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The Top 25

South Boston News / January 02, 2014
Each year has its Top 10 stories, right?


Whatever else you want to say about 2013, rarely was there a dull moment during any one of the 365 days that made up the year — not in Mecklenburg County, at least. In compiling The Sun’s list of the top stories of 2013, we blew past the 10-story limit faster than out-of-town motorists barreling down U.S. 58 through La Crosse. Luckily for us, there’s no way this can result in us getting slapped with a speeding ticket. (Right?)

But here’s the thing — as long as the assignment calls for shoehorning the year’s top stories into a neat, arbitrarily numbered package, we figured we might as well choose a number that makes sense. Only ten headlines all year that screamed out for attention? No way. We came up with 25 stories, easy, that would make a strong claim to any ordinary year-end list.

So the Top 25 stories of 2013 it will be.

We’ll try to make this as brief as possible:

Industry closings, layoffs pummel South Hill and surrounding area. The year got off to a positively rotten start with the closing of the Peebles corporate office, a downsizing by International Veneer Company in South Hill, and the sudden departure of Home Care Industries in La Crosse. The wave of closings cost the area some 400 jobs and propelled Mecklenburg into the ranks of Virginia’s highest-unemployment communities. On the bright side, Home Care resumed business mid-year with the new ownership vowing to restore many of the 120 jobs that were eliminated in January. So there’s that.

Clarksville’s annexation. Well now, there’s one that didn’t take too long to accomplish, did it? Not if you count in geological time. Otherwise, it required more than a decade for Clarksville to complete its takeover of 650 acres, a far cry from its initial plan to incorporate more than 3,700 acres on the outskirts of town. The annexation went into effect at midnight on Jan. 1, 2014.

In the end, each side claimed victory — for Clarksville, the annexation swept up the large industrial site that once housed Burlington Industries, and for Mecklenburg County, it led to effective control over two major industrial parks, Kinderton Technology Park and Lakeside Commerce Park.

After Clarksville’s long fight with Mecklenburg County to expand its boundaries, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and consulting fees and pitting neighbor against neighbor in a long-running debate on the wisdom of expansion, the question practically begs to be asked: Which town will be next to try its luck?

Remakes for Community Memorial Healthcenter and Halifax Regional Health System. At CMH in South Hill, the big news was the opening of the Solari Radiation Therapy Center in August. Operated in tandem with VCU Massey Cancer Center, the CMH Solari Center, named after benefactors Bill and Sylvia Solari of Bracey, allows cancer patients to receive radiation therapy at home — a major step forward for Southside Virginia medicine.

In South Boston, Halifax Regional Health SystemW merged into Norfolk-based Sentara Healthcare — which took over the South Boston hospital, the two HRHS nursing homes (one being MeadowView Terrace in Clarksville), family medical clinics (including in Clarksville, Chase City and Charlotte County), physicians practices and other assets, all for a cool $115 million over 10 years. Hospital officials hailed the Sentara partnership as the local health system’s best bet for future growth. On that score, a non-Sentara related development: MeadowView Terrace is set to gain an additional 18 beds, the result of HRHS purchasing a shuttered South Boston nursing home and transferring its beds to MeadowView and its South Boston cousin, The Woodview nursing home.

Lastly on the hospital front, CMH officials spent a good part of 2013 searching for their own prospective affiliation partner. At year’s end, the list of CMH takeover candidates included VCU Health System, Duke Lifepoint Healthcare and Bon Secours Health System. The outcome of the search — its resolution is expected sometime in the first half of 2014 — is a sure-fire entry on next year’s list of The Sun’s top stories.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton comes, and stays, under fire. It would take the full grueling length of a Mecklenburg County School Board meeting to recount all the rancor and controversy that dogged the county’s school chief in 2013.

