Top stories of year reviewed

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 4, 2010

There was a lot of talk in Lincoln County in 2009.

Families and neighbors put their heads together and talked upthe events that shaped their communities throughout the year. Theystudied the plight of industry in a downright depressing economicyear, weighed in on who gets to wear a tuxedo for a yearbookpicture and who doesn’t, and put together a list of sons anddaughters who went to Iraq again.

But no local event generated as much talk, as much study andarmchair leadership, as The DAILY LEADER’s top news story of 2009 -the ouster of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries andParks from Brookhaven. The yearlong story, which is still ongoing,was voted No. 1 by the newspaper’s editorial board in its annualyear-in-review.

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The saga surrounding MDWF&P began in January when countysupervisors voted unanimously to allow the department’s lease onthe county-owned Courthouse Annex – which had housed the 12-countyDistrict Five headquarters since 1996 – to expire to make room forthe local tax office. The decision ultimately spurred more than1,000 county residents to petition supervisors to reverse theirdecision.

Supervisors argued and negotiated with MDWF&P to stay in thecity, but the deal fell apart in July and the new District Fiveheadquarters opened in Magnolia on Oct. 1. Throughout the ordeal,tempers flared and threats and promises were made to no avail.

Throughout 2009, the newspaper published 22 stories and severaleditorial pieces dealing with the wildlife office, and more storieswill follow in 2010 as supervisors renovate the Courthouse Annexfor the tax office.

“As businessmen, we need to take a stand when our supervisorsmake a mistake,” Dave Pace, owner of Brookhaven Monument andfounder of the petition, said in May. “The business community hasgot to stand up to this kind of stuff. We can’t let people be runoff for no reason.”

The No. 2 top story of 2009 also generated public interest ingovernment affairs in a similar vein – state officials attemptingto remove an entity without really asking the right questionsfirst. There were some very high points for the Mississippi Schoolfor the Arts in 2009 – points that will be discussed in the bottomhalf of the top stories list – but for the most part, the yearbrought uncertainty and anxiety to Brookhaven’s one-of-a-kindresidential school.

The battle for the location of MSA generated 13 direct storiesand a host of editorial pieces in 2009, and there’s no telling howmany times the school’s funding woes were mentioned in otherarticles

January was almost over when a pair of House Democratsintroduced House Bill 1555, which sought to close MSA’s Brookhavencampus and move the school north to Columbus, where it would jointhe similar Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science on thecampus of the Mississippi University for Women. The bill went downin flames by a vote of 73-43, but Gov. Haley Barbour recommendedthe same course of action 10 months later in his executive budgetrecommendations for the 2010 legislative session.

Local officials have found that moving MSA to Columbus – a movemeant to save the state money – would actually likely costmillions. Besides that, MSA’s Brookhaven supporters have a host ofevidence and arguments to show how moving MSA to Columbus was thewrong action, and the fight will continue in 2010.

The trend of loss and loss prevention continues in The DAILYLEADER’s third top story of 2009, the unfortunate end of ColumbusLumber Co. and the hopeful rebirth of lumber production inBrookhaven.

Columbus Lumber was ordered to cease operations in September byits prime lender, Bank of America, after more than 60 years ofbusiness. More than 100 jobs were lost and a network of businessesthat dealt with the sawmill was affected.

Florida-based Rex Lumber LLC bought the property in November,and in December, Great Southern Wood Preserving Inc. boughtportions of the sawmill and announced plans to begin hiring localworkers to produce their famous YellaWood treated lumber.

County supervisors immediately signed on to provide incentivesfor the company, but city aldermen continue to debate some of therequests. If aldermen can sort it out, GSWP owner Jimmy Ranes – theYella Fella – wants to begin production by Feb. 1.

“If it works like all our other places have, (employment) willdefinitely increase,” he said in December. “And I believe it will.Sky’s the limit – as much as we can sell.”

Coverage of Columbus Lumber Co. and the sawmill’s new ownersgenerated 11 stories and a handful of opinion pieces in 2009 andwill continue in 2010 as GWSP either opens shop or leavesBrookhaven for a more accommodating location.

There was nothing accommodating about the No. 4 news story of2009. In fact, the citywide elections in Brookhaven requirednumerous rounds of qualifying and campaigning that The DAILY LEADERfollowed closely with 40 stories throughout the year.

The focus of the election and the news stories that followed itwas the mayor’s race, which saw District One Supervisors and boardpresident the Rev. Jerry Wilson and former alderman-at-large LesBumgarner face off to take over the city after five years of BobMassengill’s leadership.

On election night, Wilson jumped out to an early lead, butmidnight brought on a new day and a new mayor. That’s when thevotes from the Republican-stocked Ward Four were counted, and thetallies in that box pushed Bumgarner, an Independent, into themayor’s chair by a vote of 2,014 to 1,097 – two to one.

The job got done, but the job was dirty. The election was hitwith a host of problems, from longtime registered voters having tovote affidavit because of precinct confusion, poll workers notknowing how to respond to voters’ questions and allegations thatWard Three poll workers misled some voters.

“My tongue was bleeding I bit it so hard,” said Brian Moore, whowas defeated by Ward Three Alderman Mary Wilson in the primaries.”The word ‘frustrating’ keeps coming up but frustrating doesn’teven come close, so the word ‘disenfranchised’ keeps coming to mindover and over again. I never truly understood that word untilyesterday.”

