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A glance back at 2016 – New high-tech factory, possible return of rail service among year’s top stories

A flurry of economic development announcements, including the impending construction of a high-tech manufacturing plant that is expected to generate 100 new jobs and the return of passenger rail service, were among the biggest news stories of 2016 in Atmore and the surrounding communities.

The year’s biggest news events of 2016 also included a bevy of high-profile crime stories, including one that drew national attention, as well as several destructive fires, including one that destroyed a historic church.

The community lost several of its leading citizens to death by natural causes, and about a half-dozen local residents died in automobile accidents.

The Atmore sports scene was dominated by Escambia Academy’s second straight state track championship, its state powerlifting championship and its quest for a state football title, along with the establishment by a local businessman of a new world record in the world of drag racing.

There was plenty of positive news on the educational front, and several not-so-positive stories evolved from the complex of state prisons located just outside the city. Several Atmore churches celebrated notable events, and several residents reached personal or professional milestones.

Now, a brief look at many of the stories that defined 2016 in Atmore and the surrounding area:

Jerry Gehman, local liaison to the Southern Rail Commission, announced that a Congressional committee and officials of Amtrak were trying to work out the details of a plan that would make Atmore a stop on at least one of the railroad’s routes through the South.

In other economic development news, contractors began site preparation for a new shopping center that would include Little Caesars and an AT&T store as its anchors. Both stores opened in mid-summer.

Education generated the most news in the year’s first month. Graduation rates released by state education officials showed a dramatic increase in the number of students who received diplomas from Escambia County High School, from a 68-percent showing in 2014 to 81 percent for 2015.

Mason Huggins of Escambia County Middle School won the countywide spelling bee competition for grades 3-5, while McKenna Pettis of Huxford Elementary was runner-up, and Isaiah Powers of HES was third. Breanna McGowan of ECMS was third in grades 6-8.

In higher education news, Christine Simpkins, a 2015 graduate of Escambia County High School, earned a spot on the Dean’s List at Auburn University.

In other January news, Glenn Carlee, a veteran of 41 years in law enforcement, retired as Atmore’s Director of Public Safety; Wind Creek Hospitality’s Brent Pinkston was honored by Global Gaming Business Magazine; the Rev. Amos Smith became the new pastor of Gaines Chapel AME Church; and Ms. Elizabeth Brown Wilson celebrated her 95th birthday.

Mayor Jim Staff (right) and the Atmore City Council honored Public Safety Director Glenn Carlee at the City Council meeting, January 11, on his retirement after 41 years of service in law enforcement.

An Amtrak “inspection train” made a whistle stop in Atmore, drawing a “water cannon salute” from Atmore Fire Department as well as a large and enthusiastic crowd. Among those aboard the train were Southern Rail Commission Chairman Gregory White and Joe McHugh, Amtrak’s vice president for government affairs and corporate communication.

The Atmore Fire Department welcomed Amtrak with the water cannon salute on February 18.

Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce honored Ellis Beachy as its Citizen of the Year and First National Bank & Trust as its Business of the Year. Murray Johnson received the Chamber’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Escambia Academy won the AISA Class AAA powerlifting competition. Trae Lee was the overall individual champion; Kris Brown broke state records in bench press and deadlift, and Chase Bell tied a state record in the deadlift.

Among other February happenings, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Lyn Stuart, an Atmore native, was guest speaker for the local Daughters of the American

Revolution chapter’s Women in History program; Urla Boggan was selected by Illustrious Women of Vision as the group’s Outstanding Healthcare Advocate;

Alan Bell was accepted into Kennesaw State University’s Doctor of Business Administration program; Peggy Quimby Weaver’s collection of poetry, “By His

Touch: Poems From the Heart,” was published; and Liberty Church celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Education news included the naming of Leigh Ann Rowland as permanent principal at Huxford Elementary School. She had been acting principal since October, when Greg Shehan resigned to accept the superintendent’s job for Monroe County Schools.

Donna Revel, attendance officer and coordinator of the Escambia County Board of Education’s at-risk community education programs, received the Rhonda L. Cotton Be the Change Award from the Alabama Association of Prevention Attendance and Support Services, and Faulkner State student Ty’Anthony Riley, a 2015 ECHS honor graduate, was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for students at two-year colleges.

