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2012: A Year in Review

ALBANY, Ga. -- The death of a Lee County Marine in combat, the ongoing struggles of the Dougherty County School District, the rise of a Leesburg man from hometown crooner to national celebrity and the exploits of one of the area's top athletes on the baseball diamond are just some of the stories that dominated metro Albany headlines 2012.

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Steven Sutton

Lance Cpl. Steve Sutton's death led to a tremendous outpouring of support from the public toward his family. The 24-year-old Marine and former Lee County High School football player was killed during combat operations in the Helmand Province in May in what was described by Marine Corps officials as a roadside bomb explosion.

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A Marine honor guard carries the casket with the body of LCpl Steve Sutton into the First Baptist Church of Leesburg.

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Shown here is the patch that the Lee County football team will wear all season to honor former Trojans football star and Leesburg native Steven Sutton, who was killed in the line of duty as a member of the U.S. Marines overseas earlier this year.

On June 6, Sutton's funeral procession left a church in Leesburg headed for Crown Hill cemetery, passing thousands of onlookers who honored Sutton and his family by waving American flags, holding signs and paying their respects to the fallen Marine.

Along the route were a convoy of police vehicles, fire trucks and utility trucks with buckets, booms, and ladders extended -- some draping flags from their heights -- as makeshift salutes.

Also in May, Leesburg native and former Albany Star winner Phillip Phillips beat out 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez to become the 11th winner of Fox's hit reality show "American Idol."

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File

Phillip Phillips is seen on "American Idol."

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Phillip Phillips new album cover.

Phillips' coronation song, "Home," skyrocketed to the top of the iTunes charts and became the anthem of the 2012 U.S. Women's Gymnastics team. It also was featured in the trailer for "Trouble with the Curve," a summer baseball flick starring Clint Eastwood, Justin Timberlake and Amy Adams.

By mid-December, "Home" had sold nearly 3 million copies.

In November, Phillips debuted his first album, "World from the Side of the Moon." By year-end, the album was nearing a month on Billboard's Top 10 album list.

While Phillips was busy fighting off kidney stones and stealing the show in Los Angeles on "American Idol," another Lee County native was building his own reputation in San Francisco, a long drive up the Pacific Coast highway from Phillips' soulful sounds.

Buster Posey had arguably the best year of any individual player in Major League Baseball this year. Coming off an injury in 2011, Posey rebounded in a big way -- putting together a masterful season with the Giants in 2012, leading them to a win in the World Series, capturing the batting title and earning the National League's Most Valuable Player Award.

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San Francisco Giants' star catcher Buster Posey reacts with his family -- wife, Kristen; son, Lee, and daughter, Addison -- during a live nationally televised announcement naming him the NL MVP Thursday at the Transitional Learning Center in Leesburg. (Nov. 15, 2012)

The 25-year-old amassed some pretty impressive stats heading into the offseason. He finished the year with a .336 batting average, 24 home runs and 103 RBI.

Closer to home, the leaders of the Dougherty County School System spent much of 2012 answering strongly-worded letters from the state, attempting to explain questionable expenditures of federal funds and wading through the remnants of a CRCT exam erasure scandal that prompted a wave of resignations and administrative hearings.

In the end, the plethora of bad news for the district would prompt the early resignation of Superintendent Joshua Murfree and would cost incumbent School Board member Anita Williams-Brown her seat after she lost her bid for re-election to challenger Lane Price in the Democratic primary.

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Joshua Murfree

School Board Member Velvet Riggins, who was suspended from the board after she was indicted for school lunch fraud, regained her seat on the board after a jury found her not guilty of all the charges levied against her in September. She won a new four-year term without opposition.

Former Morningside Principal Gloria Baker, who was also charged with fraud in connection to school lunch applications, has denied the charges but has yet to go to trial.

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Gloria Baker

Because of the issues facing the district, the state has stepped in -- and is asking the federal government to intervene -- placing the district on "high risk status," which means that all expenditures of Title 1 funds will be done so on a reimbursable basis, with the state only approving what it deems to be appropriate expenditures.

Meanwhile, demolition work started on one of the city's oldest bridges.

Construction crews began demolishing the Broad Avenue Bridge, which was shut down in 2009 by the Georgia Department of Transportation after divers discovered that chunks of the bridge's concrete footings had eroded, making the bridge unsafe for pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

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Joe Bellacomo

Demolition of the Broad Avenue Bridge is seen in this December photo.

The bridge -- the first to reopen after the 1994 flood that divided Albany in half -- was built in 1920 and dedicated to World War I veterans. A local group attempted to save the bridge and offered proposals to convert it into a pedestrian bridge, but were unable to convince local and state leaders to change their minds.

