By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A proposal to form a municipal school system, the ongoing uncertainty over the location of a new hospital and two incidents that brought a degree of infamy to the community were among the top news stories in and around Atmore during the first six months of 2019.
The first public meeting on a proposal to pull Escambia County High School, Escambia County Middle School and Rachel Patterson Elementary School out of the county school system and form a three-school city system was held in February.
Atmore Citizens for Change, the group spearheading the proposal, expressed concerns over the number of students transferring to other schools within the county — or to schools outside the county — as one of the major justifications for a new system.
ACFC members felt that ECHS’s constant inclusion on the state’s “failing schools” list, along with what they labeled an unfair allocation of resources to the Atmore schools, was more justification.
In March, Atmore’s City Council voted unanimously to fund a $60,000 study of the feasibility of such a system, hiring a Vestavia Hills firm — Decisions Resources, which has done similar studies for several communities in Lower Alabama — to determine whether or not the proposal made financial sense.
Atmore City Clerk Becca Smith announced that the Alabama Ethics Commission had informed City Attorney Larry Wettermark that neither District 3 City Councilman Chris Walker nor Mayor Jim Staff were barred by any state statutes from discussion of — and possibly casting a vote on — the donation of 10 acres in the city’s Rivercane development park for a new hospital.
Prior to the ethics ruling, the council had twice refused to consider the real estate donation. It did so again two months later.
Later in the year, the Escambia County Healthcare Authority and Poarch Band of Creek Indians negotiated a “land swap” under which PCI gave the healthcare authority 10 acres near Rivercane on which to build the hospital. In return, ECHCA agreed to transfer ownership of the current hospital building and the 10 acres on which it sits to PCI.
Although healthcare officials stressed the urgency of starting the construction process, no work other than surveyance had been done on the hospital acreage at year’s end.
While city officials and private groups worked to put a positive spin on life in Atmore, two events —one of a tragic nature — threw the community into the national spotlight’s negative glow.
The first occurred in the wee hours of May 18, when gunfire erupted during a party at the former site of the county’s middle school.
Nine people were shot, including one fatally, during the get-together, which was advertised on social media sites and drew hundreds of partygoers. An Atmore man, 19-year-old Chrishawn Westry, was killed in a hail of bullets that were exchanged by several party attendees around 2 a.m.
After an intense investigation by local police that included interviewing witnesses from numerous Alabama cities and several other states, two Atmore men — Michael Lashan Weaver Jr., 21, and Michael Bernard Pettway, 22 — were arrested in August and charged with Westry’s murder.
The incident was one of 253 mass shootings listed on the cover of Time magazine’s August 19 issue.
The second infamous incident occurred June 2 and was of a lighter nature, except to animal lovers.
Mayor Jim Staff was videotaped fighting off and eventually killing with a shovel a raccoon he said attacked his wife and him. The incident, which occurred at Canal Park Boat Ramp in Gulf Shores and was posted to social media, spread across the nation like wildfire and set off a storm of controversy among animal lovers.
The hubbub eventually died down, but the incident remains a sore spot with the city’s chief executive. Staff, who said he loves animals, explained that he was only protecting himself and his wife from a seemingly rabid one.
In other news that occurred across the community during the first six months of 2019:
*Atmore Area Hall of Fame got six new members in March, as Dr. Wil Baker, Robert Faircloth, Ann Gordon, Novy L. Hale, Rev. Isaac Holt and Wayne Stacey were inducted.
*University of Auburn’s basketball team — for which Atmore native Chad Prewitt is an assistant coach — earned its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Final Four, falling to Virginia in the semi-finals matchup.
*Judge Bert Rice retired after more than 40 years on the bench, as Magistrate Judge in Atmore and Circuit Judge of Escambia County.
*Heath Jackson was sworn in as the county’s first new sheriff since 2003. Jackson replaced Sheriff Grover Smith, who served four terms before choosing not to seek a fifth.
*Abraham L. Banks, 18, of Atmore was arrested and charged with sodomy and abuse against two children under the age of 12.
*A combination of grants and donations allowed Pride of Atmore Committee to purchase the building adjacent to the Strand Theater, in which Atmore Hardware operated for years.
*Carl “Buster” McGhee died July 2 at age 102. McGhee was the oldest living member of the Poarch Creek Tribe and the community’s oldest surviving World War II veteran.
*American Legion Post 90 in Atmore named Atmore Police Department Sgt. Ryan James as its officer of the year.
*An April 18 shakedown of Holman Correctional Facility by 300 law enforcement officers turned up 356 homemade weapons and quantities of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, pills and other contraband. Eight days later, an inmate brawl at the state prison resulted in three stabbings and the relocation of eight inmates.
*Atmore Rotary Club honored 146 students during the club’s 34th annual Academic All-Stars program, including nine who earned the distinction during each of their four high school years. Those were Kyle Hostetler, Alexis Ann Hollinger, Mary Thompson Lancaster, Christiara Jones, Seth Killam, Dalton Dewayne Hamilton, Adonis Williams, and Olivia Simmons.
*A $600,000 paving project, the largest in years within Atmore, began in May and eventually resulted in new surfaces on all or part of nine different streets.
*Dabo Swinney, football coach at newly crowned national champion Clemson University, dedicated most of his Coach of the Year acceptance speech to his relationship with the university’s Associate Athletic Director for Football Administration Woody McCorvey Jr., who spent most of his younger life in Atmore.
*Anthony Edward Dunkin, 33, a bus driver for the county school system, was killed in a two-vehicle collision in March. Dunkin was on his way to start his bus route after conducting a prison ministry session when he died.
*Darionte Richardson, a 16-year-old Northview High football player who lived in Atmore, died February 4. Richardson suffered a rare child heart attack the day after helping lead NHS to its first postseason win in six years.
*An obviously despondent Atmore man, 40-year-old Eric Edwards Smith, ended his own life in February by climbing over the crossing rails and into the path of a westbound freight train.
*In June, Charlotte McGhee Meckel and Dewitt C. Carter retained their seats on the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council, while Amy Bryan defeated incumbent Sandy Hollinger in a run-off for Hollinger’s seat.
*Huxford Elementary second grader Kensleigh Madison received a special Life Saving Award from Sheriff Heath Jackson and School Resource Officer Jeff Weaver in May for her actions when her grandmother suffered an emphysema attack in April.
*Fire destroyed a warehouse at Frank Currie Gin Co. in McCullough on January 31.
*Scott Mason was hired in January to take over the football program at Escambia County High School.
*Fehr Painting was named Business of the Year; Beth Drew earned Citizen of the Year designation, and Ruth Harrell was winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet.