The top 10 newsmakers for the year

By: Staff report
Eric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. Many of the 200 who attended walked out in apparent protest before the forum ended.
Eric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland.
Tommy Lowry
Floodwaters generated by Hurricane Matthew rise around and inside The Robesonian’s building on North Roberts Avenue. It was June 1 before normal operations could be resumed at the building.

Each year The Robesonian’s staff members select what they have deemed as the top 10 stories of the previous year as a way to kick off a new year, which begins on Monday. We don’t rank them, but instead present them to the degree that is possible in chronological order. It is a subjective measure, and we know some might disagree with our selections. But here they are — the top 10 stories of 2017 as picked by the news staff at The Robesonian — editor.

MATTHEW HANGOVER

Hurricane Matthew spent about 18 hours on Oct. 8, 2016, pounding Robeson County, but during that time it dropped as much as a foot and a half of rain in some places, causing epic flooding and damage that local residents dealt with throughout the year and continue to as we enter 2018.

Everyone has his or her own story of damage. Many had their homes destroyed, and some were forced to flee. The exodus was evident in the news that there were more than 500 fewer students enrolled in the Public Schools of Robeson County when the 2017-18 year began compared with the previous year.

Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Robeson County, including federal and state money and private grants, as repairs were made. Much of the work was done by faith-based institutions that set up camp and expect to be here for years helping people reclaim their lives.

Perhaps the biggest lingering effect was the loss of West Lumberton Elementary School and the school system’s central office. As the new year begins, plans are taking shape for a new school and a central office that are projected to come at a cost of as much as $60 million.

SUPERINTENDENT OUSTED

In a surprise move, the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County voted 6-5 on Jan. 10 to buy out the balance of Superintendent Tommy Lowry’s contract, setting off several months of turmoil during which the board’s division was in full bloom.

Lowry went quietly, but his supporters protested, pointing toward his leadership following Hurricane Matthew and the curious timing, given that the system was still in recovery mode. The board also attempted to hire a Virginia educator named Thomas Graves who had essentially been handpicked by Ben Chavis, who gained fame for his work improving educational standards at American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland.

The school board was shown to be in violation of its own policy requiring the job to be advertised, so Graves’ hiring was rescinded and the job advertised. That began months of a tug-of-war between two factions of the board, which in the end could not agree between two finalists for the job and defaulted to the hiring of Shanita Wooten, who was an assistant superintendent. She holds the position on an interim basis as the school system comes to the halfway point of the 2017-18 school year.

ST. PAULS GROWTH

St. Pauls continued to be the little town that does.

In January, Sanderson Farms began production at its $115 million, 180,000-square-foot chicken-processing plant on N.C. 20, just outside of St. Pauls. The plant, when fully operational, is expected to employ as many as 1,100 people while processing 1.25 million chickens every week.

In addition, Pepsi-Cola opened a 270,000-square-foot distribution center on N.C. 20, not far from Sanderson Farms, that will employ about 250 people. The company’s decision to pick Robeson County saved 200 jobs in the county and created another 50 with an average yearly wage of almost $40,000.

ACP DEBATE

Battle lines formed in 2017 over plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion, 600-mile project that would originate in West Virginia and end near Pembroke.

The owners of the pipeline — Dominion Energy and Duke Energy have the lion’s share, and Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas smaller bits — were consistent in expressing confidence that all the regulatory hurdles would be cleared and permits issued to begin construction in mid-2018.

They had the support of practically every economic development along the route, including in Robeson County, where officials believe the natural gas that the line would deliver is critical to recruiting industry and jobs.

Environmentalists lined up against the project. They say the pipeline is unnecessary and that seizure of land from private individuals is illegal, a fight that was taken to the courts.

As the new year begins, the ACP owners say they are only a few permits shy of a green light to begin construction.

GRISLY FINDS

Lumberton residents were on edge during the spring over the possibility that a serial killer might be among them.