Among the flashpoints of dispute: doubts over the implementation of Project-Based Learning, accusations of wasteful spending, improper use of the school’s activity funds, the future of high school band and algebra instruction, a disappointing set of SOL test scores, and tussles with the Board of Supervisors over everything from the abandoned Buckhorn Elementary building to dubious financial audits to a perceived climate of intimidation within the school system.

All that said, Thornton retained the support of the School Board majority and counted some victories in 2013, including modest raises for school staff, and the construction of three new gymnasiums and new classrooms at Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse Elementary Schools. Will 2014’s waters turn out to be any calmer for the controversial superintendent? Stay tuned.

St. Paul’s College turns out the lights. True, the historically black college is — or was — located outside the county in the Town of Lawrenceville, but the demise of the 125-year-old institution dealt a blow to the entire region, Mecklenburg included. After years of financial difficulties that took a toll on the integrity of the curriculum, St. Paul’s finally called it quits at the end of June. Its final plan to stay alive — by arranging an acquisition by Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., a fellow Historically Black College and University (HBCU) — failed when the would-be suitor institution begged off the deal.

The demise of St. Paul’s cost dozens of jobs and forced some 125 students to continue their college educations elsewhere. The closing also left the Town of Lawrenceville with a void that will be extremely difficult to fill.

New power plant gets the go-ahead in Brunswick County. Stepping outside Mecklenburg’s boundaries once more, the Dominion Virginia Power project outside of Lawrenceville — a $1.3 billion, natural-gas fired generator — makes our list of top stories on the basis of its sheer size alone. Approved by the State Corporation Commission in August, the project will create nearly 400 jobs during the construction phase, now underway. Given everything else that happened in 2013, those jobs can’t come to the area fast enough.

Buggs Island Telephone’s expansion hits a rough patch. Three years ago, Bracey-based BIT embarked on an ambitious venture to bring high-speed wireless Internet to 15 Virginia counties, but technological and managerial shortcomings dragged down the project, culminating in the departure of BIT’s general manager, Mickey Sims, in April. The telephone cooperative avoided having to return federal grant funds that it had obtained to build the new system, but BIT was forced to give up much of its envisioned coverage area to AT&T. The cooperative remains hopeful of providing wireless service to five counties, among them Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Lunenburg.

Chase City loses a landmark. The roof over the old Leggett Department Store at the corner of Second and Main collapsed in August, leading to the condemnation of the building and its subsequent demolition in November. The dismantling of the downtown landmark was fairly swift but nonetheless painful, reminding Chase City residents of the town’s diminished economic fortunes. When Leggett’s opened in 1947, the store was one on the largest retailers in Chase City and contributed to the town’s status as a shopping hub for the Southside area.

Now, an empty lot occupies the space where the building once stood, a symbol than no one particularly cares to see.

Uranium mining hits the skids. Long-sought plans for a uranium mine upstream from the Lake Country, in Pittsylvania County, were placed on hold at the end of the year following Terry McAuliffe’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race. McAuliffe, an avowed skeptic of uranium mining, reiterated his opposition shortly after prevailing with his gubernatorial bid, which in turn convinced Virginia Uranium, Inc., which had sought to mine the 110-million pound ore deposit, to shelve its legislative efforts to overturn the state’s mining ban. At the start of 2013, Virginia Uranium saw a bill to regulate the industry go down in flames, with local legislators Frank Ruff and Tommy Wright helping to beat back the industry’s lobbying at the General Assembly.

Lorenda Wells convicted of welfare fraud. In November, the ex-Department of Social Services employee and Baskerville resident was convicted of 14 counts of welfare fraud, falsification of documents and forgery in one of the worst local public corruption cases in recent memory. Wells got a year in jail for scamming food stamp benefits that she had been entrusted to administer. Originally charged with 27 separate offenses in February, Wells, 44, was convicted of 14 charges and ordered to repay nearly $12,000 in known stolen funds and court costs.

