The Bryan County News takes a look back at the top local stories that appeared in our newspaper and website during the past year.
Bryan County Schools gave every full-time employee $1,000 to say thank you for their dedication and commitment “during these unprecedented times.” The system has approximately 1,400 employees.
Early voting took place for Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, which would decide the balance of power in federal government. Incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler faced Democrat challenger Raphael Warnock, and incumbent Republican David Perdue went up again Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Bryan County announced it was looking to make deputy pay more attractive. Right now, Bryan County Sheriff ’s Office deputies fresh out of the academy start at about $14.50 an hour or $30,000 annually, according to Sheriff-elect Mark Crowe. That’s almost $3 an hour less than the starting pay for a deputy in nearby Effingham County, where a job posting for a patrol deputy with one year of experience or a “combination of education and training” touts a starting salary of $17.29 an hour.
For the second straight year, the Richmond Hill High School varsity football team advanced to the playoffs, but didn’t quite make it as far as the previous year, falling in the second round against Westlake.
COVID-19 won’t cancel Christmas in Bryan County. It will, however, change the way the county’s two municipalities celebrate the holiday, as both Pembroke and Richmond Hill have been forced to adapt to the pandemic. Both the Richmond Hill and Pembroke Christmas parades were cancelled, but the towns found other ways to celebrate the holiday either virtually or through scaled-backed social distancing.
The Bryan County Bark Park’s new agility course for dogs opened Nov. 5 with plenty of four-legged fanfare. The new agility course, at Devaul Henderson Park in Richmond Hill, has nine stations, including everything from jumps to a teeter totter and grooming table.
Allegations made in 2019 that Bryan County was misappropriating funds meant to go to victims witness programs were untrue, a Macon-based forensic auditor told Bryan County Commissioners. The auditor, Chris Edwards, was hired by the county to look into the claims of mismanagement made by Dr. Trinity Ingram-Jones, a pediatric nurse practitioner who specializes in child sexual abuse cases and runs a local nonprofit called The Cottage.
Republican Mark Crowe won the race to be the next sheriff of Bryan County, getting more than 65 percent of the vote. Crowe outpolled Democrat Al Hagan, 11,764 to 6,326, in the county’s only contested local race.
School officials learned students in Bryan County Schools posted the highest average SAT and ACT scores in its district for 2020. That in the year of the pandemic, no less. “Considering how demanding the challenges of 2020 have been for our students and staff, earning a number one ranking in our region for 2020 SAT and ACT scores clearly highlights the commitment to education that is shared among our students, staff, board, parents, and community,” School Superintendent Paul Brooksher said.
Bryan County residents had until Oct. 31 to fill out an online survey from the Richmond Hill Cultural and Diversity Taskforce. The survey, which is anonymous, is reportedly an attempt to “gather feedback from Bryan County residents regarding law enforcement, education, and economic development, specifically in regard to race and racism. The group seeks to better understand the thoughts and experiences of local residents, all in service of investigating racial inequities and improving racial understanding.”
Pembroke City Council voted unanimously to let Mayor Judy Cook begin negotiations with Statesboro- based Lavender & Associations on a contract for a new city hall and other work. The firm submitted a low bid of $2,244,000 for the project and said it could finish in 360 days.
Richmond Hill City Council approved by a 3-1 vote a resolution to annex land off Port Royal Road and Highway 144 where Memorial Health University Medical Center plans on building a freestanding emergency room. Councilman Mark Ott was the lone dissenting vote. A Memorial spokesman said the facility will have emergency room physicians and nurses on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is projected to have perhaps a dozen beds for emergency patients, who will either be treated and released or sent to hospitals if they require more care.
Jamesa Broome was named Bryan County Schools 2020-21 Teacher of the Year. Broome teaches seventh grade math at Richmond Hill Middle School. Additionally, she is the math department chair, a member of the RHMS Leadership Team, a mentor in the Bryan Builds program, a teacher representative on the RHMS School Council, and the Southeast Region Representative for the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
The Bryan County High School girls varsity softball team advanced to the final four in the state tournament, putting together a successful winning season.