Their fears came to life after the discovery of the bodies of three women in or near East Lumberton, and the inability of police to determine what happened to them. As the new year begins, the basic question of what killed 32-year-old Christina Bennett, 36-year-old Rhonda Jones, and 28-year-old Megan Anne Oxendine remains unanswered.

Officials close to the investigation have whispered privately that police do not suspect a serial killer, but residents remained uneasy.

The bodies of Bennett, of the 1900 block of Eastwood Terrace, and Jones, of Troy Drive, were discovered April 18. One was found inside a house at 505 Peachtree St. and the other in a nearby trash container. The body of Oxendine was discovered June 3 behind an abandoned house at 608 E. Eighth St.

“We don’t have any new leads,” Police Chief Mike McNeill said in September.

All three women were known drug users and were suspected of being involved in prostitution.

THE ROBESONIAN

On June 1, employees of The Robesonian newspaper were working under the same roof again for the first time since Oct. 7, 2016, the day before Hurricane Matthew swamped their office at 2175 Roberts Ave.

Floodwaters entered the building when a Dumpster became lodged in the Meadow Branch Canal that runs behind the building. Water inside the building rose to 18 inches in depth and barely spared the newspaper’s press. But the rest of the building was essentially destroyed, including walls, flooring, furniture and electronics.

The newspaper’s staff was scattered for the next eight months. Some worked out of their homes, some at satellite offices outside the county, some in a temporary office in downtown Lumberton, and some worked in a trailer set up in the parking lot at the Roberts Avenue site. When the press was cleaned up and began rolling again about 17 days after the flood, pressroom and mailroom employees returned to that part of the building.

The return to the renovated Roberts Avenue site once again gave the public that depends on the newspaper for its news and advertising needs a one-stop shop. An open house for the new facility was held in November.

THERE SHE IS

Victoria Huggins, a 23-year-old St. Pauls native, fulfilled what was essentially a lifelong dream when she was crowned Miss North Carolina on June 24.

Huggins, competing as Miss Greater Sampson County, won the title over 43 other women vying for the crown in the 80th annual Miss North Carolina Pageant. She became the second pageant winner from St. Pauls, following in the footsteps of childhood idol Rebekah Revels.

She received a $20,000 scholarship and the opportunity to represent North Carolina in the Miss America pageant in September. Huggins sang “Unchained Melody” in the talent portion of the Miss North Carolina competition.

Winning the crown meant she had to give up her job as a producer and reporter for television station WECT, Huggins said. But she can renegotiate returning to the station after her reign ends.

The graduate of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Johns Hopkins University had competed at the state level as 2013 Miss Fayetteville, 2014 Miss Central Carolina, 2015 Miss Greater Southeastern and 2016 Miss Wilmington. She was second runner-up in the 2015 Miss North Carolina pageant and third runner-up in 2016.

SOUTHSIDE-ASHPOLE

In September, Eric Hall, the superintendent of the state’s new Innovative School District, told the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County that Southside-Ashpole Elementary School was among 48 schools in North Carolina targeted for possible takeover by the state.

During the next several weeks, the list dwindled until the Rowland school was the only one remaining out of 2,600 schools in North Carolina.

School board members were defiant all along, but were unable to get the county commissioners to join them in a resolution against the takeover.

Hall, in the meantime, reached out to the community and increasingly won support.

As the year ends, the school board has two choices — relinquish control of the school or close it. A decision is expected at the board’s January meeting.

Hall has said the district will hire a management group, either for-profit or nonprofit, to run the school. The group will hire a principal, who will then hire teachers. Teachers already at the school will have to reapply.

Hall has said the school will operate much like a charter, with autonomy to do things differently, including tweaking the school calendar and the hours in a day the school is open. One key difference: The school will not pick its students; students in the district will attend it.

FAREWELL TO 2

The municipal elections, as they too often are in Robeson County, were pretty routine as many incumbents had an easy path to re-election because of the lack of challengers.

