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2017: A year of promise(s)

South Boston News
Construction of the new VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in the late stages.
SoVaNow.com / January 03, 2018
The Sun begins 2018 by pausing to look back at the year that was: Our Top 10 stories of 2017 ran the gamut from promises kept (a new hospital in South Hill) to early hopes dashed (determining a site for a new consolidated middle school-high school to replace the four current Bluestone/Park View buildings). It was a momentous year any way you look at it.

Here’s the list:



1. VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital opens for business.

It took just under two years from the time of groundbreaking for VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital to usher in a new era of patient care with a state-of-the art, $93 million hospital on the north edge of South Hill.

Construction began in 2015, and by October 2017 the public was touring the new 166,700-square foot, technologically-advanced medical center, with its 70 private patient rooms, three operating room suites, a cesarean section suite, a 16-bay emergency department and an Obstetrics department with four LDRP rooms (Labor, delivery, Recovery, Postpartum), permanent cardiac catheterization lab, serenity gardens, and room to grow.

While patient move day on Nov. 11 marked a significant milestone for the hospital, it was one of many to come. On Nov. 20, the Obstetrics department officially opened, and less than a day later, at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, Lane Joseph Newton became the first baby delivered inside the new Garland Birthing Center and the first child born at a hospital in Mecklenburg County since March 2012 — when CMH stopped providing obstetrics care at its old facility on Buena Vista Circle.

Construction continues on the new C.A.R.E. comprehensive medical services building on the new hospital campus. That building, slated to open in 2018, will house physician practices, administrative offices, cardiac and pulmonary rehab and education, and on-site living quarters for medical residents coming in from VCU Health in Richmond. Scott Burnette, VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital CEO, also says he expects 2018 to be the year the hospital board decides what will be done with the old hospital building in residential South Hill.



2. The site is still pending for Mecklenburg’s consolidated high school/middle school complex.

As the year began, it looked as if the county Board of Supervisors and School Board had finally come together on plans to build a single countywide school complex for students in the upper grades. By mid-February, potential differences over the process for picking a building site bubbled up as a majority of school trustees made it clear that they wanted funding, but not supervisors’ input, on where to locate the new facility.

Since then, the two boards have met several times — most recently Dec. 20 — in unsuccessful attempts to reach consensus on the best location for the new consolidated high school/middle school complex.

Despite the inability of the boards to reach agreement on a location, the Board of Supervisors, on Oct. 2, committed $50 million to the project. Supervisors encouraged trustees to move forward with hiring an architect to begin designing the new buildings — a suggestion that was summarily dismissed by a majority of the school board, without explanation.

At the end of the year, with plans for a school no further along than when the year began, longtime Bluestone band director Ricky Allgood implored trustees to act. He said he was speaking for a majority of the public and the teaching staff when he admonished the School Board to stop dragging their feet and drop the infighting for the good of students and the county’s economic future.

“I think I have a mascot for our new school,” he said. “The Procrastinators should be our mascot. I don’t mean to be fussing at you guys [school trustees], but you were elected to build our new schools. I feel like there is too much one end fighting the other end, jockeying for where you want to put the school …. You are not moving quick enough and it needs to be done. When people look at bringing industries and moving into this county, when they see our facilities they are not going to come here. Please, please drop the bipartisan things going on. Drop it for the good of the kids.”

3. Plans for solar farms sprout up around Chase City.

Chase City became the center of a debate on allowing utility-scale solar facilities to operate in Mecklenburg. The town, surrounded by thousands of acres of open farmland bisected by power transmission lines, and with nearby access to underutilized power substations, was being courted by several companies looking to install sprawling solar arrays.

Developers cited the many ways these projects would support the stated goals and objectives of the county’s comprehensive plan — preserving the rural character of the county and attracting new industry, albeit one with few long-term jobs. Developers also hinted that major corporations with a commitment towards green energy would consider moving to Mecklenburg County. Meanwhile, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors fretted over the loss of prime agricultural property and questioned the logic of a town — Chase City — that was willing to encircle itself with a single industry that would tie up future development opportunities for nearly 40 years.

After much debate and a modification of the county’s zoning ordinance, the Board of Supervisors approved requests from three companies: Carolina Solar’s Bluestone Farm, a 70-megawatt farm on 330 acres on Spanish Grove Road; Brookfield Renewable’s Otter Creek project, a 60-megawatt facility on 682 acres, also on Spanish Grove Road; and Geenex’s Grasshopper project, an 80-megawatt farm on 915 acres at the intersection of Highways 47 and 49.

In the end, Chase City may have been the biggest winner in the debate over solar energy because Mac Bailey, who is selling the farmland that will house the Grasshopper facility, is donating $500,000 to a nonprofit corporation for the benefit of the residents in that town.



4. Jessica and Savannah Baker convicted in death of toddler.

In May, more than a year after 3-year-old Alonzo Troy “A.J.” Roane Jr. died from blunt force trauma to the head while in the care of his step-grandmother, Jessica Baker, she was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in his death.

Presiding Circuit Judge Leslie Osborn accepted an Alford plea by Baker to the charge, thereby enabling her to avoid the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison.