Violence erupted at William C. Holman Correctional Institution, where rioting inmates stabbed a corrections officer and the facility’s warden, Carter Davenport, neither of whom was seriously injured. The uprising prompted a visit from Gov. Robert Bentley. Atmore Baptist Temple marked its 66th year, and the Rev. Dr.

Michael Wilson Sr., pastor of Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, was certified as Dean of the Standard Leadership Training School.
In other community news, Marlin and Bertha Metzler celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary; six Webelos – Ayden Bonner, Judah Dennis, Matthew Pruitt,

Kole Stewart, Luke Still and David Stokes – received the Arrow of Light Award and “crossed over” to Boy Scouts; Brandon Smith was re-elected to his fourth term on the county commission; David Nolin won the District 6 seat on the county Board of Education; and two residents – 41-year-old David Lee Hudson and Jillianne Klinger, 31 – died in traffic mishaps.

Kenneth Ray Barnett, who for 57 years owned and operated Escambia Drug Store, died at age 83. Barnett gained local acclaim for customer service, opening the store after hours or on weekends if a customer needed a prescription filled.

EA’s boys notched their second straight track title. Kris Brown, the meet’s MVP for the second straight year, set a new record in the 100-meter dash, while the school’s 4×100 relay team (Brown, Fred Flavors, Patrick McGhee and Trey Turner) also set a new state record. In the girls meet, Mikayla Spruill finished fourth overall and was named co-MVP.

Brandon Snider and his 1969 Camaro set a new track record at Rockingham (N.C.) Dragway. Snider turned the eighth-mile in 3.486 seconds, a speed of 219.47 mph.

A trio of ECHS students – Brent Akins, Tyshawnna Packer and Chris Rice – finished first in the South Region and third in the state in the Alabama Council of Economic Education’s Stock Market Game. Tamara Marie Green, a public relations major at the University of Alabama, was inducted into the International Dean’s List Society.

Other April stories included the arrest of Devonta DeShawn Rollins, 20, of Atmore in the shooting death of a Flomaton man; the death of Waylon Daryl Mothershed, 45, who was shot during an argument at a Ross Road address; and the relocation of the city’s oldest resident, Barnetta Williams, 108, to Philadelphia.

Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce inducted six individuals, three posthumously, to the Atmore Area Hall of Fame. The living honorees were Danny Sanspree, Lou Vickery and Hope Zeanah; the inductees who had already passed away were Ken Barnett, John Garrard and Curtis Harris.
Economic development news again came to the forefront in May. The city of Atmore was awarded $300,000 Community Development Block Grant for extension of water and sewer lines to the site of the new Brown Precision plant at Rivercane Industrial Park, and a $500,000 street paving project was announced by city officials.

Doug Tanner was named by Infirmary Health to serve as president of Atmore Community Hospital; First National Bank & Trust promoted Wanda Hall to Chief Financial Officer and Sr. Vice President.

In education news, Atmore native Ralph L. “Tray” Smith III earned his Juris Doctor Degree from Tulane Law School; Dawn Malone retired after a 37-year teaching career at Huxford Elementary; EA senior Abby Smith was selected as one of the delegates for Southern Pine REMC’s Youth Tour in Washington, D.C.; and Jasmine N. Adams graduated summa cum laude from Alabama A&M University.

In other news of note, Ramon and Gloria Rydzowski celebrated their 65th anniversary; Haskew Middleton was honored on his 95th birthday; ECHS’s Anthony Fountain won the triple jump competition at the AHSAA state track meet; and the first in a series of “Save the Strand” concerts was held.

Jimmy Beck, a U.S. Navy veteran known for his smile and his easy-going manner, died at age 74. Beck, who was buried with full military honors, was one of the people who worked hardest to make the veterans monument at Atmore City Hall a reality.

Poarch Band of Creek Indians voters elected Eddie Tullis as treasurer and Dewitt Carter as at-large member. Charlotte McGhee Meckel later won a run-off against David Gehman for the tribe’s secretary position. City of Atmore officials got good news with the award of a federal grants to help pay for new city sidewalks and improvements at the municipal airport.

A South Main Street home (known as the Faircloth House), one of the city’s oldest residential structures, was heavily damaged when fire raged through it on a Sunday morning. A storm spawned straight-line winds that toppled several trees, downed power lines and dumped several inches of rain and a significant amount of hail on the city.