Bryan County Emergency Services was awarded a $2.3 million grant to hire a dozen firefighter/EMTS. The Federal Emergency Management Agency SAFER grant, which will be paid out over three years, will allow the county to add the additional first responders, according to County Administrator Ben Taylor. The county will receive the grant, which will cover 100 percent of the firefighters’ salaries the first year, then 75 percent of their salaries, then 50 percent. The county will pay the rest of the cost.
The Bryan County Commission bought the Fisherman’s Co-op for $3.25 million with plans to turn the 24-acre property into a public recreation area. The fishermen’s co-op once consisted of a 900-foot dock, a 30-by-30-foot cooler to store the catch, a large storeroom for supplies, and a facility that could be used as a store for selling fish, the county said.
The City of Pembroke was selected as one of the 50 cities awarded a Community Development Block Grant by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The grants range from $300,000 to $1,000,000 and can be spent for a variety of purposes but nearly 75% of cities applied on behalf of their water and sewer systems. Pembroke will be addressing large sections of its system that consist of terra cotta clay pipe and relining or replacing it with PVC.
Georgia Southern University saw 508 COVID-19 cases reported among students and university employees the second week of fall semester, including 129 “university-confirmed” cases and 379 “self-reported” cases.
Richmond Hill got more than $724,000 in federal CARES Act funding to help cover costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding will help the city cover some of the expenses incurred since March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced local governments to close.
Students who arrived for the first day of school at the new Frances Meeks Elementary School in Richmond Hill were greeted by life-sized figures of their teachers and administrators without masks. Parents, who dropped off their children at the school, got a kick out of seeing the cardboard cut-outs, which stood on the sidewalk and were affixed to windows and the side of buildings. It was a way for students to get their pictures taken with their teachers (ok, images) without social distancing.
Bryan County Commissioners voted to adopt a rollback rate of 8.314 for all residents. The measure will keep taxpayers from paying higher taxes on the county portion of their tax bills due to property valuations.
Roughly a quarter of the nearly 10,000 students enrolled in Bryan County Schools this year will take classes online, school officials said. The rest will see differences in how classes are taught – think social distancing and masks or face shields – meals are provided, sports are played and more, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force schools around the state to adapt. Along the way administrators said the key for parents, students and educators is to be flexible, because circumstances could change as the school year goes on.
Complaints of “exorbitant” billing by Water Utility Management have resurfaced online, and two South Bryan residents are asking the county to do something about it. The head of Water Utility Management, meanwhile, maintains the company’s billing is fair and its rates are in line with those imposed by Richmond Hill. It also said water use is typically higher in June and July, and that extra consumption leads to higher bills due to Environmental Protection Division mandates to encourage conservation by charging customers more for more water use, whether through watering lawns or leaks.
Former Pembroke Mayor Harry Owens and his his wife Elvie passed away, just hours apart. Harry Owens, 91, was the founder of Owens’ Supply Company and got the grant to build the current Pembroke City Hall in 1977. Elvie Owens, 89, was the first female council member in Pembroke. They were married 72 years.
The Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival (GOSF) Committee announced that the 2020 Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival, scheduled for Nov. 6-8, will be canceled. The decision was based on many factors, including budgetary concerns and the health of the Richmond Hill-Bryan County community in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Richmond Hill resident David London, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who said he was speaking as a “black man, a black husband, a black father and a black man in Richmond Hill," petitioned the city council to take a number of steps to end what he and other residents have referred to as systemic racism in the community. Among the initiatives London asked the city undertake were that it ban the Confederate flag from public display, remove the word “plantation” from “the names of housing areas, streets and businesses located in the city,” and rename Timber Trail to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
.F. Gregory Park’s improved playground opened June 26 with help from local officials and kids. The playground received several upgrades including new sunshades, benches and an updated swing set. Two new pieces of playground equipment have been installed, including an inclusive orbit for children with disabilities. This project cost $165,000 and funded by SPLOST VII revenue.