Little “A.J.” died of blunt force trauma on Feb. 3, 2016, after suffering at least a day without medical attention for his internal injuries. His lifeless body was transported to the hospital by EMS after Baker was stopped by law enforcement on the way to South Hill from her Boydton home.

Baker never acknowledged the role she played in the brutal death of the toddler. Instead, she consistently claimed A.J. fell on steps outside her home, dealing a blow to the head that caused his brain to hemorrhage and resulted in his death.

The child was the son of Spring and Terrance Bryant of Halifax. Jessica Baker is Terrance Bryant’s mother. Prior to his death, the toddler was in the care of Baker at her Boydton home on Mineral Springs Road.

Also in May, Baker’s daughter and Roane’s aunt, Savannah Morganne Baker, was implicated in the death of the three-year-old. She was sentenced to two years in prison for her role in the abuse of Roane, stemming from telephone conversations between mother and daughter while Savannah was being held in a local jail. In those conversations, prosecutors argued Savannah conspired with Jessica to commit child abuse.



5. Stage Stores closes South Hill distribution center.

Houston-based Stage Stores, Inc. announced in September that it would close its South Hill distribution center by the end of January 2018 as part of a plan to increase the efficiency of its distribution network. The closure affects nearly 100 workers at the local distribution center, according to the company.

Stage operates three other distribution centers in Texas, Ohio and Nebraska. Operations from the Virginia distribution center will be transferred to these facilities. Randi Sosenshein, Stage’s senior vice president of finance and strategy, said it was unlikely that the other distribution centers would absorb workers being displaced in South Hill.

The closing of the distribution center comes after Stage shuttered its South Hill corporate headquarters in 2013. That operation was a holdover from Peebles, which originated in Lawrenceville and later established its corporate offices in South Hill. With the closing of the distribution center, Mecklenburg County economic development officials crafted a grant request to the Virginia Tobacco Commission for money to purchase the building for future use.



6. Historic preservation blooms around county.

Three iconic buildings in Mecklenburg — Chase City’s Southside Roller Mill, Clarksville’s Planter’s Warehouse and South Hill’s John Groom School — are prepped to receive new life thanks to developers and building owners who see the benefit of saving the structures and who are able to tap historic tax credits to finance the work.

Their future was nearly jeopardized by Congress’ tax overhaul bill that was signed into law on December 22. Early versions of the legislation would have eliminated the federal historic tax credit program. In the end, the financing tool was saved (albeit slightly altered), thus paving the way for further such projects.

In June, a band of local history buffs led by Earl West, Mary Anne Wood, Patricia Williams, and Richie Richards purchased the former Southside Roller Mill in Chase City. Preservation Virginia calls the old mill “a rare surviving example of an early 20th-century commercial/industrial building with all of its functional interior elements intact, including: millstones, chutes, sifters, presses, and engines.”

Repairs to the 105-year-old building began immediately, with initial funding coming from local residents and a $20,000 donation from Carolina Solar Energy. The group is pursuing other funds, including the use of historic tax credits.

When work is completed, the mill will reopen as a museum and consignment/gift shop. Future renovations could see the gardens behind the old mill become an entertainment venue.

Petersburg developer Dave McCormack got word in August that financing was secured to revitalize Clarksville’s historic Planter’s Warehouse. The building once housed the oldest continuously existing tobacco warehouse in the United States.

The money for the $1.7 million project comes from a combination of historic tax credits, an industrial revenue development loan through Carter Bank and Trust, and a $600,000 state industrial revitalization fund grant (IRF).

McCormack plans to transform the dilapidated former tobacco warehouse into 2,500 square feet of commercial space and market rate, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

February’s vote by South Hill Town Council to adopt a series of incentives for the redevelopment and rehabilitation of historic buildings inside town limits paved the way for Landmark Development Corporation to move forward with plans to convert the John Groom School on Plank Road into multi-family apartments.

Built in 1948 and expanded in 1954 and 1959, the school is a mid-20th century educational facility built for African American students. Later, it became South Hill Primary School.

Another local historic site, St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, was sold in late November to Xinhua Education Investment Corporation.

Little is known about the Chinese-backed purchaser or future plans for St. Paul’s, a Historically Black University or College (HBUC). According to the State Corporation Commission, the purchaser was formed in Virginia in August by David Z. Liu, an immigration lawyer based in Vienna.

Locals hope that whatever use Liu intends for the site, it will be in keeping with the historic nature of the school which operated from 1888 until it closed in 2013.



7. Social media threats disrupt school activities.

Despite a policy that limited the use of cell phones on school campuses, students used social media more than once to disrupt the school day. In August, a 13-year old male was arrested after he posted a picture of an assault-style firearm on a social media site along with a caption warning students to stay away from Park View High School.

The boy, who lives in Brodnax, told sheriff’s deputies that the post was a “joke” he sent to five of his friends. But the post went viral and more than 200 students stayed away from school on Monday, August 21 after learning of the threat.

In October, a Brunswick High School student forced the cancellation of a Friday night football game with Park View after he posted death threats on social media. He used Snapchat to send a message containing a threat to kill five students from either Brunswick or Park View high schools.