Also shuttered in 2012 were two of Albany's public library branches. The decision to close Southside and Westtown Libraries came as a surprise to many in the community and led to criticism of the Library Board. The board maintained that the libraries were under used and needed to be closed. Critics argued that closing those libraries would hurt impoverished patrons who couldn't afford to travel across the county to use another library.

The decision ultimately resulted in the Dougherty County Commission voting to place Commissioner John Hayes on the board, ousting longtime board member Gene Black, whose term had expired but was seeking reappointment.

Like a bad game of dominoes, that vote led Library Board Chairman Guy Craft, a man with 50 years of experience with libraries, to resign as board chairman. Craft, who is 83, cited health concerns that he said were exacerbated by the stress involved in dealing with the ongoing discussions about the library closings and the shifts made on the board.

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Guy Craft

In addition to its fiscal issues, the Library System also endured the unexpected death of newly-minted Director Ashley Moore, who died suddenly from a heart condition.

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J.D. Sumner

Ashley Moore

The 36-year-old died in September of a heart attack. Moore, who had been the second-in-command of the library system under former director Teresa Cole, was promoted to the top spot in November 2011.

2012 bore witness to the birth of a new music festival aimed at bringing a bigger slice of the entertainment pie to Albany.

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Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Johnny Van Zant gestures to the crowd as he takes the FlintCo Throwdown Stage Saturday night during the Georgia Throwdown at the Albany Exchange Club Fairgrounds.

The three-day Georgia Throwdown brought in acts including Big & Rich, Lynard Skynard, Uncle Kracker, Easton Corbin and the Drive-By Truckers but also helped shine the spotlight on smaller local acts hoping to be the next musical phenom.

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From left, fans react as Lynyrd Skynyrd takes the FlintCo Throwdown Stage Saturday night during the Georgia Throwdown.

With a Throwdown II already in the works for 2013, the festival will likely grow in the coming year.

One thing that didn't grow in 2012 was the murder rate in Albany and Dougherty County. Once dubbed that nation's murder capital (on a per capita basis) when 29 people were killed in 1988, the rate seems poised to bottom out at its lowest since 1979 with only four homicides reported for the year.

In other law enforcement news, Dougherty County Police Chief Don Cheek hung up his badge and entered into retirement. With more than 40 years of law enforcement under his belt, Cheek decided to retire to enjoy time with family and focus on his health.

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After 44 years of public service, Dougherty County Police Chief Don Cheek, right, has retired from the Dougherty County Police Department. Above is a photo of Cheek as a Cpl. in the Albany Police Department in 1974.

It was also a strong year for Leesburg native Luke Bryan, who picked up several big awards including being named the 2012 Artist of the Year at the American Country Awards. His album "Tailgates and Tanlines" was named Album of the year at the ACA's and he also picked up awards for single of the year, best male performer of the year and music video of the year.

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The Associated Press

From left, Leesburg singer Luke Bryan and wife Caroline Boyer arrive at the American Country Awards on Monday in Las Vegas.

At the CMT Music Awards, Bryan earned the male video of the year nod for "I Don't Want This Night to End." Bryan ended the year with "Tailgates and Tanlines" at No. 32 on the Billboard top 200 and at No. 10 on Billboard's Country Album charts.

In business news, the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County's $195 million purchase of rival hospital Palmyra Medical Center survived several court challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Federal Trade Commission's argument that the purchase should be subject to anti-trust review by that agency. The authority and Phoebe Health System argued successfully through the U.S. Court of Appeals that the state agency was immune to federal oversight under the state doctrine.

Just after Thanksgiving, the nation's highest court heard the case, which has potential repercussions on dozens of hospital mergers currently under consideration across the country. A decision will likely be made in the spring of 2013. Meanwhile, Phoebe is now operating the former Palmyra as Phoebe North.

Phoebe also finished construction of a $35 million Gastrointestinal facility off of Meredyth Drive.

The Albany Herald's presses stopped for the first time since 1891 this year the paper entered a print contract with the Tallahassee Democrat.

A highly anticipated Olive Garden opened up on Dawson Road, ending years of speculation about its arrival.

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Jim West

Kenneth Hall, general manager of the new Olive Garden said the restaurant was prepared to feed “everyone in Albany, if need be.” The long-awaited Olive Garden on Dawson Road opened Monday to Throngs of anxious patrons accustomed to driving 50 miles or more to one of their favorite restaurants.

And local entrepreneurs Bo Henry and Stewart Campbell completed their purchase and renovation of the Merry Acres Inn by rejuvenating the 1950's-era motel with modern amenities.

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Entrepreneurs Bo Henry, left, and Stewart Campbell recently finished renovating Merry Acres Inn and Events Center on Dawson Road.

Cafe 230, Steinmart, Carriage Trade and Friedman's Clothing all closed to the public in 2012. Cafe 230 remains open for catering and private parties.