grades five and six and the old Bainbridge High School will house student in grades seven and eight. The new Bainbridge High School will house grades nine through 12.

The $1.148 million property on Highway 84 East, where the new high school is located, was purchased from Sheriff Wiley Griffin and Ted Martin in 2006 by the BOE.

No. 7, Bainbridge marina sees growth

In early June, there was a small controversy over the Bainbridge City Council’s decision to allow sales of beer and wine at the city’s public marina. Citizens on both sides of the issue debated it before the council.

Local officials celebrated the official grand opening of the marina at its Airport Road location in late June. The project had been in the works since 2002, when the city received a $500,000 OneGeorgia grant for its construction. Principal construction on the marina was finished in April 2007 and after roofing was installed on marina slips later that summer, it opened for business in August 2007. A 3,000-square-foot building began construction in December 2007 and was completed in the spring of 2008. The building houses an office space, store, restaurant area, bathrooms with showers and laundry facilities. Later, the city expanded a portico behind the building to view the river from.

Initially, city employees sold alcohol at the marina until it began a leased operation by a local couple, William and Lynn Birdsong, in September.

In September, the Birdsongs took over sales of the boat slips, gas pumps and marina store. They will also be responsible for maintaining the marina property, which also includes a laundry and showers for boaters.

No. 8, Newspaper changes hands

Ownership of The Post-Searchlight changed hands after 101 years of publication.

On May 31, Bainbridge Media LLC, an affiliate of Boone Newspapers Inc. purchased the twice-a-week newspaper and printing company from Sam and Mary Ann Griffin.

Griffin’s grandfather, E.H. “Pat” Griffin, founded The Bainbridge Post in 1907. It was taken over by his parents in 1934 and Sam took the reigns in 1962, making him the third generation of Griffins to own and operate the newspaper.

“Mary Ann and I have lived and breathed this newspaper and this community for more than 45 years,” said Sam Griffin. “It was our goal to find new owners who not only have the experience, resources and know-how necessary to take this newspaper forward into this community’s exciting future, but who also share the same commitment to the community and sense of responsibility to the past that we do.”

Boone Newspaper is principally owned by James B. “Jim” Boone of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who also serves as chairman of the board. Todd Carpenter of Natchez is president of the company, which publishes 29 daily and weekly newspapers in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. The Post-Searchlight is the company’s 30th newspaper and marks its expansion into Georgia.

Filling the role of Griffin, Jeff Findley was named publisher of newspaper and president of Bainbridge Media LLC.

“Jeff Findley is an excellent publisher and leader. He understands the role and obligation of a community newspaper, its publisher and staff,” said Carpenter.

Findley came from Ahoskie, N.C., where he served as publisher for The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. Findley worked two years as general manager of The Clanton (Ala.) Advertiser, also part of the Boone organization, and four years as a sales representative for The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.

“To succeed the Griffin family and to build on their legacy of first-rate community journalism and civic involvement is an honor and privilege,” Findley said.

No. 9, County adopts leash ordinance

Decatur County commissioners, who had been considering a leash law to control free-roaming dogs and cats as part of a larger nuisance ordinance, put the issue at the top of their to-do list after a string of citizens aired complaints.

Development of the leash law had been in the works since early 2008, then citizens got involved in May, when a first draft of a proposed county nuisance ordinance was introduced. The ordinance stalled due to heated opposition from local farmers concerned the nuisance ordinance would infringe on their agricultural livelihood. June marked the first time county commissioners talked about a dog ordinance, when multiple citizens came to a meeting to express concerns about dangerous dogs being allowed to roam freely and injure people.

Also in June, county commissioners designated county Code Enforcement Officer Eddie Alday as the county’s dog control officer, in compliance with a new state law requiring local governments take up the responsibility.