School officials called off the game beforehand, after consulting with sheriffs in both Brunswick and Mecklenburg.

The student was charged with making death threats or threats involving serious bodily injury to a person on school property.

In an attempt to head off instances where cell phones and social media could be used to cause panic or disrupt school activities, the Mecklenburg County School Board in May adopted a policy that prevents students from using their phones while on school property unless instructed by a teacher. Unfortunately, both occurrences took place while the students were off-campus and outside of school hours.



8. School facilities deemed beyond repair.

In August, school trustees and county supervisors appeared surprised by the deplorable state of school facilities in Mecklenburg County, despite years of complaints from teachers, parents, maintenance workers and others. Their reactions were noted following a full day spent touring the two middle and high schools in Skipwith and South Hill.

The touring party observed broken urinals, toilet stalls without doors, non-working showers, asbestos-laden floors and ceilings, and broken-down and antiquated boilers. These were overlaid with the scent of mold and mildew and raw sewage wafting through the air.

The tour was initiated by School Maintenance Director Brian Dalton and Superintendent Paul Nichols, to impress upon county decision-makers the dire straits of the secondary education facilities — a not-so-subtle prod to both boards to make a decision on where to locate the county’s new combined high school-middle school complex.

Ahead of the tour, Dalton prepared a summary of the challenges his staff must deal with just to provide tolerable conditions for students in grades 6-12; the list of particulars includes critter control, extermination, boiler repairs, and cable repair, to name a few. Principals at all four schools complained of classrooms that flood during rainstorms, inadequate lighting, ventilation and heating systems that regularly fail, gymnasiums and classrooms without air conditioning and plumbing lines that are so old they’ve disintegrated, causing regular back ups of sewage in the toilets and sinks.

Despite expressions of shock and outrage among members who took the time to tour the facilities, the two boards ended the year no further along with plans to construct new facilities.



9. South Hill enacts a cigarette tax in the heart of Virginia’s tobacco country.

A proposal to tax the sale of cigarettes in South Hill to support the town budget ran into vociferous opposition from retailers, vendors and local citizens. The initial proposal called for a 30 cent per-pack tax, which was estimated to generate some $150,000 in annual revenue for the town.

Retailers and convenience store owners predicted the tax would drive off customers. Instead of shopping at their neighborhood convenience store, smokers would drive an additional mile or two outside the town limits where cigarettes were cheaper, shop owners argued.

One member of Town Council, Lillie Feggins-Boone, called the tax regressive in that it would most negatively impact poor people without transportation. They would be forced to pay additional money for their cigarettes, while others had the ability to purchase the same product more cheaply in stores outside of South Hill town limits, argued Feggins-Boone.

South Hill Council ultimately approved a 15 cent per-pack tax, which went into effect July 1,



10. Bill Blalock retires.

The state’s longest-serving county supervisor gave up his seat effective November 6, ending a public service career that dates back to 1968. Throughout his tenure, Blalock was known as a staunch fiscal watchdog who was also dedicated to his constituents. He may be best remembered for taking up the fight to save Buckhorn Elementary School from closure — but the school was shuttered anyway — and for his ongoing beef with VDOT and its Six-Year Road Improvement plan. Blalock was always quick to point out that few if any roads were paved as called for under the plan, much to his dismay.



Passages: This year, in addition to the retirement of Bill Blalock, the community saw the passing of former Chase City Mayor Duke Reid and former Supervisor Tommy Brankley.

Reid served Chase City as its mayor from 1998 to 2008, and for four years before that as a member of Town Council. Brankley spent 16 years representing the people of ED-8 in the Chase City and Trottinridge area, in the seat currently held by his son, David.

Too often, the news was dominated by deadly vehicle crashes in the county.

Samuel Brummell III of Clarksville was killed in March when his car overturned and hit an embankment on Highway 49 South near Nelson. A Buffalo Junction man, Thomas Lee Morton, died from injuries he received in a one-car crash on Gillis Mountain Road near Virgilina.

The month of June proved particularly deadly on the roadways. On June 10, a member of a family from Bellport, New York died from injuries sustained in a single-car crash on Interstate 85. Two separate accidents over a single weekend at the end of June claimed the lives of a 4-month old child from Brodnax, Laila N. Hawkins-Manning, and a Chase City man, Joshua P. Smith.

75-year-old Ronald H. Gooch of Skipwith died in July when his car ran off the road and struck a tree near Middle School Road. September saw the death of 22-year old Megan Moore of Chase City when she, too, struck a tree while driving near the intersection of Routes 47 and 92.

Students at Park View High School were overcome with grief early in September after learning that Brianna Bugg, a standout senior student-athlete, died after the car in which she was a passenger was struck head-on by a drunk driver. At the time of the crash, Bugg and her family were on the way to Greensville, N.C. to watch a football game between East Carolina University and James Madison University.

The end of the year brought news of three more tragic deaths. Beloved schoolteachers Donald and Julia McInturf and popular contractor and avid hunter Steve Parks died after their cars collided near the intersection of Highway 92 and Spanish Grove Road near Chase City.

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