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YEAR IN REVIEW: The Albany Herald's top stories for 2013

2013 a monumental year for many Southwest Georgians

After settling a lawsuit that finalized the purchase of Palmyra Medical Center, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital officials announced a short while later the hospital would cut 160 jobs. (Albany Herald file photo)

After settling a lawsuit that finalized the purchase of Palmyra Medical Center, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital officials announced a short while later the hospital would cut 160 jobs. (Albany Herald file photo)

ALBANY — The past 365 days were filled with highs and lows for Southwest Georgia and the people whose names are known throughout the region, from a renowned celebrity chef’s media-fueled downfall to a hometown boy’s meteoric rise to the top of the country music charts.

Paula Deen and Luke Bryan were perhaps the best-known area newsmakers during 2013, but they were by no means the entire story. A mayoral homicide attempt; goings-on of local, state and national government officials; successful political newcomers; turnover of college presidents; economic ups and downs, and tragedies on the athletic field were among the topics of the most vital stories covered by The Albany Herald during the year.

Following are recaps of a dozen stories that had a major impact on the region during 2013. The stories are listed in no particular order.

PHOEBE: Weeks after it received news that its ongoing lawsuit concerning the $195 million purchase of rival Palmyra Medical Center had been settled, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital announced some 160 job cuts that the hospital chalked up to “a tidal wave of economic change.” CEO Joel Wernick said a number of factors figured into the cuts, including the area economy, state Medicaid policies, cutbacks in reimbursements, the federal government’s sequestration debacle and uncertainty over the federal Affordable Care Act.

The cuts, which hospital officials said would save the facility $10 million in Fiscal Year 2014, were across the board, from general staff levels to senior vice presidents. Thirty-three of the cuts were at the management level, while 127 were at various staffing levels.

Phoebe had been in an almost two-year fight to salvage its purchase of Hospital Corporation of America-owned Palmyra. The hospital purchase, which resulted in renaming of the Palmyra campus as Phoebe North, was challenged by the Federal Trade Commission after local efforts to negate the sale failed. The FTC had been granted a temporary restraining order to halt Phoebe’s takeover of Palmyra when the Supreme Court voted 9-0 in the federal agency’s favor, but the legal wranglings ended with the settlement agreement.

In another cost-cutting measure announced by the not-for-profit hospital, Phoebe officials said the facility would cut employee uniform bonuses and merit pay raises across the board.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Reversing a trend that had stymied growth in the region for the last five years, there was finally significant positive economic news in Dougherty County during 2013. Over the course of the year, the addition of some high-profile retailers and an uptick in industrial activity offered hope that the crushing recession that had settled in the region may be easing a bit.

Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission officials noted that the almost-full Pecan Grove Industrial Park in south Albany now includes an expanded Better Brands bottling plant that added 45 new jobs and kept 50 existing jobs in the region, and a new Georgia Federal/State Shipping Point Inspection Service facility is under construction. Also at that park, land purchased by Phoebe Health System will be used to build a joint health care distribution center that will be utilized by Phoebe and other area health care systems.

Retail expansion in the community included some well-known names: Gander Mountain, PetSmart, Party City, Kauffman Tire and three — yes, three — new Waffle House restaurants. Other planned developments include a downtown hotel, a Hardee’s restaurant, a Dunkin’ Donuts and an indoor/outdoor events center at the former Cypress Pond Plantation. Rezoning has been approved for a planned CarMax franchise on Ledo Road, and one of the most anticipated projects in the region is the Stewbo’s Group’s plans to purchase the former Wagner’s Barbecue on Dawson Road and turn it into a 2.0 version of the historic Arctic Bear.

AIRPORT TERMINAL: Efforts to replace the rapidly deteriorating McAfee Terminal at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport were finally realized in early August when the first passengers made their way into a new $10 million, state-of-the-art terminal at the Albany-based airport.

Dignitaries from throughout the region attended a ribbon-cutting days before a move into the new terminal was completed and the structure was opened for business. Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said the terminal gave the city an opportunity to make a positive first impression on visitors.

The terminal is a major portion of the overall renovation of airport facilities. Work will begin in early 2014 on Phase III of the project, which will include demolition of the McAfee Terminal and construction of new short- and long-term parking lots at the airport off Newton Road.

Airport Director Yvette Aehle, who obtained funding for the facility’s makeover, said the continued deterioration of the McAfee Terminal, which had been utilized for more than 50 years, made the new terminal building increasingly necessary. She noted that the second floor of the older facility had been condemned and that faulty systems within the terminal left staff facing sometimes hazardous conditions.

Hubbard noted that the airport had an annual $26 million impact on the city’s economy.

JEFFERSON INTERCHANGE: Southwest Georgians lauded the state Department of Transportation’s mid-summer announcement that, after more than a decade of trying, funding had finally been appropriated for a redesign of the Jefferson Street/U.S. 19 Bypass interchange. The $12.5 million project is expected to make one of the region’s most dangerous roadways much safer for the thousands of commuters who utilize it daily.