A South Main Street home, recognized as one of the oldest residential structures in Atmore, was all but destroyed by fire Sunday morning, June 12. The top floor of the home was engulfed in a few moments. Many people referred to the Main Street home as the Faircloth House.

In sports news, former ECHS football and basketball standout Derrick Mason was named head basketball coach at Eagles Landing Christian School in McDonough, Ga. It was Mason’s first head coaching job. Also, ECHS graduate and active-duty US Army infantry officer Dean Bushnell was one of just 559 participants to finish the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile endurance contest held in Kansas. Bushnell finished 248th overall and 30th in the division for men over the age of 50.

Other June news included the celebration by Lester and Goldie Huber of their Golden Anniversary; the publication of Atmore native Lee Merriwether Carver’s newest Christian novel, Retreat to Shelter Creek; and the Achievement Award bestowed by Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity upon the Rev. Dr. Isaac Williams on the occasion of his PhD in Religion from Morehouse School of Ministry.

The community lost another leader when Dr. Harold Q. Wilson passed away at age 88. Wilson practiced medicine locally for 52 years, including patients he saw privately, those in nursing homes and even in prison.

A Love March was held to display community unity in the wake of police-involved shootings across the nation. Nearly 300 people of all ages and races attended the event, which included speeches from several preachers, the city’s mayor and police chief, and the Poarch Tribe’s public safety director.

The county’s public education picture became a little brighter when Atmore native Debbie Bolden was hired as principal of ECMS. Bolden has spent 36 years in the Mobile School System, where she gained local, state and national notoriety for her leadership at high-minority and high-poverty schools.

In news related to law enforcement, veteran Atmore police officer Jimmy Jay retired after 33 years on the job; 27-year-old Kim Jennette Ross, was arrested for leaving her toddler inside a car while she shopped in Atmore’s Wal-Mart; a juvenile was arrested for burglaries committed at three downtown businesses; and Percy Nero Jr., 36, was arrested after he locked himself inside a house and threatened to kill police officers if they tried to remove him.

Wind Creek Atmore announced the closing of Baumhower’s Restaurant at Wind Creek Entertainment Center, and its replacement by B.B. King’s World Famous Café. In related news, Creek Travel Plaza was named 24th-best truck stop in the nation by the mobile app Trucker Path, and PCI Gaming purchased the Margaritaville bar and restaurant in Bossier City, La.

Other business news included the selection by American Institute of Real Estate Professionals of Debbie Rowell as one of the 10 best real estate professionals for customer satisfaction; the naming of Toby Short as vice president and IT director at First National Bank & Trust; and the multi-phase renovation of Atmore’s aging post office.

In other July happenings: the Strand Theatre hosted its first wedding; Nancy Karrick, state president of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, attended the sorority’s international convention in Nashville, Tenn.; and more than 1,000 people attended the Unity in the Community event at Grace Fellowship Church.

Jerry Gehman, one of the most ardent advocates of the return to the Gulf Coast of passenger rail service, was appointed to serve on the Southern Rail Commission; Erica Little, a nursing supervisor at ACH, became the local hospital’s first nurse to earn a Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree; J.C. Mitchell, a 30-year Atmore Police Department veteran, retired; and ECHS student Melea McGhee was selected as one of 25 youngsters nationwide to attend the Association of American Indian Physicians National Youth Initiative in Washington, D.C.

A fire destroyed the Sunset Drive home of a local businessman; an official announcement was made that Brown Precision would partner with Muskogee Technology on several projects; and the Wild Bunch Butt Burners barbecue team and David’s Catfish teamed to send pallets of water and canned food to residents of flood-ravaged Louisiana.

At a news conference officially announcing Brown Precision’s expansion to Atmore, Brown Precision CEO Dan Brown, left, talked with Escambia County High School Principal Dennis Fuqua. The new industry means 100 high-tech, high-paying jobs for this area.

An ECHS football player was wounded in a drive-by shooting; Atmore native Scottie Rodgers was named Tulane University’s Assistant Athletic Director for Strategic Communications; and Wind Creek Hospitality promoted Cody Williams to vice-president for regulatory affairs and compliance, Kay Simmons to property manager for Wind Creek’s hotel and casino in Wetumpka, and Terri Morris to assistant property manager for the Atmore facility.

