At the end of each year, The Robesonian’s newsroom brain trust designates what it believes are the top 10 stories of the year, with the most weight being given to the stories that affected the most lives.
As you read them, understand that they are not ranked in any order, but are assembled to the degree that was possible in chronological order. And we acknowledge you might disagree. Happy new year — editor.
It was a year of turmoil for the Lumbee Tribe, which saw the firing of a tribal administrator; resignation of a tribal chairman; battles over the administration of tribal finances; disagreement over the legitimacy of one individual holding the tribe’s chairmanship and a district seat on the Tribal Council at the same time; and another unsuccessful attempt to obtain federal recognition.
In late March, the Tribal Council fired the tribe’s administrator, Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, after months of battling with Chairman Purnell Swett to see Lowry’s contract. Swett, himself, resigned his position in May, citing health reasons.
Sharon Hunt, the tribe’s vice chairwoman, was elevated to the tribe’s top leadership position after Swett’s resignation. She declined to step down from her District 2 council seat, however, even after the tribe’s Supreme Court ruled that she could not serve both as the tribe’s chairwoman and hold a seat on the council at the same time.
Hunt was immediately thrust into the role of the tribe’s chief negotiator with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials over an audit that found that the tribe owed the government a repayment of $114,000 for misuse of housing funds.
The audit, conducted by HUD’s Eastern Woodlands Office during the time Swett was tribal chairman, found a number of funding misappropriations that included the former tribal administrator’s salary and benefits; extensive amounts spent on consultants; lease overpayments; and excessive and unnecessary reimbursement to tribal government officials and employees for travel expenses.
Under Hunt’s leadership, the money owed to the government was reduced at the end of October to $98,093. Of that total, a portion had already been paid back for lease overpayment, leaving only $88,321 to be repaid. That money, according to a tribal spokesman, will be paid back out of HUD funds the tribe is slated to receive for housing programs.
A special election for tribal chair was held on Nov. 15, with Paul Brooks, a Pembroke businessman and long-time activist in the American Indian community, becoming the tribe’s fifth chairman.
Since taking office, Brooks has emphasized the need for “unity”among Lumbee tribal members.
Bakery opens in Pembroke
In April, Robeson County’s economy received a sweet boost with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s announcement that Steven Roberts Original Desserts and Ticklebelly Desserts planned to open a bakery in Pembroke.
The Denver, Colo., company, which creates, manufactures and sells premium frozen desserts directly to restaurants, hotels, theaters and gourmet grocery stores, is now operating out of a renovated building on Jones Street that over the years since 1991 has housed Daniels Bakery, Mrs. Smith Bakery and George’s Foods.
At an official announcement April 12, Perdue said that the company plans to create 342 jobs and invest more than $4 million over the next five years in Pembroke. She also said that the company’s arrival in Pembroke was made possible in part by a $392,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund, which provides financial assistance through local governments to attract businesses that will stimulate economic activity and create new jobs.
The salaries for the new jobs created by Steven Roberts and Ticklebelly vary by specific job, but company officials say the average annual salary is $22,926 plus benefits.
Carter installed as UNCP chancellor
Kyle R. Carter was officially installed as the chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on April 16, nine and a half months after first taking over as the university’s leader.
According to Scott Bigelow, the university’s associate director of public relations, the official installation of a new chancellor is usually done within the first year of his taking over university leadership.
“It celebrates our new leader, and, equally important, the institution itself,” Bigelow said.
The installation ceremony ended a week of events celebrating the chancellor and the university. Carter is UNCP’s fifth chancellor.
A native of Atlanta, Carter is a 35-year veteran of higher education. His leadership skills were tested shortly after arriving at UNCP when a state budget shortfall required a tuition increase of 6.5 percent for the 2011-2012 school year.
Carter has stated that his goals for the university include adapting to the “new normal” in terms of the financial climate, graduating more students, and becoming a regional university and a university of choice.
Tornadoes hit Robeson County
Mother Nature played havoc throughout Robeson County on April 16 when a fierce storm front that brought rain, winds in excess of 100 mph, and spawned at least two tornadoes raced through the area. According to the National Weather Service, the storm produced an intermittent 50-mile path of destruction from Little Rock, S.C., to Bladen County.
While injuries were few and minor, there was extensive property damage in Rowland, areas of Barker Ten Mile, Saddletree, the Lumberton campus of Robeson Community College, and other areas.
Charles Britt, Robeson County’s director of emergency management, called the tornadoes the worst in Robeson County since a string of tornadoes swept through the area in March 1984. Total property damage was assessed at just short of $4.8 million.
New Social Services building
After years of planning, and to the thrill of department employees and clients alike, Robeson County’s new Social Services building finally opened its doors in mid-April. The two-story, 105,000-square-foot glass, steel and wood structure is located between N.C. 711 and N.C. 72, just west of the county Health Department.
More than 300 employees are housed in the facility that cost $17.5 million to construct. The state paid 66 percent of the construction cost.