The project, which is expected to take 2 1/2-3 years to complete, has already impacted the morning and afternoon drives of northeast Albany and Lee County commuters coming into and out of Albany on their way to work each weekday. A temporary traffic signal was installed and came online Dec. 12 after workers shut off the old westbound Jefferson Street off-ramp. Work crews have cleared a once picturesque park-and-ride area in anticipation of building bridges that will serve as on- and off-ramps for the heavily-traveled interchange.

Local crews will also work with DOT officials to expand a portion of Philema Road that will allow for a fourth lane of traffic at the Philema/Jefferson Street junction. The fourth lane will be used by traffic getting onto the U.S. 19 Bypass on-ramp. The interchange’s current on- and off-ramps had been the sites of several accidents over the years and were recognized among the most dangerous traffic locations in Southwest Georgia.

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Businesswoman B.J. Fletcher stunned political followers in Albany by easily beating incumbent Chris Pike for the Ward III seat on the Albany City Commission. (Albany Herald file photo)

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Political newcomer Bobby Coleman became the second new face on the Albany City Commission when he edged Ward II incumbent Ivey Hines in a runoff election in December. (Albany Herald file photo)

CITY COMMISSION: Albany voters didn’t turn out in droves during the off-year municipal election, but those who did turn out came looking for change. Medical transport specialist Bobby Coleman and businesswoman B.J. Fletcher stunned wards II and III incumbents Ivey Hines and Christopher Pike, respectively, to claim seats on the Albany City Commission.

The only survivor of the three wards up for re-election, Ward V’s Bob Langstaff, drew no opposition when presumed opponent Lane Rosen decided not to challenge both Langstaff and the city’s election law at the same time.

Fletcher’s victory over Pike was stunning in its dominance. While observers accepted a runoff in Ward III as a foregone conclusion, Fletcher drew on a diverse group of supporters to claim 64.5 percent of the vote and easily defeat Pike and the race’s other contestant, Cheryl Calhoun. Pike garnered 19.9 percent of the vote, Calhoun 15.3 percent.

Coleman had a tougher go in the Ward II race, earning 42.68 percent of the vote in the general election to frontrunner Hines’ 45.95 percent. Third candidate Demetrius Love’s 11.21 percent vote total was enough to force a Hines-Coleman runoff.

In the early December runoff, Coleman received 57 percent of the vote to score a convincing victory and secure a seat at the commission table.

Fletcher and Coleman will take office Jan. 14.

DAWSON MAYOR: Local politics took a frightening turn on Halloween night when young Dawson Mayor Chris Wright was shot at his home by an as-yet unknown assailant. Wright remained in serious condition at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital after undergoing multiple surgeries for his wounds, but in late December he kept his vow that he would return to office.

The NAACP, several of Wright’s friends and supporters, and other groups had insisted that Wright’s shooting was politically motivated, and Wright said as much himself in a call to The Albany Herald, his first public statement after the shooting. The Dawson mayor had called the newspaper shortly after learning the Dawson City Council had voted 4-2 in a special session not to provide around-the-clock security for Wright.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Dawson law enforcement officials were still searching for a shooter and a motive at the end of the year.

At 22, Wright defeated long-time incumbent and 32-year city official Robert Albritten in 2012 to claim the mayor’s office.

COLLEGE CHANGES: In a matter of hours, two of Albany’s three institutions of higher learning learned in October that they would be getting new leaders. Two days after Albany State University President Everette Freeman announced he would leave the historically black university to take a position at the Community College of Denver in Colorado, Darton State University President Peter Sireno resigned under pressure.

Sireno said in a letter to supporters that he’d been informed by the Georgia University System Board of Regents that “new leadership is needed” at Darton, and so, after an almost 25-year career at the college, he tendered his resignation as requested by the Regents. Several sources confirmed that Sireno would have been fired had he not resigned.

Paul Jones was named interim president at Darton, replacing the man who had overseen dramatic expansion at the college. Under Sireno, Darton underwent major construction projects that included on-campus housing, saw its student population expand more than 200 percent and welcomed its first four-year program in nursing.

Freeman had served a tumultuous nine-year tenure at ASU, more than doubling the university’s student body while working to strengthen ties with the community and build joint programs with other area institutions. His new position is at a 12,000-student college that serves mostly nontraditional students.

Kimberly Ballard-Washington served briefly as interim president of ASU before Arthur N. Dunning was named to the position.

DARTON WRESTLERS: Darton’s athletic program, easily the state’s best two-year college program and one of the strongest in the nation, suffered a monumental tragedy in early September when one of its wrestlers died after collapsing during a team workout. Ben Richards was one of three Darton wrestlers who succumbed to the late-summer heat during a 5-mile team run, but it was the 20-year-old sophomore who never recovered.