But two longtime public servants left their respective boards.

Red Springs Mayor John McNeill elected not to seek a fifth two-year term and instead opted to spend more time with his family, especially grandchildren. The local businessman served 34 years as a Red Springs commissioner before eight years as mayor. He is also very active in the Robeson County Democratic Party.

In Lumberton, Erich Hackney, the Precinct 8 councilman for 16 years, left the City Council when he lost the election to Owen Thomas, a 30-year-old graduate of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke who has a long resume of civic service.

Thomas ran an energetic and vigorous campaign, going door-to-door while also working social media to win about 55 percent of about 800 votes cast.

Hackney, who works as an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, was gracious in defeat and promised to continue to work for the betterment of the city of Lumberton.

BB&T

It was a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for most of the 550 employees in Robeson County who work for BB&T.

Shortly after Congress approved and President Trump signed into law a sweeping tax-reform legislation that lowers corporate tax rates from 35 to 21 percent, the Winston-Salem bank with deep roots in Robeson County announced that it would raise the minimum wage it pays from $12 to $15 an hour and provide one-time $1,200 bonuses to employees who otherwise don’t qualify for commission or incentives.

While there was no information on how many employees in Robeson County would benefit, a high-ranking BB&T official said “most” would.

The pay hike is to take effect Monday, and the bonuses are to be paid during the month of January.

While BB&T employees directly benefited, the decision also was seen as a boost for the local economy as those extra dollars are spent inside Robeson County.

Eric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. Many of the 200 who attended walked out in apparent protest before the forum ended.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Body_1.jpgEric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. Many of the 200 who attended walked out in apparent protest before the forum ended. File photo

Eric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Southside-Hall_1.jpgEric Hall, Innovative School District superintendent, gives a briefing Oct. 12 on the state’s educational initiative to people gathered at Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. File photo

Tommy Lowry
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Tommy-Lowry_1.jpgTommy LowryFile photo

Floodwaters generated by Hurricane Matthew rise around and inside The Robesonian’s building on North Roberts Avenue. It was June 1 before normal operations could be resumed at the building.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Rob-flood_1.jpgFloodwaters generated by Hurricane Matthew rise around and inside The Robesonian’s building on North Roberts Avenue. It was June 1 before normal operations could be resumed at the building.Courtesy photo

Protesters in The Walk to Protect People and Places arrive in Pembroke on March 16 after making the hike from Red Springs.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Pipeline_1.jpgProtesters in The Walk to Protect People and Places arrive in Pembroke on March 16 after making the hike from Red Springs. File photo

Hurricane Matthew left a wide swath of destruction in Robeson County in October 2016. Cleanup and recovery efforts continue today for some of it victims.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Matthew-damage_1.jpgHurricane Matthew left a wide swath of destruction in Robeson County in October 2016. Cleanup and recovery efforts continue today for some of it victims. File photo

Pepsi-Cola placed a distribution center on N.C. 20, just west of Interstate 95 near St. Pauls. The company picked the location at least in part because of its proximity to I-95.
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_St.-Pauls-Pepsi_1.jpgPepsi-Cola placed a distribution center on N.C. 20, just west of Interstate 95 near St. Pauls. The company picked the location at least in part because of its proximity to I-95. File photo

Victoria Huggins, a St. Pauls native, was crowned Miss North Carolina on June 24. She went on to represent North Carolina in the Miss America pageant in September. Courtesy photo
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_victoria-huggins_1.jpgVictoria Huggins, a St. Pauls native, was crowned Miss North Carolina on June 24. She went on to represent North Carolina in the Miss America pageant in September. Courtesy photo File photo

John McNeill
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_John-McNeill_1.jpgJohn McNeillFile photo

Erich Hackney
https://www.robesonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_Erich-Hackney_1.jpgErich HackneyFile photo

Staff report