Gaines Chapel AME Church celebrated its 111th anniversary and mortgage-burning on the same day; Jack Wright, chaplain of American Legion Post 90, was honored for 60 years continuous membership in the local group; and Roy and Miriam Classen celebrated 50 years of marriage.

Another piece of Atmore’s past was lost when Ernestine Miniard died at age 93. Mrs. Miniard and her husband Tom operated WATM radio station for 28 years. Cody Lee Johns, 19, died as a result of injuries suffered in an ATV-van collision.

Hundreds attended the Taste of the South event at Heritage Park, where David’s Catfish was the commercial winner, Atmore Lions club was amateur winner, Lacey McMath won for best dessert, and Atmore Community Hospital was selected as the best-decorated booth. Larry House and his son Justin were awarded $100 for bringing in the year’s first bale of cotton to Frank Currie Gin in McCullough.

There was more violence at Holman CI, where an inmate stabbed a corrections officer in the head in a dispute over extra food. The officer, 44-year-old Kenneth Bettis of Monroeville, later died as a result of the incident. Also during September, another Holman CI corrections officer – DeJuan Rudolph, 25, of Atmore – was arrested on numerous charges after he tried to smuggle in synthetic marijuana, cell phones and other objects into the prison.

The Brown Precision project got another shot in the arm with the announcement by officials of the U.S. Economic Development Administration that the agency had awarded a $1.9 million grant to the city for construction of an access road to the new plant.

In an event that drew national attention, a 22-year-old Flomaton woman, Makayla Smith, and three juveniles were arrested in the “Flomo Klowns” incident that included threats against an individual that were posted on a Facebook page. Another incident saw a juvenile charged with making terroristic threats after he allegedly waved a .22-caliber rifle at a passing city firetruck.

Other news during the month included the selection of students from ECHS to join a mass choir for the prestigious Festival at Carnegie Hall, the groundbreaking for Abundant Life Church of Deliverance, the awarding of a $10,000 Be Healthy School Grant to ECMS from Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the naming of Mary Beth Lancaster as Dean of Instruction at Jefferson Davis Community College.

Site preparation began for the Brown Precision plant; a Popeye’s restaurant opened; Frontier Communications announced the closing of its retail and payment office in Atmore; United Bank was chosen as the lending agency for $40 million in USDA Community Facility loans; Atmore City Councilwoman Susan Smith was one of 53 individuals from eight states chosen to take part in Delta Regional Authority’s Delta Leadership Institute Executive Academy, and eight-year city council veteran Cornell Torrence, who did not seek re-election, attended his final council session. Jerome Webster defeated Russell Robinson for the seat vacated by Torrence.

Jacquanda Webster was selected Homecoming Queen at ECHS; Bailey Lancaster was chosen as EA’s Homecoming Queen; Larry and Ann Davis celebrated 50 years of marriage; First National Bank & Trust awarded to Pilots for Christ the $14,000 raised in April’s Celebrity Waiter event; and Rachel Patterson Elementary

Principal Stephanie Jackson announced her retirement, effective at the end of the current school term.

Also in October, thousands of people from South Alabama, North Florida and beyond enjoyed music, food and arts and crafts at the 25th annual Williams Station Day celebration; hundreds of people, mostly children, enjoyed the 10th annual Stomp the Yard event at Houston Avery Park.

Atmore firefighters battled four house fires in five days, including one that destroyed a Rockaway Creek Road home and another that destroyed nearly all the possessions of a woman who had rented a Meadow Drive home just a week earlier. The fires came during imposition of a local ban on outdoor burning, a move made due to continuation of a drought of nearly three months.

October also included the first anniversary of Destiny Worship Center, as well as the announcement that Rus Drew, a 1980 graduate of ECHS, had been named police chief at Emory University, and a Professional Drag Racing Association world championship for Brandon Snider.

The Alabama Department of Corrections announced that it was closing Atmore Community Work Center and that its Southern Region Investigation and Intelligence Division would begin operating in December out of leased office space on North Main Street; a DOC officer, Sgt. Cyril Savol of Atmore, was one of 28 sergeants who made up the DOC’s first Sergeants Academy; and PRT announced that it would open a containerized forestry seedling nursery here.