Jaden Smith was the first Cavalier athlete to pass out from the heat, and the next day Richards and Alex Washington suffered similar fates. Nine days later, though, Richards died at a Florida hospital. His Darton teammates and the college’s student body took part in a moving memorial ceremony before Richards was buried in Tampa.

School officials refused to place blame for Richards’ death on wrestling coach James Hicks. The college said it would re-evaluate its heat safety policy in the wake of the deadly accident.

Both Smith and Washington recovered from their heat-related collapses, although Washington remained in an Albany hospital for an extended time before being released.

SCHOOL CLOSINGS: Citing financial concerns and poor utilization of its facilities, the Dougherty County School Board voted in May to close two schools and to repurpose another. The board voted to close Sylvester Road Elementary School and Dougherty Middle School and to repurpose Magnolia Elementary School as an education center.

More than 1,300 students at the three schools were reassigned to other nearby facilities in a move that was criticized by many residents of south Albany. Consultants hired by the School Board had reported that the local school system was losing an average of 138 students a year, leaving the system with 2,400 empty classroom seats. The consultants suggested that closing the underutilized schools and repurposing the other would help the system realize significant savings.

By moving the 426 students at Sylvester Road, the 447 at Dougherty Middle and the 466 at Magnolia to other schools, the DCSS was projected to save $2 million in annual costs as well as $11 million in special-purpose local-option sales tax funding that could be utilized at other system schools.

The vote to close the schools was opposed by board members Darrel Ealum and Velvet Riggins.

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Celebrity chef and Albany native Paula Deen’s substantial business empire took a huge hit in 2013 after she admitted to having used the so-called “n-word” earlier in her life. (Special photo)

PAULA DEEN: For Albany native and celebrity chef Paula Deen, 2013 will always be the year that her food empire came crashing down. Called for a deposition by an attorney representing a former employee who had brought suit against Deen for racial discrimination, the celebrity chef admitted that she had in the past used the “n-word.” When word of her admission reached the national media, Deen was buried in a firestorm that saw the Food Network cancel her popular show, sponsors like Smithfield Foods drop her as a spokesperson, and retailers like Wal-Mart and Target remove her products from their shelves.

By the time the story had played out, Deen had lost most of the outlets that brought her an estimated $17 million in income the year before. Her Paula Deen Enterprises, which generated an estimated $100 million in annual sales, also took a huge hit.

With ex-husband Jimmy Deen — who told The Albany Herald in an exclusive interview that Paula Deen and the couple’s two sons, Bobby and Jamie, would weather the media firestorm — serving as a liaison, a group of local Deen supporters had planned to construct a Paula Deen Museum in Albany after businesswoman B.J. Fletcher purchased Deen’s childhood home. Those plans were put on hold until the first of the year.

LUKE BRYAN: The good ol’ Leesburg boy who everyone affectionately calls “Luke” took his game to the next level in 2013, establishing himself among the giants of modern-day country music. Bryan’s meteoric ride up the country music charts showed no sign of slowing down, as his record sales, fan support and popularity skyrocketed to superstar level.

Over the course of the year, Bryan was named Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and received American Country Awards proclaiming him Artist of the Year, Male Artist of the Year and Touring artist of the Year.

Adored by fans for his dashing good looks and his powerful voice, Bryan had his latest album, “Crash My Party,” debut atop Billboard magazine’s Country and Hot 200 charts. The debut was the third-highest of the year at that time and was the first country album to land atop the Hot 200 in almost a decade.

Bryan earned his Touring Artist of the Year ACA with his successful “Crash My Party” and Farm Tours, the latter of which sold out completely in a matter of hours. The first two singles from “Party” — the title song and “That’s My Kinda Night” — both spent multiple weeks atop the country singles chart, becoming Bryan’s sixth and seventh No. 1s in his illustrious career. And in a time of diminishing record sales, Bryan surpassed the 4 million mark in album sales during 2013.

CARLY MATHIS: Another Leesburg native, Carly Mathis, made her hometown proud by competing for the title of Miss America in Atlantic City in September.

After winning the Miss Atlanta and Miss Georgia titles, Mathis’ path led her to the most elite of pageants, in which the odds of competing are less likely than playing in the Super Bowl.

An avid volunteer with the Children’s Miracle Network, Mathis competed with the platform “Heart Health and Heart Safety” and was one of seven nominated for the prestigious Quality of Life award, which is based on contestants’ platform.

Mathis was also named a Lifestyle and Fitness winner during preliminary competition, earning a $1,000 scholarship. Recently, “The Pageant Planet” named her as one of the Top 10 Best Pageant Swimsuit Bodies of 2013.

One of 53 contestants, Mathis ultimately became a top-10 finalist, competing in the swimsuit and evening wear finals.

In a Miss America video, Mathis showed her hometown pride, standing in the heart of Leesburg and noting, “You can’t find a more all-American town than Leesburg. I may be from a small town, but I have big dreams, just like Luke Bryan, Phillip Phillips and Buster Posey. And I never forget where I come from.”

— Additional reporting by Laura Williams.