Given the train collision that was the national economy in 2009,no one understood the fifth top news story of the year, either -the survival of Brookhaven’s Delphi Packard Electric Systemsmanufacturing plant. Given the strict corporate secrecy of thecompany, only five stories could be written on the large jobprovider.

Delphi first got into the pages of The DAILY LEADER with goodnews in April – the plant manufactured its 10 millionth bussedelectric center, a vehicle component used by many automanufacturers. In June, however, things started to get dicey, asGeneral Motors filed for bankruptcy and began closing plants.Delphi’s electrical components were used heavily in GM trucks.

Everyone took a deep breath in September when the Brookhavenplant’s sister facility in Clinton was closed, sending 280 peopleinto the ranks of the unemployed. The following day, Delphiofficials announced unused equipment in the Brookhaven facilitywould be shipped to another plant in Jaurez, Mexico. It was not acomforting sign, but the plant is thankfully still operating as2010 rolls around.

“They have good quality, so it is a good plant,” RachelleValdez, Delphi’s communications director, said of the Brookhavenfacility. “As long as the cars continue to sell for GM, we havesomething to make for them.”

More disbelief followed the No. 6 story, as a small girl with abig voice stepped out of MSA and onto the national stage and tookBrookhaven, Mississippi and the nation by surprise, climbing intothe finals of one of the most popular competition TV shows of alltime.

Arts student Jasmine Murray, a 17-year-old voice major claimedby three Mississippi cities, went from an audition pool of 12,000people in Florida to the Top 13 on the smash hit TV show “AmericanIdol.” Her appearance on the show brought massive admiration andrespect to the Magnolia State, drove Brookhavenites nuts with prideand caused student applications to MSA to skyrocket.

Murray fell short of the finish line, but forever etched herselfinto the local collective memory. April 14, 2009, was declared”Jasmine Murray Day,” and a crowd gathered in downtown Brookhavento welcome the teen back home from Hollywood.

“People come up to me and say they voted for me, they supportedme and they want to be a singer, too,” Murray said. “That’s whatit’s all about – inspiring people.”

Murray inspired 18 news stories documenting her rise to fame,but the effects of her run on “American Idol” will likely be feltat MSA for years to come.

The seventh story on the top stories of 2009 list generated atleast 50 stories throughout the year. The sorry condition of thestate budget is so far-reaching it affects almost every agency,especially school districts, and has been mentioned uncountabletimes within the pages of The DAILY LEADER.

Legislators went into the 2009 legislative session with abull’s-eye on an increased cigarette tax and gobbled up all theeconomic stimulus money possible to limp the state through theyear.

Now, on the eve of the 2010 session, budget discussions havepushed all other political discourse aside. The state is looking ata more than $700 million shortfall, and everything from a lotteryto more sin taxes to massive cuts and closures is beingdiscussed.

“If you look at the size of government, it’s going to take somecuts,” said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “We’regoing through some tough times, and we have to be prepared thatsome things are going to be cut.”

The No. 8 story on the list was about giving instead of takingaway. The City of Brookhaven has long lusted for high-poweredlights to shine on its interchange with Interstate 55 at night, andin 2009, the lights came on over Exit 40.

Six stories were written to chronicle the realization of alighted interchange, which raised awareness of the city totraveling motorists and can cause increased business on BrookwayBoulevard at night. The Mississippi Department of Transportationpromised in early January that lights would be erected by year’send, and testing began in early October.

Now, Exit 40 burns brightly at night. The interchange isilluminated by four high-mast and 13 low-mast lights, which wereinstalled by MDOT for free, with electricity paid by the city.

Six news stories were written about the big lights and thehopefully big dividends they’ll provide for the local economy.

“This will illuminate our community for nighttime travelers, sothey can recognize Brookhaven as an excellent stopping point whentraveling on the interstate,” said Brookhaven-Lincoln CountyChamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Cliff Brumfield.

The ninth story on The DAILY LEADER’s top 10 list generated onlytwo stories, but it made national headlines, causing localresidents to either cheer with inspiration or hide their faces. Theconfrontation between Wesson Attendance Center and a gay seniorstudent, 17-year-old Ceara Sturgis, caused local discomfort at theleast.

The situation flared up in mid-October when word got out theschool refused to allow Sturgis, who took her senior portraitwearing a tuxedo instead a woman’s drape, to appear in the 2010yearbook. Sturgis took her grievances to the American CivilLiberties Union and attracted national attention.

The ACLU fired first on the school, demanding the photo beallowed in the yearbook or it would file suit. The school firedback, saying federal court precedent supported its decision.

Apparently, the school was right. It’s been two months, and thealways-loud ACLU has said nothing about Sturgis’ case.

Finishing out the top 10 list of news stories in 2009 is anevent that caused grief and pride as only a departing solider can.Brookhaven’s Company E, 106th Brigade Support Battalion – part ofthe statewide 155th Brigade Combat Team – and its U.S. Army Reserve296th Transportation Company each went back to Iraq for the secondtime of the six-year war.

In total, 136 Lincoln County natives between the two units andhundreds of other men and women warriors from Southwest Mississippiwere deployed to Iraq in 2009. They are expected to return homesometime in 2010.

The departure of the community’s soldiers was documented withfour news stories and one large article in FOCUS, the newspaper’sannual special publication.