Pembroke and Richmond Hill didn’t follow Savannah’s lead when it comes to requiring people to wear masks in public places. Instead, the cities encouraged residents to take that precaution themselves.
Richmond Hill City officials said they’ll put a contextual marker beside a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that has sat in J.F. Gregory Park since it was gifted to the city 20 years ago. A prepared statement attributed to Mayor Russ Carpenter and the city council said the statue is “creating division in our community at a time when we are all working to improve the already respectful community relations we have long enjoyed.” City leaders decided to move the statue, but learned that’s prohibited by state law.
Lindsay Bowen became the first Bryan County High School alum to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Mark Crowe advanced to face Democrat Al Hagan in the November election, after the former Pembroke Police Chief and Bryan County Sheriff’s Office deputy outdistanced his closest competitor, Mike Maxwell, by a 3,339 to 1,102 margin in the Republican Primary. Mike Fordham finished third in the balloting with 696 votes while Keith Welch had 484 votes and Doug Sahlberg had 467. Hagan, a retired GBI agent who now owns a polygraph company, ran uncontested in the Democratic primary, where he received 2,386 votes.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked rallies, protests and rioting in cities around the world. In Richmond Hill, area clergy and local elected officials met at City Hall to pray for unity, peace and protection. Activists Craig and Sharon Butts of Unity in the Community and “the Falcon Group,” of about 200 residents held a peaceful protest along Harris Trail.
Graduating seniors at Bryan County High and Richmond Hill High School took part in drive-through ceremonies instead of the typical crowd-filled commencement due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
COVID-19 dominated much of the news in May. Daily reports from the Coastal Health District showed increased numbers of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Bryan County. The local communities did their part to help; with non-profit organizations offering several free food giveaways and the first of social-distanced parades for residents of area senior facilities.
The second death in Bryan County attributed to COVID-19 was reported just days after the first death. The second victim was a 63-year-old man who reportedly had underlying health conditions.
After a month of mandatory closures, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared some businesses can reopen, including dine-in restaurants,-- but should practice both social distancing and sanitation guidelines implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Richmond Hill Middle School’s global sustainable agriculture project, led by teachers Shelly Henry, Robert Hodgedon, Brandi Miller and Hilary Diebold Taft, won a $2,500 award from Corteva and the National Science Teaching Association. The award, “open to any K-12 science teacher who incorporates innovate agricultural science into their existing science curriculum,” according to a press release. This competition occurred before the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
The first reported death in Bryan County attributed to COVID-19 occurred. The victim reportedly was a 65-year-old Bryan County man with "underlying medical conditions.” The first COVID-19 positive test in Bryan County was reported days earlier.
A shut down of most businesses and schools was ordered by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and local municipalities enacted curfews, state of emergencies and other COVID-19 measures.
Medline Industries, Inc., will invest $78 million in building a 1-million square foot distribution center at the Belfast Commerce Center. The company, which manufactures and distributes medical supplies, already has two sites in Georgia that employ a combined 800 people.
Local health officials advised residents to stay calm but to be well prepared and take precautions both at school and in the workplace in wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. At that time, the CDC said, “Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that causes symptoms similar to influenza and is thought to be spread in the same way. Preparing for a flu pandemic is a good starting point for your COVID-19 planning.”
A Richmond Hill day care center's doors have been closed after its license was revoked by the state. Despite cars in its parking lot, doors were locked at Angel Learning Center, 465 Harris Trail Road, and a notice by the state explaining the legal proceedings was posted to its front door. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning said the center violated Georgia rules and regulations for child care centers by not ensuring employees passed a background check before being hired.
83-year-old Richmond Hill resident Bob Mock donated more than a million dollars to his alma mater, The Citadel, one of the recipients of his desire to leave some of his wealth behind to help others. In turn, four-star U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters, thanked Mock, and hung a medal around his neck in recognition of his gift to The Citadel.
Mark Ott and Steve Scholar were sworn in as new council members on the Richmond Hill City Council. Both won seats in the prior November election. In Pembroke, all of the incumbent council members won re-election earlier and were sworn in.