The issue heated up in July, when county citizen Harold Yates told commissioners about his granddaughter receiving a bad dog bite on her arm after two pit bulls threatened he and his grandchildren at a boat landing. Yates and other citizens kept the pressure on county commissioners all summer long, demanding that a leash law be adopted to prevent further dog attacks from happening.

A complication arose in late summer when the Bainbridge-Decatur County Humane Society talked about possibly having to close its animal shelter, where all stray dogs are picked up and taken to, due to financial problems. However, the animal shelter stayed in business, partially due to support from county commissioners.

Work continued on the ordinance, and the Humane Society, as well as local farmers, also provided their input on the leash ordinance at an hour-long public hearing in late September. By that time, the leash law had been separated from the broader nuisance ordinance and had been expanded to cover topics such as vaccination records and registration of all cats, dogs and ferrets in unincorporated Decatur County.

On Oct. 14, the hopes of Harold Yates and many other citizens were answered when county commissioners officially adopted the ordinance, which holds caretakers responsible for animals’ welfare and actions. The law is set to take effect on Jan. 14, 2009, by which time all pets living outside Bainbridge or another town must be registered with the county.

No. 10, Murders increase in 2008

The number of murders increased dramatically from 2007, when no murders were reported, to 2008—which saw four.

Four murders, all involving firearms, took place in the Decatur County over the 12 months of 2008 with suspects arrested in all but one investigation.

On June 3, Kenneth Dwayne Koon was found murdered in a home near the Recovery community. Koon was killed from a shotgun blast to the shoulder area. Less than a week later, Florida Law Enforcement officers arrested Sheldon W. Stone, 58, in connection with the murder. Stone was later extradited to Decatur County where he awaits trial for the murder.

On Aug. 11 a Bainbridge woman was shot and killed by a stray bullet from a fight that occurred on Broughton Street and ensued onto Sims Street.

Ebony Clarke, 21, was shot in the neck and managed to get back to a friend’s apartment at Bainbridge Housing Authority apartments on Sims Street. Paramedics performing CPR attempting to resuscitate Clarke to no avail.

Antonio Greenlee, 23, of Cairo, Ga., was arrested and charged with the murder of Clarke and aggravated assault for allegedly also shooting another man involved in the altercation. The other men involved in the apparently gang-related violence were Travis Holloman, 28, of 115 Broughton St., who was charged with aggravated assault, unlawful street gang activity and furnishing a pistol to a minor and Philip Dewayne Anderson, 28, of 851 MLK Drive, Apt. 11-D, who was also charged with aggravated assault.

One of the owners of Inland service station on West Shotwell Street was shot and killed in a robbery that occurred at the store on Oct. 15. Datta Atul Dave, 48, was preparing to close the store when a hooded man entered the store demanding money. Dave froze—apparently from fear and was shot by the masked robber. The murder remains unsolved.

On Dec. 27 Erik Williams called E-911 reporting a suicide taking place at a 451 Robinson-Mitchell Road in Northeast Decatur County. Williams reported that his girlfriend Yetta Parker, 28, had shot herself, however, his later statements about the incident made Sheriff’s investigators suspicious. Williams, 27, or Pelham, Ga., was charged with murder in connection with the shooting as well as possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Through the course of 2008, two law enforcement officers with the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office also lost their lives.

Deputy Robert Armand Griffin was killed responding to an E-911 dispatch of a juvenile threatening suicide on May 1. Griffin was headed east on Brinson Airbase Road when he overcorrected his steering sending his vehicle off the northern shoulder. The cruiser struck two trees before overturning. Griffin had been with the Sheriff’s Office since 2005 when he retired from the U.S. Navy.

An off-duty Sheriff’s Investigator, 33-year-old Melanie Wood, was killed in an automobile crash on her way to visit family over Christmas. On Dec. 19, Wood and her friend Regina Daniels, 39, were on there way to Hazlehurst, Ga., to visit Wood’s family when they were involved in a single-vehicle rollover crash. The Georgia State Patrol attributed the wreck to an object or animal in the road.