Former MacCallum More director sentenced for embezzlement. Chase City’s stately museum and gardens struggled to overcome the theft of some $14,000 in operating funds by its former director, Amber Moore, who in November entered an Alford plea conceding her guilt. She will spend 15 months in prison for the crime. Meantime, MacCallum More closed for a brief period in 2013 due to its precarious financial situation. The museum and gardens has reopened, albeit with a pressing need for further support from the community.

A brazen bank robbery in Clarksville. Two masked assailants walked into the Clarksville branch of Bank of America in late June and robbed tellers at gunpoint, setting off a manhunt that ended later in the summer with the arrest of three suspects. Police have implicated the men — the alleged bank robbers and driver of the getaway vehicle — in a series of store robberies in North Carolina. Arrested in North Carolina, they will stand trial in Mecklenburg for the bank heist, carried out in broad daylight.

Mecklenburg’s connection to Virginia’s political scandal of the year. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, once touted as a potential candidate for president, is expected to find out in 2014 if he will face indictment for taking gifts from tobacco industry impresario Jonnie Williams, founder of Star Scientific, formerly Star Tobacco. Before he became famous for playing the role of Sugar Daddy to Virginia’s governor and the First Family, Williams was notable for expanding Star Scientific in Mecklenburg County, where the company leased out curing barns for the production of low-nitrosamines tobacco and operated a packaging and warehousing plant in Chase City.

Long before he showered favors on the governor, Williams vowed to revitalize the region’s farm economy with a line of innovative, tobacco-based products. Instead, his investment led to a tax dispute in Mecklenburg Circuit Court that raised a separate set of questions about Williams’ gifts to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, accused by political opponents of slow-walking the million-dollar tax case against Star. From almost every conceivable angle, Williams’ promises have come to naught.

County supervisor Jim Jennings convicted of an election-related offense. The crime may seem innocuous enough — failure to properly witness signatures on a candidate filing petition — but the transgression landed Board of Supervisors member Jim Jennings in hot water in 2013. In February, Jennings was indicted on a felony count of willfully making a false material statement on his filing for the 2011 supervisors race, a Class 5 felony punishable by a fine up to $2,500 and ten years in prison. After a brief investigation and prosecution, Jennings entered a guilty plea to a reduced misdemeanor charge, for which he paid a $1,000 fine and accepted a six-month suspended jail sentence. Afterwards, the chagrined supervisor apologized to constituents.

Southside’s deadliest day. In early April, five people died in a crash on Interstate 85 south of Alberta just past the Mecklenburg County line. The carnage was caused by a Richmond driver who headed the wrong direction on I-85, precipitating a head-on collision by two vehicles. All of the victims lived outside Mecklenburg County. There were other terrible accidents during the year, but none that matched the toll of this mishap in the pre-dawn hours of an early spring day.

Boydton celebrates its new satellite jail. Spun off from the Meherrin River Regional Jail system, the new Boydton jail opened in January — much to delight of local law enforcement officials who sought a satellite facility to cut down on the drive time from transporting inmates to the main regional jail in Alberta. Officials said the construction costs are offset by the savings achieved from not having to house inmates to other prison systems.

Microsoft’s expansion continues. The technology giant, widely seen as the top corporate name in Mecklenburg’s lineup of employers, spent much of 2013 adding two more data-processing hubs to its Boydton cloud-computing campus. The $348 million investment created 30 new jobs. That data up in the cloud? There’s a decent chance some of it’s about you.

Lake Gaston turns 50. It was a Warren County, N.C. high school class that first figured out that Lake Gaston reached the mid-century mark in 2013 — a happy accident that ensued from a school project to create a written history of the lake’s history and folklore from the time of its founding in 1963. Once Gaston residents realized the milestone was approaching, they staged a grand, extended celebration to commemorate the occasion. Gaston’s 50th birthday followed on the heels of the 60th anniversary of Kerr Lake, neé Buggs Island Lake, in 2012.