For years, the department had been operating out of a building that did not provide adequate space for staff or the ever-growing number of county residents needing services. The old facility on N.C. 711 will be renovated to accommodate and consolidate other county departments.
On Sept. 16, the new Social Services building was dedicated to Raymond Cummings — a county commissioner and chairman of the Robeson County Board of Social Services. Cummings has served on the Social Services board for 13 years, holding the board’s chairmanship for 10 years.
Becky Morrow, the county’s Social Services director, said the building was dedicated to Cummings because of “his hard work and dedication to serving us over the years.”
Also during the early part of the year, the county’s new Emergency Operations Center was put in service. The new 20,000-square-foot building is located on Legend Drive, adjacent to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.
The new center houses 911 communications, Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s Office Drug Task Force. It also includes a large meeting room that can be used by all responders during an emergency.
Teacher assistants victims of budget cuts
Budget cuts this year hit school districts across the state hard. In Robeson County, the victims were teacher assistants.
As a result of receiving $10.5 million less in state funding, the Public Schools of Robeson County in July cut 235 of the 571 teacher assistants it currently employed. In August, however, the school board reduced the daily hours of all teacher assistants from 7.5 to 6.0, freeing up $3 million. With the additional money, the school system was able to rehire 100 of the 235 teacher assistants who had been laid off a month earlier.
Drought hurts crops
Yields for the region’ s major crops, including corn, tobacco, soybeans, and cotton, were all down significantly because of unusually dry conditions, according to officials with the Cooperative Extension Service. Corn was the hardest hit by the drought, and near drought conditions, that continue to plague Robeson and surrounding counties, draining farmers of tens of millions of dollars.
As of the week of Dec. 18, the Lumberton area was still 18.8 inches below its usual yearly average rainfall, while the Maxton area was 24.7 inches below average yearly rainfall, according to the USDA’s North Carolina Weather & Crop Report.
“We’re certainly not off to a good start for the next year,” said Keith Walters, the Cooperative Extension director in Hoke County. “Without the rain we usually get this time of the year, and the warmer than usual December we’ve had, there is the potential for another bad year.”
Walters, who temporary handled the Extension director’s duties in Robeson County following the retirement of Everett Davis, said that there was one bright spot for farmers in 2011.
“While crop yields were down, commodity prices were good during the past year,” he said.
Surgical unit proposed
Southeastern Regional Medical Center continued its efforts to expand local medical services with a proposal to build a $30 million surgical center on Dawn Drive in Lumberton. The medical center filed on Aug. 15 an application with the state Department of Health and Human Services for a Certificate of Need, the approval that must be given before any health care provider can build, replace or add to existing facilities or equipment.
As proposed, four operating rooms from the main hospital campus would be moved to the first floor of the 80,000-square-foot building. Also, one minor procedure room, a cystoscopy room, six pre-operation rooms and 17 recovery rooms would be located at the center.
The operating rooms would be used for surgeries where an overnight stay is not required. Physicians offices will be located on floors two, three and four of the building.
If approved, the project is slated to be completed in October 2013.
It was a bad day for some incumbents when voters went to the polls Nov. 8 for municipal elections.
In Maxton, Mayor Gladys Dean lost to Sallie McLean, a former council member, while incumbents Emmett “Chip” Morton, Ray Oxendine and Vivian Brown Morrison were ousted by political newcomers Cynthia “Tiny” Johnson, Mark McEachin, and Timothy McMillan. Dean in late December dropped her election protest to the state Board of Elections to “pursue justice through alternative legal options.”
Larry McNeill, who served on Pembroke’s town council for 20 years, fell short of the votes needed to win one of two seats up for election. Challengers Robert Williamson and Ryan Sampson will replace McNeill and Councilman Greg Cummings, who did not seek re-election.
As the year came to a close, the state Board of Elections dismissed McNeill’s protest — as well as a protest by Terry Evans, an unsuccessful candidate for a seat on Fairmont’s governing body — and ordered that election results in Pembroke and Fairmont be officially certified. Evans had argued that a new election should be held in Fairmont because the filming of a movie on Election Day caused confusion among voters and depressed turnout at the polls. McNeill had hoped to have the state overturn the local board of elections ruling that his protest be dismissed due to “no probable cause.”
Swearing-in ceremonies in all three municipalities have not yet been held because of the appeals.
McIntyre removed from District 7
As a result of new congressional district lines drawn this summer, U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre no longer resides in District 7, which the Lumberton Democrat has represented since 1996. According to the new redistricting, all of Robeson County except for a sliver of the county to the north and northwest, is being moved to District 8, which is represented by Rep. Larry Kissell, also a Democrat.
Although McIntyre lives in District 8, he has said he will seek re-election in District 7. According to federal law, a member of Congress does not have to live within the district he represents.
As of late October, McIntyre’s campaign war chest already included $555,000 cash on hand.