Thousands from across the country attended the 46th annual Poarch Band of Creek Indians Thanksgiving Pow Wow; about 200 people attended the Community Thanksgiving Service held at Greater Mt. Triumph Missionary Baptist Church; and Grace Fellowship Church reported that Escambia County residents donated 3,155 shoe boxes to Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child program.

Quick action by city and area firefighters prevented the spread of a fire that erupted inside Swift Lumber’s mill; and firefighters were called to the scenes of 15 illegal outdoor burns in one afternoon. A McCullough woman, 47-year-old Kimberly Hardy Rolin, was charged with the murder of her husband, Eric Leon Rolin.

A record voter turnout resulted in decisive victories for Circuit Court Judge Dave Jordan and District Court Judge Jeff White, both incumbents who were appointed to their positions in 2014; PCI officials announced the impending construction of Owa, a $500 million complex (including a 14-acre lake) that will consist of an amusement park, hotel, restaurants and shops in Foley; Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Jim Byard delivered to city officials a $450,000 grant to fund sewer improvements in Atmore’s Short Street area, along with a $350,000 grant to county commissioners for improvement of and enhancement to Freemanville’s water system.

In other stories that evolved during November: Archbishop Thomas Rodi presided over mass at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church during the Celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe; Travis and Dorothy Baggett celebrated their 74th anniversary; Robert R. McGhee was selected as vice president of United Southern and Eastern Tribes; United Fund coffers swelled by more than $28,000 as a result of the organization’s Sundown Slammer fundraiser; and Kappa Alpha Psi inducted Alfred W. Johnson into its ranks.

As the year’s final month began, the city’s first public school for people of color – Escambia County Training School – was recognized with a historical marker and a place on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. The marker commemorating ECTS, one of four Rosenwald Schools in the county, and its place in local and state history represents the first such marker ever issued for a structure located inside the city of Atmore.

The Escambia County Training School was honored with a marker from the Alabama Historical Commission. The dedication ceremony was held December 2.

Also in December, fire destroyed First Baptist Church, the McCullough community’s oldest house of worship, and Nokomis Volunteer Fire Department was approved for a $199,000 loan-grant with which to build a new station. In lighter news, AFD personnel were joined by several costumed characters, including numerous “Super Heroes,” during a successful toy drive; hundreds enjoyed Poarch’s Christmas parade, while an estimated 10,000 lined city streets for Atmore’s Christmas parade.

Douglas Oliver, 26, was arrested on a charge of attempted murder for the Nov. 25 shooting of an Atmore man, Anthony Jerome Riley, in the parking lot of Special Occasions, a South Main Street business. The shooting victim survived, and city officials revoked the license of the business. An 18-year-old, David Tyler Vickery, was arrested and charged with eight counts of breaking and entering an automobile, along with three counts of theft, for a string of break-ins that occurred along Rockaway Creek Road and Forest Hill Drive.

Three young men with local ties – Devin Morrow, Zach Locklar and Nathaniel Hawthorne – died within a few days of each other as a result of injuries received in separate accidents. Infirmary Health reported that a former employee improperly accessed “about 1,000” patient records, primarily patient names, admission dates and “flowsheets.” Hospital officials say the unnamed employee, who was terminated, did not distribute the information outside the hospital.

In December’s education news, Hillary Byrd earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Troy University’s Sorrell College of Business; Matthew Kyle Barnett earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Auburn University Montgomery; Wade Heigle was hired as the new headmaster at Escambia Academy; Brooke Doolittle, a sophomore at ECHS, was selected as a delegate to the Congress of Future Medical Leaders, to be held in Lowell, Mass. in June; and the Escambia County Board of Education accepted a bid of $2.1 million for the renovation of Hodnette Auditorium at ECHS.

In news with a business bent, Rivercane received AdvantageSite designation from the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, making the local industrial park more attractive to prospective industrial concerns, and United Bank promoted four women – Abby Wiggins and Jane Woods (each to vice president), and Cecelia Harrison and Tonya Lambert (each to assistant vice president).

In other news, hundreds walked the streets of Atmore – enjoying after-hours shopping, food, music and more – during the annual Jingle Bell Walk, and the 16th annual Toyz for Kidz Christmas Ride by LA Bikers included presentation of gifts to needy children, nursing home residents and hospital patients.