Outdoors recreational facilities take shape. The year witnessed the dawn of three projects for the adventure-minded: the Max B. Crowder Memorial Park at the old Whittles Mill site, which is an entry point for the Meherrin River blueway trail near South Hill; and universal-access kayak boat launches on the Roanoke River, at the U.S. 1 Steel Bridge, and at the Tailrace Park below Kerr Dam. In addition, work was nearly finished on a 16-mile stretch of the Tobacco Heritage Trail from La Crosse to Lawrenceville, by far the longest stretch built on the envisioned 150-mile rails-to-trail system. Also making solid progress: the Island Creek Project, a universal-access fishing pier and park on Buggs Island Lake near Townsville, N.C. Spearheading the development are the Sgt. Earle Davis Gregory American Legion Post #45 and the Roanoke River Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #8163, with the fundraising assistance of the Kinderton Women’s Club.

Satterwhite Point operators unfurl plans for Rochichi marina. The Rochichi marina project, stalled after its previous developers ran into financing woes, received a boost when Scott and Catherine Hughes of Bracey, operators of the Satterwhite Point Marina near Henderson, N.C., stepped in to take over. The Hughes struck a deal with county officials to revive the marina project, which, once built, will give Buggs Island Lake a marina roughly at the lake’s mid-point. Buggs Island Lake, with its expansive 800-mile shoreline, currently has only four marinas serving the boating public. The Hughes are projecting completion of Phase I of the marina project by spring 2014.

Jeff Jones takes over as Clarksville’s town manager. Jones, a local native and former administrator for the county school system, won the job as Clarksville’s new town manager and immediately brought a fresh set of eyes and new energy to the position. Jones, who succeeded interim town manager Dr. Charles Lee, in his first year presided over the completion of Clarksville’s annexation quest, begun more than a decade earlier by the last non-interim town manager, Melinda Moran.

Buggs Island Lake facilities placed off-limits by federal government shutdown. Washington, D.C.’s manufactured crises in 2013 were mercifully brief and far removed from everyday life, but the Congressional impasse that prompted a 16-day partial government shutdown in October did touch one aspect of Mecklenburg County life — Corps of Engineers-run recreational facilities on Buggs Island Lake. It’s just a good thing the shutdown of boat ramps, day-use areas and campgrounds didn’t occur at the height of tourism season on the lake. Meantime, the federal budget sequester — another hot-button issue at the nation’s capital — put a crimp in Corps operations, with its employees left to cope with work furloughs and program cutbacks.

Summer ball tournaments provide a boost for Clarksville economy. It was a big year on the ball fields as the Town of Clarksville hosted more than 40 boys and girls teams taking part in Dixie Youth tournaments in late June. To prepare for the influx, the Town and Clarksville Dixie Youth, Inc. renovated the historic Robbins Park, providing a much-praised venue to go with the previously-expanded Shaver Field. The result: a top-shelf display of youth baseball and softball and a crush of business for the town’s merchants. Play ball, indeed.

A tale of two buildings. Our final entry on the list of the year’s top stories involves two stately Mecklenburg County landmarks that experienced divergent fates: the Southside Roller Mill in Chase City, which is being renovated by owner Harry Click to serve as a possible museum or entertainment venue, and the Planters Warehouse in Clarksville, which is facing possible demolition following a roof collapse (shades of the Leggett building in Chase City). The outcome with both buildings will have an enormous impact on each town’s profile, this time with Chase City in the forefront of positive change and Clarksville wondering what can be done to save a 173-year-old downtown fixture.

Honorable mentions: (yes, there are more than a few candidates left to choose from): the November general election that saw a Democratic sweep of the state’s top three positions; the passing of many prominent residents, including South Hill historian Max B. Crowder and former Clarksville mayor and Kerr Dam operator Buck Buchanan; the establishment of the Mecklenburg County Tourism Office; and an FBI/Virginia State Police/U.S. Postal Service raid at the Farmers Foods corporate office in Chase City in October.

Whatever else you want to say about 2013, it was a banner year for local news.

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